A Proposalfor Continuing Discussion
Eleanor Humes Haney

For nearly two thousand years what has been called the Judeo-Christian ethic has been developing. What is becoming increasingly clear to feminists is that much of that ethic represents only a part of Christian and human reality-that of men, called to an ideal of celibacy, men largely in positions of status and dominance within the church and who, however critical they may have been within the church and who, however critical they may have been of their society, nevertheless were an intrinsic part of it. Little of the ethics held significant by the church and by divinity schools has been written by women, by non-whites, by the poor, and by those whose expressed sexual orientations deviated from a heterosexual and marital one. Those of us aware of the parochialism of the past and its arrogance in claiming universality can neither continue to "do" ethics as it has been done nor take seriously the questions it deals with. It does not matter, because the debate is not informed by the insights and experience of the majority of people in and often now outside that tradition. Neither what is "natural" nor what is "revealed" is necessarily the same for those in a subordinate position in a society as it is for those in a position of dominance. Until, therefore, we have redefined what is indeed natural and what is revealed, until we have drawn on the insights and experience of all of us for articulating our theological and ethical bases, many of the traditional questions are irrelevant. It does not matter, also-and even more importantly-because of immoralities that are a part of that tradition. 1 Claiming to speak about human nature and revelation and God, when that speech is not informed by the realities of life for all, is immoral. Accepting the oppressive consequences of so much of that speech is also immoral. Women, gay people, minorities, and the earth itself have suffered in part because of the theology and ethics the church has articulated and lived. And as some of us have been denied our humanity and the earth its



What Is Feminist Ethics?


integrity, so others-those who have been the articulators-also bear scars. There has been so much wounding and scarring in the name of a gospel of alleged liberation that the gospel itself is scarred. The more aware many of us become of the injustices, oppression and dehumanization that have attended traditional "ethics," therefore, the more that past must be called into question. Women's experiences are not mere addenda to theological and ethical reflection, but critiques of all other reflection. We cannot simply "do" ostensible liberation theology, for instance, and extend it to women. It simply is not liberating if it is done by men only and if it is not profoundly informed by feminist perception and values. Nor can we simply return to biblical or Lutheran or Thomistic sources and seek to "make them come out right" with respect to women. For women to go back to some starting point in the past or to some already defined authority is to do little more than think men's thoughts after them. In this respect, Mary Daly was right when she was reported to have exclaimed, "Who the hell cares what Paul thought!" Such an awareness is exciting, sometimes frightening, but more and more compelling. It is difficult still for many of us to take seriously our own experiences and insights, difficult not to believe deep down that we are wrong or that we are not qualified to challenge two thousand years of apparent wisdom, indeed "inspiration." But then we recall that that "inspired wisdom" is of far less than half of the people in the church, we recall the less than inspired consequences of it for those who are "other," and we know that we must speak, that we must be faithful to the vision that is emerging and developing in our lives; we can, indeed do no other.

A feminist ethics seeks to articulate and make real that vision; it is thus rooted in specific communities of women and men faithful to one another, to a new and powerful awareness of what it means to be human, and to the struggle to realize that awareness. In kitchens and women centers, in all the institutions of the country, women and some men are "putting off' more traditional ways of being women and men and exploring alternatives, seeking more humane ways. This twofold context of feminist ethics-vision and present communitymeans that "doing" ethics involves being a part of the envisioning and struggling. The ethic very much emerges out of the concrete, sometimes painful, often joyous activity on the part of individuals and groups both to embody that vision and to create it in and through concrete decision and action. The material for feminist ethics at this point in its history is not primarily a body of concepts or a philosophy, but the experiences and stories about and by women. Biography, autobiography-including the ethicist's-fiction, poetry and oral history are the data of feminist ethics. If vision is the warp of feminist ethics, the lives of women are its woof. 2

