Feminist Ethics is an attempt to revise, reformulate, or rethink traditional ethics to the extent it depreciates or devalues women’s moral experience.
Feminist philosopher Alison Jaggar faults traditional ethics for letting women down in five related ways. First, it shows less concern for women’s as opposed to men’s issues and interests. Second, traditional ethics views as trivial the moral issues that arise in the so-called private world, the realm in which women do housework and take care of children, the infirm, and the elderly. Third, it implies that, in general, women are not as morally mature or deep as men. Fourth, traditional ethics overrates culturally masculine traits like “independence, autonomy, intellect, will, wariness, hierarchy, domination, culture, transcendence, product, asceticism, war, and death,” while it underrates culturally feminine traits like “interdependence, community, connection, sharing, emotion, body, trust, absence of hierarchy, nature, immanence, process, joy, peace, and life.” Fifth, and finally, it favors “male” ways of moral reasoning that emphasize rules, rights, universality, and impartiality over “female” ways of moral reasoning that emphasize relationships, responsibilities, particularity, and partiality.
According to Jaggar, all feminist approaches to ethics seek to (1) articulate moral critiques of actions and practices that perpetuate women’s subordination; (2) prescribe morally justifiable ways of resisting such actions and practices; (3) envision morally desirable alternatives for such actions and practices; and (4) take women’s moral experience seriously, though not uncritically. Feminist ethicists should aim, first and foremost, to improve the overall condition for women in particular—and also for other vulnerable people like children, the elderly, the infirm, the disabled, and disadvantaged minorities.
Feminists have developed a wide variety of gender-centered approaches to ethics, each of which addresses one or more of the five ways traditional ethics has failed or neglected women. Some feminist ethicists emphasize issues related to women’s traits and behaviors, particularly their care-giving ones. In contrast, other feminist ethicists emphasize the political, legal, economic, and/or ideological causes and effects of women’s second-sex status. But be these emphases as they may, all feminist ethicists share the same goal: the creation of a gendered ethics that aims to eliminate or at least ameliorate the oppression of any group of people, but most particularly women.
Because feminist approaches to ethics tend to be gynocentric as well as gender sensitive, nonfeminist critics of them have complained that these approaches are “female-biased.” Ethics, insist these critics, cannot proceed from a specific standpoint—in this case, from the standpoint of women—and still be regarded as an ethics. Indeed, traditional ethics has proceeded on the assumption that its values and rules apply to all rational persons equally….Yet, most traditional ethical theories seem to be based on the moral experience of men —usually powerful ones—as opposed to women…Therefore, when a proponent of feminist ethics insists on highlighting women’s morality, she may simply be doing some remedial work—adding women’s moral experiences to a male-biased ethical tradition sorely in need of them…However, she may be doing more than this. She may be suggesting that it is not enough for traditional ethics to incorporate women’s interests and issues, and to recognize women moral agents who must be taken seriously. On the contrary, she may be urging traditional ethics to rethink the ontological and epistemological assumptions upon which their thinking is based; and to consider the possibility, that far from being sources of human liberation, their principles, rules, regulations, norms, and criteria actually serve to support patterns of domination and subordination that demoralize everyone.
Are women’s “feminine” traits the product of nature/biology or are they instead the outcome of social conditioning? Are moral virtues as well as gender traits connected with one’s affective as well as cognitive capacities, indeed with one’s physiology and psychology? If so, should we simply accept the fact that men and women have different moral virtues as well as different gender traits and proceed accordingly? If not, should we strive to get men and women to adhere to the same morality: a one-size-fits-all human morality?
Mary Wollstonecraft concluded that moral virtue is unitary. Women, she said, are obligated to practice the same morality men practice; that is, human morality. Wollstonecraft denied that women are doomed by nature to be less virtuous than men. Deprived of sufficient opportunities to develop their rational powers, women wind up being overly emotional, hypersensitive, narcissistic, self-indulgent individuals. Wollstonecraft said there is nothing wrong about women, including their supposedly weak moral characters that cannot be cured by a rigorous education; that is, the kind of education that aims to develop students’ rational powers. Men have concerns, causes, and commitments over and beyond petty, self-interested ones because they receive a proper education. Give women men’s education, said Wollstonecraft, and women, no less than men, will become morally-mature human beings.
Wollstonecraft identified reason rather than sentience as the characteristic that distinguishes humans from non-human animals.… Whereas parents teach boys morals, they teach girls manners, she said. More generally, society as a whole encourages women to cultivate negative psychological traits like “cunning,” “vanity,” and “immaturity,” all of which impede women’s moral development. Worse, society twists what could be woman’s virtues into vices.
Wollstonecraft reasoned that the best way for women to become full-fledged moral agents is for them to start thinking and behaving like men. It did not occur to her to question whether men’s morality was in fact human morality. All she knew was that on the face of it, men’s morality seemed better than women’s morality and was therefore a superior candidate for the title “true human morality.”
Wollstonecraft emphasized that the women of her times needed a better education. At times, Wollstonecraft implied that the purpose of educating women is simply to supply men with “rational fellowship;” that is, with “more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers”. At other times, however, Wollstonecraft suggested that women need to be educated like men so that they can become rational, responsible, independent adults. She noted that if women were to be “really virtuous and useful,” they needed to be economically independent of men.
