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Feminist Ethics

Feminist Ethics

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06/27/2012

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fate and fatalism
528
 Widerker, David. “Fatalism.”
Logique et analyse
119(1987): 229–34.
 John Martin Fischer 
feminist ethics
Feminist approaches to ethics, often known collec-tively as feminist ethics, are distinguished by an ex-plicit commitment to correcting male biases theyperceive in traditional ethics, biases that may bemanifest in rationalizations of women’s subordina-tion, or in disregard for, or disparagement of,women’s moral experience. Feminist ethics, by con-trast, begins from the convictions that the subordi-nation of women is morally wrong and that themoral experience of women is as worthy of respectas thatofmen.On thepracticallevel,then,thegoalsof feminist ethics are the following: first, to articu-latemoralcritiquesofactionsandpracticesthatper-petuate women’s subordination; second, to pre-scribe morally justifiable ways of resisting suchactionsand practices;and,third,toenvisionmorallydesirable alternatives that will promote women’semancipation. On the theoretical level, the goal of feminist ethics is to develop philosophical accountsof the nature of morality and of the central moralconcepts that treat women’s moral experience re-spectfully, though never uncritically.Just as feminist ethics may be identified by its ex-plicit commitment to challenging perceived malebias in ethics, so approaches that do not expresssuch a commitment may be characterized as non-feminist. Nonfeminist approaches to ethics are notnecessarily anti-feministormale-biased;theymayormay not be so.
The Development of ContemporaryFeminist Ethics
The history of Western philosophy includes anumber of isolated but indisputable instances of moral opposition to women’s subordination. Note-worthy examples are Mary W
OLLSTONECRAFT
’s(1759–1797)
 A VindicationoftheRightsofWoman
(1792), J
OHN
S
TUART
M
ILL
’s (1806–1873)
TheSubjection of Women
(1869), Frederick E
NGELS
(1820–1895)
The Origin of the Family, PrivatePropertyandtheState
(1884),andSimone
DE
B
EAU
-
VOIR
S
(1908–1986)
The Second Sex
(1949).In the late 1960s, however, as part of a generalresurgence of feminist activism, an unprecedentedexplosion of feminist ethical debate occurred, firstamong the general public, soon in academic dis-course.Actionsandpracticeswhosegendereddimen-sions hitherto had been either unnoticed or unchal-lenged now became foci of public and philosophicalattention, as feminists subjected them to outspokenmoral critique, developed sometimesdramaticstrat-egies for opposing them, and proposed alternativesthat nonfeminists often perceived as dangerouslyradical. First grassroots and soon academic feministperspectives were articulated on topics such as
ABORTION
, equality of opportunity, domestic labor,portrayals of women in the media, and a variety of issues concerning sexuality, such as
RAPE
and com-pulsory heterosexuality. By the 1980s, feministswere expressing ethical concern about
PORNOGRA
-
PHY
, reproductive technology, so-called surrogatemotherhood, militarism, the environment, and thesituation of women in developing nations.Despite the long history of feminist ethical de-bate, the term “feminist ethics” did not come intogeneral use until the late 1970s or early 1980s. Atthis time, a number of feminists began expressingdoubts about the possibility of fruitfully addressingso-called women’s issues in terms of the conceptualapparatus supplied by traditional ethical theory. Forinstance, some feminists alleged that a rights frame-work distorted discussions of abortion because itconstruedpregnancyandmotherhoodasadversarialsituations. Other feminists charged that certain as-sumptionswidelyacceptedbytraditionalethicalthe-orywereincompatiblewithwhatwasnowbeginningto be claimed as a distinctively feminine moral ex-perience or sensibility. S
OCIAL CONTRACT
theory,forinstance, was criticized for postulating a conceptionofhumanindividualsasbeingswhowerefree,equal,independent, and mutually disinterested, a concep-tion that some feminists claimed reflected an expe-rience and perspective that were characteristicallymasculine. Even
IMPARTIALITY
, usually taken as adefining feature of morality, became the object of feminist criticism insofar as it was alleged to gener-ate prescriptions counter to many women’s moralintuitions. Some feminists began to speculate thattraditional ethics was more deeply male-biased andneeded more fundamental rethinking than they hadrealized hitherto.Such reflection was fueledbythemuch-publicized
 
