Mary Rawlinson, Just Life: Bioethics and the Future of Sexual Difference. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016; 296 pp. ISBN: 978-0231171755.

Reviewed by Shannon Hoff, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Just Life is a critique of the abstract universalism of the discourse of rights and of its opposite, the privileging of identity and cultural difference. The book takes the situation of women as its critical focus, elaborating the injustice against women perpetuated by both abstract universalism and cultural particularism. Its goal is to develop an alternative ethical and political vision, specifically a new vision for bioethics that challenges traditional bioethics on the basis of its denial of the priority of life and its assumption of the prejudices of traditional political philosophy—prejudices such as the assumption of discontinuity between natural and civil life, the dissociative character of “capital-m Man,” the necessity of sovereign mastery to keep “Man” in check, the transformation through contract of might into right and possession into property, the status of women as property, and the invisibility of women in the public arena. Its new visions are based not on a hypothetical picture such as the social contract, which conceals the exploitative outcomes of its fiction of equality, but on careful consideration of human experience and the actual conditions of life (specifically, that it begins in another body, is nourished by the generativity of mother and seed, and is cultivated by labour). Based on this original interdependency, it argues also that the problems arising from the hegemony of the rights of Man, the global operation of biopower, and the global subordination of generativity to capital are transcultural and require transcultural solutions.

The book begins by taking on the philosophical origins of the discourse of rights, discussing Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s descriptions of the social contract and Hegel’s analysis of the macro-institutions sustaining the modern state. Rawlinson argues that the social contract takes the threat of war as its reason for being, privileges the protection of property, and defines humans as dissociative, acquisitive, male individuals whom only an absolute power could keep in check. She argues, further, that it disfigures the reciprocity of speech into relations of command and control, dividing people into those who exploit and those who are exploited by speech. The abstractions of the contract and rights—their empty promises of equality and reciprocity—offer a sanitizing rhetoric that masks structural inequity and exploitation, justifies ongoing non-intervention in injustice, and supports the maximization of wealth and power and the exploitation of bodily productivity. Rawlinson counters this tradition by invoking the generative conditions that produce the very individuation the contract takes as original. She shows that individual freedom is premised on the existence of shared resources or what she calls “a culture of possibilities” (xxi), an environment of resources provided by the labour of a “we.” Here Rawlinson criticizes Hegel too, who, even while identifying the importance of a “culture of possibilities,” the “macro-institutions of freedom,” and infrastructures for the integration of work and family, maintains an entrenched gender division of labour that relies on the exploitation of women.

The book’s next step, in Chapter Two, is to show how the abstractions associated with the discourse of rights are furthered by the management of bodies for the production of security and wealth—i.e., biopower. Whereas Rawlinson observes in the human an essential plasticity that calls for a culture of possibilities, infrastructures of identity and life under biopower make this plasticity accommodate itself to capitalism, and the discourse of individual choice is used to conceal the absence of possibility and plasticity. The sexuality and generativity of women in particular are carefully handled by biopower, so as to maximize productivity for capital. Rawlinson speaks here of the careful management of female sexuality in Western contexts—just enough sex for profit, not enough to unleash its disruptive force—and the conversion of the generativity of surrogates from the developing world into profitable commodities. While women’s generativity produces free individuals, it becomes a devalued obstacle to their integration into the world and with other activities and forms of labour. Women are dramatically undermined by undertaking such labour. In those cases when they are supported in this labour, such support tends to rely on the exploitation of other women.

Emphasis on the importance of identity and cultural specificity, however, is not an effective alternative, Rawlinson claims, since it inadvertently conceals the global, transcultural character of the forces that oppose generativity and denies the concrete universal she identifies as central. This concrete universal emerges gradually throughout the book and arises specifically from a consideration of the conditions of existence: it is the universal of intergenerational generativity. Everyone has already been inside another’s body; their freedom has been sustained bodily, through nourishment, labour, and infrastructures of energy and mobility, and by mothers, teachers, and workers. We have inhabited the bodies of others, and we dwell in a world made by others and in the body of nature. The book introduces a new term for human beings appropriate to this condition, “humanbody,” which, opposed to “person” and its association with property relations and rights, emphasizes our embodiment and continuity with nature. (224)

Chapter Three begins to characterize a model of ethics appropriate to the concrete conditions of human freedom, using Hegel and the character Ismene from Sophocles’ Antigone to illustrate it. Challenging feminist readings of Antigone, Rawlinson notes that Ismene, unlike Antigone, does not choose abstract principle as her moral guide, nor the principles of a fraternal structure and gender division of labour where women must undertake burial rites for men, but answers instead to her living sister and to the living conditions of her situation. Like Ismene, Hegel shows that the other side of concepts is their actualization, that reality is already a living fabric of ethical obligation, and that it contains various ethical demands that we can only negotiate in fear and trembling. Ethics begins with an experience of our dependence on others and of the principles already operative in this interdependent actuality; the moral agent who presumes his authority over these conditions has got the order of things wrong, like the social contract theorists, hypocritically presuming its independence from the history of human discernment of how to actualize the good. Rawlinson uses Hegel’s account of conscience to identify our moral challenge: we cannot answer to every moral demand and yet must act, and we invoke our own authority over the good, even as we take the moral fabric and the others who constitute it to be our priority. Conscientious action is always specific and impure, but alive to the significance of its living conditions and to the work that needs to be done to bring the good into actuality.

