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Contemporary Feminist Perspectives on Social Contract Theory

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This paper explores two feminist contributions to the analysis of the social contract tradition, comparing the political philosophy of Carole Pateman with the moral theory of Jean Hampton, to ask two questions. First, which points must feminists continue to argue in their critique of the social contract tradition today? The second question is: Can feminists actually draw anything from the social contract tradition today? It argues that Pateman's critique of contractarianism continues to be useful when read in the context of her analysis of “self-ownership” and subordination rather than as a rewriting of the social contract. Hampton's deployment of a Kantian test for the failure of respect for personhood within domestic (and other) relationships does not undermine Pateman's position. Consideration of how such an ideal can be understood as potentially compatible with Pateman's perspective raises issues about the radical potential within claims for equal respect for personhood. In Hampton's work, widespread “test failure” can be used to indicate that political action rather than moral analysis is required. Hampton assumes that those employing the test are able to abstract themselves sufficiently from their current position to imagine what it would be to be treated as a person. It is argued that this “moral test” should be envisaged as being asked in concert with others, at which point it has the potential to become political action.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of ExeterSchool of LawExeterUnited Kingdom, Email:

Publication date: 2007-09-01

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