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Iris Marion Young

Page history last edited by Ryan Ferguson 2 years, 6 months ago



Iris Marion Young was a feminist political philosopher. Born in 1949, she studied at CUNY - Queens College, as well as at the University of Pennsylvania (Dhanda). She began her academic career at the University of Pittsburgh, later moving to the University of Chicago (Dhanda). During her career, she served as a visiting professor at numerous schools throughout America, Europe and South Africa. She died from cancer in 2006, at the relatively young age of 57 (Dhanda). Her works touched on a broad range of topics, from female bodily empowerment in “On Throwing like a Girl” to discussions of international justice in Responsibility for Justice (Aubert). 


Young was a political activist, throughout her career she connected grassroots politics with political philosophy(Dhanda). Young’s early work in justice was predominantly critical works which did not assert a positive notion of justice actually is. Her first book Justice and the Politics of Difference, challenged the predominance of what she referred to as the distributive paradigm of justice. It instead presents as a framework, the faces of oppression, which can be used to identify and discuss different societal injustices which exist. 




Young made several contributions to modern theories of justice. She tried to displace the distributive paradigm from a place of prominence and replace it with one that was more focused on categories of injustice, each of which can be addressed and remediated or ameliorated to some degree. She distinguished five faces of oppression, which can be used to identify systemic injustices which might otherwise remain obscured. She argued in favor of the politics of inclusion. Towards the end of her life, she focused on responsibility; the posthumously published Responsibility for Justice creates a new model for understanding political responsibility when confronted with structural injustices. 


Displacing the Distributive Paradigm 


In Young’s view, theorists of justice over-relied upon what she called the distributive paradigm. This is the concept that elements of a theory of justice are discrete units which can be distributed in different ways throughout a society. This extends beyond simply redistributing  tangible goods, to such intangible rights as self-respect (Young 1990 pg 24-27). Young described several prominent liberal theorists of justice, including Rawls, who use this model. Importantly though, even the critics of liberal theorists argued from a distributive perspective. Young argues that the extension of a distributive framework beyond tangibles and into the relationships which exist between peoples collapses the complexity of the real world and as a result fails to identify the injustices it seeks to end.


The Five Faces of oppression


Young acknowledges a disconnect between two different understandings of the word oppression. Young describes the traditional definition as tyranny by a ruling group (Young 1990 pg 40). In a modern liberal context this inherently otherizes oppression, making it so that it is something which happens somewhere else but not “here”. In contrast, a new definition of oppression came to prominence within the social left movements in the 1960s and 1970s as the disadvantages and injustice some people experience as a result of the well-intended practice of a liberal society (Young 1990 pg 41).  Young further distinguishes between oppression, which hinders self-development, and domination, which hinders self-determination. The five faces of oppression are a model for how to view and evaluate injustice.  The faces that Young describes are exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence. This rubric is used to evaluate the various forms of oppression different groups experience in a way that does not reduce all injustices to a singular axis. One effect of injustice is that the ability for people to develop and exercise their capacities is connected to their current status and position, which means that many people will not be able to achieve their potential.  Young’s work sought to educate about the insidious nature of injustice and how it operates to thwart the development of a truly equal society. 


Young defines exploitation as “social processes that bring about a transfer of energies from one group to another to produce unequal distributions” (Young 1990 pg 48-53). This is not a new metric of oppression first identified by Young. Marxists have long identified the exploitation of the working class by the capitalists as the source of injustice. Young expanded this traditionally Marxist conception to racial oppression identifying the category of menial labor, which “has strong cultural pressure to fill servant jobs with black and [Latinx] workers” (Young 1990 pg 52).  This type of work, although of vital importance to societal functioning, is considered demeaning and “beneath” the status of those who have other options. Menial labor is generally poorly paid, Young acknowledges that exploitation is often a valid consideration of distributive justice. 


Marginalization occurs when people who are not deemed useful by the labor market are forced into menial jobs with no opportunity for advancement or are shut out of the labor market altogether (Young 1990 pg 53-55). Marginalized people who find themselves permanently excluded from the labor market are also often excluded from the wider arena of political power. In some cases, marginalized peoples can be demonized or scapegoated and their lack of political power leads to powerlessness.


