Feminist ethics is a new concept aimed at redefining and redesigning conventional and traditional experiences associated with women’s moral experiences from medieval times. Feminist ethics is therefore development and a new concept developed to remedy the inadequacies created by traditional western ethics which have consistently overlooked female contributions to society. Such sentiments are supported by Alison Jaggar, a feminist philosopher (cited in Christine 2), who faults traditional western ethical ideals because of several reasons.
First, she identifies that traditional western ideals sought to emphasize more on male rights and interests at the expense of female rights. Secondly, she notes that traditional western ideals are characteristic of emphasizing morally uninteresting realms of women roles that occur in the private world (such as the traditional roles of cooking, cleaning, taking care of the household, assisting the sick, and such roles).
Thirdly, she faults the traditional western ethical philosophy because it perceives women as people who are not as morally developed as men, and fourth, Christine explains that she identifies that traditional western philosophy “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” (3). Lastly, Alison Jaggar notes that traditional western philosophy is sympathetic to culturally masculine ways of moral reasoning as opposed to the feminist ways which lack prejudice and favor (Christine 3).
These perceptions withstanding, this study acknowledges the role feminist ethics has had in reformulating traditional western ethics and comprehensively, it acknowledges that feminist ethics are distinctive and uniquely incoherent with conventional western philosophy relating to gender. However, there have been many debates advanced by critics regarding feminist ethics which purport that the concept is centered on overturning existing political structures and centered on the concept of power and subordination at the expense of ethical concerns relating to mothering, morality, care, and justice (Christine 2).
About this debate, this study identifies that this argument is flawed and instead proposes that feminist ethics is more committed to motherhood and care as opposed to political changes (in terms of doing away with the subordination women have experienced in the past).
Ideas Concepts and Terms to be Discussed
- Radical feminism: Radical feminism observes that the causes for gender oppression should not be solely blamed on the political structure of the society but also the structures of the patriarchal society.
- Liberal feminism: Liberal feminism works from the context that women need to be accorded the same opportunities men have so that they are as prosperous as men.
- Marxist feminism: The concept of Marxist feminism notes that women’s oppression should not be traced to the opposite sex but rather to the capitalistic nature of the society which makes women subordinates to men.
Mothering and care are depicted as the underlying issues that characterize female oppression which has been evidenced for many years (Christine 3). The feminist ethics concept revolves around matters of care and feminine virtues (more especially nurturing and compassion) as opposed to issues to do with power and subordination (in comparison to male counterparts). More importantly, even though many critics of feminist ethics tend to perpetuate the view that feminist ethics inclines more towards power and subordination, Christine (3) notes that feminist ethics is particular to experiences that are uniquely female such as pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing. These issues have nothing to do with power or subordination.
Much of the current “political vs. care” debate that surrounds feminist ethics can be analyzed from philosophical research studies done by Gilligan, a philosophical researcher. The same can also be said of Kohlberg’s research on feminist philosophy which can be summarized in the words of Tronto that “individuals develop morally as their cognitive abilities to understand the nature of moral relations deepen, and that this process of moral development proceeds through the set, hierarchically arranged stages that correspond to different levels of moral reasoning” (5).
Kohlberg was trying to portray the view that boys had a stronger and more mature moral development as compared to girls when analyzed within a given age group. However, Gilligan was particularly disturbed by these assertions and decided to do his independent studies on the same which concluded that girls had a uniquely different oral view when compared to boys because their moral voice expressed ethics of care while the boy’s moral voice expressed ethics of justice. The ethics of care can be compared to relationships and justice while the ethics of justice can be compared to rights and rules. All these features can be better equated to processes as opposed to principles because they symbolize an ongoing element as opposed to a static one (Christine 6).
Gilligan’s assertion exposed a different field of philosophical research about feminist ethics that had not been previously researched before. Many researchers have also identified the research studies to be intrinsically positive but comprehensively, it is assumed that his point of view gives a new perception to the role historical oppression may have played in care ethics (Christine 6). Tronto explains this concept by stating that “whatever psychological dimensions there might be to explain women’s moral differences, there may also be a social cause: women’s different moral expression may be a function of their subordinate or tentative social position” (6).
Gilligan’s perspectives give a very interesting insight into feminist ethics in the sense that she identifies that feminist ethics essentially appeals to women’s’ unique experiences, but in the same light, the unique experiences can be traced to the oppression women face in society. A positive relationship can be hereby deduced because the underlying assumption in this relationship is observed whereby, though feminist ethics is based on mothering, care, and nurturing, Gilligan exposes a relationship whereby the above concepts either add or subtract to the oppression women face (or have faced) in the society.
