Spring 2006, Vol. 14, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Contract and Domination: A Collaborative Debate
on Social Contract Theory

Charles Mills

On September 23, 2005, the Warren Center sponsored a presentation given by Charles Mills, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at The University of Illinois-Chicago, and Carole Pateman, professor of political science at UCLA, titled “Contract and Domination: A Collaborative Debate on Social Contract Theory.” Pateman and Mills discussed the roles that race and sex play in social contract theory, which frames individual rights and obligations through the terms of a contract between the individual and society. Both speakers have challenged this theory through their work. In The Sexual Contract (Polity Press, Cambridge and Stanford University Press, 1988), Pateman argues that the sexual contract facilitates male domination over women. In The Racial Contract (Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1997), Mills argues that the racial contract allows for a determination of moral and political personhood through the category of race. Pateman and Mills are currently collaborating on a book project, provisionally titled “Contract and Determination.”

Edward L. Rubin, John Wade-Kent Syverud Professor of Law and Dean of Vanderbilt’s Law School, gave the opening remarks to a large audience of faculty and students from numerous disciplines. Pateman was unexpectedly unable to attend, but was present via speaker phone to answer questions. Her talk, “The Racial Contract,” was delivered by Brooke Ackerly, assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt. Pateman examined the issue of race through the lens of theories of land appropriation and colonization. In arguing for the necessity of new ways of thinking about reconciliatory acts on the part of colonial governments, Pateman argued that we must look to the past to understand current social injustices. As an example, she discussed the far-reaching impact of England’s colonization of Australia (which began in 1788) through the “settler’s contract,” a situation in which settlers create an original social contract upon their appropriation of land that excludes natives from that contract as it simultaneously binds those indigenous people to its terms. In 1992, Australia’s High Court issued a decision on the Mabo case, which overturned the justification of colonization through terra nullius (land belonging to no one) and recognized native title rights to land. As Pateman pointed out, however, Australia’s government refused to offer an official apology for the social policies that harmed the Aboriginal people. Suggesting that symbolic as well as legislative acts of reconciliation must be in place to make social change, Pateman claimed that there is still much work to be done in the realm of the racial contract.

Mills delivered a talk titled “The Sexual Contract,” in which he illuminated an ongoing debate in the wake of John Rawls’s 1971 A Theory of Justice: “Feminists and racial minorities in political philosophy have long complained that specific issues of gender and racial justice are inadequately (gender) or hardly at all (race) dealt with in the huge post-Rawls literature.” Mills suggested a modification of social contract theory that would account for both ideal and non-ideal theory as a “device of representation.” He delivered a complex proposal for synthesizing the work of feminist contract theorists Jean Hampton, Susan Moller Okin, and Carole Pateman, in order to develop what he termed “the domination contract,” which “constitutes a device for theorizing the non-ideal realities of gender and race.” This “domination contract” as a conceptual device, Mills argued, could then become a tool for identifying and rectifying gender and racial injustices: “By seeing society as a complex of group domination contracts (intersection of race, class, gender domination), we are sensitized from the start to the pressing problems of social injustice that in fact affect the majority of the population: social oppression is made central (as of course it has been) rather than marginal.”

Mills and Pateman fielded questions on issues ranging from the problem of identity politics to symbolic versus actual acts of reparations to the differentiation between theory and practice. In their responses, they often engaged one another in debate over the question at hand, producing a discussion that was as lively as it was informative. Additional support for the talk was provided by the Law School, the African American and Diaspora Studies Program, the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, the Bishop Johnson Black Cultural Center, and the departments of philosophy, political science, and human and organizational development at Peabody College.

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