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Mutual obligation and the ethics of individualised citizenship

By Anna Yeatman - posted Friday, 15 December 2000

Note: The author views this article as a work-in-progress and retains its copyright.

The value of the current welfare reform debate in the Anglo democracies is that it invites us to return to the principles on which ideas of social welfare should be based. This is a debate about how we should conceive the nature of individualised citizenship. "Individualised citizenship" means a conception of the subject of government that includes all persons, including children, as individuals who are capable of autonomous action and who being so are to be respected and recognised as individual agents in all transactions with them.

In historical context this conception of citizenship poses unprecedented challenges for patrimonial democracy. By patrimonial I mean that the condition of being regarded as an individual required one first to be an independent head-of-household who governed those who came under this household's jurisdiction as its dependents. Within patrimonial democracy, it was legitimate for adults who could not establish their own households to depend on those who could, either as private householders or as the public association of householders that they comprised.


Patrimonial-democratic authority has been effectively de-legitimised and destabilised by three social movements. The first is the women's movement, which has claimed that women are to count as individuals, and that their dependency on men is no longer to be automatically presumed. The second is the disability movement, which has claimed that people with different kinds of disability are to be respected and recognised as individuals whose capabilities for autonomous and independent action can be cultivated. The third represents postcolonial movements, including Indigenous people's movements. These movements advance the claim that those whom western colonialism regarded as mentally and morally inferior are to be respected as both collectively and individually autonomous actors.

The shared challenge of these movements is that they require us to rethink democracy, to open it up to very different kinds of person to the traditional subject of liberal democracy. This has two aspects. The first involves opening up a distinction between self-determining action and independent action. When this distinction opens up, it becomes possible to treat all persons including children as self-determining or autonomous individuals while allowing that not all persons can be economically independent. The second aspect involves the challenge of thinking more carefully about independent action. What is independence and why is it to be valued? Specifically, what is its relationship to self-determination?. Moreover, is independence to be reduced to economic (that is, market-based) independence or self-reliance?

Patrimonial traditions of independence celebrate an aristocratic conception of self-sufficiency where the household rather than the individual is the unit of social action. The household head enjoys an aristocratic privilege of rule both over himself and over his dependents. His individuality is confused with the individuality of the household and of those within it. Thus, while he knows and acts in terms of an aristocratic type of individualised independence, he does not know or understand autonomy, either for himself or for those whom he considers his dependents.

'Mutual obligation' is the key word for a particular and currently dominant response to the challenge of individualised citizenship. It is a response, however, that opens up an inclusive conception of individuality while holding onto the traditional patrimonial model of individuality.

Mutual obligation is an axiom of popular morality – that in return for society's contribution to us, we should make a contribution to society. We should be careful about popular axioms. Because they command easy and fast assent, they can be used to block and displace careful thought and dialogue about what principles should underlie welfare reform. The hallmark of popular morality is its hostility to critical analysis because it makes certain propositions appear to be self-evidently true or in accord with the nature of things.

If principles are to have any validity, they have to be argued for within a philosophically coherent argument that is ethically oriented. By ethical orientation, I mean that the principle or value at issue is rationally argued in relation to universal standards of right. Such an argument has also to be situated within a dialogical relationship of accountability to all those who can be counted as stakeholders in the matter.


Argumentation of this kind is singularly lacking in current debates about welfare reform. Most who participate in these debates seem to find it sufficient to argue in terms of axioms of popular morality, and they evade the task of ethical argumentation. They neither offer philosophical clarification of the principles they adduce nor do they test the universalism of these principles in opening them to communication with all those to whom they apply. This leaves the floor open to those who are willing to authoritatively and paternalistically speak for 'society' on mutual obligation. Since most people hold an unreflective attachment to the basic idea of mutual obligation, the popular view of mutual obligation is ripe picking for populist conservatives on both sides of politics.

Populist conservatism is the appropriate name for the view that people who receive income support from government are reneging on their obligation to society if they can work but for whatever reason 'choose' 'welfare dependency' over earning their own income through work. It is a highly prejudicial view that pays scant attention to the empirical realities of the relationship of poor people to both welfare and work. It is also a view that erroneously homogenises the welfare subject, and leads to a new type of ‘one size fits all’ policy orientation to people on welfare.

Mutual obligation depends for its coherence on the idea that people who get welfare or public income support are somehow getting away with something, they are getting something for nothing, if they are not required, that is forced, to do something in return for getting public income support.

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This is an edited extract from a paper presented to the Welfare Reform Conference, University of Melbourne, 9-10 November 2000.

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About the Author

Professor Anna Yeatman is Professor and Canada Research Chair (Social Theory and Policy), Department of Political Science, University of Alberta, Canada

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