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Feminist Ethics Essay Research Paper 113099

Feminist Ethics Essay, Research Paper

11-30-99 Feminist Ethics is not a special ethic in the manor that business,

medical, or environmental ethics are. Feminist ethics have not attempted to

determine special rules for special circumstances, rather they present the

opportunity to examine a historically neglected perspective when it comes to

traditional ethical thought. Feminist Ethics has been an attempt to revise,

reformulate, or rethink those aspects of traditional western ethics that have

historically depreciated or devalued a women’s moral experience, and a women?s

perspective on ethical thought. Among others, feminist philosopher Alison

Jaggar has faulted traditional western ethics for failing women in five related

ways. First, she argues that 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 favours

culturally masculine ways of moral reasoning that emphases rules, universality,

and impartiality over culturally feminine ways of moral reasoning that emphasise

relationships, particularity, and partiality.[1]

In essence Jagger is pointing out what has been wrong with traditional ethical

thought. While it is convenient to call this feminist ethics, the term is

problematic in that it implies that there are masculine ethic?s. These are

arguably those ethical thoughts which are biased and centred on the idea of a

patriarchal world, or wrong as that old joke says about anything that comes out

of a man?s mouth. However there is a plethora of thought that is not biased and

has been spoken by men, so what is its label? For the same reason I would say

that there is a wide range of thought that women produce and can produce that

should not be labelled ?feminine? and be sidelined as some feminist thought is

for that reason. For the purpose of this paper I am going to accept the term

?Feminist ethic?s? and use it, since it is an answer to what has been wrong

with the study of ethics in general, namely the lack of a feminist point of

view, and if that is to be termed feminist ethics, so be it. It is possible to

argue that the overall aim of most all feminist approaches to ethics,

irrespective of their specific labels, is to create a gender-equal ethics, a

moral theory that generates non-sexist moral principles, policies, and

practices, and it is from this position that I am going to address the issue. Feminist

approaches to ethics, as well as debates about the allegedly gendered nature of

morality, are not contemporary developments. A variety of eighteenth and

nineteenth-century thinkers? discussed

what is probably best termed "women’s morality." Each of these

thinkers pondered questions such as: Are women’s psychological feminine traits

all natural? Or is it only women’s positive

psychological feminine traits that are natural, their negative ones being somehow socially-constructed? Is there a gender

neutral standard available to separate women’s good or positive traits from

women’s bad or negative traits? As it seems to be an underlying argument that

some men?s patriarchal traits are negative. Can it not be argued that traits

which are moral virtues as well as psychological traits are connected with

one’s affective as well as cognitive dimensions, indeed with one’s physiology

as Aristotle and Aquinas suggested, shouldn’t we expect men and women to manifest

different moral virtues as well as different psychological traits? Should all

individuals be urged to cultivate precisely the same set of psychological

traits and moral virtues, or should there be room for trait and virtue

specialisation, provided that this specialisation is not split specifically

down gender lines? Or even if this specialisation is split down gender lines?

Is that a negative, or positive idea? When it comes to

the questions about "women’s morality" that have been posed above,

the eighteenth-century thinker Mary Wollstonecraft answered that women’s and

men’s moralities are fundamentally the same. Although she did not use the term

"socially-constructed gender roles," Wollstonecraft refuted the

concept that women are by nature more pleasure seeking than men.

She reasoned that if men were confined to the same societal rules and roles

women find themselves locked into, as is the case with low-ranking military

men, for example, they would develop the same kind of weak characters women

have traditionally developed within these roles. Denied the chance to develop

their rational powers, to become moral persons who have concerns, causes, and

commitments over and beyond their own physical and psychological pleasure, men

as well as women would become overly "emotional." [2] Wollstonecraft believed in the distinction between manners and

morals, morals with lead to ethics and manners which are a societal training on

the right way to act within a situation. Manners do not require a subscription

to the moral belief behind them, only that you follow them. Morals require

educated thought to arrive at them and know why you have them, whereas manners

are simply something that you are taught to do and can be mastered by any one.

Historically society has taught men morals, and it teaches women manners. More

specifically, society encourages women to cultivate negative psychological

traits like "cunning," "vanity," and

"immaturity," all of which impede the development of more positive psychological

traits. Even worse, society twists what could be woman’s genuine virtue into

vices. Wollstonecraft specifically claimed that when strong women practice

gentleness, it is a grand, even godly, virtue; but when weak women practice it,

it is a demeaning, even subhuman, vice. ?"when it is the

submissive demeanour of dependence, the support of weakness that loves, because

it wants protection; and is forbearing because it must silently endure

injuries; smiling under the lash at which it dare not snarl" [3] However things had

changed a little by the nineteenth-century, women were regarded as more moral though

they were still considered to be less intellectual. than men, a view that

disturbed the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill. As he saw it virtue along

with intellect had nothing to do with the gender of the subject in question. He

said that society was wrong to set up an ethical double standard when it comes to

assessing ?a women’s morality differently

than it assesses a man’s morality. Mill concluded that women’s "moral

nature" is not the result of innate female propensities but of systematic

social conditioning. To praise women on account of their great

"virtue" is merely to compliment patriarchal society for having

inculcated in women those psychological traits that serve to maintain it. Women

are taught to live for and sacrifice for others; to always give and never

receive; to submit, yield and obey; to be long-suffering. Their

"virtue" is not of their own doing; it is something that society

imposes it upon them. [4] Proponents of the feminist

approach to ethics like Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings have stressed that the traditional

western moral theories, principles, practices, and policies are deficient to

the degree that they ignore, trivialise, or demean those personality traits and

virtues of character that are culturally associated with women. Gilligan has presented