In an irony of history, by the nineteenth-century women were regarded as more moral (though also as less intellectual) than men, a view that disturbed utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill. As he saw it, society is mistaken to set up an ethical double standard according to which women’s morality is to be assessed differently than men’s morality. Reflecting on women’s alleged moral superiority, Mill concluded that women’s morality is simply the result of systematic social conditioning. To laud women on account of their “complex abnegation of themselves,” is merely to compliment society for inculcating in women those psychological traits that serve to maintain it. Women are taught to live for others; to always give and never take; to submit, yield and obey; to be long-suffering. They are also taught to demur to men because they are not as smart and strong as men. This being the case, women’s virtue is not the product of autonomous choice. Rather, it is the consequence of social programming. At root, there is but one virtue—human virtue—and women as well as men should be pushed to adhere to its standards. Then, and only then, will society be as just and prosperous as possible.
Other nineteenth-century thinkers denied that virtue is or should be the same for both sexes. Instead, they provided a separate-but-equal theory of virtue according to which male and female virtues are simply different. Or they elaborated a separate-and-unequal theory of virtue according to which female virtue is fundamentally better than male virtue. Importantly, this diverse group of thinkers disagreed among themselves about how to assess the characteristics (nurturance, empathy, compassion, self-sacrifice, kindness) typically associated with women. They asked whether these “female” “feminine” characteristics are: (1) genuine moral virtues to be developed by men as well as by women; (2) positive psychological traits to be developed by women alone; or (3) negative psychological traits not to be developed by anyone.
Catherine Beecher thought that women’s place was in the home. She thought that women’s work, understood as the creation and maintenance of strong families in which moral virtue thrives, was essential for society’s well-being. In an effort to help society properly esteem women’s housework, Beecher developed the discipline of “domestic science.” She stressed that women’s housework requires much intelligence as well as many organizational and occupational skills; it may be just as demanding to manage a large household properly as it is to manage a small business, for example.
Beecher also emphasized that women’s most important work is to make the members of her family like Christ, who died a painful death so that humankind could be redeemed from its fallen, sinful state [???!!!]. Insulated in the private realm, where they are supposedly deaf to the siren calls of worldly wealth, power, and prestige, women are supposedly better situated than men to cultivate the Christ-like virtue of “self-denying benevolence” and to serve as role models for their families. The more pure and perfect women are, the better society will be. Convinced that women were responsible for morally perfecting men and children, Beecher never asked herself why God had burdened women rather than men with this responsibility, imposing on women the task of specializing in the virtue of self-denying benevolence. After all, given that Christ was a man, should not God have selected men be the keepers of society’s virtue?
Elizabeth Cady Stanton also saw differences between women’s and men’s moralities. Although Stanton was not certain whether what she perceived as men’s and women’s diverging virtues and vices were the result of social manipulation or biological imperative, she knew that men’s morals, of which she had a generally low opinion, had set the standard for behavior in the public world. The solution to this regrettable state of affairs, said Stanton, was a relatively simple one: push women and their superior morals into the public world. Humankind cannot afford to leave women, as Beecher would, in the private world, exerting their good influence there and only there.
Reared like Beecher in the Christian faith, Stanton valued women’s self-denying benevolence. However, Stanton believed there was an even higher virtue for women to develop; namely, self-development. In the course of interpreting a biblical passage in which a poor widow is praised for her charitable actions, Stanton agreed that the woman’s generous gesture of giving was, on the face of it, indeed praiseworthy. Nonetheless, Stanton cautioned women that women’s generosity—their willingness to do more in the way of caring and giving than men—may be contributing to women’s second-class status….Women cannot always afford to be totally other-directed, said Stanton; sometimes they have to be self-centered so that they can care for themselves and make progress towards securing the same political, social, and economic rewards and power men have.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman imagined an all-female society, Herland, in which women and their daughters (produced through parthenogenesis) are able to practice a superior morality. Herland is a women-centered society of mothers in which the lines between the private realm and the public realm have been radically redrawn. The women of Herland are just as visible in courts of law and centers of trade as they are in the nurseries and schools. Competitive, individualistic approaches to life disappear in Herland, where women are able to relate cooperatively because they feel no need to dominate each other. The women of Herland cultivate both the best “feminine” virtues and the best “masculine” virtues—the virtues that joined together are co-extensive with human virtue. Thus, if a society in the real world wants to be virtuous, it should embrace Herland as its ideal.
To be sure, Herland is a fictional utopia in which imagined social, economic, political, and cultural conditions permit women to develop in morally good as well as psychologically healthy ways. But,admitted Gilman, conditions are quite different for women in the nonfictional, real-world. Gilman wrote that so long as women are dependent on men for economic support, women will be known for their servility and men for their arrogance. Women need to be men’s economic equals before they can develop truly human moral virtue, a perfect blend of pride and humility: namely, self-respect.
Feminist Care Ethics: The Different Voice
Proponents of feminist care ethics, including Carol Gilligan stress that traditional moral theories, principles, practices, and policies are deficient to the degree they lack, ignore, trivialize, or demean values and virtues culturally associated with women. Gilligan offers her work as a critique of the Freudian notion that whereas men are morally well-developed, women are not. Freud attributed women’s supposed moral inferiority to girls’ psychosexual development. Whereas boys break their attachment to their mothers for fear of being castrated by their fathers if they fail to do so, girls remain tied to their mothers because the threat of castration has no power over them. As a result of this theorized male-female difference, girls are supposedly much slower than boys to develop a sense of themselves as autonomous moral agents, personally responsible for the consequences of their actions: as persons who must obey society’s rules or face its punishments. In other words, boys and men come to respect law more than girls and women do.
