Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Carol C. Gould

Committee Members

Virginia P. Held

Omar Dahbour

Sigal Ben-Porath

Jennifer Morton

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Feminist Philosophy | Philosophy


Family, Social Ontology, Care Ethics, Needs, Relationality, Recognition Theory


My dissertation proposes a definition of the family that captures the qualitative aspects of familial relationships – a collection of features that set apart ideal families from deficient families – that best serve family members and the state. Most importantly, the qualitative features that define ideal families are the features that actually define the family qua family: groups that do not have these features do not count as families. Why draw such a categorical distinction between families and non-families? I argue that the benefits conferred upon families by the state demand that families be the kinds of groups that actually use those benefits to benefit each family member through caring activities. This means that the family is a unique kind of social group with a particular purpose: to provide care in intimate settings toward the mutual well being of all family members. Families work toward this goal by meeting the needs of all family members.

I propose that we think of needs as being either primary or secondary in nature; a distinction that reflects the ways that needs arise. This new taxonomy of needs also requires an alternative view of caring activities. I propose that we think of the caring activities that meet these needs as being either direct (or indirect) primary caring activities (where caring for another is definitive of the activity), or as secondary caring activities (where taking care of is definitive of the activity).

Primary needs involve those things that persons cannot live without regardless of social, economic, or political context. Primary needs, when they cannot be met independently, must be met by others through primary caring activities: activities that involve direct or indirect physical

and emotional care for the dependent. Those who respond to our primary needs must have substantial knowledge not just about us, but about what kinds of caring activities will best meet the needs that we have. Consequently, I argue that family members are the most effective primary caregivers and have an obligation to perform primary caring activities for one another.

Secondary needs are those things that persons require to secure the resources necessary to meet their primary needs and are highly circumstantial – that is, all persons do not have them equally, and they may change (for better or worse) depending upon external forces. Because the state has a unique role in creating and regulating secondary needs, especially those that may impede a family’s ability to provide primary care, the state has an obligation to take care of many secondary needs for citizens, including the provision of social insurance, subsidized childcare and eldercare, and a livable minimum wage.