In Young’s calls for democratisation as a solution to

In recent years with the rise of social justice
and identity politics, the theories that Iris Young put forth in Justice and
the Politics of Difference seem more influential than ever. Young’s theories of
domination and oppression are integral in understanding the relationships and
interactions of different groups within our society and how power dynamics
between these groups in turn lead to the social injustices observed within our
society. Despite being crucial in the fight for social justice, in this essay I
will critique Young’s theories and aim to highlight their shortcomings. I come
to conclude that Young’s theories alone are not adequate in addressing the
sources of inequality within our society or prescribing us with practical
solutions and that it’s only with incorporating the distributive paradigm can
we come closest to achieving social justice. In section I, I will introduce
this paper by presenting a brief summary of Iris Young’s theory of Domination
and Oppression, discussing it as a response to the distributive paradigm set
forth by John Rawls and outlining the issues it wished to address. 

The principal criticism I present in this essay
is that while the theory of Domination and Oppression, formed through analysis
of the real world, in contrast to the idealised world that forms the foundation
of Rawls’ theory, it is actually much less effective at presenting prescriptive
solutions to injustice. In section II, l examine how Young’s emphasis on the
relational and discriminatory aspects of injustice fails to account for and
address certain components of the injustices faced by groups such as the
disabled and elderly. Secondly, I present how these injustices can be resolved
through distributive means in particular through Ronald Dworkin’s work on luck
egalitarianism. In section III, I examine Young’s calls
for democratisation as a solution to injustice whether in the context of the
home, work or society as a whole. While democratisation can be effective at
tackling aspects of injustice through discrimination in this essay, I use
Young’s own examples to display how democratisation can fall short and can
still maintain the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Finally, in section IV I discuss
how Young’s theory of domination and oppression relates to areas of
discrimination often overlooked in modern assessments of injustice and how
discrimination that arguably has a biological underpinning isn’t as
thoughtfully addressed as those with cultural underpinnings by Young. To
conclude I state that a reconciliation of Rawls and Young’s theories are not
impossible and are in fact desirable if we wish to move forward with the most
effective tools for fighting injustice.

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Iris Young first presented
her theories of domination and oppression in her seminal work ‘Justice and the
politics of difference’. Young formulated these theories to address what she
saw as the shortcomings of the distributive paradigm established by Rawls.
Young believed that the paradigm would “tend to restrict the meaning of social
justice” and possesses a focus that “tends to ignore the social, structural and
institutional context that often help determine distributive pattern”. To
combat this apparent ignorance of the structural underpinnings of injustice
Young set to define all forms of injustice through the two indivisible
groupings of ‘domination’ and ‘oppression’. Young first defined domination as
the structural and systematic processes and institutions, which prevent
individuals from participating in determining their actions and the conditions
of their actions. Similarly, Young defined oppression as the structural and
systematic processes and institutions, which prohibit some groups from
developing and exercising their capacities and expressing their needs, thoughts
and feelings for themselves. While closely related and overlapping, domination
and oppression are distinctly separate phenomena to Young, as domination
relates to restrictions placed on an individual or groups self-determination while
oppression relates to restrictions placed on an individual or groups
self-expression. In contrast to many colloquial uses of the terms, in both
Young’s definition of oppression and domination it is the case that intentional
harm by an identifiable agent could be a visible symptom of oppression or
domination but it is not reducible to intentional harm by an identifiable
agent. Instead, causes of domination and oppression are “imbedded in
unquestionable norms, habits and symbols, in the assumptions underlying
institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules…
Oppressions are systematically reproduced in major economic, political and cultural


Young saw these injustices
brought about through domination and oppression as unsolvable through purely
redistributive means. Young instead sought for the establishment and nurturing
of what could be called the antithesis of domination and oppression, systems
and structures which encouraged people to be autonomous participants in
determining their actions as well as enabling individuals to express their
needs, thoughts and feelings for themselves.




It is Young’s assertion that all forms of injustice fall
into the category of domination or oppression with which I take umbrage in this
section. It is through the lens of disability politics with which I aim to root
out the flaws in Young’s dualistic theory. As addressed by Jurgen De Wispelaere
& David Casassas political philosophers often follow Rawls’ example in
dodging the issue of disability in the philosophy of justice, something that
Rawls explicitly stated his avoidance of. Those egalitarians that do broach the
topic of disability tend to lump it with other characteristics doled out at
birth and is often described as a case of ‘brute bad luck’ that should be
compensated for by society, which more often than not is an oversimplification
of the issue of disability.