According to Gilligan, Freud is simply one of many traditional thinkers who have viewed women as morally inferior to men. She singles out educational psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg for extended criticism. Kohlberg claimed that moral development is a six-stage process. Stage One is the “punishment and obedience orientation.” To avoid the pain of punishment and/or to receive the pleasure of a reward, children do as they are told. Stage Two is “the instrumental relativist orientation.” Based on the notion of reciprocity — scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours — children meet others’ needs only if others meet their needs. Stage Three is the “good boy-nice girl” orientation. Adolescents adhere to prevailing norms to secure others’ approval and love. Stage Four is the “law and order orientation.” Adolescents develop a sense of duty, defer to authority figures, and maintain the social order to secure others’ admiration and respect. Stage Five is the “social-contract legalistic orientation.” Adults adopt a utilitarian moral point of view according to which individuals may do as they please, provided they do not harm other people. Stage Six is “the universal ethical principle orientation.” Adults adopt a Kantian moral perspective that transcends all conventional moralities. Adults are no longer ruled by self-interest, the opinion of others, or the fear of punishment, but by self-imposed universal principles.
Gilligan asks whether Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development are indeed universal, invariant, and hierarchical. In particular, she asks why, in the Kohlbergian scheme of things, women rarely climb past Stage Three, whereas men routinely make it to Stages Four or even Stage Five. Does this gender difference mean that women are less morally developed than men are? Or does it instead mean there is something wrong with Kohlberg’s methodology — some bias in it that permits men to achieve higher moral development scores than women?
Gilligan believes that Kohlberg’s methodology is male-biased. Its ears are tuned to male, not female, moral voices. Thus, it fails to register the different voice Gilligan claims to have heard in her study of twenty-nine women reflecting on their abortion decisions. This distinctive moral voice, says Gilligan, speaks a language of care that emphasizes relationships and responsibilities. Seemingly, this language is largely unintelligible to Kohlbergian researchers who speak the dominant moral language of traditional ethics—namely, a language of justice that stresses rights and rules.
Although Gilligan notes that the respective languages of care and justice are not gender correlated in any iron-clad way, with all women speaking only the language of care and all men speaking only the language of justice, the examples she uses sometimes undermine her disclaimer. In her abortion study, she shows only women moving in and out of the three moral frames of reference that together constitute her relational ethics: Level One in which women overemphasize the interests of their selves; Level Two in which women overemphasize others’ interests; and Level Three in which women weave their own interests together with those of others. Thus, a woman at Level One would make her abortion decision in terms of what is best for herself, at Level Two in terms of what is best for others, and at Level Three in terms of what is best for her and others considered as a relational unit. Women at Level Three display a kind of thinking that is fully and properly feminist.
Gilligan’s care ethics has been widely applauded and adopted, but it has also been taken to task. Some critics claim that Gilligan’s Levels provide no more an account of human moral development than Kohlberg’s Stages, with Kohlberg focusing on men’s moral experience, and Gilligan on women’s. Other critics insist that even if care is a bona fide moral virtue, it is a less essential moral virtue than justice. These critics typically claim it is better to act from a general moral principle like “aid the needy” than a particular caring feeling for a specific person. Constant principles are more reliable action guides than ephemeral feelings, they say. They also put forth the view that, when justice and care conflict, considerations of impartiality should trump considerations of partiality: my children’s fundamental rights and basic needs are neither more nor less important than anyone else’s children’s.
Yet other critics claim there is nothing really new about the “different voice” Gilligan hears. They emphasize that benevolence (that is, care) is no less present than justice in traditional ethics. From benevolence flows ideas like maximizing aggregate good, not harming anyone, and not interfering with individuals’ liberty. From justice flows the notions of equality of respect for persons and equality before the law. But, in defense of Gilligan, what some traditional ethicists mean by “benevolence” may not be what Gilligan means by “care.”
Philosopher Lawrence A. Blum believes that caring parents are more likely to actually act benevolently than uncaring parents are. But most traditional philosophers do not agree with him that only caring parents are capable of so acting. Instead they insist that a formal sense of duty, whether or not it is accompanied by caring feelings, is sufficient to generate moral action. Like many ethicists who are developing versions of care ethics, however, Blum believes that people who would be moral must do more than merely obey the letter of the law. They must also be infused with the appropriate emotions, sentiments, and feelings to perform an entirely morally worthy action.
In addition to the non-feminist criticisms that have been directed towards Gilligan, several specifically feminist criticisms have found their way to her desk. Of these criticisms, the most powerful ones stress that even if women are better carers than men, it may still be epistemically, ethically, and politically imprudent to associate women with the value of care. To link women with caring may be to promote the view that women are in charge of caring or, worse, that because women can care, they should care no matter the cost to themselves.
Lee Bartky argues that women’s experience of building men’s egos and binding men’s wounds ultimately disempowers women. She claims that the kind of “emotional work” practiced by women in some service-oriented occupations causes them to disconnect from their own base of feelings and sentiments. For example, paying a person to be always upbeat even when customers, patients, or clients are rude, nasty, or abusive means paying a person to act nice even when she does not feel nice. But a person pretends to be nice only so long before she imperils her ability to recognize the difference between phony niceness and real niceness
Bartky concedes that some women feel energized rather than drained by the emotional work they do. Many wives and mothers claim the experience of caring for their husbands and children, even when difficult, is meaning-giving. The more they care, the more they view themselves as persons who hold everything together for everyone else. But, says Bartky, such subjective feelings of empowerment are not the same as the objective reality of actually having power. Many women get upset, for example, when they fail to please the men in their lives. Yet, the men in their lives may not notice how much pain their words and deeds sometimes cause the women in their lives. Men seem to worry less about women’s feelings than women worry about men’s feelings. Thus, according to Bartky, women’s care of men may amount to “a collective genuflection by women to men, an affirmation of male importance that is unreciprocated”.
