Feminist Ethics

        feministSome recent ethicists claim that ethics are gender dependent as well. Although feminist moral philosophy is not monolithic, Carol Gilligan argues for the contextualization of moral reasoning in her book In a Different Voice. She cites empirical research which demonstrates that women’s moral development is significantly different from that of men’s. Women operate from a “morality of responsibility,” using the “psychological logic of relationships,” whereas men operate with a “morality of rights,” using the “formal logic of justice.” In contrast to an enlightenment emphasis on competing rights and formal and abstract connections, females typically operate with an awareness of conflicting responsibilities and a mentality that is contextual and narrative; in contract to Kant’s universalizable morality, the “female voice” speaks of the specific situation. So women tend to construe moral dilemmas as breaches in relationships and seek to resolve these dilemmas in ways that mend tears in the rational network. They are less likely to use abstract moral rules to justify their moral decisions, and more likely to act on the basis of love and compassion for specific individuals. Though Gilligan’s position has been controversial, some argue that it offers a distinctly feminist approach to ethics that is preferable to the West’s traditional preoccupation with justice.

            Gilligan’s posture is typical of what Rosemarie Tong calls a “care-focused” feminist ethic. This group also includes Nel Noddings and Annete Baier, who stress pairs of caring relationships in the former case and an ethics of love and responsibility based on trust in the latter case. Though trust (as opposed to a more male-oriented “ethics of religion”) relies on another’s good will, we must realize that we are not self-sufficient and that productive and reproductive activities require such trust relations. But the preoccupation of non-feminist ethicists with adult contractual relationships has marginalized and distorted the nature of mother-child trust as a moral phenomenon. Baier argues that non-contractual trust relations are essential for the survival of the human community. Contractual relations assume equally informed and equally powerful parties, but human relations are mostly about unequal parties. Consequently we must trust one another, even though we must be sagacious. In such care-focused moral theory, it is virtuous neither to trust too little, nor to trust too much.

            In a similar manner, Virginia Held argues for a maternal approach to ethics. The ideal mother-child relation should be the moral paradigm in typical relations among unequals.  Such relationships tend to be involuntary, non-contractual, focused on respect and cooperation (rather than on rights), concerned to help and not to harm, and symbiotic. The exercise of power is legitimate in these relations if it empowers the child or elicits the mother’s care, but not if it oppresses and induces fear.

            feminist flowerTong labels another school of feminist moral reasoning “power-focused.” The preeminent example here is Alison Jaggar. Before launching into paradigms for moral reasoning, Jaggar insists that we must critique the gender-based character of most non-feminist approaches to ethics that result in the neglect, trivialization, or devaluation of women’s moral insights, interests, issues, and identities. Only then can we discuss good and evil, care and justice, mothers and children. Only then can we prescribe morally justifiable ways of resisting dominating actions and practices. But Jaggar does not care for a feminist approach that is “sex-blind,” because demands for equality that do not differentiate in any way between men and women sometimes sound like the kind of rationalizing, contractual, bureaucratic thinking feminists have wanted to avoid, and there are circumstances when sex-blind equality may actually result in inequalities. Because this approach often results in the masculinization of women or the negation of women’s special capacities, some feminists interpret equality in a “sex-responsive” manner, emphasizing gender differences. But Jaggar does not care for this tactic when it focuses on only gender, for often this interpretation of sexual equality rests on a conception of differences according to which women are inferior to men in some way. It is good that some interpret this in a dynamic way, insisting that the differences may not be genetic givens, but the results of (as much as the causes of) sexual inequality. Others tend to valorize the differences (as Gilligan does), viewing them as a possible source of women’s strength. In the end, what Jaggar wants is an approach that sagaciously demands protection for women in the short-term while envisioning mutual care of all in the long-term – an approach that is responsive both to our common humanity and our particularity. Jaggar would like to end up with an ethic that is for everyone.

            It should be obvious that feminist ethicists are no more homogeneous and no more immune to criticism than non-feminist ethicists. But unlike the latter they all have this in common: They are responding to the moral concerns of women in a cultural context that often finds them swimming against the stream of tradition, yet finding resources in a culturally disempowered gender for new paradigms in moral reasoning.

Critiques of Feminist Ethics

  1. If it is wrong to use a male perspective in developing an approach to ethics, then it should be equally wrong to use a female perspective. Either gender-free moral reasoning is a reality or it is not, and, if it is not, then both men and women should have equal claim to develop an ethic.
  2. Are women’s interests really served by perpetuating the association of care-giving with the female gender? Doesn’t the care-giving role weaken the role of women versus men? In fact, aren’t women in danger of reintroducing gender-role stereotypes by associating maternal ways of thinking and acting with the characteristic way that women think and act? For this reason, some suggest using the paradigm of “friendship” instead of the mother-child paradigm.
  3. Feminist ethicists tend to emphasize non-contractual relations among unequals who must depend on trust and care-giving to sustain their relationships, but often such relationships are lopsided and the cared-for takes advantage of the care-giver.
  4. Should one type of relation be paradigmatic for all relationships? For instance, should the mother-child relationship be the model for employer-employee relationships or for police-criminal relationships?symbolSource: Invitation to Philosophy, Issues and Options, ninth edition