REDEFINING THE GOOD Something new is breaking into our lives, and we call that newness good. Although we can be grateful for intimations of the good in other communities, religious and secular, and for consistencies between the good as discerned elsewhere and as discussed in feminist community, our discernment of the good is intrinsic to this community. By attending to patterns emerging in our lives and to a creative exploration of alternatives, we discover what is good: We removed fifty brass screws stripped canvas to skeleton canoe and laid the gunnels down like long thin modern s's. We scraped away the painted years green, white, and battle grey until we got down eventually to brass tacks and two women rebuilding from raw wood a slim-skinned, silent boat that puts upon the waters nothing but its weight. (Hazlewood-Brady, 1972) The good, then, in some sense is there, even if we have to remove screws, strip canvas, and scrape paint. And as we perceive it, it compels our allegiance. It fits, and on its basis a new, "slim-skinned, silent boat" can be built. The good we discern is a common good, not simply the private good of an

A FEMINIST CONTEXT FOR ETHICAL ACTION AND REFLECTION To be faithful to the vision emerging and developing in lives of many women and men is a key, perhaps the key, to understanding feminist ethics. Feminist ethics is not only a matter of supporting economic justice by and for women, for instance, or for eliminating sex-role stereotyping. These are essential, and a feminist ethic includes them; but they are included in a larger context-that of fidelity to a vision emerging and developing in our lives. The vision is one of a new community, indeed of a new heaven and earth. It is a vision of women in all areas of life, in the legislatures and parliaments of the world as well as in the homes, villages, and cities of the earth, sharing with men and perhaps children all the opportunities, responsibilities and privileges of citizenship. It is, at the same time, a vision of a transformation of the way women and men relate to each other and to the earth. It is a vision of a transformation of leadership, of power, and of the criteria by which decisions are made. Feminist vision, and thus feminism, is a values-a moral-revolution.



What Is Feminis t Ethics?


individu al or a group, not even of women . It is not the whole good; that requires the contrib utions and insights of children and men, of the poor and the aged, of dolphin s and cats, perhaps of plants and rocks, and beneath and beyond all of these the matrix of being-p hysical and spiritu al-out of which we come. Neverth eless, the good that we discove r is central to an articula tion of what is good for all, and how we should live togethe r. The good that emerges can be describ ed with the paradig ms of nurture and friendsh ip. That is good which nurture s us, all of us. More specific ally, that is good which makes us, human beings, more humane towards ourselve s and one another ; at the same time, althoug h humane ness is a central norm it is not the only overarc hing one because it would then perpetu ate a hierarch ical percept ion of humani ty in relation to the rest of being. The rest of the world need not and ought not to exist fOr us; their value ought not to be primari ly utilitari an. We are to nurture one another . The second paradig m, friendsh ip, points us in that directio n. We are able to be friends with one another , and the earth, and all that is and can be. Friends hip, in other words, helps us to rememb er that our good must fit in signific ant ways with the good of the rest of being. To make nurture central to a feminis t ethic is to make central those values and tasks that have traditio nally been relegate d to women (and indeed to the church) and have corresp ondingl y in fact been devalue d in the public realm as inappro priate, unrealis tic, and unmasc uline. 3 To make nurture central, then, is to restore those values and tasks to their rightful place and to offer them as valid human activitie s and attitude s toward others, particul arly men. We are saying, among other things, "Damn it, you can stop worryin g about proving your manhoo d, defendi ng your honor, consoli dating your power, demons trating your scholar ship by dispass ionate- and cold-ra tional analysis! You can nurture yoursel f and others -feed your own spirit and body and offer yoursel f for the nurture of others." To make friendsh ip central is both to transfor m the power relation s that most often hold between individu als, groups, and people and the earth, and to be a particip ant in that transfor mation. Friends hip is a relation of mutuali ty, respect, fidelity, confide nce, and affectio n. It is impossi ble in, and therefor e a rejectio n of, most compet itive patterns , adversa rial patterns , exploiti ve patterns , authori tarian patterns , and paterna listic patterns of relating . To begin to make friendsh ip a reality is to begin acting as a friend. That is, to demons trate in one's speech and behavio r that one is not superio r or inferior and that one will no longer counten ance being related to in those ways.