Another concern Bartky expresses about women’s caring of men in particular is that women may sacrifice their moral integrity in the process. Bartky gives the example of Teresa Stangl, wife of Fritz Stangl, Kommandant of Treblinka. Aware of the fact that her husband was sending thousands of Jews to their death in his concentration camp, she nonetheless continued to attend to his needs dutifully, even lovingly. In doing so, says Bartky, she became complicit with his evil; for a woman cannot remain silent about evil and still expect to keep her goodness entirely intact. Because evil perpetrated by a loved one is still evil, women need to analyze “the pitfalls and temptations of caregiving itself” before they embrace an ethics of care wholeheartedly.
Mullet reinforces Bartky’s reservations about an ethics of care. She distinguishes between distorted caring and undistorted caring. As Mullet sees it, a woman is not in a position to truly care for someone if she is economically, socially, and/or psychologically forced to do so. Specifically, authentic caring cannot occur under conditions characterized by male domination and female subordination. Only if women are fully equal to men, can women care for men without fearing that men will take advantage of their loving acts, feeling no need to reciprocate them. So long as women do more than their fair share of caregiving works, both sexes will remain morally deprived. However, to care too much is to risk being servile. To care too little is to risk being so selfish that one’s heart freezes along the way. To care appropriately is to care reflectively and well.
Bartky’s and Mullet’s concerns about care are, in the estimation of care-focused feminists, worthy of attention. But they are not strong enough to totally discredit Gilligan’s work in particular, let alone the project of feminist care in general. Even if it is risky for women to care in a patriarchal society, care remains part of any credible ethics. Care’s contested status calls for the development of a more robust feminist ethics of care that includes men as well as women; certainly, it does not call for the rejection of care.
Partly in response to the summons for an improved feminist ethics of care, Nel Noddings has developed an ethics that valorizes the virtues and values traditionally linked to women. For Noddings, ethics is about particular relationships between two parties: the “one-caring” and the “cared-for.” True care does not consist in proclaiming one’s universal love for all humankind. Nor does it consist in sending aid to victims of war, famine, or natural disasters. Realistically, a mother in the United States cannot care about the children in Sudan as much as she cares for her own children. Real care requires actual encounters with specific individuals; it cannot be bestowed from afar upon individuals in general.
Noddings claims that as children we act from a natural caring that motivates us to help others simply because we want to help them. Later, when we get so busy or “important” that we think we do not have time to care; the deliberateness of so-called ethical caring supplements the spontaneity of natural caring. We try to be available for someone even when our calendars are full of meetings and appointments. We tap into our memories of those days when caring was easy for us, when we always had time for those who loved us or needed us. For Noddings, whatever the value of ethical caring may be, it is not as basic as natural caring. Natural caring is the condition of possibility for ethical caring. Sociopaths cannot care ethically because they cannot care naturally. Presumably, they are born into the world without the hardwiring to develop caring behavior.
Although Noddings insists that men can and should be carers, she most often uses women in her examples of caregiving people. Some of Noddings’ critics think that Noddings’ valorizes women who care to the point of imperiling their own identity, integrity, and even survival. Noddings protests that her critics misunderstand her. Like them, she thinks that the one-caring for others should also care for herself. Still, a credible case can be made that, at bottom, Noddings thinks that the one-caring should care for herself so that she can care for others better. Preserving relationships, insofar as it is possible to do so, is a high priority for Noddings. To break a relationship without working hard to find some way to hold it together is a cause of concern for her. Noddings suggests that when a person breaks a relationship, particularly a close one, he or she risks being “ethically diminished.”
Noddings extends the principles of her feminist care ethics into the arena of public policy. In response to those who have criticized feminist care ethics as a “fine domestic theory” unable to address the moral complexities of wider social issues and policies, Noddings insists that having a robust sense of social justice is predicated on the lessons learned in the private sphere. On her view, if we are to develop truly effective social policies about matters such as homelessness, mental illness, and education, we have much to learn by “starting at home” where the origins of care have their roots.
Fiona Robinson takes Noddings’ general point about the relationship between private and public ethics farther. According to Robinson, in the realm of international relations, no real progress can be made to address a problem like poverty without a critical feminist ethics of care. Robinson points out that despite all the efforts traditional rights-based and duty-based theorists have made to motivate nations to rid the world of its huge income gaps, poverty remains a bigger problem than ever before. Robinson thinks that traditional ethical approaches to specific problems like poverty are too abstract and generalized to motivate enough action to eliminate the actual suffering caused by poverty. Ethics must make consciousness of poverty a part of the everyday lives of people who are anything but poor. Robinson claims that we need a critical feminist ethics of care that helps privileged people understand the ways in which their affluence is related to non-privileged people’s poverty. Unless privileged people give up some of their advantages by fostering certain economic, political, and social changes, the charitable contributions they make here and there to alleviate human misery are mostly about making themselves feel good.