To Young’s credit, she does make attempts to directly
address the issue of disability in terms of justice advocating that one should
take a “standpoint of moral humility and ‘wonder’ in the face of the other”.
Young’s standpoint stems from the assumption that an individual cannot
immediately see the ‘social lifeworld’ of another but must instead gain a truer
understanding of another through listening and engaging with them. Milton in
his work ‘Disposable Dispositions’ discusses Young’s approach to conditions
such as autism and how one must take the approach that their own position is
‘strange’ in order to truly interrogate it. While Young here pays markedly more
attention to disability politics than other philosophers of justice, her
approach can be described as a simplistic one. Much of her prescribed solutions
to the injustices placed upon disabled individuals boils down to platitudes of
empathy and ‘walking a mile in their shoes’ which doesn’t really present us
with anything the average reader didn’t already know.


 In viewing disability
through the lens of ‘domination’ and oppression’ I posit that there is an
overemphasis on the issues of discrimination when it is far from the sole
injustice faced by disabled individuals. Barclay, in her work ‘Disability,
Respect and Justice’ discusses how through a well-intentioned desire to be
respectful many theorists like Young have place an emphasis on the
discriminatory aspects of disability and in many cases argue that all
disadvantages stemming from disability are due to discrimination. For example, Anderson
in her work ‘Justifying the capabilities approach to justice’ states that one
doesn’t need to attribute the deficit in an individual’s capabilities due to
their disability but theorists can rather attribute this deficit to the
discriminatory nature of cultural and social institutions. This emphasis on
discrimination may be beneficial for many of the conditions, which we would
call neurologically atypical such as autism or ADHD where it may be argued that
in of themselves without an environment to grant context they do not possess
any hindering trait. However, in cases such as chronic pain there would appear
to be clear disadvantages irrespective of the levels of discrimination within


For discrimination to be the sole underlying factor
preventing disabled individuals living and expressing themselves to the fullest
there arguably needs to be a perfect world in which with the elimination of
discrimination disabled people may function to their fullest. Though as Barclay
states and goes on to illustrate through quotes of various theorists “there is
no way to fashion social institutions so that they are equally accommodating of
everyone”. This lack of an ideal world is in direct contrast to other areas of
discrimination whom’s only deficits are due to said discrimination, attributes
such as race and gender. To clarify here I am talking of gender in the
performative sense as arguably there are difficulties which those with
biologically female anatomy may face even with discrimination eliminated which
may have to be accommodated for with redistributive means, for example
childbirth.  When thinking in terms of
race and gender one can conceptualise a world in which all difficulties
stemming from ones race or gender are eliminated purely through the elimination
of discrimination, the same cannot be said for disabilities. No matter how we
may try to build a world to be ‘disability neutral’ there will always exist a
conflict of interest, which cannot wholly be resolved without ‘remedial action’
which by its definition wouldn’t break down the perceived discrimination
posited by Young only remedy it. The inability to craft a disability neutral
world and the requirement for ‘remedial actions’ is most aptly analysed by
Silvers in the case of deaf people at times requiring translators:


“. . . is a makeshift remedy required to adapt to a
discriminatory practice that cannot be easily reformed. For example, conveying
information through speech rather than pictures is a convention that excludes
people who are deaf. Reforming the practice to make it non-discriminatory
requires all conversationalists to add signing to their speech, a formidable
demand on hearing individuals that is partially and temporarily relieved by the
use of sign language interpreters. We should also accuse people of being
discriminatory for failing to ensure all of their communication is equally
accessible to the blind (including the deaf who sign!)”


Remedial redistributive actions such as these will always be
required to address inequalities faced by disabled individuals. That is not to
say that discrimination doesn’t play a huge part in the problems faced by
disabled individuals, just that any addressing of inequality requires a
holistic approach that utilises multiple theories to best resolve injustice.






Building upon this core concept of utilizing empathy to
address injustice, Young puts forth deliberative democracy as being one of the
greatest tools we have to remove institutions and structures which maintain
domination and oppression while also putting in place new structures which
promote the realisation of individuals. Within the typical idea of a
deliberative democracy citizens would offer propositions entailing how best to
address a societal issue, accommodate legitimate needs or another topic they
wished to address and through using argument would look to persuade the
populous of their proposal. It is within the deliberative stages that the
society as a whole challenges and counters the proposal presenting an
antithesis to the original thesis as it were. Until ideally the populous arrives
at a synthesis and as Young praises, this is through the collective agreeing
due to the greatest reasons being presented rather than through a preference
being determined through which possesses the largest numerical support. Young
herself describes the aim of her deliberative democracy as:


“Through the process of public discussion with a plurality
of differently opioned and situated others, people often gain new information,
learn of different experiences of their collective problems, or find that their
own initial opinions are founded on predjudice or ignorance, or that they have
misunderstood the relation of their own interests to others”.