Young’s view of powerlessness updates the Marxist view of exploitation to account for class structure as it existed in the 20th century and expands into the distinction between professional and non-professional (Young 1990 56-58). The powerless have little to no autonomy and their concerns and interests may not be routinely or appropriately addressed. The powerless lack the innate confidence possessed by the professional class and are less likely to be able to improve their situation on their own(Young 1990, 56-58). Young’s work identifies the privilege of professional respectability as something which is routinely denied to women and men of color until they “prove” themselves worthy, though it is initially granted to white men without questioning their credentials or bona fides.


In Young’s view, cultural imperialism involves a dominant group which sets its experiences as the norm by which all other groups are measured (Young 1990 pg 59). In exploring cultural imperialism, Young makes reference to W.E.B. Du Bois’ conception of the “double consciousness”, which is defined as existing when a black man has both his own identity and the identity with which white people see him. Young also discusses normativity, which is when a group sets its experiences as the standard which all of society should be judged against. This can make it so that simple differences such as an accent are thought of as wrong, it can also come into play when a dominant group does not recognize the different experiences which oppressed people have. 


Violence is systematic and systemic, as well as incredibly frequent in current society. Violence is distinct from the other faces of oppression in how direct a form of domination it is. When a society does not punish those who commit violence it sanctions and legitimizes the violence (Young 1990 pg 62).


Politics of Difference


In the Politics of Difference, Young criticized the ideal of liberty as the transcendence of group differences (Young 1990 pg 157). The Enlightenment ideal of universal citizenship promised the disadvantaged within a society that if they had equal political and legal status they would have a voice to be able to effectively combat injustice (Young 1990 pg 157-167). By the end of the 20th century, it had become apparent that formal citizenship and representation alone had not resolved injustices and that they were inadequate on their own to remedy cultural norms of domination and oppression. The demand that group differences be eliminated however is not the acceptance of the equal dignity of all, but the assimilationist measure to expand one’s own culture at the expense of others. A general perspective which can be adopted by all members of a society does not exist. Generalized equality does not account for the different experiences and voices which different members of a society have. Equal treatment of individuals does not resolve structural issues placed upon people based upon their groups. Indeed, the very attempt to formulate a universal notion of justice is fundamentally flawed because the groups through which people view the world are different, which results in their having different societal needs. 


Responsibility for Justice


In Young’s view, the concept of responsibility within the field of justice is most often derived from a legal understanding. Young describes this as the liability model of responsibility (Young 2011 pg 97). This model seeks a specific individual or group who caused or intended to cause an injustice in order to seek redress from identifiable individuals or groups of individuals. It is effective in certain areas, but it is backwards focused and unsuited to remedying issues of structural injustice. Young defines structural injustices as injustices caused by large numbers of disparate actors taking actions they believe are just but which, in aggregate, produce unintended injustice (Young 2011 pg 95- 101). She presents the cases of climate change and urban housing crises as examples. Young presents as an alternative a social connection model of responsibility. Under this model, individuals are responsible for structural injustice because their actions contributed to unjust outcomes and not necessarily because they intended for those unjust outcomes to occur (Young 2011 pg 105). This places a burden on moral agents to attempt to resolve structural injustices through collective action which the liability model fails to do. Jaggar identifies several key elements of this idea of responsibility. Those who interact with a social institution have a moral responsibility to all those who they assume the existence of through that interaction (Jaggar 2007). In an unjust world there may also be a need to challenge the basic assumptions of morality which exist to be politically responsible (Jaggar 2007).


Scholarly responses to the works of Iris Marion Young 


Young’s earlier work had a focus on the lived body as opposed to the structural discussions of justice which her later work focused on (La Caze). Marguerite La Caze argues that Young did more than criticize, she also constructed a position and provided a definition of justice. It is claimed that Young defines justice as the overcoming of oppression and domination. Iris Marion Young argued that Oppression limits the ability of the individual to develop skills and experiences while domination limits the ability of an individual to make choices about their own life. 


