Private Lives and Public Affairs

Onora O’Neill

  • Public and Private in Social Life edited by S.I. Benn and G.F. Gaus
    Croom Helm, 412 pp, £19.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 7099 0668 4
  • Public Man, Private Woman by Jean Bethke Elshtain
    Martin Robertson, 376 pp, £22.50, February 1982, ISBN 0 85520 470 2
  • Women’s Choices: Philosophical Problems facing Feminism by Mary Midgley and Judith Hughes
    Weidenfeld, 242 pp, £12.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 297 78221 5

Liberal thinkers are keen on self-criticism, a necessary discipline for those who don’t accept intellectual authority. But it can have embarrassing moments, when too much is stripped away and exposed. Most of the essays in Public and Private in Social Life explore aspects of ‘the familiar liberal conception of public and private’; three are ‘external’ critiques of liberal thought, and three describe related distinctions drawn in distant cultures. Nearly all the essays are thoughtful and tough-minded; and many have interesting things to say: but in spite of the underlying commitment to liberalism there is no point at which criticism and self-exposure are compensated for. We are left to wonder whether there is any coherent way in which liberal thought can distinguish the public from the private.

Liberal discussions of law, of economics and property, of politics and of personal life, are filled with proposals for distinguishing public from private. The questions taken up here include: how can we distinguish public from private law? What sorts of public regulation does private property preclude? Are public and private morality distinct? Can we lead clean private lives if we rummage in dirty public affairs? Can we if we don’t? Many of the discussions are penetrating, even revealing. Why is it, however, that they have so much to say about the dilemmas and embarrassments of liberalism, and so little about conclusions liberals might establish? One answer may lie in a move made by the editors in the leading essay, which many of the contributors take up.

Stanley Benn and Gerald Gaus suggest that the discomfort of liberal thinking on the public-private distinction arises because liberals use two distinct conceptual frameworks. The first, individualist framework takes as private what is done, expressed or owned by particular persons; and as public what cannot be assigned to individuals. In this view not only political life but many social and economic arrangements – civil society – are public. All these arrangements, including the state itself, may be judged in terms of contribution to the goals, activities and interests of individuals. To extend the private sphere is to extend the area of life under individual control. Libertarian liberals (unrepresented in these essays) bite on this bullet and aim to assign as much as possible to individuals.

But most liberals are ambivalent. They doubt whether everything private can be assigned to individuals. In particular, they think that institutions which pursue limited or sectoral interests, rather than the public interest, are not really public. They seek a narrower but stronger conception of the public domain, which will include only those spheres of life which seek the public interest or common good. But the individualist framework proves inadequate for this. Only if we also have a conception of ‘a public’ as a united body with common interests can we have an adequate conception of ‘the public interest’. ‘A public’ in the relevant sense must be not an aggregate of individuals, but an ‘organic’ unity. It must be bound by shared history and aspirations and have some unity of life and will, standardly embodied in modern times in the institution of the nation state. In terms of this ‘organic’ conception of a public, not only the activities of individuals, but those of all partial or sectoral institutions, from families to giant firms, are not public. The activities of individuals and of such institutions can be judged in terms of their contribution to the public good. On the individualist model the values of the private sphere are prior and public matters are judged by their contribution to private interests: on the organic model the values of the public sphere are prior and private affairs are judged for their contribution to the public interest.

Benn and Gaus suggest that ‘no single model of public and private can provide a coherent account of all aspects of the public and private in liberal theory and practice.’ Other contributors generally agree. But what’s at stake here isn’t just a failure of theory to account for the full complexity of some domain. Benn and Gaus offer as ‘a reason for preferring our two-model theory’ that it ‘deepens our understanding of some of the enduring tensions of liberal thought’. And so it does. But it also limits our understanding, for it incorporates incompatible accounts of the relation between human beings and institutions. The fertility of self-contradictory starting-points is a dangerous source of insight.

One result of endowing liberal thought with two foundations is that the boundaries between internal and external critique are seldom sharp. Alan Ryan’s interesting discussion of ownership and appropriation owes more to Hegel and Marx than to liberal discussions; the discussion of public and private law by Eugene Kamenka and Alice Erh-Soon Tay owes more to traditions of jurisprudence and historical inquiry than to either model of liberalism. Gaus follows a clearly liberal debate over the regulation and control of market structures. Yet in noting ways in which state regulation may be captured by private interests, so producing the illusion of an accommodation of public and private interests (since the latter remain unrepresented), he points to what, from another vantage point, would appear an internal contradiction of capitalism. Here too self-criticism edges towards external critique.

Of the external discussions of liberal thought on the public and private the most revealing is Carole Pateman’s, which probes the accommodation of women’s subordination in liberal thought. It is surely more than an intellectual or historical oddity that so many advocates of the Rights of Man proved willing for so long to settle for the rights of men. Pateman suggests that the accommodation works because liberal individualists work with an abstract conception of human individuals which allows them to affirm women’s equal citizenship while ignoring the social and economic structures and ways of life and thought which perpetuate women’s subordination. On her diagnosis, liberals are committed not so much to a contradictory as to a non-exhaustive account of the public-private distinction. They take account only of what is private in the individualist sense – assignable to individuals – and what is public in terms of the organic model – aimed at the common good. They ignore the institutions of civil society, whose ‘patriarchal’ character escapes notice, criticism and remedy. A less abstract view of human individuals would make clear the frivolity of discussing equal rights and citizenship without discussing social and economic realities.

Is it open to liberal thinkers to take a less abstract view of human individuals? In the last and most interesting chapter of her book Beth Elshtain suggests that it is. Most of Public Man, Private Woman is a reading of the ways in which public and private have been charted in European thought, including an extended discussion of the curious alliance between ‘patriarchal’ social relations and liberal thought. The last chapter questions how the alliance might be destroyed. One route, favoured not only by libertarian liberals but by some feminist thinkers, might be to take individualism more seriously. Simone de Beauvoir and Shulamith Firestone both argued that if women are prevented by their traditional domestic roles and intimate ties from enjoying equal rights and citizenship, then these ties should be severed. Birth control, abortion, the abolition of the family and sexual liberation provide means to destroy the private sphere to which women have been relegated. This line of thought locates the incoherences of ‘patriarchal’ liberalism, not in its abstract conception of human individuals, but in the persisting failure of women to abstract themselves from social forms which impair their individuality. On this account the failure lies, not in the excessive abstractness of liberal theory, but in the inadequate abstractness of existing women.

Elshtain herself proposes a different ‘reconstruction of the public and private’. There are indeed good reasons for looking in other directions. The consistency which liberal thought might acquire by taking an individualist model more seriously would be countered by a loss of understanding of the priority accorded to private over public good in that model. If private interests and concerns are no more than the arbitrary preferences of abstract individuals – and what more can abstract individuals have, however rationally these preferences are ordered? – then it becomes obscure why public arrangements should be organised to meet these preferences. A more convincing account of the fundamental value of private affairs might be available in a theory which linked the value of the private sphere to the specific sorts of lives that are led there.

Such a move would require a form of liberalism in which individuals were understood, not abstractly, but rather as historically and socially determinate beings. This is the type of liberalism Elshtain advocates. She is not the only feminist writer to do so. A number of recent feminist books, of varied philosophical and political outlook, have emphasised the ineliminability of some determinate features of women’s lives and, in particular, of mothering. They include Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, Selma Fraiberg’s Every Child’s Birthright: In Defence of Mothering, Mary O’Brien’s The Politics of Reproduction, Carol McMillan’s Women, Reason and Nature, as well as Women’s Choices: Philosophical Problems facing Feminism by Mary Midgley and Judith Hughes, which appears as one of Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s Social Democrat Books. A common theme of these books is that we aren’t just abstract autonomous beings, but beings who grow to autonomy only if appropriately nurtured by particular others. Hence a concern with individuals neither should nor can view them in abstraction from a specific social and cultural context. Such concern must take account of what is needed to reproduce autonomous human beings, and that includes mothering. Once we get away from an abstract conception of human individuals, the liberal agenda changes. As Midgley and Hughes in particular stress, our real choices must be made among the quite specific options which are actually available to us. In Britain in the Eighties these do not include the full range of possibilities which more abstract approaches might consider worth canvassing. We cannot seriously choose a life of sexual apartheid, for example, or choose to be parents without incurring the responsibilities of child-rearing. Nor on the other hand can we any longer seriously propose that girls make marriage their career. Responsible liberal thinking will not spend time on such unavailable options.

Elshtain generalises this line of thought and suggests that a reconstructed liberalism must take a more determinate view of human individuals. It can neither unjustly confine some lives to a merely private sphere, nor utopianly envisage the destruction of that sphere of life, but must instead insist on the importance of that sphere and its particularities for all our lives. Family structures and private lives would not be invisible in such liberal thinking, but central. Being visible, they would be subject to liberal evaluation, and only some forms of family and intimate lives would meet liberal standards. In this way individualist liberals might deftly make off with some organic clothing. And in the process they might re-establish reasons for holding that public matters should be arranged to sustain the private sphere.

Elshtain realises that once liberals adopt this less abstract conception of human individuals the public sphere, too, will look quite different. Abstracted individuals can be thought of as formal equals who arbitrate rationally between conflicting interests and preferences. But this handy basis for political thought isn’t available if we take a determinate view of individuals. Hence a reconstruction of the private entails a reconstruction of the public. The public sphere cannot be thought of merely as a space for the interaction of individuals, who come together to advocate their varied visions of the common good. Authentic citizens dirty their hands with the particular tasks of the present; politics is earthy and particular; and genuine polity needs not a Platonic dismantling of the private and particular but its revaluation. This picture juxtaposes liberal concern with human rights and freedom, with a view of human individuals as socially determinate beings, while also employing a conception of common good which Benn and Gaus doubt that any other than ‘organic’ forms of liberalism can sustain. Yet the ‘tension’ between organic and individual forms of liberalism may still be there.

For how can the public realm take account of the full particularity of individual human lives unless those lives are ‘organically’ coordinated in the life of a community? Elshtain takes it that the private domain is primarily that of familial relationships. She can therefore think of the public sphere as a separate domain which may – but need not – take account of private lives. But private lives are not solely familial. Indeed, one long-standing liberal concern has been to free individuals from family demands. In Elshtain’s writing, as in that of some other feminists, the core of private life is the concerns of mothering and of family life. It is as if the other aspects of private lives were still considered abstractly. But if we look at private lives in their full particularity, we see not only that family needs may be threatened by inadequate recognition of particularity, but that recognition of particularity may itself undermine the separation of private and public which liberals seeks to sustain. Once we start thinking about human individuals in their full particularity – not just as family members but as neighbours, friends, lovers, workers – we may find that we are considering a fully determinate community with specific social and economic arrangements and possibilities for personal and familial ties: in short, an organic conception of society in which the private sphere no longer appears as separate from or prior to the public sphere. The cost of an individualism which acknowledges the full particularity of individuals may be that the public-private distinction is undermined and that the most intimate liberal concerns are rejected. The tensions of a two-model theory of liberalism cannot be banished by merging the models.