Much like my qualms with her approach to disability related
injustice Young’s deliberative solution seems strong on idealism but lacking on
practicality. Developing from the basic concept of a deliberative democracy
Young’s model possesses it’s own distinct normative ideals set out in order to
guide the “relationship and dispositions of deliberating parties, among them
inclusion, equality reasonableness and publicity”. These normative ideals
further illustrate the lack of realism in Young’s theory as she herself states
that these normative ideals need to be assumed to be fulfilled for her model to
work. How one would go about fulfilling these ideals Young does not elaborate
on but for now lets assume that these preconditions have been fulfilled. I
argue that even with Young’s ideals fulfilled it should not be taken as a given
that deliberative democracies would arrive at just outcomes.


While not impossible unlike the world Young envisioned that
balanced all the needs of differently  abled
people without the use of remedial actions it seems very unlikely that the
deliberative democracy Young puts forth will come to fruition especially with
the sparse roadmap she has presented us with which to get there. Chappell
argued that any wholesale transformation to a deliberative form of democracy
without reliance on representational democracy or traditional referenda would
be incredibly hard to achieve even when looking solely at it’s first hurdle,
citizen engagement. Chappell states that the assumption deliberative democracy
relies on, that citizens are motivated enough to participate in a meaningful
way is a problematic one to say the least as nothing in our histories or
present indicates that such wide levels of engagement that are required is
likely to occur in our or even those of our children’s lifetime with voter
turnout globally falling ( As Chappell puts it “There are already many
examples of meetings that local residents could attend, such as the planning
permission meetings of the local council. However, attendance at such events is
low”. Furthermore even if engagement was achieved Sunstein who himself is a
deliberative theorist has criticised the deliberative democratic theory for the
assumption that policies emerging from deliberation are good virtue of the fact
they emerged from deliberation.


 It may seem intuitive
that a policy that emerges from a consensus of citizens through true discussion
and argument would be beneficial, after all it’s an assumption that much of our
modern day democracies operate on but Sunstein poses that this is an idealist
assumption. The most intriguing and what I believe to be the most convincing of
Sunstein’s fears for deliberative democracy is that of group polarization.
While Young assumes that through discussion a consensus will be formed, Sunstein
states that in many cases the opposite would be true and that the views of many
group members would in fact become much more extreme due to the deliberative
process. Sunstein originally described this in the context of individuals
confirming each other’s own bias, an echo chamber effect as it were.
Individuals with deeply held beliefs even when based on very little evidence
such as the flat earth movement cement their own beliefs and opinions through
deliberating with like minded individuals very much to the contrary of Young’s
intended purpose. One may argue that such polarization will not occur as long
as we encourage debate between individuals who disagree as much if not more
than with their like-minded counterparts but that is misguided. There have been
many psychological studies which show that even when a belief is proven wrong
or exposed to rely on no evidence individuals are much more likely to further
engrain that belief than discard it,  Sloman
and Fernbach explain such behaviour due to the fact that personally held
beliefs such as political ones are tied to who we are as a person so to accept
a political belief as being wrong one would need to admit part of themselves as
being wrong and adjust accordingly but sadly it is much easier to ignore information
contrary to our own position.


To summarise, the rules chosen through a democratic
procedure might fail to align with the demands of justice. Democratic actors
may act in good faith though they can be mistaken about the best way to achieve
justice; that or they can vote in their own interest, with little regard for
how minorities are effected. One of the greatest way in which to safeguard from
these dangers is through the use of constitutional rights, a mechanism largely
removed from the democratic process. The concept of constitutional rights
arguably falls within the category of distributive justice ensuring a baseline
level of treatment for all citizens.  For
example the right to an attorney in the court of law could be seen as a form of
distributive justice which accounts for differences of wealth throughout






Following from my arguments against Marion Young theories
that emerged from disability politics there are other areas in which Young
ignored potential biological underpinnings of discrimination. It is often taken
as a given that those of us who are deemed more conventionally physically
attractive may unfairly receive preferential treatment by our peers. Areas of
discrimination such as attractiveness are often overlooked by justice theorists
in favour of the more typical areas of study such as race and gender. While it
may be hard to argue that attractiveness is as large a discriminatory factor as
race or gender it is still a major area of discrimination. There are copious amounts
of evidence that suggest that in the work environment attractive people are
shown preferential treatment regularly such studies have been carried out by
people such as Sheena Iyengar in her work ‘The Art of Choosing’. Iyengar states
that “Highly attractive people of both sexes earn at least 12% more than
their less attractive coworkers. In fact, physical appearance has a greater
impact even than job qualifications on whether a person will be hired following
a job interview”.