The paradig ms of friendsh ip and nurture , therefor e, enable and require serious and sustaine d collecti ve social action. Far from being privatis tic concept s,

paradig ms of interper sonal life withdra wn from the ambigu ities and comple xities of public existenc e, they plunge us into the midst of ongoing corpora te existenc e, challen ging at every point what is happen ing and offering , at every point, alternat ives. The paradig ms enable and require concret e action for the liberati on of all oppress ed people and of the earth. They require action by the oppress ed themsel ves and by those in position s of advocac y for the oppress ed. At their heart, they require concret e action by and for women . Women 's oppress ion historic ally has precede d the oppress ion of others and has been used as a way of concept ualizing and justifyi ng the oppress ion of others. Withou t attendin g to that oppress ion and making the connec tions between the oppress ion of women and others and between sexism and violenc e, poverty and imperia lism, we will not respond adequat ely to the oppress ion of any. At the same time, the paradig ms of friendsh ip and nurture enable and require that we be fully aware of and attentiv e to the indivisi bility of all oppress ion and of all human and natural rights. We do not have to waste energy or time in trying to claim that one form is worse or more importa nt to overcom e than another , and we can be appreci ative of all who are commi tted to the liberati on of any oppress ed group. Neverth eless, as feminis ts, our primary respons ibility is the liberati on of and by women , liberati on from an ethos that corrupt s our hearts and minds, from the religiou s and philoso phical constru cts that suppor t and reflect that ethos, and from the concret e institut ional and physica l express ions of that ethos. The specific agendas of liberati on will appropr iately vary around the world, and we can suppor t as well as critique one another 's agendas . Loyalty to one another and to all that is, demand s no less. As we work on our agendas , it is importa nt to remind ourselve s that commi tment to friendsh ip and nurture commit s us to address both concret e human imperat ives of food, clothing , and shelter and also intrinsi cally takes us beyond survival to willing actively the well-be ing of all. Such an ethic commit s us, for instance , not only to a goal of adequa te income for women as well as others, but also to one of work or another source of income that is not "too petty for the human spirit," to use Studs Terkel' s phrase. In the process oflibera tion, we are constan tly seeking and experim enting with persona l and institut ional changes and explori ng alternat ive goals and plans that might be more consiste nt with these paradig ms than the status quo is. We do not necessa rily agree on which alternat ives are more consiste nt, and there are no doubt others that we have yet to think of. We do insist, howeve r, that how we go about change is as importa nt as seeking the changes we want. The means not only shape the ends-t hey may be more importa nt than the ends, and whateve r the specific action we may take, there are two fundam ental criteria that guide our decision s about what action is appropr iate. They are (a) that they must be consiste nt with our integrit y and (b) that they open up alternat ives. What we do



What Is Feminist Ethics?