Care-Focused: Paradigmatic Moral Relationships
Sara Ruddick, Virginia Held, and Eva Kittay have much in common with Gilligan and Noddings. They emphasize that human relationships are not between equally-informed and equally-powerful persons but between unequal and interdependent persons. When a parent relates to a child, or a self-confident and well-adjusted adolescent to a depressed and distraught friend, for example, they do not relate as two business persons do during a contract negotiation, but as two, differentially empowered people, trying to resolve an issue of mutual concern. Ethics should be built on a model that fits life as most people experience it on an everyday basis. Not the concepts, metaphors, and images associated with the practice of contracting, but those associated with practices like parenting/mothering best express the dynamics of moral life, in the opinion of Ruddick, Held and Kittay.
In her feminist ethics of care, Sara Ruddick claims that society should properly value what she terms “maternal practice.” Like any human practice, maternal practice has its own form of thinking with a vocabulary and logic peculiar to it, and its own aims and goals. In the case of maternal thinking, these aims and goals consist in the preservation, growth, and acceptability of one’s children.
Preserving the life of a child is the first aspect of Ruddick’s maternal practice. No human being is, on the surface, more vulnerable than an infant. Infants cannot survive unless someone feeds, clothes, and shelters them. To show just how dependent infants are on their caretakers, Ruddick provides the example of Julie, an over-extended young mother with a very needful infant. Finding it increasingly difficult to care for her baby; Julie imagines herself killing her baby. Horrified by her own thought, Julie boards a city bus with her baby. She spends the night riding the bus, reasoning that as long as she and her baby remain in the public eye, she will not harm her baby.
Ruddick tells Julie’s story to emphasize that mothering is not easy. Not every mother finds herself as distraught as Julie; but most mothers have days when they wish, however secretly, they were not mothers. In order to be able to treat their children well on these bad days, says Ruddick, mothers need to cultivate virtues like scrutiny (the ability to see things in perspective), humility, and cheerfulness. Equipped with these virtues; people who mother will be able to roll with the punches that life delivers to children and adults alike.
The second aspect of Ruddick’s maternal practice is fostering children’s growth. To foster a child’s growth does not mean to impose some sort of ideal life script on one’s child. Mothers should not try to make their children perfect. Rather mothers should help their children realize that what is important in life is trying to be a better person despite one’s weaknesses and foibles.
The third and final aspect of Ruddick’s maternal practice is training. Typically, mothers work diligently to socialize their children — to help them become law-abiding citizens. But there are times when conscientious mothers refuse to conform to society’s needs or expectations. For example, a conscientious mother may refuse to get her son ready to fight for an unjust cause, or to diet her daughter down into size 0 designer jeans. She may find herself caught between the values of a competitive, power-obsessed, individualistic society on the one hand and her own inner conviction that these values are fundamentally flawed on the other. If a mother trains her son in the ways of the world, he may gain success in it, but he may also become an arrogant employer who runs roughshod over his employees. In contrast, if a mother raises her son to be a “nice guy,” he may grow up a “loser” in society’s eyes. Like all mothers, says Ruddick, a conscientious mother must decide whether her values or those of the larger society should guide her child-rearing practices. Is it more important that her child adhere to social norms or critically question them?
Ruddick’s ultimate hope is to bring maternal thinking into the public world—to get more men and women to think through issues “maternally.” She points out, for example, that people who think like mothers are apt to understand what war means in the concrete rather than what war means in the abstract. For maternal thinkers, war is not about making sure that one’s nation comes out on top no matter what. Rather war is about risking the life of a child whom one has spent years preserving, nurturing, and training. For a maternal thinker, war is about death—about canceling out the “product(s)” of maternal practice; it is about losing that which is most precious to one.
Like Ruddick, Virginia Held finds in the relationship between mothering persons and children an excellent paradigm for human relationships in general. It concerns Held that traditional ethics not only discounts women’s morality but presents what amounts to men’s morality as gender neutral morality. She claims that if traditional ethics were really gender-neutral, it would not favor paradigms — for example, the contract model — that speak far more to men’s experience than to women’s. In Held’s estimation, too many traditional ethicists bless a human relationship as moral to the degree it serves the separate interests of individual rational contractors. Yet life is about more than conflict, competition, and controversy — about getting what one wants. It is, as mothering persons know, also about cooperation, consensus, and community — about meeting other people’s needs. Held speculates that were the relationship between a mothering person and a child, rather than the relationship between two rational contractors the paradigm for a good human relationship, society might look different.
Held admits, however, that the mothering person-child relationship is not unproblematic. A father-son or mother-daughter relationship can be just as oppressive as an employer-employee relationship. Indeed, some intimate relationships can be far more abusive and cruel than some professional ones. It is usually easier to walk away from an abusive employer than an abusive husband.
Held insists that her advocacy on behalf of maternal ethics does not indicate a wholesale rejection of traditional ethics. Just because a feminist care-based ethics can handle issues that exceed the “moral minimum” of respecting individuals’ rights does not mean it should trivialize this “moral minimum.” Mothering persons must be just as well as caring; critical thinkers as well as emotionally-sensitive persons; able to make generalizations about human relations as well as to tease out their unique characteristics. Like principles, relationships are subject to evaluation as good, better, or best (bad, worse, or worst). If bad principles should not be followed, then bad relationships should not be maintained.
