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Feminist Ethics

Feminist Ethics is an attempt to revise, reformulate, or rethink those aspects of traditional western ethics that depreciate or devalue women's moral experience. Among others, feminist philosopher Alison Jaggar faults traditional western ethics for failing women in five related ways. First, it shows little concern for women's as opposed to men's interests and rights. Second, it dismisses as morally uninteresting the problems that arise in the so-called private world, the realm in which women cook, clean, and care for the young, the old, and the sick. Third, it suggests that, on the average, women are not as morally developed as men. Fourth, it overvalues culturally masculine traits like independence, autonomy, separation, mind, reason, culture, transcendence, war, and death, and undervalues culturally feminine traits like interdependence, community, connection, body, emotion, nature, immanence, peace, and life. Fifth, and finally, it favors culturally masculine ways of moral reasoning that emphasize rules, universality, and impartiality over culturally feminine ways of moral reasoning that emphasize relationships, particularity, and partiality (Jaggar, "Feminist Ethics," 1992).

 Feminist approaches to ethics are distinctive because they are "political" in the sense that fully feminist ethicists are committed, first and foremost, to the elimination of women's subordination and that of other oppressed persons in all of its manifestations." A feminist approach to ethics asks questions about power that is, about domination and subordination even before it asks questions about good and evil, care and justice, or maternal and paternal thinking.

Focused as they are on questions about power, those developing fully feminist approaches to ethics offer action guides aimed at subverting rather than reinforcing the present systematic subordination of women. Liberal, Marxist, radical, socialist, multicultural, global, and ecological feminists have each offered a different set of explanations and solutions for this state of affairs. So too have existentialist, psychoanalytic, cultural, and postmodern feminists. Proponents of these varied schools of feminist thought maintain that the destruction of all systems, structures, institutions, and practices that create or maintain invidious power differentials between men and women is the necessary prerequisite for the creation of gender equality.

Liberal feminists charge that the main cause of female subordination is a set of informal rules and formal laws that block women's entrance and/or success in the public world. Excluded from places such as the academy, the forum, the marketplace, and the operating room, women cannot reach their potential. Women cannot become men's full equals until society grants women the same educational opportunities and political rights it grants men.

Marxist feminists disagree with liberal feminists. They argue that it is impossible for any oppressed person, especially a female one, to prosper personally and professionally in a class society. The only effective way to end women's subordination to men is to replace the capitalist system with a socialist system in which both women and men are paid fair wages for their work. Women must be men's economic as well as educational and political equals before they can be as powerful as men.

Disagreeing with both Marxist and liberal feminists, radical feminists claim that the primary causes of women's subordination to men are women's sexual and reproductive roles and responsibilities. Radical feminists demand an end to all systems and structures that in any way restrict women's sexual preferences and procreative choices. Unless women become truly free to have or not have children, to love or not love men, women will remain men's subordinates.

Seeing wisdom in both radical and Marxist feminist ideas, socialist feminists attempt to weave these separate streams of thought into a coherent whole. For example, in Women's Estate, Juliet Mitchell argues that four structures overdetermine women's condition: production, reproduction, sexuality, and the socialization of children. A woman's status and function in all of these structures must change if she is to be a man's equal. Furthermore, as Mitchell adds in Psychoanalysis and Feminism, a woman's interior world, her psyche, must also be transformed; for unless a woman is convinced of her own value, no change in her exterior world can totally liberate her.

Multicultural feminists generally affirm socialist feminist thought, but they believe it is inattentive to issues of race and ethnicity. They note, for example, that U.S. "white" culture does not praise the physical attractiveness of African American women in a way that validates the natural arrangement of black facial features and bodies, but only insofar as they look white with straightened hair, very light brown skin and thin figures. Thus, African-American women are doubly oppressed. Not only are they subject to gender discrimination in its many forms, but racial discrimination as well.

Although global feminists praise the ways in which multiculturalist feminists have amplified socialist feminist thought, they nonetheless regard even this enriched discussion of women's oppression as incomplete. All too often, feminists focus in a nearly exclusive manner on the gender politics of their own nation. Thus, while U.S. feminists struggle to formulate laws to prevent sexual harassment and date rape, thousands of women in Central America, for example, are sexually tortured on account of their own, their fathers', their husbands', or their sons' political beliefs. Similarly, while U.S. feminists debate the extent to which contraceptives ought to be funded by the government or distributed in public schools, women in many Asian and African countries have no access to contraception or family planning services from any source.

Ecofeminists agree with global feminists that it is important for women to understand how women's interests can diverge as well as converse. When a wealthy U.S. woman seeks to adopt a child, for example, her desire might prompt profiteering middlemen to prey on indigent Asian or African women, desperate to give their yet-to-be-born children a life better than their own. Ecofeminists add another concern to this analysis: In wanting to give her adopted child the best that money can buy, an affluent woman might not realize how her spending habits negatively affect not only less fortunate women and their families, but also many members of the greater animal community and the environment in general.

Departing from these inclusionary ways of understanding women's oppression, existentialist feminists stress how, in the final analysis, all selves are lonely and in fundamental conflict. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir writes that, from the beginning, man has named himself the Self and woman the Other. If the Other is a threat to the Self, then woman is a threat to man; and if men wish to remain free, they must not only economically, politically, and sexually subordinate women to themselves, but also convince women they deserve no better treatment. Thus, if women are to become true Selves, they must recognize themselves as free and responsible moral agents who possess the capacity to perform excellently in the public as well as the private world.

Like existentialist feminists, psychoanalytic and cultural feminists seek an explanation of women's oppression in the inner recesses of women's psyche. As they see it, because children are reared almost exclusively by women, boys and girls are psychosocialized in radically different ways. Boys grow up wanting to separate themselves from others and from the values culturally linked to their mothers and sisters. In contrast, girls grow up copying their mothers' behavior and wanting to remain connected to them and others. Moreover, because of the patriarchal cues they receive both in and outside the home, boys and girls-come to think that such "masculine" values as justice and conscientiousness, which they associate with culture and the public world, are more fully human than such "feminine" values as caring and kindness, which they associate with nature and the private world.

In the estimation of many psychoanalytic and cultural feminists, the solution to this dichotomous, women-demeaning state of affairs rests in some type of dual-parenting arrangement. Were men to spend as much time fathering as women presently spend mothering, and were women to play as active a role in the world of enterprise as men currently do, then children would cease to associate authority, autonomy, and universalism with men and love, dependence, and particularism with women. Rather, they would identify all of these ways of being and thinking as ones that full persons incorporate in their daily lives.

Finally, as postmodern feminists see it, all attempts to provide a single explanation for women's oppression not only will fail but should also fail. They will fail because there is no one entity, "Woman," upon whom a label may be fixed. Women are individuals, each with a unique story to tell about a particular self. Moreover, any single explanation for "Woman's" oppression should fail from a feminist point of view, for it would be yet another instance of so-call "phallogocentric" thought: that is, the kind of "male thinking" that insists on telling as absolute truth one and only one story about reality. Women must, in the estimation of postmortem feminists reveal their differences to each other so that they can better resist the patriarchal tendency to center, congeal, and cement thought into a rigid "truth" that always was, is, and forever will be.

Because feminist approaches to ethics focus on how power is used to oppress women in particular, nonfeminist critics of them have complained that these approaches are "female-biased." Ethics, insist these critics, cannot proceed from a specific standpoint in this case, from the standpoint of women and still be regarded as an ethics. Indeed, traditional western ethics has proceeded on the assumption that its values and rules apply to all rational persons equally. Yet, any number of the "Great Philosophers" moral theories seem to be based on the moral experience of men usually powerful ones as opposed to women. For example, Aristotle's ethics reflects the values of Athenian citizens: that is, property-owning Greek males. It does not reflect the values of Greek females or of slaves/foreigners be they male or female. Nevertheless, traditional western ethicists have tried to make the case that, properly interpreted, Aristotle's ethics applies equally well to both women and men, to both non-Greeks and Greeks; and that it would be misguided to deliberately as opposed to nonreflectively construct an ethics that focuses on a specific group of people.

Related to the above controversy are similar controversies about women's history and literature courses, for example. A person developing a feminist approach to ethics could argue, for example, that she is simply doing what Aristotle, Mill, and Kant should have done in the first place namely, paying as much attention to women's moral experience as men's. In the same way that historians have ignored the stresses, strains, and struggles of the private world of children, church, and kitchen to focus on the economic revolutions, political upheavals, and military conquests of the public world, traditional western ethicists have focused on men's moral interests, issues, and values, failing to notice just how significant and interesting women's moral issues and values are. Therefore, when a proponent of feminist ethics insists on highlighting "women's morality," she may be doing little more than some corrective surgery adding women's moral experiences to a male-biased ethical tradition sorely in need of them.

However, she may be doing more than this. She may be suggesting that it is not enough for traditional western ethics to incorporate women's interests and issues, and to recognize women as moral agents who must be taken seriously. On the contrary, she may be urging the "Tradition" to rethink all of the ontological and epistemological assumptions upon which it is based; and even to consider the possibility, that far from being sources of human liberation, its principles, rules, regulations, norms, and criteria actually serve to support patterns of domination and subordination that "demoralize" everyone.

If its focus on women-oppressive system and structures is indeed what makes an ethics feminist, as opposed to simply feminine or maternal, then Alison Jaggar's summary of the fourfold function of feminist ethics cannot be improved upon in any significant way. According to Jaggar, all fully feminist approaches to ethics seek to (1) articulate moral critiques of actions and practices that perpetuate women's subordination; (2) prescribe morally justifiable ways of resisting such actions and practices; (3) envision morally desirable alternatives for such actions and practices; and (4) take women's moral experience seriously, though not uncritically (Jaggar, "Feminist Ethics" 1992). Women should not focus on making the world a better place for everyone in general; rather, their primary aim should be to make the world a better place for women in particular -and perhaps also for other vulnerable people like children, the elderly, the infirm, the disabled, minorities, etc. In Jaggar's estimation, encouraging women with supportive thoughts, kind words, and benign actions is not enough. A feminist approach to ethics entails women resisting and overcoming their continuing oppression under patriarchy.


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