should demonstrate what we value and who we are. In order to do that, we may-and probably often do-have to bring conflicting values out into the open. Perhaps only then can alternatives be genuinely explored and new possibilities emerge. As the exasperated minister said to one of his "uppity" parishioners, "Elaine, why can't you be more ladylike?" She replied, "Well, I try. I've borne nine children, and I'm a good cook." She is right. The world needs people who are willing to act on a different set of values. The world needs friends more than it needs ladies. To act, to take the initiative, however much the knees may be trembling and the heart pounding, to act courageously and confidently has been considered a masculine characteristic, and not a feminine one-certainly not one appropriate for ladies. To nurture has been considered one-to mother, to serve, to care for. Feminism brings those together. The good that feminists seek is one which acknowledges the potential goodness in many of those characteristics considered feminine and masculine, but is a good which transcends their goodness either individually or in combination, and it is a good for all, not only for women and children. Feminist ethics brings other characteristics together also and transcends them. For instance, there are features of autonomy that are necessary if people are to be friends and nourish our lives, but there is much about that concept that isolates us and commends an illusory sense of self-sufficiency. Dependency and relatedness also have qualities that are valuable and qualities that are destructive. In the effort to name that way of being that is both independent and responsible and yet related and interdependent, I and some other feminists use the term centering. That seems to come closest to describing a way of being that is neither autonomous nor dependent nor, somehow, both, but a finding and living out of the still point, the axis the center of one's own life. The centering selflives on her own terms, out of her own roots, in tune with the reasons of her heart and head, competent and capable of shaping, in concert with others, our individual and corporate lives with all the resources we have gathered through the centuries. A centering woman can and does take the hand of other women, not along the edges of one's life but as a stance toward the world. In doing so, in an androcentric world, she becomes a revolutionary. There are others, of course, some of which we hardly have words for. My use of centering is illustrative, not inclusive; and my point is that feminist community is and must be a norm-creating community. The virtues and principles do not come to us often as legacies of the past. We must both create them and discover them. Even those principles from the past-principles oflove, justice and mercy, for instance-to some extent must be redefined or held as suspect about how they are valid or ethical. When people who have had generations of privileged treatment can cry "reverse discrimination" when asked simply to share some of that privilege, one does become suspicious about the use of the principle of

justice and, whether we like it or not, use-to a very large extent-shapes, if not determines, meaning. The paradigms of friendship and nurture, then, help us to hold together what toO often have been split asunder-being and doing, the personal and the political, means and ends. Only in holding them tightly together does the moral life have significance and power. When they become separated, the moral life short-circuits: action becomes ineffective or a denial of fundamental human values, actors become discouraged or cynical, and (to change the metaphor) the moral life skids between privatization and prudential pragmatism.

PRINCIPLES AND RULES IN FEMINIST ETHICS As we learn to hold together the various components of moral life and action, we are able to see the significance of imperatives and rules to inform action and our own becoming. The iconoclasm in feminist action is directed at actions and rules that are destructive of human and natural well-being; this does not mean either that feminist ethics is a do-your-own-thing ethic or that, somehow, in each situation that calls for decisions we can intuit the good or the right thing to do. Rules and relatively concrete principles are necessary both for guiding decisions and calling us to action, to our doing what we have to do whether we feel like it or not. Honesty, for instance, is central to a feminist ethic. And by honesty, I mean both telling the truth (reporting accurately) and integrity (living in such a way that there is consistency between what one says one values and believes, and what one does). Perhaps only by being honest can we begin to cut through the habits of generations of equivocations, "dealing," hypocrisy, and the hiatus between being "moral" and being "realistic." A second principle in feminist ethics is respect for nurturing life in whatever form it appears. Whether fetal life, the life of a friend, one's own life, the life of one whose intentions and desires contradict one's own, or the life of a cow, it is worthy of respect and nurture. This does not mean that there are no occasions when life can and perhaps should be terminated, but it does mean that our present policy of allegedly striving for peace while preparing for war, no matter how discriminate the weapons may be, reflects the profound lack of real commitment to respect for and nurture of life. When we as a country have made a commitment to respect for life that is reflected in the way we deal with conflict and in our economic and social policies, when we have taken significant steps to transform the power realities that presently exist among the peoples and nations of the world, and indeed in the very definition and service of power, then we can begin to explore under what circumstances, if any, life can and should be terminated and indeed what kind of legislation might be appropriate for that.




What Is Feminist Ethics?