Young may argue that areas of discrimination such as
attractiveness are no difference to race and gender in that they can be solved
through greater empathy and a removal of structures which hold it in place.
Young’s counter argument may be true to an extent, many of our ideas of attractiveness
are cultural, I have no doubt that a shift away from our societies obsession
with beauty in the form of celebrity or magazines could alleviate some of the
problems. Though while a lot of our ideas of attractiveness can be seen as cultural;
for example ideal weight shifts depending on the time period or location one is
observing, there are aspects of it which are much more deeply rooted in our
biology. Regardless of time period or the society we look at there is one
constant in the standards of attractiveness among humans and that is symmetry
(Little). While human facial symmetry only varies on average from 1-3%, the
perceived attractiveness in being on the lower end of the percentages has been
widely observed within university studies. Evolutionary biologist have
hypothesised our preference for symmetry stems from a biological instinct that
it signifies good health.

Similarly to the human preference for symmetry there has
also been an observable bias when it comes to height. Malcolm Gladwell in his
book ‘Blink’ illustrates our societies bias for height most aptly “I
polled about half of the companies on the Fortune 500 list, asking each company
q u e s t i o n s about its CEO. In my sample, I found that on average CEOs
were just a shade under six feet. Given that the average American male is
5’9″ that means that CEOs, as a group, have about three inches on the rest
of their sex. But this statistic actually understates matters. In the U.S.
population, about 14.5% percent of all men are six feet or over. Among CEOs of
Fortune 500 companies, that number is 58 percent. Even more strikingly, in the
general American population, 3.9 percent of adult men are 6’2″ or taller.
Among my CEO sample, 30 percent were 6’2″ or taller.” The attribute
of height is shown by figures to be the most determining factor among who
achieves the position of CEO, more so than race or gender. Does this mean there
is a conscious effort to prevent short men from achieving the position of CEO?
No, it seems that this may be an almost perfect example of Young’s theory that
just due to the fact there is an oppressed individual doesn’t mean there is a
directly correlating individual doing the oppressing. The preference for height
seems to be an unconscious prejudice in which we place important on height
through associations with ability to perform a job satisfactorily or the
ability to lead a team. Similarly to the issue of attractiveness one of the
foremost researchers on the link between height and salary, Timothy A Judge
believes that the reasons for such a bias are evolutionary. Judge states that “Perhaps
when humans were in the early stages of organisation, they used height as an
index for power in making ‘fight or flight’ decisions. They ascribed
leader-like qualities to tall people because they thought they would be better
able to protect them”.

Due to these bias’ not being solely cultural but in fact possessing
evolutionary underpinnings of I argue that it is much harder to minimise or
remove these biases in comparison to those discriminations, which stem from a
purely cultural basis. In honesty not even Rawls or other distributive justice
theorists provide us with a satisfactory solution to these kinds of injustices.





I believe Young sets up a false dichotomy between her own
theories and those of distributive philosophers such as Rawls. The distinction
between remedies which are redistributive, and those which are recognition
based is largely superficial. Remedies, which are redistributive in nature
generally, rely on a presupposed underlying recognition of structures that
enforce injustice. The majority of those who advocate for egalitarian
socioeconomic redistribution do so on the basis that all individuals are ‘equal
in moral worth of persons’ as such economic redistribution can be seen to be
the expression of recognition. Young may counter that the above example
displays recognition of injustice not of the structures which uphold it though
I argue that redistributive policies of affirmative action attack these
structures. In promoting minorities and marginalised peoples to these positions
of power we are much more likely to root out bias due to their added
perspectives. As I argued in the former section there is no reason to believe
that deliberative power structures are anymore able to prevent the cultivation
of injustice than our existing ones, it is much more important and feasible
that we change the way in which these power structures are utilised.


In conclusion, Young’s theory of justice while generated
from observations of the structures and systems that create and maintain
injustices in our world may be just as idealist in some respects as Rawls’
theory of redistributive justice that emerged from a thought experiment. While
Young is much more effective at highlighting the sources of injustice compared
to her redistributive peers she fails to specify any effective solutions for
addressing them.  Young’s prescriptive
solutions are much to caught in their normative ideals of justice through
’empathy’ and ‘inclusion’ without presenting us with anyway to reach these
ideals except for vague theories of distributive justice.

It is through the use of both Young’s theory of domination
and oppression and Rawl’s redistributive justice that we can best confront the
issue of injustice in our world. Young’s theory of domination and oppression
allow us to understand and confront the structures and systems which perpetuate
injustice but it is through the application of measurable redistributive
methods and remedial actions such as the allocation of greater resources to
those oppressed and dominated that we can best achieve a removal of these
structures and systems which oppress us.