Ronald Beiner argues that Young’s politics of difference equates to a rejection of universal citizenship. In a criticism of Young’s arguments against universal citizenship, Beiner presented “standard criticisms” of Young’s work concerning issues of citizenship. Beiner contends that Young is not interested in cultural minorities so much as oppressed cultural minorities (Beiner). He cites as another complicating factor the fact that those who are owed special social prerogatives may outnumber the dominant majority group, which can result in the majority perceiving themselves as an embattled minority (Beiner). Beiner believes that egalitarian politics requires coalition building,  while Iris Marion Young’s  politics of difference implicitly excludes strong coalitions, which hampers the ability for people on opposing sides of issues to reach the consensus necessary to build and administer effective coalitions (Beiner).


Young’s works have also been expanded upon by some. Shatema Threadcraft, in her book Intimate Justice, explicitly applies Young’s theories of injustice to the historical and current lived experiences of black women and the ways in which patriarchy has dominated them in the United States(Threadcraft pg 22-24). 


Young and Broader themes


The question of whether there can be a universal conception of justice is one of the earliest in western political thought. In the Republic, Plato has Socrates reject multiple ideals of justice because they are not universal (Plato, Book I). Beiner claims that Young’s politics of difference reject universal justice (Beiner). In rejecting a universal notion of justice Young joins the ranks of Thrasymachus. Beiner argues that the rejection of moral universalism is a philosophical dead-end, how can there be an appeal to justice when there is no universal justice he asks (Beiner)?


Alison M. Jaggar argues that Young's imaginative critical approach to justice allowed her to improve on political philosophy in the wake of the changes which Rawls brought to the field. Rawls brought life back to the “dead” field of normative political philosophy. Rawls’ works are primarily focused on ideal theory and how a just or near just society should operate. In contrast, Young’s critical theory is interested in the non-ideal world in which people actually live. Jaggar identifies that Young rejects Rawls’ goal of a universal objective system of justice as illusory and notes that “She thinks about justice for a world in which coercion, threats, and structural inequalities are the norm rather than the exception” (Jaggar 2009)




The works on justice which Young was most known for were critical analyses of the works of other theorists, but Jaggar argues she contributed more to political philosophy than just criticisms. Young combined and crossed disciplines in new and creative ways. Iris Marion Young only died in 2006, it is premature to determine what the ultimate impacts of her works on theorizing about justice will be.

Works Cited


Aubert, Isabelle, Marie Garrau, and Sophie Guérard de Latour. (2019) “Iris Marion Young and Responsibility.” Critical Horizons : Journal of Social & Critical Theory 20, no. 2 : 103–8. https://doi.org/10.1080/14409917.2019.1596200.


Beiner, Ronald. (2006) “Multiculturalism and Citizenship: A Critical Response to Iris Marion Young.” Educational Philosophy and Theory 38, no. 1 : 25–37. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-5812.2006.00172.x.


Dhanda, M. (2006) ‘Alternative ideals: Iris Marion Young, 1949–2006’, Radical Philosophy, 140 (Nov-Dec): 55–6


Jaggar, Alison M. 2007 "Iris Marion Young’s Conception of Political Responsibility." In Symposia on Gender, Race and Philosophy, vol. 3, no. 1.


Jaggar, Alison M. 2009 "L’imagination au pouvoir: Comparing John Rawls’s method of ideal theory with Iris Marion Young’s method of critical theory." In Feminist ethics and social and political philosophy: Theorizing the non-ideal, pp. 59-66. Springer, Dordrecht,.


 La Caze, Marguerite. 2014 “Iris Marion Young’s Legacy for Feminist Theory.” Philosophy Compass 9, no. 7 : 431–40. https://doi.org/10.1111/phc3.12142.


Shatema Threadcraft. (2021) Intimate Justice. Oxford University Press, 2021.

Young, Iris Marion. 1989  “Polity and Group Difference: A Critique of the Ideal of Universal Citizenship.” Ethics 99, no. 2 : 250–74. https://doi.org/10.1086/293065.


Young, Iris Marion. 1990. Justice and the Politics of Difference . Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.


Young, Iris Marion. 2011 Responsibility for Justice. Oxford ;: Oxford University Press.


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