The same opinion is also held by radical feminists who observe that the causes for women’s oppression should not solely be blamed on the political structure of the society but also the structures of the patriarchal society (Christine 6). Proponents of the radical feminist concept also note that political structures which limit the chances of women prospering in the same manner as men are essentially flawed and irreparable.
Because of this fact, they propose that the entire political system should be eliminated. This point of view, therefore, leaves the patriarchal society as the only repairable institution and this is where radical feminist concurs with the fact that feminist ethics are centered on changing the social perceptions of women in the domestic environment. This essentially touches on the virtues of motherhood and care. In other words, motherhood and care are the basic limitations to women’s’ chances of succeeding. Tong affirms that “Women’s reproductive roles and responsibilities, as well as the institution of compulsory heterosexuality, are the fundamental causes of women’s subordination and men’s domination” (8).
Liberal feminism works from the context that women need to be accorded the same opportunities men have so that they are as prosperous as men (Christine 7). However, in accomplishing this objective, there is a strong view among proponents of the liberal feminism concept that there needs to be a clear-cut difference between public and private life. Public life essentially refers to the ability of women to prosper in various fields such as medicine, science, law, and the likes (because it essentially refers to personal and human achievement).
This refers to the realm of political actions where many researchers have identified that gender oppression takes place. On the other hand, private life refers to the realm of mothering and caring which has often be synonymously equated to the traditional western ethical philosophy of women which defines the root of subordination.
From this understanding, liberal theorists have consistently acknowledged that women have a more social significance to the political world of men; meaning that their contribution is most appreciated by the fact that they best uphold social life, as opposed to political life.
Mothering and caring activities constitute the basic pinnacle of this social world (Christine 7). Since the above fact has been identified as constituting a great part of the western traditional feminine experience, feminist ethics was introduced to fight this ideology. The feminist ethic was therefore developed from the standpoint that women should not be subordinated to the roles of nurturing, mothering, and care because this is a false ideology that seeks to limit their chances or opportunities of competing with their male counterparts in the political world.
Liberal feminists, therefore, point out the view that there is no such distinction between a man and a woman because they are both human beings and that is the only existing definition according to them. However, liberal feminists have been forced to acknowledge the physical differences between the genders but they have stuck to their point of view; purporting that physical differences between men and women do not in any way constitute a platform to differentiate male and female rights (Christine 8).
Nonetheless, comprehensively we can learn that feminist ethics is primarily based on unique women experiences (which are mothering, care, and nurturing) as opposed to the political cause identified by critics of the feminist ethics concept. Relatively, when compared to the liberal feminist approach, Christine affirms that:
“Avoiding claims about specifically male and female natures enables liberal feminists to argue that men and women are entitled to the same opportunities in both the public and private spheres. In the liberal feminist view, when all are afforded equal opportunities, all women may freely choose to ‘mother’ or not to ‘mother’” (9).
The concept of Marxist feminism notes that women’s oppression should not be traced to the opposite sex but rather the capitalistic nature of the society which makes women subordinates to men (Christine 9). To remedy this situation, the Marxist feminism concept proposes that a communist concept will work to the advantage of women because it will give them equal opportunities that capitalist systems deny them. However, in support of the fact that feminist ethics is based on mothering and care, the Marxist feminism concept identifies that female oppression not only occurs in public life but also in private life.
To reiterate the Marxist feminism concept, Callahan affirms that “the inegalitarian system of classes leads to exploitation and imperialism–the domination at home (including the household) and abroad of the have-nots by the haves” (75). Women’s’ oppression can therefore be defined by the oppression that goes on in the household and not necessarily in public life (as advocated by proponents of the fact that feminist ethics is primarily based on political motivations). The exploitation of women at home is particularly contingent on the limitations that the capitalistic world imposes on women throughout most societies.
However, it is important to note that the Marxist feminism concept has been criticized by the fact that not all women hail from the same economic class, although in the same sense, it is also important to note that the Marxist feminism concept acknowledges that for women to be liberated and enjoy the same opportunities as men, domestic exploitation and oppression needs to stop first (at the household level) before any significant political changes can be felt to their advantage (Christine 9).
This fact is based on the belief by proponents of the Marxist feminism concept that gender oppression starts at the household level, and the discrimination that is evident at the political platform is just but a mere reflection of what happens in the domestic environment. To affirm this point of view, proponents of the Marxist feminism concept point out the fact that women have been clustered together to constitute a single economic class that essentially works to produce goods and services that are only of value to the domestic environment (Christine 9). In affirming this argument, Jaggar notes that:
“In unpacking this notion of transformation, it is also important to note that Marxist theory itself would not find anything intrinsically degrading about childbearing, child-rearing, cooking, but instead Marxist theory criticizes how these tasks are organized under capitalism. In this sense, the Marxist feminist theory could be said to be “about” mothering and caring (19).
Principles as opposed to feelings
Critics of the feminist ethics concept note that feminist ethics is reliant on the philosophy of principles of care as opposed to feelings of care because in the real sense, principles are deemed more reliable than feelings attributed to care (Christine 10).
For instance, in helping the needy, feminist ethics tends to rely more on assisting the poor than empathizing with their state or situation (Christine 10). This scenario can also be equated to the American Southern grasp on slavery where many people hailing from that geographical area felt positively about slavery as a practice. However, since they harbored this sentiment, it did not mean that they were essentially ethically correct
Many critics of the feminist approach have often observed that feminist ethics perceive ethical issues from a predetermined point of view (which is the feminist way) (Christine 10). More importantly, they note that the feminist ethics concept assumes that women are in an oppressed position when compared to their male counterparts. In this regard, these critics base their contempt with the feminist ethics concept on the fact that feminist perspectives base their standing on the structures that have contributed to this position and therefore focus their energies on overturning this state of affairs.
This contributes to their strong viewpoint that feminist theories stand on a political viewpoint as affirmed by Callahan that “A feminist perspective has three features: “a recognition that women as a group have been and are oppressed; an account of the source or sources of that oppression; and suggestions for how the oppression of women can be overcome” (78).
Oppression, subordination, mothering, and care which are all observed in feminist ethics can be best understood through the historical context of feminism. The historical context of feminism in which perspectives about feminism and feminist ethics are developed can be all equated to the traditional political theory standpoint. This means that the tradition of western political thought is essentially characteristic of the historical view of feminism.
From this understanding, many proponents of the fact that feminist ethics is developed from a political viewpoint, such as Shanley and Pateman (12), argue that since feminist ethics are based on overturning traditional western concepts of feminism; they are based on changing the political paradigm as well. This argument gives feminist ethics a political nature.
Response to the Counter Arguments
The opinions expressed by critics of the feminist ethics approach tend to portray the view that feminist perspectives do not acknowledge the unique experiences of women as a unique gender and in the same sense; they are not cognizant of the ethics of care which has been traditionally associated with feminism. This concept is flawed because as noted above, feminist perspectives are also cognizant of the ethics of care.
However, this view does not mean that feminist ethics do not acknowledge that women have been politically oppressed through sociopolitical structures and positions, because they have. Nonetheless, it notes that this point of view is not what feminist ethics essentially stands on. This is true because if we analyze feminist ethics entirely from a “care” point of view, we would be advocating the fact that women are not (or have never been ) oppressed. This is not the case.
This study points out the fact that feminist ethics is essentially driven by issues to do with motherhood and care, as opposed to power and subordination, which define political motivations. Arguments based on the Marxist, radical and liberal feminist points of view acknowledge that motherhood and care are at the center of the development of feminist ethics because all forms of oppression start at the domestic level.
This argument is according to the liberalist feminists. However, the Marxist feminists note that capitalistic structures need to be eliminated to give women more opportunities in society while the radical point of view suggests that the political structures that are created by men to limit women to domestic roles are irreparable and need to be eliminated. Because of this reason, proponents of the radical feminism concept advocate for a patriarchal societal change which is an affirmation of the view that feminist ethics is concerned with motherhood and care.
This study also acknowledges the input of proponents of the fact that feminist ethics is motivated by power and subordination as the primary motivators to feminist ethics, but comprehensively, we observe that social (as opposed to political) intrigues is the main factor leading to women oppression and this is what feminist ethics essentially focuses on. This point of view is practically applicable today in the fight for gender equality in most functional areas of our society (including gender representation in political, social, and economic positions).
This analysis is also a pointer to the way we should look at various areas of philosophy, in the sense that, practical relevance is important to the comprehension of philosophical points of view. This analysis has ramifications in other areas, apart from philosophy, such as science. Therefore, considering the above intrigues to the whole feminist ethics debate, we can safely conclude that feminist ethics is more committed to motherhood and care as opposed to political changes (in terms of doing away with the subordination women have experienced in the past).
Callahan, Joan. “Feminism and Reproductive Technologies.” Journal of Clinical Ethics 5.1 (1994): 75-85.
Christine, James. “Feminist Ethics, Mothering, and Caring.” Kinesis 22.2 (1995): 2-16. Print.
Jaggar, Alison. Feminist Politics and Human Nature. Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1988.
Shanley, Lyndon, and Pateman, Carole. Feminist Interpretations and Political Theory. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.
Tong, Rosemarie. Feminine and Feminist Ethics. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1993.
Tronto, Joan C. Beyond Gender Difference to a Theory of Care: An Ethic of Care: Feminist and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, Inc., 1993.