feminist ethics
529
work of developmental psychologist Carol Gilligan,whose 1982 book,
In a Different Voice: Psycholog-ical Theory and Women’s Development,
seemed todemonstrate empirically that the
MORAL DEVELOP
-
MENT
of women was significantlydifferentfromthatof men. Claiming that females tend to fear separa-tion or abandonment while males, by contrast, tendto perceive closeness as dangerous, Gilligan re-ported that girls and women often construe
MORALDILEMMAS
as conflicts of responsibilities ratherthanof 
RIGHTS
and seek to resolve those dilemmas inways that will repair and strengthen webs of rela-tionship.Furthermore,Gilligandescribedfemalesasless likely than males to make or justify moral deci-sions by the application of abstract
MORAL RULES
;instead, she claimed that girls and women weremore likely to act on their feelings of 
LOVE
andcom-passion for particular individuals. Gilligan con-cluded that whereas men typically adhere to a mo-rality of justice, whose primary values are
FAIRNESS
and
EQUALITY
, women often adhere to a morality of 
CARE
, whose primary values are inclusion and pro-tection from harm. For this reason, studies of moraldevelopment based exclusively on a morality of jus-ticedonotprovideanappropriatestandardformea-suring female moral development and may be saidto be male-biased.Many feminists seized on Gilligan’s work as of-fering evidence for the existence of a characteristi-cally feminine approach to morality, an approachassumed to providethe basisforadistinctivelyfemi-nist ethics.Forsome,indeed,feministethicsbecameand remained synonymous with an ethics of care.Justhowanethicsofcareshouldbedelineated,how-ever, was far from evident; nor was it clear whetheritshouldsupplementorsupplantanethicsofjustice.Since the 1980s, many feminists have exploredsuchquestions, even though the empiricalconnectionbe-tween women and carehasbeen challengedbysomepsychologists, who allege Gilligan’s samples to benonrepresentative, her methods of interpreting herdata suspect, and her claims impossible to substan-tiate, especially when the studies are controlled foroccupation and class.Regardless of empirical findings in
MORAL PSY
-
CHOLOGY
, debate continues over whether the fun-damental tenets of Western ethics aremalebiasedinsome sense: if not in the sense that they express amoral sensibility characteristic of men rather thanwomen, then perhaps in that they promote a cultur-ally masculine image of moral psychology, discour-age preoccupation with issues defined culturally asfeminine, or in other ways covertly advance men’sinterestsoverwomen’s.Sincefeminismisessentiallya normative stance, and since its meaning is contin-uallycontestedbyfeministsthemselves,allfeministsare constantly engaged in ethical reflection; in thissense, feminist ethics is practiced both inside andoutside the academy. Within the academy, its prac-titioners are scholars located mainly in the disci-plines of philosophy, religious studies, and jurispru-dence; they represent a variety of philosophicaltraditions, secular and religious, Anglo-Americanand continental European. In challenging perceivedmale bias in those traditions, feminist scholarsoftendraw extensively on feminist work in other disci-plines, such as literature, history, and
PSYCHOLOGY
.Scholarly work in feminist ethics often is also re-sponsive to the ethical reflections of nonacademicfeminists as these occur, for instance, in much femi-nist fiction and poetry. In addition, a considerablebody of nonfiction, written by nonacademicsanddi-rected towards a nonacademicaudience,presentsit-self as feminist ethics. Popular feminist books and journals frequently engage in ethical considerationofmoralor
PUBLICPOLICY
issuesandsometimesalsooffer more general discussions of supposedly “mas-culine” and “feminine” value systems.Much of the work in feminist ethics has beendone by white Western women, but this is slowlychanging. A fewmalephilosophersaredoingsignifi-cant work in feminist ethics, and people of coloraremaking increasing contributions, both within andoutside the discipline of philosophy, although theysometimeshesitatetoacceptthelabel“feminist,”be-cause of feminism’s racist history.
Feminist Criticisms of Western Ethics
Since most feminist ethics is done in a Westerncontext,itisWesternethics,particularly(thoughnotexclusively) the European Enlightenment tradition,that has been the most frequent target of feministcritique. The feministchallengestothistraditionmaybe grouped conveniently under five main headings.
 Lack of concern for women’s interests.
Many of the major theorists, such as A
RISTOTLE
(384–322
B
.
C
.
E
.) and R
OUSSEAU
(1712–1778), are accused of having given insufficient consideration to women’s
INTERESTS
, a lack of concern expressed theoretically
 