Like other feminists who do care ethics, Held thinks the values central to feminist care ethics should be just as present in the public realm as the private realm. Asked whether it is care or justice that is the most fundamental human value, Held does not hesitate to answer that it is care. As she sees it, care can exist without justice but justice cannot exist without care. Held’s meaning is not entirely clear, but her general point seems to be that before the polis came to be, there were families, some of them very unjust in that men were privileged over women, or that the old were favored over the young. Still, these families survived because there was enough care within them for their members to tend to each others’ basic human needs and protect each others’ paramount human interests. Were it not for this type of caring behavior within families, the polis—with its rules, laws, contracts, and scales of justice—would never have come into existence. Says Held: “There can be no justice without care…for without care no child would survive and there would be no persons to respect.”
Like Ruddick who speaks of maternal thinkers and Held who speaks of mothering persons, Eva Feder Kittay seeks to avoid the charge of female essentialism. Her feminist care ethics refers to “dependency relations” and “dependency workers” rather than “maternal relations” and “mothers.” For Kittay, the paradigm dependency worker is a close relative, friend or paid worker who assumes daily responsibility for a dependent’s survival. The dependency worker’s labor is characterized by care, concern, and connection to the dependent, and she typically suffers negative personal and/or professional consequences as a result of doing the essential work she does. According to Kittay, the dependency worker is obligated to the dependent because she is best suited to meet the dependent’s needs. For example, the source of a mother’s moral obligation to her infant is not the rights of the dependent person as a person, but rather the relationship that exists between the one in need and the one who is situated to meet the need. The defining characteristic of this largely socially-constructed relationship is that it is not usually chosen but already given in the ties of family, the dynamics of friendship, or the terms of employment.
Importantly, Kittay claims that the dependency relation paradigm can and should guide public policy about human equality. On her view, we are all equal because we are all the product of one or more mothers’/dependency workers’ labor. Because everyone is some mother’s child, everyone has the experience of being dependent on someone—indeed radically dependent on someone for mere existence. It is only fair that society takes care of all its dependency workers, including its official mothers. For society to do anything less than this for dependency workers is to wrong not only dependency workers but also those who depend on them. It is to gradually unweave the entire fabric that binds society together. Thus, if society wants to keep itself together, Kittay insists the first goal of public policy must be to empower society’s dependency workers.
Status-Oriented Feminist Approaches to Ethics
Status-oriented feminist approaches to ethics tend to ask questions about power—that is, domination and subordination—before moving on to questions about good versus evil, care versus justice, and maternal versus paternal thinking. It is not that status-oriented feminists are more or less feminist than care-focused feminists. It is just that their emphasis is different than the emphasis of care-focused feminists.
Status-oriented feminist ethicists approach the systematic subordination of women to men in many different ways. Liberal, radical, Marxist/socialist, multicultural, global, and ecological feminists have each offered a different set of explanations and solutions for women’s “second-sex” status. So too have existentialist, psychoanalytic, postmodern, and third-wave feminists. Proponents of these schools of feminist thought maintain that the destruction of all systems, structures, institutions, and practices that create or maintain invidious power differentials between men and women is the necessary prerequisite for the creation of gender equality. In some ways, they seem to think that, contra Held, justice precedes care.
Liberal feminists maintain that the primary cause of women’s subordination to men is a set of social norms and formal laws that make it hard for women to succeed in the public world. Unless women have the same opportunities that men have, women will not be able to achieve their full potential in the academy, the forum, the marketplace, the operating room, and so forth.
Radical feminists think the liberal feminist agenda is wrongly focuses on weak “affirmative-action” remedies like Equal-Pay-for-Equal (or comparable)-Work and Maternity Leave. Women will remain the second-sex, in their estimation, until that day and time when women gain full control over their reproductive powers and sexual desires. At first, radical feminists were rather “libertarian” in their attitudes towards sexuality and reproduction. They encouraged women to experiment with all types of consensual sex including ethically controversial ones like sadomasochism. They also urged women to bear children as painlessly as possible. Why go through an uncomfortable pregnancy and painful childbirth experience when you can instead use a surrogate mother—even better, a hypothetical artificial womb—to have your child for you? Finally, “libertarian” radical feminists pushed women to become as androgynous as possible. The less women tried to embody the traits of “Woman” as society has constructed her, the more free and equal to men would women be.
Later some radical feminists began to have doubts about libertarian prescriptions for women. This group of radical feminists, sometimes referred to as “cultural” feminists, cautioned that heterosexual sex was far more harmful and compulsory than beneficial and consensual for women. They maintained that heterosexuality, viewed as an institution, has as its purpose to control and objectify women’s sexuality for the gratification of men. Cultural radical feminists also maintained that artificial/technological means of reproduction were a threat to women, meant to gradually deprive women of their exclusive power to bring new life into the world. Deprived of this power, women would be of value primarily as “sex-objects.” Finally, challenging the “androgynous” ideal of the fully good human person, they rejected “male”/“masculine” ways of being, thinking, and acting as defective. Why try to be like a “man”—that is, an aggressive, hyper-competitive, and war-mongering individual—when you can instead be a “woman”—that is, a co-operative, caring, and peace making individual?
Although there are problems with extreme forms of libertarian radical feminism on the one hand and extreme forms of cultural radical feminism on the other hand, radical feminist thought has managed to generate some very useful ethical work. So-called lesbian ethics is a particularly rich, though controversial addition to feminist ethical theory, for example. Its contested nature stems from the fact that it has been developed primarily to serve women-centered women and, in some versions, only lesbian women.