In the fourth chapter, Rawlinson turns to resources in Greek mythology to develop the book’s own moral principle: intergenerational generativity. Instead of adhering to the law of the heart and the struggle for security, property, and glory that motivates most Greek gods and heroes, Demeter and Persephone are wrapped in one cloak, mother and daughter, embodying the two-sided reality of life and death, generativity and intergenerationality. Demeter tends to the earthly needs and pleasures of the humanbody, teaching human beings about generativity, which gives them a future. Divided between life and death, Persephone shows the necessary place of death in life: one generation makes way for another; one lives on the basis of the possibilities the other provides. The basis of ethics here is that we find ourselves claimed by those who generously grant us the conditions of life, by whose miracle of generativity we exist and are sustained; we are already interdependent and obligated.

Two dramatically problematic practices in this context are agribusiness and the conditions of labour under globalization and sexist oppression. The fifth and sixth chapters address these problems, respectively. Agribusiness threatens the generativity of the seed, the communal and inherited knowledge of food, and the labour required to provide it, subordinating the qualitatively irreplaceable labour of generativity to the quantitatively indifferent ends of capital. It dishonours collaborations necessary for life—collaborations with the generativity of life and seed, with other animals, and with labour. Chapter Six focusses on the failure to recognize the significance of labour and specifically of women’s labour. Under conditions of globalization, people have inadequate access to meaningful work and to the conditions thereof, such as education and a general respect for labour as productive of value. Further, the generative labour of women is still not acknowledged, and the attempts to integrate the private world of the family and the public world of work so as to support generativity are grossly inadequate. By making labour central, and by arguing that bioethics must engage in a critique of agribusiness (in other words, by engaging actual, specific practices), the book embodies its conceptual vision: that principles make themselves real in actuality and that their worth is displayed in that actualization. Further, in putting maternal generativity and the generativity of labour side-by-side, the book also makes its conclusions practicable for men and women, for anti-sexist, anti-colonialist, and anti-capitalist politics.

The last part of the book sheds further light on the book’s basic goals. There are genuine universals distinct from those of traditional political philosophy, and they are revealed to us by a consideration of life and of experience. Further, they emerge specifically out of an experience of injustice. Thus, as Rawlinson writes, this is critical phenomenology, which registers the demand to attend particularly carefully to what in our experience has been occluded because of injustice. When we look at experience, we see that it is always first-person, and that “every one” is singular; that it is initiated in the life of another, that “every one” is connected by generativity to other humanbodies; that it is embedded in a culture of possibilities, that “every one” is a node in a network of relations. These “every ones” are sovereign; sovereignty is dispersed into singular humanbodies. Yet they are sovereign humanbodies claimed by generativity, whose exceptionalism as human lies in their capacity to look back at their conditions, to register their indebtedness. Political infrastructures must support this sovereignty, Rawlinson argues, and material infrastructures must support the generativity of women, labour, and nature, honouring the production of value rather than exploiting it for the production of capital. Life gives us a web of interdependence in which obligations already circulate; life produces identities through collaboration and solidarity, which is reflected neither by the model of the generic subject of rights nor by the distinct subject of difference.

While it is critical of the conclusions emerging from the analyses of the so-called “state of nature,” part of the reason the book is interesting is because it uses something like a state of nature to establish new directions in ethics, politics, and bioethics. In other words, phenomenology could be understood as continuing in the state-of-nature tradition by asking about the most basic elements of our experience, while resisting the development of theories about that experience that purport to transcend it. What is most salient when we look at our experience, Rawlinson seems to be arguing, is the fact that we have come from someone, somewhere and somehow. The “state of nature,” so to speak, goes further back than the free, property-holding Man of the social contract, to the conditions of that being’s generation.

Rawlinson’s vision here is convincing. What we find when we look at the “here and now” is the past in the form of the care and labour of others, and the future in the fact that they care and labour for singular beings who could revise the nature of their existence. To prioritize the culture of possibilities would require providing actual support and autonomy to the domains in which our lives unfold: the immediate network that supports our vulnerability (family and kinship structures), the network of institutions that supports our development (e.g., educational and cultural institutions), and networks that support our contact with each other (practices of intercultural communication, etc.). But if we recognize this, then rights could belong here too. Any discourse of rights would, of course, need to be thought in tandem with its actualization. As Rawlinson notes, the problem with a politics of principle is that we live in the concrete, which is never simply principled but always embodied meaning, actualized concepts. Both the discourse of rights and capitalism fail, notably when it comes to the concrete enactment of their original commitments, and require that we pay attention not just to the principles but to their actualization.

With its model of intergenerational generativity, this book captures the essentially temporal element of ethics and politics, reaffirming Hegel’s discovery of history as an essential philosophical category—as the time it takes for the concrete truth of our principles to come out. Rawlinson’s book shows itself capable of supporting further thinking beyond what it already accomplishes, and the philosophical community should receive these advances with enthusiasm.