feminist ethics
530
by their prescribing for women allegedly femininevirtues such as obedience, silence, and faithfulness.Some feminists charge that many contemporaryeth-ical discussions continue the tendency to regardwomen as instrumental to male-dominated
INSTI
-
TUTIONS
, such as the
FAMILY
or the state; in debateson abortion, for instance, the pregnant woman maybe portrayed as little more than a container or en-vironment for the fetus, while much discussion of reproductive technology has assumed that infertilityis a problem only for heterosexual married women,
i.e.,
women defined in relationship to men.
Neglect of “women’s issues.”
Issues of specialconcern to women are said to have been ignored bymodern moral philosophers, who have tended toportray the domestic realm as an arena outside theeconomy and beyond justice, private in the sense of being beyond the scope of legitimate political regu-lation. Within the modern liberal tradition, the pub-lic domainisconceivedasproperlyregulatedbyuni-versal principles of right whereas the private is adomaininwhichvaryinggoodsmayproperlybepur-sued. Even philosophers like Aristotle or H
EGEL
(1770–1831), who give some ethical importance tothedomesticrealm,havetendedtoportraythehomeas an arena in which the most fully human excel-lences cannot be realized. Feminist philosophersbe-gan early to criticize this conceptual bifurcation of social life. They pointed out that the home was pre-cisely that realm to whichwomenhadbeenconfinedhistorically, and that it had become symbolically as-sociated with the feminine, despite the fact thatheads of households were paradigmatically male.They argued that the philosophical devaluation of the domestic realm made it impossible to raiseques-tions about the justice of the domestic division of labor,becauseitobscuredthefar-reachingsocialsig-nificance and creativity of women’s work in thehome,andconcealed,evenlegitimated,thedomesticabuse of women and girls.
Denial of women’s moral agency.
Women’smoral agency is said to have often been denied, notsimply by excluding women from moral debate orignoring their contributions,butthroughphilosoph-ical claims to the effect that women lack moral rea-son. Such claims were made originally by Aristotle,but they have been elaborated and refined by mod-ern theoristssuchasRousseau,K
ANT
(1724–1804),Hegel, and Freud (1856–1939).
Depreciation of “femininevalues.
Westernmoral theory is said to embody values thatare“mas-culine,”insofarastheyareculturallyassociatedwithmen. Such associations may be empirical, norma-tive, or symbolic. For instance, Western ethics is al-leged to prioritize the supposedly masculine valuesof independence, autonomy,intellect,will,wariness,hierarchy, domination, culture, transcendence, prod-uct, asceticism, war, and death over the supposedlyfeminine values of interdependence, community,connection,sharing,
EMOTION
,body,
TRUST
,absenceofhierarchy,nature,immanence,process,joy,peace,and life. Claims like this are common in both pop-ular and academic feminist writings on ethics.
Devaluation of women’s moral experience.
Fi-nally, some feminists also charge that prevailing Western conceptualizations of the nature of moral-ity, moral problems, and
MORAL REASONING
aremasculine insofar as they too are associated withmen, rather than women, in associations that againmay be empirical, symbolic, or normative. For in-stance, feminists have accused modernmoraltheoryof being excessively preoccupied with rules, ob-sessed with impartiality, and exclusivelyfocussedondiscrete deeds. In addition, feminists have chargedmodern moral theory with taking the contractastheparadigmatic moral relation and construing moralrationality so narrowly as to exclude emotions of as-sessment, sometimes called moral emotions. Allthese characteristics have been asserted to be mas-culine in some sense. A feminine (not feminist) ap-proach to ethics, by contrast, has been supposed toavoid assuming that individuals ordinarily are free,equal, and independent; to take more account ofthespecificities of particular contexts; and to be morelikely to resolve moral dilemmas by relying on em-pathic feeling rather than by appealing to rules.Not all feminists endorse all of the above clustersof criticisms—and even where they agree with thegeneral statement, they may well disagree over itsapplicability in the case of specific philosophers ordebates. Despite differences of relative detail, femi-nists tend generally to agree on the first three clus-ters of criticisms, whose correction seems not onlyattainable in principle within the framework of En-lightenment moral theory but even to be requiredbythat framework. However, they disagree sharply onthelasttwoclustersofcriticisms,especiallythefifth,which obviously contains clear parallelswithanum-ber of nonfeminist criticisms ofEnlightenmentethicsmade by proponents of, for example,
SITUATION

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