her work as a response to the Freudian notion that whereas men have a

well-developed moral sense, women do not. Freud attributed women’s supposed

moral inferiority to girls’ psychosexual development. Whereas boys break their

attachment to their mothers out of the fear of being castrated by their fathers

if they don’t, girls remain emotionally tied to their mothers since the threat

of castration has no power over them. As a result of this state of affairs,

girls are supposedly much slower than boys to develop a sense of themselves as individual

moral agents who are personally responsible for the consequences of their

actions or inaction?s; as persons who must obey society’s rules or face its

punishments. In a sense this causes men to have to learn morals, while women

are able to just follow the manners that they are taught by their mothers, not

having to develop a set of moral understandings on their own. [5] In order to move

towards a more gender neutral study of ethics Gilligan has begun to study men’s

as well as women’s moral experience, as opposed to just a woman?s. Her central

aim is to expose the ways in which society continues to muffle men?s

sensitivity, encouraging them to be less than caring and fully nurturing human

persons. Gilligan stresses that unlike today’s women who speak the moral

language of justice and rights nearly as fluently as the moral language of care

and relationship, men remain largely unable to express their moral concerns in

anything other than the language of justice and rights, while women have

adapted and shown that they have the same capacity to operate in both spheres

of moral thought men have for the most part remained locked into the same pattern

of moral reasoning. One index of the

importance of Gilligan’s work the number of thinkers who have taken her work

seriously enough to critique it. To date Gilligan’s critics have focused either

on the relationship between justice and care, considered as two, gender-neutral

perspectives on morality, or on the fact, that women are culturally associated

with care and men are culturally associated with justice. Critics who have adopted

the first strategy are primarily non-feminist critics. Some of them argue that

even if care is a moral virtue and not just some pleasant psychological trait

that some people happen to have, it is a less essential moral virtue than

justice is. Among the statements such non feminist critics make is that it is

better to act out of a general moral principle like "aid the needy"

than a particular caring feeling, because principles are more reliable and less

ephemeral than feelings; and that, when justice and care conflict,

considerations of impartiality must overcome considerations of partiality: my

children’s fundamental rights and basic needs are neither more nor less

important than anyone else’s children’s, as opposed to the natural way that

most parents would weigh their children?s needs as more important then the

needs of other children. The concept of viewing all children as equal including

your own is much easier when ones emotions are not allowed into the debate. Or

when you are debating from a purely clinical point of view. The one question and

problem to this though is, is the tendency to view your own children?s needs as

more important, simply a issue of ?care? and therefor not within the male realm

of ?justice? for most fathers when faced with the same dilemma would have the

same reaction as any mother. Their children?s needs are more important then the

needs of others. To say that this view is essentially a feminist or feminine

ethic is to ignore the reaction of most fathers. This calls to question whether

or not this aspect of the ?ethics of care? is a trait that can be labelled

feminine, or is it one of the traits that can be considered gender neutral. Feminist Ethics offers to women multiple standards that validate a woman’s

different moral experiences in ways that point to the weaknesses as well as the

strengths of the values and virtues that culture has put the label of ?feminine?

on. ?In addition, they suggest to women

several paths, all of which lead toward the one goal that is essential to the

project of any women-centred ethics; namely, the elimination of gender

inequality. Although

feminists’ have different interpretations of what constitutes a voluntary and

intentional choice, an improper or legitimate exercise of control, and a

healthy or unhealthy relationship reassure the intellectual and moral community

that, after all, for the most part feminism and most feminists are trying not

to be an ideology that prescribes that there is one and only one way for all women to be. ?However this variety of thought is also the

occasion of considerable political fragmentation among feminists. Asked to come

to the policy table to express the

feminist perspective on a moral issue, all that an honest feminist ethicist can

say is that there is no such

perspective. Yet, if feminists have no clear, and unified position on a key

moral issue, then a perspective less appealing to women may fill the gap.

Although it is crucial for feminist ethicists to emphasise, for example, how a

policy that benefits one group of women might at the same time harm another

group of women, it is probably a mistake for feminist ethicists to leave the

policy table without suggesting policies that are able to serve the most important interests of the widest range of women. In the light of

the important contributions made by feminists by the way of theories,

perspectives and attention that has been given to issues. Feminist theory has

been beneficial in the field of ethics not only in opening up discourse, but

offering alternative theories. In this way Feminist ethic?s has been beneficial

to the field of ethics. Given the underlying questioning nature of Feminist

ethics, it is a very beneficial avenue of philosophical inquiry, given that a

questioning nature and analysis and discourse are important aspects of

philosophy. Bibliography Daly, Lois K. (ed.) (1994) Feminist

Theological Ethics. Louisville, Kentucky. Westminster John Knox PressGilligan, C. (1982). In a Different Voice:

Psychological Theory and Women?s Development. Cambrige, Mass.: Harvard University

Press.Jagger, A.M. (1983) Feminist Politics

and Human Nature. Totowa, NJ.: Allenheld.Jagger, A.M. (1991) Feminist ethics:

Projects, problems, prospects. In C. Card (ed) Feminist Ethics. (Lawrence,

Kan.: University Press of Kansas).Mill, J.S. (1970) The Subjegction of Women.

In A.S. Rossi (ed), Essays on Sex Equality. Chicago: University of Chicago

Press. Walker, Margaret U. (1998) Moral Understandings:

A Feminist study in Ethics. New York. Routledge. Wollstonecraft, M. (1988). A Vindication

of the Rights of Women, ed. M.Brody. (London: Penguin.) [1] (Jaggar, "Feminist Ethics," 1992). [2] (Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women,

1988). [3] (Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, p.

117). [4] (J.S. Mill, The Subjection of Women, 1970). [5] (Gilligan, In a Different Voice, 1982).

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