Digest of terms

feminist ethics

a variety of stances based on the twin claims of being (a) a corrective to alleged biases in ethics due to patriarchal culture and a tradition of moral theory written by men, and (b) a correction which women are particularly well placed to supply either from their traditional position of subordination to men, and/or from their femininity.

In reaction to the traditional social subordination of women (often reinforced by religion), much feminist ethics focuses on advancing women's rights and gender equality, opposing discrimination and pursuing social justice. Differences regarding how these goals are best to be interpreted and pursued has led to different lines of thought such as a liberal feminist ethic and a socialist feminist ethic, while a radical feminist ethic advocates complete separation of women from men as the only way of achieving freedom from male oppression.

In relation to moral theory having traditionally been written by men, it has been claimed that now that it is being written by women too, examination of their work often reveals a different emphasis, on emotion and intuition, rather than reason and abstract moral principle. Are women perhaps supplying a deficiency in traditional masculine theorizing?

This question relates to claims about the distinctive contribution to ethics of femininity which arose from research in moral psychology and critical reservations about the theories of moral development advanced by Piaget and Kohlberg. These emphasized an ethic of duty and rights, of justice and of abstract moral principles, as constitutive of the core of morality. Yet research by Carol Gilligan and others uncovered a 'different voice' in ethics, an ethic of care, with emphases on empathy and compassion rather than reason and justice, and often with immediate intuitive responses to situations rather than reflective responses derived from abstract principles. This was based on research predominantly among women, and some feminists urged that the ethic of care was distinctively feminine, and indeed superior to the allegedly masculine ethic of rights (superior too by emphasizing the relational nature of the self in contrast to the autonomy of the self prominent in the allegedly masculine ethic). A more cautious conclusion, supported by further research, would be that both ethics (and also perhaps others) are found among both men and women, albeit with some evidence of a tendency for men to prioritise the ethic of rights, and women the ethic of care.

This in turn has generated further debate: do women prioritise the ethic of care because of nature or because of nurture? The former could fit the claim of a superior feminine ethic, and used as ammunition by certain (e.g. radical) feminists; the latter could lead to claims that the feminine voice is distinctive because women have been socialized by patriarchy into (socially inferior, but often also romanticised) caring roles, and used by other feminists (e.g. liberal and socialist ones) to promote socialisation of men into caring roles alongside women in appropriately reformed societies. In sum, if there is a distinctively feminine ethic it need not be a feminist one; it may rather be seen as part of the plural components of an ethic to be shared by all.

A further major issue is the interaction between proponents of a feminist ethic and the traditions of the main religions, which have been predominantly patriarchal. In part this revolves around language and symbolism, which are so often open to the charge of gender bias; reinterpretation of language in an inclusive sense, and the highlighting of neglected feminine figures and symbols drawn from the resources of the traditions, have been found to be helpful in this respect, though more radical feminists may want to go further. In good measure too, though, it revolves around substantial practical issues of the status and treatment of women as laid out in sacred texts or traditional legal rulings held to hold supreme authority; here religious feminists face a harder task, although the very existence of women rabbis or Christian ministers/priests is testimony to the capacity of religions to change and adapt - but also, relatedly, to split.

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