According to philosopher Sarah Lucia Hoagland, one of the most well-known developers of lesbian ethics, the quintessential moral question for lesbians is: “Does this contribute to my self-creation, freedom, and liberation?” rather than “Is this good?” or “Am I good?” Marilyn Frye claims that traditional ethics is preoccupied with questions about goodness because its proponents have a vested interest not only in being “good” but also in making others “good.” For example, a white/Christian/middle-class/heterosexual American male bases his conception of himself as a authority, leader, or boss upon his conviction that he is in the right—that he knows what is good for others as well as himself. So long as women continue to accept this conception of moral agency, says Frye, they, no less than men, will continue to think that ethics is about knowing what is best for everyone and then imposing this best on them no matter how painful or harmful doing so proves to be.
Claiming that lesbian ethicists have no interest in imposing their good upon anyone but themselves, Hoagland and Frye theorize that insofar as lesbians are concerned, the act of choosing, in and of itself, makes the object or action of choice good. More than any other tenets of lesbian ethics, it is this one that provokes comment from critics. They doubt that just because a lesbian freely chooses to do something, it is thereby morally justified for her to do so.
Hoagland has a response to this challenge. She notes that society has imposed so many limitations and boundaries on lesbian choice that perhaps for now choice is of more moral importance to lesbians than the things chosen. Yet, Hoagland is not prepared to claim that there are absolutely no limits on lesbian choice. At one point in her analysis of what constitutes moral agency and interaction, for example, Hoagland observes that in choosing for herself, a lesbian chooses for other lesbians, who in turn choose for her. Lesbians do not weave value in isolation from each other; they weave value together. Ethics is not an individualistic quest with moral value emerging from somewhere deep within one’s self or from far outside of one’s self. On the contrary, moral value—that is, personal meaning—emerges from what Hoagland terms “lesbian context,” an energy field capable of resisting oppression. A lesbian approach to ethics, is then, about lesbians becoming the kind of human beings who refuse to dominate or to be dominated.
Marxist/Socialist feminists disagree mainly with liberal feminists. They claim it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, for oppressed persons, (especially women) to do well in a class system. The only effective way to end women’s subordination to men is to replace the capitalist systems with socialist systems in which both women and men are paid fair wages for their work. Women must be men’s economic equals before they can be as powerful as men.
Significantly, contemporary Marxist/Socialist feminists are far less beholden to the traditional Marxist view that women’s relatively low social status is only a function of whether or not women are part of the paid, productive workforce. Over the years, and largely as a result of incorporating many radical feminist ideas into their own theory and practice, Marxist/Socialist feminists have increasingly produced works like Juliet Mitchell‘s Women’s Estate in which she argues that four socio-economic structures over determine women’s status; specifically, women’s role in production, reproduction, sexuality, and the socialization of children. Women’s role in all of these structures must change if they are to be men’s equals. Furthermore, as Mitchell adds in Psychoanalysis and Feminism, women’s interior world—their psyches—must also be transformed, for unless women are convinced of their own value, change in their exterior world can totally liberate them.
Multicultural feminists affirm much of what other schools of feminist thought say about women’s status, but they fault them for not being fully attentive to the inseparability of structures and systems of gender, race, and class. As they see it, feminists should not focus exclusively on women’s oppression as women or as workers or as members of a disadvantaged racial or ethnic group. Rather, they should understand that everything about a woman—the color of her skin, the fatness of her wallet, the direction of her sexual desires, the age on her birth certificate—explains her status in society. Even if they are separable in theory, racism, sexism, and classism are not separable in fact. Many women are the victims of “multiple jeopardy” and “interlocking systems of oppression”. For example, an undocumented Hispanic woman in the United States, working as a low-paid domestic helper for a white woman who is a high-paid lawyer, is multiply oppressed. Viewed as an interloper, an alien, an intruder, one of those people who have no “right” to be in the United States, she may start to feel badly about herself. Her identity and view of herself as someone who is acting responsibly as possible in trying circumstances may be eroded. Multiple oppression takes a spiritual/psychological toll as well as a material toll on people.
Although global feminists and postcolonial feminists largely praise the work of multicultural feminists, they nonetheless regard it as a somewhat incomplete discussion of women’s oppression. They emphasize that women in so-called First-World countries (located primarily in the Northern Hemisphere) need to better appreciate the status and situation of women in so-called Third-World countries (located primarily in the Southern Hemisphere). All too often, feminists focus in a nearly exclusive manner on the gender politics of their own countries. Thus, while U.S. feminists struggle to formulate laws to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, women in other countries are stoned to death for adultery or subjected to genital-cutting (including infibulation in some instances). Similarly, while U.S. feminists protest against pharmacists who, because of their conscientious objection to abortion, make it difficult for some U.S. women to secure emergency-contraception pills, many women in other countries have very little or no access to family planning services and die from botched illegal abortions or, as the result of poorly managed pregnancies and childbirths. Postcolonial feminists do more than call attention to the fact that women in the First World typically have more material goods than women in the Third World typically have. They also underscore the fact that some of the privileges First-World women have are bought at the expense of Third-World women, many of whom are exported to the First-World to work as low-paid homecare aides, domestic servants, or nannies.
