Held, Virginia (1929–)

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Virginia Held, American philosopher, received her PhD in philosophy from Columbia University and is a professor of philosophy at Hunter College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York. In addition to working as a reporter, she has also taught at Barnard College, Dartmouth College, the University of California at Los Angeles, and Yale University. She is the author of numerous scholarly books and journal articles in the areas of social and political philosophy, ethics, and feminist philosophy. In particular, she has contributed to our understanding of the moral importance of birth and mothering, to debates on limits on markets, to discussions on collective responsibility, and to the literature on moral methodology and metaethics.

According to Held, moral theorizing requires paying attention to actual moral experience. In Rights and Goods, Held argued for a view she calls "experimental morality," a version of John Rawls's method of reflective equilibrium, according to which actual moral agents ought to try out various moral approaches and see what it is like to live by them. An advocate of pluralism, she advances the view that different persons, in different roles or contexts, should develop and experiment with different approaches to morality. This link between experience and moral theory connects her work on moral theorizing in general (1984) and her work in feminist ethics (1993).

Focusing on the moral significance of experience, Held drew attention to how women's experiences have been left out or devalued by traditional moral theorizing. In particular, she has cast light on the experiences of women whose activities as mothers and caregivers have often been wrongly dismissed as mere biological reflexes. Critical of the tendency in some moral and political philosophy of depicting persons as rational, independent agents who make mutually disinterested agreements, Held encourages, instead, a conception of persons that appreciates our interdependence and the caring, rather than contractual, nature of our relationships. She rejects the notion that the impartial rule-follower is a paragon of moral virtue and recommends in its place the ideal of the empathetic caregiver, stressing that care ought to be valued for its own sake and not merely as a means of carrying out impartial rules.

Rather than construing care as a permissible nicety that comes into play only after justice and equality have been secured, Held has come to view care as one of the most basic moral values. Without care, she says, humans simply would not survive. Emphasizing the importance of care in the public realm, as well as in the private realm, is not, for Held, license for widespread paternalistic interference. Indeed, she thinks that appropriate care is often about cultivating a capacity for autonomy in the person cared for. She proposes a conception of care that can extend to distant others, predicting that a revaluation of care would inspire a more committed defense of others' rights and bolster political support for public health care and child care.

See also Ethics; Feminist Ethics; Feminist Philosophy; Feminist Social and Political Philosophy.


works by held

Public Interests and Individual Interests. New York: Basic Books, 1970.

Properties, Profits, and Economic Justice. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1980.

Rights and Goods: Justifying Social Action. New York: Free Press, 1984.

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

works edited by held

With Kai Nielson and Charles Parsons. Philosophy and Political Action: Essays Edited for the New York Group of the Society for Philosophy and Public Affairs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

With Sidney Morgenbesser and Thomas Nagel. Philosophy, Morality and International Affairs: Essays Edited for the Society for Philosophy and Public Affairs. New York: Oxford University Press. New York, 1974.

Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.

Amanda Porter (2005)

Samantha Brennan (2005)