Such rules and principles, however, do not exist in a vacuum. They exist as part of the fabric of an ethos which can either be destructive or nurturing of human and non-human well-being. The feminist task is to wrench these rules and principles from their destructive context. This means, for instance, that respect for life becomes first of all an "unmasking" of the profound lack of respect for life in this country. Since much of the approach to conflict resolution to women, to the poor, to children, to minorities, does not reflect a commitment to life, much less the quality of life, we will not allow that it be then used to reinforce the powerlessness of women. We will not allow its continuing to play a part in forcing women to pay the price of the way in which this ethos institutionalizes sexual violence and treating one another as objects to be used, and then denies us healthy and positive support for rearing the children that, still, inevitably do come. Such rules and principles, therefore, when put in a different context, may well lead to a new set of commandments or a new list of imperatives that we must act upon. For the sake of human beings and the welfare of all, we can do no less.

Feminist ethics is not an extension of Christian ethics or Marxist ethics or some other shape of ethical reflection. The kinds of connections that can occur between feminist ethics and one or more of these others need much more analysis than I can engage in here. It seems clear that connections can and ought to be made; feminists can find some resources and do find problems in other traditions. Briefly, however, I wish to conclude this essay by suggesting that a feminist ethic is first of all appropriately related to traditional Christian ethics, as a critique and an alternative. The concept of centering, for instance, is on the one hand a critique of, and indeed a contradiction to, the emphasis on self-sacrifice and centering in God characteristic of Christian ethics because it places the self in a position of importance and authority. From that perspective, centering in one's self smacks of egotism, greed, and all the ills the flesh is heir to. Yet, on the other hand, self-centering is precisely that movement of one's personal existence that brings women into an at-homeness with the universe. It is one pole of a graceful relationship with all that is, it is one extremely important step in a process of coming into congruence with others, of becoming whole. As such, then, it illuminates alternative ways for conceptualizing our relation with what we have traditionally called God, in a non-hierarchical and interdependent fashion. But just as it offers alternatives, a feminist perspective on Christian ethics can, secondly, help us uncover and indeed enrich themes in the latter tradition. Although the model for human excellence is not given once and for all in the

past, dimensions of Jesus Christ's teaching and life are consistent with and enrich a feminist ethic. I think it is overstating the case to call Christ a feminist, as Leonard Swidler does, since sexism was hardly an issue then, so far as we know. What Christ did was to redefine God for his time, and his relationships with women seem consistent with that redefinition of God. He sought to eliminate a separatist and adversarial view of God and to replace that with a gracious and graceful view that freed people to become friends with Romans and Samaritans and even to begin to interact with one another as women and men. In Christ's redefinition, God was not the Holy One who demanded exclusion and purity, so much as the Gracious One, the One with Whom the self could be on intimate terms. The moral significance of Christ for us, then, lies in his re-interpretation of God, a redefinition that I think Paul was largely faithful to as he sought to make connections between that view of God and the social, religious, and political fabric of Hellenistic life. Nevertheless, that redefinition remains limited, and necessarily so, until it is informed by and then transformed by the experiences and vision of women. In an ironic way the moral significance of Christ also lies in his Crucifixion. Loyalty to God brought him death-in part, perhaps in large part, because the values that loyalty reflected were feminine (i.e.) nurturing and serving the needs and well-being of the neighbor), values associated with responsibilities of subordinates. In the patriarchy of first-century Judaism, that had to be terribly threatening. The Crucifixion, in other words, helps to reinforce what we already know-that the feminine is both devalued and that it is necessary to human well-being. The continuing resistance to feminist presence in the church remains, then, a cruel and ironic paradox. A concept in the tradition that I find particularly rich for feminist thought is that of grace, even as it, too, needs a combination of redefinition and recovering oflost dimension. Grace is not so much forgiveness, although it can include that; nor is it a rescue operation by God for us helpless victims. Rather, it is the twofold reality of being at-home-in-the-universe and of living freelygraciously, gracefully. It is the reality of being a host as well as a guest, a resident as well as a stranger and pilgrim. It is the experience of moving through one's life and the world with ease and authority, rather than with timidity or aggression. As feminists, therefore, we are open to and responsive to that which nurtures and enriches our lives and that which is consistent with our experiences in the past as well as in the present and future. Further, openness to the past reminds us that as its perspective was relative, so ours is also. In religious language, we may indeed reflect a Second Coming, but we do not yet reflect the Final Coming. There are further strands and themes in the past, including very much the sectarian past and also the heretical past, consistent with feminist insights and concerns; and we can be open to any or all of those. There are indeed strands, stories, and themes in the other religious traditions of the world, particularly in



those Israel sought to subdue. Whatever continuing or enduring truth that any of this-our story-has, rests finally on the extent to which it can and does facilitate justice and the well-being ofwomen, men, and the rest of being. And to facilitate justice and well-being, it must help us to integrate means and ends, person and society, character and deed as they have seldom been in the past. We simply can no longer afford to compartmentalize our lives with different criteria, policies, and virtues for each area. In conclusion, feminism offers us hope (perhaps historically, our last hope) that we can move away from fundamentally life-denying values, principles, and policies to life-giving ones. Indeed, humanity literally yearns for what feminism intends. It offers us individually and collectively the possibility of making connections with ourselves, one another, the earth, and all that is and can be. It offers us the possibility, thus, of making connections with the rhythms and powers of life. Feminist ethics, finally, is fidelity to being. At the same time, fidelity to being does not mean acceptance of the status quo, much less compliance with it. Such fidelity may well make of us a troublemaker, an outcast, a martyr, by the definitions of others. It does make us angry, but our anger is generative, not destructive anger. At the same time, in making connections, we are empowered to transform the status quo as we move across the land with authority and ease, with integrity and guilelessness. And no force on the face of the earth can stop us.



1. Whether these immoralities are an inherent part of Christian ethics remains to be seen. Certainly there is and has been a continuing source of power and life that can serve to correct injustices as they are recognized. Hope for the ongoing vitality of the tradition lies in part, at least, in this source. 2. In this effort to describe feminist ethics, I am drawing on my own experiences and struggles, those shared by many others through reading and discussions and in particular what Wilma Scott Heide, for many years an activist in human rights and responsibilities from a feminist perspective, has done and has discussed with other women and men. 3. To find an ethical resource in women's experiences, perceptions, and responsibilities is not to assume that the values in that resource are an intrinsic part of women's nature as distinct from men's. I am not operating with a theory of two natures but with the reality of a pluralistic ethos.

Hazelwood-Brady, Anne 1972 "Bonded," Unwritten Testament. Camden: Camden Herald Publishing Company.

The diversity among feminist perspectives is reflected in the diversity of feminist ethical theories. A major indicator of this diversity is the way feminists answer the question, who is accountable to feminist ethics? The seat of accountability rests in some of the following areas: to women solely, according to radical feminists; to families and schools, for sex-role theorists; to the working class, according to Marxist-Leninist feminists; to all women and the working class, for socialist-feminists. Considering these responses, this paper takes the position that feminists are making claims on social structures and aggregates of peoplegovernment, child-care systems, families, schools, churches, and the corporate sphere. In this light, feminist ethics are social ethics, and can guide our reflection with the tools and questions which pertain to the discipline of social ethics. On the other side, social ethics is a discipline still in the forge, in process, with some of its outlines yet to be shaped. Developments in feminist ethical theory provide the basis for a contribution to the formation of social ethics: a vision of the breadth of scope that the discipline must encompass. Without a scope broad enough to include, among other things, the task of analyzing the roots of women's oppression, our ethical reflection is subject to a major difficulty, to fail to account for the systemic quality of the grounds for women's complaints and claims. Secondarily, without recognizing the importance of that analysis to feminist ethics, we will miss understanding a major reason why feminists take such diverse and even conflicting normative stances, ranging from separatism to institutional reformism to commitment to socialist revolution. Yet the analysis of women's oppression is only one aspect of feminist ethics, as the analysis of the root of any situation is only one aspect of social ethics in general. Several factors constitute ethical theories, and ethicists, including feminist ethicists, may differ along any or all of these factors, thus expressing

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful