Connected by Commitment. Rethinking Relations of Oppression and Our Responsibility to Undermine Them

PhD. Mara Marin

My book manuscript, entitled Connected by Commitment. Rethinking Relations of Oppression and Our Responsibility to Undermine Them, is an investigation of our responsibility to dismantle structures of oppression. It focuses on laws’ ability to both sustain and undermine oppressive structures.
The central claim of the book is that we need to supplement traditional concepts of obligation and responsibility with a notion I call “commitment.” A commitment is a relationship of obligations developed over time through the accumulated effect of open-ended actions and responses. In commitments agents incur obligations via their voluntary actions but without knowing in advance the precise content of their obligations.
Laws, I argue, create a social relationship between those governed by the same system of laws. This relationship can be structured equally – when the benefits of the law flow equally to all those governed by it – or hierarchically – when the law’s benefits flow to some groups to the disadvantage of others. Because laws depend on continuous action conforming to them (and are disrupted by noncomplying action), this relationship is best understood as a commitment. I argue that what gives public authorities the right to promulgate binding laws is the quality of this social relationship. Laws are legitimate and therefore create obligations when they sustain non-hierarchical, non-oppressive relationships between social groups. To capture conceptually this quality we have to add to our theoretical vocabulary the notion of “commitment.” Laws should help create and sustain social relations analogous to healthy, long-term friendships, on which I model the notion of commitment. As relations of care and work are particularly vulnerable to oppression, I argue for reforms of marriage and labor laws that would undermine the processes that sustain oppression.
Methodologically, the belief underpinning this argument is that we should link the normative question of our responsibility to dismantle oppressive structures to the social theoretical question of what makes them enduring. Only by knowing what perpetuates oppression can we know what has the potential to dismantle it. I show that our actions perpetuate oppressive structures not on the basis of our intentions, but rather in virtue of the cumulative effects of our actions. This explains the remarkable endurance of oppressive structures in the face of public criticism of racism and sexism. But it also points to a transformative possibility: if currently our actions support oppressive structures, then it is in our power to transform these structures by changing our actions. By acting repeatedly in ways that fail to conform to them, we can weaken oppressive structures. The usefulness of the notion of commitment is related to its ability to capture descriptively this cumulative feature of action and, ultimately, to connect it to the normative issue of our responsibility to act in ways that weaken oppressive structures.

Connected by Commitment. Rethinking Relations of Oppression and Our Responsibility to Undermine Them Under. Oxford University Press 2016.
“Care, Oppression and Marriage,” Hypatia, Vol. 29, no. 2 (Spring 2014).


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