Ecofeminists agree with global and postcolonial feminists that it is important for women to understand how women’s interests diverge as well as converge. However, they fault them and most other feminists for not paying attention to human beings’ responsibilities to non-human animals. Some ecofeminists, for instance, have developed Gilligan’s ethic of care as a foundation for animal defense theory. Similar to feminist ethics, feminist animal care theory arose as a critical response to utilitarian and rights-based animal ethics. Critics argue that these rationalistic frameworks are inadequate because they maintain an anthropocentric importance (i.e., the more non-human animals are similar to us the greater moral consideration they enjoy) and as a result fail to see non-human animals on their own terms with unique preferences, needs, and realities. Another concern with justice-oriented approaches lies in their explicit denial or suppression of the role of emotions in our moral deliberations about the abuse of non-human animals. When one considers the lack of emotional response to animal suffering as a major reason why abuse continues, it seems antithetical to exclude care when addressing the proper treatment of non-human animals. That is not to say we ought to dispense with the utilitarian and rights-based models. They present useful arguments for the ethical treatment of non-human animals. The point is, according to Josephine Donovan, “it is also possible—-indeed, necessary—-to ground that ethic in an emotional and spiritual conversation with nonhuman life-forms. Out of a women’s relational culture of caring and attentive love, therefore, emerges the basis for a feminist ethic for the treatment of animals. We should not kill, eat, torture, and exploit animals because they do not want to be so treated, and we know that. If we listen, we can hear them”.
The care approach to animal ethics consists of an empathetic way of understanding the plight of individual animals in patriarchal and capitalistic institutions. Proponents maintain that sympathetic responsiveness, compassion, and care can and should inform our ethical understanding as to why we have a responsibility to free non-human animals from human domination. Our treatment of the natural world is another matter. Part of the reason why our world is characterized by injustice, lack of care, and huge socioeconomic disparities between different people is that we treat the natural world with indifference and sometimes even contempt, say ecofeminists. We stockpile weapons of mass destruction, consume energy resources as if they were infinite, dump waste into our waters, and slaughter animals for meat we really do not need to eat. In so doing, we manifest our belief that it is our right to control nature to create a better world for ourselves. But we are suffering from a delusion in our feverish attempt to dominate nature, says Ynestra King. Nature is rebelling and the human species is setting its own annihilation in motion as it detrees forests and extinguishes animal species.
Departing from modes of feminist thought that stress the material consequences of second-sex status, existentialist feminists focus on the psychological consequences. Simone de Beauvoir writes that, from the beginning, man has named himself the Self and woman the Other. If the Other is a threat to the Self, then women are a threat to men. If men wish to remain free, they must not only subordinate women to themselves, but also convince women they deserve no better treatment. Thus, if women are to become true Selves, they must recognize themselves as autonomous agents who are free to chart the course of their own destinies. Women should refuse to define themselves in terms of men and simply go their own way.
Like existentialist feminists, psychoanalytic feminists seek an explanation of women’s status in the inner recesses of women’s psyche. As they see it, because children are reared almost exclusively by women, boys and girls are psychosocialized in very different ways. Boys grow up desiring to separate themselves from others and from the feminine values culturally linked to their mothers and sisters. In contrast, girls grow up like “little women,” replicating their mothers’ behavior and wanting to remain connected to them and others. Moreover, because of the ways in which patriarchal systems and structures shape human beings’ values, boys and girls come to think that allegedly masculine values such as justice and conscientiousness, which they associate with culture, are more fully human than allegedly feminine values such as caring and kindness, which they associate with nature.
Seeking to free women from a psychosexual drama that causes women as well as men to view women as of less value than men some psychoanalytic feminists reason that the source of this wrong-headed view of women is rooted in society’s reliance on women to do its caregiving tasks, and men to do its world building tasks. They claim that were men to devote as much time to fathering as women devote to mothering and were women to work just as hard in the world of enterprise as men do, then children would no longer identify home with women and work with men. Instead, they would grow up thinking of their parents as two human beings who value, in relatively equal measure, the benefits of both home life and work life.
Significantly, not all psychoanalytic feminists think that a dual-parenting/dual working arrangements is the remedy for the infamous Oedipus complex described above. In passing through this complex, the boy is fully integrated into culture. In exchange for giving up his first love object, his mother, the boy not only escapes castration at the hands of the father. He gets to rule over the irrational powers of both nature and women. Unable to get through the Oedipus complex nearly as well as boys do, girls, who have no penises to lose, do not completely separate from their mothers. As result, the girl’s integration into culture is never full. Women exist at society’s peripheries and margins, as they who do not rule but are instead ruled. Thus, in the estimation of some psychoanalytic feminists, the only way to change women’s status in society is to reject the view that human beings will remain in the state of nature unless they pass through the Oedipus complex. Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva advise women to stay in what they term the Imaginary, the place in which mother and infant are symbiotically united. To leave this place to enter the so-called Symbolic Order—that is, men’s world of language, rules, and laws—makes little sense for woman. Instead of entering this world in which they are inevitably oppressed and suppressed, women should stay in the Imaginary where they can take joy in their difference from men and live life on their own terms. Civilization will not collapse if women stay in the Imaginary, but patriarchy will crumble.
Finally, as postmodern and third-wave feminists see it, all attempts to provide a single explanation for women’s oppression is flawed. There is no one entity, “Woman,” upon whom a label may be fixed. Women are individuals, each with a unique story to tell about her particular self. Moreover, any single explanation for “Woman’s” status is simply another instantiation of so-called “phallogocentric” thought: that is, the kind of “male thinking” that insists on telling as absolute truth one and only one story about reality. Women must, in the estimation of postmodern and third-wave feminists, reveal their differences to each other so that they can better resist the patriarchal tendency to center and congeal thought into a rigid truth that always was, is, and forever will be. To become themselves, women must embrace conflict, even self-contradiction; they do not have to follow any script, including a self-imposed one, throughout their lives.
Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy