Feminist Ethics

views updated


Feminist ethics is a diverse and growing body of philosophical work, initially based in the recognition that most canonical accounts of morality neglected, distorted, and/or trivialized women's moral perspectives while either ignoring or defending unjust power imbalances between women and men. Feminist ethicists have largely agreed that women's invisibility in canonical ethical theorieseven leaving aside the overtly misogynist statements that also litter the traditionis not only morally objectionable in and of itself, but also profoundly distorts many of the arguments and conclusions therein. Perhaps the most nearly unanimous claim of feminist ethicists has been that what passes for a human ideal in much of mainstream philosophical ethics is in fact a male or masculine idealand that such bias leads us into error not simply about women, but about morality itself.

In general, feminist ethicists suspect that, in ethical theory as in other disciplines of thought and research, what has been portrayed as the human experience is in fact (at least in significant part) the distillation of a very specific experiencenamely, that of highly privileged white men who relied on the exploited labor of others (typically men and women of lower economic classes and/or of despised ethnicities, as well as women of their own class and ethnicity) to enable them to pursue higher inquiry. These relationships of unjust privilege and group-based oppression, although they need not characterize human experience, in fact have done so throughout the period of time (including the present) during which Western moral philosophers have developed and refined their theories. These oppressive conditions shape people's moral beliefs, values, priorities, and characters at deep levels.

The task of feminist ethicists is to try to correct for existing biases in moral theory while also developing new theories, concepts, and strategies that will forge a path away from oppression and toward more just and humane social relationships. Bringing a feminist perspective to moral philosophy has included critiquing and reinterpreting both canonical male authors (such as Immanuel Kant, Plato, Friedrich Nietzsche, Aristotle, and David Hume) as well as reclaiming underappreciated female and/or feminist foremothers (including Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, and Simone de Beauvoir). An early emphasis on criticizing sexist biases in traditional moral theories has given way to the formulation of new theories which, though their degree of engagement and continuity with canonical theories varies widely, all share an understanding of both gender oppression and women's perspectives as fundamental to human experience.

For feminist ethicists, where one stands in a social world pervasively structured by oppression always matters in understanding and evaluating one's moral beliefs and responsibilities. Such analysis is rendered more complex by the fact that gender is only one of many bases for oppression and privilege. Many feminist ethicists (again, like feminists in other disciplines) have devoted significant attention to the intersections among different forms of oppression, including but not limited to oppression on the basis of race, of economic class, of age, of physical and mental ability, and of sexual orientation. A central question for feminist ethicists is how one's positions within these and other oppressive systemsespecially the kinds and degrees of power, authority, privilege, and entitlement that these positions afford one in various particular contextsshape both one's moral character and one's moral responsibilities. This focus on power relationships and on their effects on moral life means that the boundary between feminist ethics and feminist social and political philosophy is often a fluid one.

Care, Relationship, and Women's Labor

One vital step toward remedying any masculinist bias in moral theory is to investigate and understand women's points of view. The research of educational psychologist Carol Gilligan (1982) was an important early inspiration for feminist ethicists' efforts to take seriously and learn from women's moral perception and reasoning. Based on her research interviewing males and females about moral dilemmas (both real and imagined), Gilligan argued that there are two distinct moral perspectives (or "voices") loosely associated with men and women respectively.

The justice perspective begins with a conception of persons as separate individuals who need moral rules to govern their interactions with each other, and in particular to safeguard a realm of autonomy within which each individual may act and make decisions without undue interference from others. Moral decision making is most centrally a matter of impartially adjudicating conflicts between individual rights and interests, and of seeing to it that one's actions conform to certain universal rules of conduct. According to Gilligan, the justice perspective is more prominent in the moral voices of males than in those of females.

The care perspective, in contrast, begins with a conception of persons as embedded in social relationships in which they bear different and sometimes conflicting responsibilities to one another. Here, the priority is on creating and preserving connections and on avoiding and ending suffering. One's primary responsibility is to respond to the needs of individuals located in concrete, particular situations, often by strengthening the relationships that support those individuals. Gilligan found that the care perspective is expressed most prominently and most frequently by women and girls, and urged that theorists pay due attention and respect to this perspective, rather than seeing it as an inferior and immature form of moral reasoning.

Since the 1990s, an early tendency to identify feminist ethics with care ethics has receded as feminist ethics itself grows more diverse and wide-ranging. Nonetheless, some of the themes that Gilligan highlighted continue to occupy a central place in the thinking of many feminist ethicists. One such theme is what is sometimes called a relational conception of the person. Annette Baier (1985) usefully captures this concept by describing persons as essentially "second persons"; that is, beings whose subjectivities are formed and maintained in and through connections with others. Feminist ethicists typically focus on persons as participants in relationships both public and intimate, as inhabitants and co-constructors of social roles and identities. Many have sought to reconceive and expand vital moral concepts such as autonomy, rights, respect, responsibility, and equality in ways that centrally incorporate such a relational understanding of persons.

When theorizing begins with a vision of persons as inextricably located in and shaped by relationships, the fact that many of those relationships are oppressive ones naturally comes to play an important role in the theorizing. Feminist ethicists have emphasized not only how people ought ideally to behave, but also the personal, social, and political conditions that would enable people to develop their characters and behave responsiblyand in particular, to how relations of oppression can cripple and distort the moral capacities of persons (both those who suffer from oppression and those who benefit from it). Identifying and possibly repairing the moral damage of oppression has been an important theme in feminist ethics; in such work, a key challenge is always to distinguish the important (and often neglected) values and insights of oppressed people from the moral damage of oppression itself.

The centrality of relationship, the importance of valuing women's perspectives, and the question of oppression's moral damage all converge in feminist ethicists' discussions of the labor that has most centrally characterized women's experience over the centuries. This might be called the work of relationship itselfof caring and nurturance, of tending to others' intimate emotional and physical needs (including for love, food, cleanliness, clothing, and the like) both inside the home as wives and mothers and outside of the home in professions such as nursing and teaching. Thus, in feminist ethics, due respect for the role of emotion in moral reasoning has been supplemented by attention to emotional labor: its importance to human well-being, its invisibility in some received ethical theories, and its disproportionate and often exploitative allocation to women (Bartky 1990, Calhoun 1992).

Sara Ruddick's influential Maternal Thinking (1989) attempted to reclaim the work of mothers as involving particular forms of moral reasoning that are vital not only to the work of raising children, but to efforts to create and sustain a just and livable world. Virginia Held argued in Feminist Morality (1993) that the relationship between mother (or "mothering person") and childrather than contractual relations or market transactionsshould be considered the central or paradigmatic human experience and the basis for a feminist account of morality. While other feminists have been more wary of taking mothering either as paradigmatic of women's experience or as a model for morality itself, most feminist ethicists grant that having primary responsibility for the intimate care and nurturing of children seems likely to shape women's moral perspectives in deep and pervasive ways that are worthy of philosophical attention.

Peta Bowden (1997) argues against attempts to formulate universal principles to govern caring. Instead, care must be understood and elaborated through detailed attention to examples; she discusses motherhood, nursing, friendship, and citizenship as substantively different caring practices. In contrast to the canon's highly idealized emphasis on relations among persons considered as equal in freedom and power, another area of feminist analysis in care-based ethics is the dependencies that accompany certain stages and conditions of life, including childhood, illness, old age, and various physical and mental disabilities. Feminist discussions of such dependencies (such as that of Kittay 1999) focus attention on the ineluctable facts of human vulnerability and interdependence, as well as on inequalities both between caregivers (or "dependency workers") and those for whom they care, and between caregivers and non-caregivers in various communities.

Feminist ethicists have also drawn on women's experiences challenging, or at least moving outside of, traditional feminine roles as nurturers of children and men. Important forms of ethical insight and practice emerge from alternative or resistant female lives, particularly from the bonding of women with each other in friendship (Friedman 1993) and/or love (Card 1995, Calhoun 2002) and from feminist networks and communities. Work in this vein tends to ask what values, virtues, and capacities are necessary for women to maintain their own well-being under patriarchy as well as to challenge and resist oppressive structures. While Marilyn Frye (1983, 1992) would likely resist a characterization of her work as part of ethics, her work on vital concepts such as arrogance, loving perception, whiteness and racism, oppression, humanism, and lesbianism has been enormously influential for many who are working to articulate resistant feminist moral values and practices.

Issues, Concepts, and Methodologies

Feminist ethicists have extensively discussed concrete normative issues that are clearly gender-related: abortion, rape and sexual consent, sexual harassment, marriage, pornography and hate speech, prostitution, surrogate or contracted motherhood, reproductive technologies, homophobia and heterosexism, domestic labor and intrafamilial justice, and welfare policy, to name only a few. These discussions have often focused not only on whether or not the practice in question is morally legitimate but alsofor instance, in the case of rape and other forms of misogynist violenceon exposing its role in maintaining women's political subordination and in forming women's and men's moral subjectivities. They have also brought a feminist perspective to bear on other concepts and attitudes that are less obviously gender-related, but for which an understanding of gender and power is illuminating. These include gratitude (Card 1996), shame (Bartky 1990), trust (Baier 1994), paternalism (Sherwin 1992), self-respect (Dillon 1997), guilt (Bartky 2002), and evil (Card 2002).

The feminist ethics lexicon also includes novel concepts developed specifically as part of the project of analyzing and finding ways to move beyond oppression and privilegefor example, María Lugones's (1987) concept of "world-traveling," which she recommends to feminists and others who seek to replace arrogance with love, identification, and loyalty in their relations to women who occupy different social "worlds." Finally, feminist ethicists have developed ambitious new conceptions of morality's nature, purposes, and sources of authority, such as Margaret Urban Walker's (1998) "expressive-collaborative" model of morality (as distinct from the "theoretical-juridical" model that she thinks more typical of mainstream moral theory).

Whatever the specific topic at hand, certain methodological approaches and themes cut across much of what goes under the rubric of feminist ethics. Feminist ethics is typically characterized by a resistance to excessive idealizing in moral theory, especially to idealizing that obscures the pervasive relationships of dependence and of unequal freedom and power that moral life calls upon us to navigate responsibly. As Claudia Card puts it, feminist ethics generally errs on the side of "peeling back rather than donning veils of ignorance" (1991, p. 25). Relatedly, many (though certainly not all) feminist ethicists are wary of attempts to formulate universal and highly articulable rules or principles in ethical theory, tending instead to draw more limited conclusions based on detailed analyses of particular socially located experiences. Particularly since the 1990s, feminist ethics has developed a fairly consistent focus on the practices of morality, on how moral concepts are actually used and deployed in various contexts: what we do with rights, how we take and assign responsibility, for what and to whom we hold ourselves and others accountable.

Not surprisingly, then, many feminist ethicists emphasize the necessity of ongoing real (rather than hypothetical or idealized) conversation and dialogue as important to revealing, justifying, and/or challenging people's moral practices and agreements. What matters is not only what is said, but who is thought to be entitled to say it: As Margaret Urban Walker puts it, "Feminist ethics pursues questions about authority, credibility, and representation in moral life and in the practice of moral theorizing itself" (1998, p. 54).

Some longstanding themes in feminist ethics continue to be refined and taken in new directions. Some feminist ethicists, like Joan Tronto (1993), have continued to develop and refine a care-based approach. In Moral Boundaries, Tronto urges that we renegotiate the boundary between morality and politics and endorse care not as a form of "women's morality," but rather as a political virtue that can aid in redistributing power and transforming the public sphere. Several themesa relational conception of persons, the need to repair oppression's moral damage and to articulate practical modes of resistancecombine in Hilde Lindemann Nelson's (2001) discussion of identities as narratively constructed. Nelson argues for the importance of oppressed people developing "counterstories" that can resist and ultimately replace the damaging and undermining stories told about them by dominant groups. Such "narrative repair" is especially vital, in Nelson's view, because who one takes oneself to be, and who others take one to be, affects how freely one can act. Perhaps reflecting the maturation of the field itself, as well as its longstanding focus on persons as embodied beings proceeding through a life cycle, some feminist ethicists (Walker 1999, Bartky 2002) have turned their attention to agingparticularly to the strengths, natural and humanly arranged vulnerabilities, and specific forms of inequality that confront elderly women.

Finally, a global focus in feminist ethics, already well underway in the work of such feminists as Uma Narayan (1997) and Martha Nussbaum (2000), also finds expression in Alison Jaggar's (1998) attempt to enlarge the possibilities for egalitarian and inclusive global feminist dialogue. In discussing the challenges facing feminists who would respectfully communicate and cooperate with each other across vast global divisions of power, resources, and accorded authority, Jaggar exemplifies and develops several ongoing themes in feminist ethics. Among these are a suspicion of idealization (in Jaggar's case, of "romanticizing discursive utopias"), a corrective emphasis on actual dialogue and on questions of authority and silencing therein, and a relentless attention to the effects of power dynamics on women variously located in multiple matrices of domination.

See also Applied Ethics; Aristotle; Baier, Annette; Beauvoir, Simone de; Ethics; Feminist Legal Theory; Feminist Philosophy; Feminist Social and Political Philosophy; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Murdoch, Iris; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Nussbaum, Martha; Plato; Weil, Simone.


Baier, Annette. Moral Prejudices. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Baier, Annette. Postures of the Mind. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Bartky, Sandra. Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Bartky, Sandra. Sympathy and Solidarity and Other Essays. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

Bowden, Peta. Caring: Gender-Sensitive Ethics. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Calhoun, Cheshire. "Emotional Work." In Explorations in Feminist Ethics: Theory and Practice, edited by Eve Browning Cole and Susan Coultrap-McQuin. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Calhoun, Cheshire. Feminism, the Family, and the Politics of the Closet: Lesbian and Gay Displacement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Card, Claudia. The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Card, Claudia, ed. Feminist Ethics. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1991.

Card, Claudia. Lesbian Choices. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

DesAutels, Peggy, and Joanne Waugh, eds. Feminists Doing Ethics. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.

Dillon, Robin. "Self-Respect: Moral, Emotional, Political." Ethics 107 (1997): 226249.

Friedman, Marilyn. What are Friends For? Feminist Perspectives on Personal Relationships and Moral Theory. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Frye, Marilyn. The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1983.

Frye, Marilyn. Willful Virgin: Essays in Feminism. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1992.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Held, Virginia. Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture, Society, and Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Held, Virginia, ed. Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995.

Jaggar, Alison. "Globalizing Feminist Ethics." Hypatia 13 (2) (1998): 731.

Kittay, Eva Feder. Love's Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Lugones, Maria. "Playfulness, 'World'-Travelling, and Loving Perception." Hypatia 2 (1987): 319.

Mackenzie, Catriona, and Natalie Stoljar, eds. Relational Autonomy: Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

May, Larry. Masculinity and Morality. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Narayan, Uma. Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Nelson, Hilde Lindemann. Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Nussbaum, Martha. Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Ruddick, Sara. Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

Sherwin, Susan. No Longer Patient: Feminist Ethics and Health Care. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Tronto, Joan. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Walker, Margaret Urban. Moral Understandings: A Feminist Study in Ethics. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Walker, Margaret Urban. Mother Time: Women, Aging, and Ethics. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.

Rebecca Whisnant (2005)

About this article

Feminist Ethics

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article