Care and its constraints: Will care work pass through Pettit’s gate?

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Welfare states are in a care crisis both in the sense of a practical care gap (abundant needs but not enough caregivers) and in the new movement to limit care to mere rehabilitation. Few political theorists pay attention to these developments, and those who do say little about the potential limits to care. This article discusses Philip Pettit’s theory of social justice in relation to questions of public care provisions. Pettit’s theory has been praised by feminists for its attention to social injustices and because it highlights fair limits to care. The article examines how Pettit builds up his argument involving the idea of a gateway good, heuristics and a set of constraints. Although the article points to the value of Pettit’s theory, Pettit’s arguments to limit the state’s care tasks depend on the false assumption that a theory of justice considers able-minded adults only. This article argues that Pettit’s assumption that we leave out children and not-so-able-minded elderly leads to a general neglect of the typical human life cycle, and in particular of those life stages that are most care-dependent. The constraints that he set up on the state’s care tasks build upon this problematic premise. If the premise is not accepted, the logic of Pettit’s heuristics and constraints, used to limit the state’s care tasks, loses its argumentative force. A realistic political theory that sets limits to the state’s care tasks should have something to say of all the stages of human life (including our care-dependent stages) and of the central structural relations that a normal life entails (such as having others depending on our care).

Original languageEnglish
JournalPhilosophy & Social Criticism
Issue number3
Pages (from-to)278–301
Number of pages24
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2018


  • Philip Pettit
  • care
  • feminism
  • non-domination
  • recognition


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