A)History of Ethics – When we think of philosophers, ethicists, names such as Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, Rawls come to mind.  In other words, men.  With rare exceptions (redundant, I know – just making a point), ethics history is rife with male authors.  It would follow that if men are doing about 99% of the writing, who’s doing the reading?  And the teaching?  Hmmm – probably men?  Presumably, the history may be charted by the following: 

1 – the starting point  –  the isolated individual, how individuals should treat one another, an ethics of strangers, at war with one another, but needing some direction.

2 – the social contract theory – how isolated individuals entered into moral relationships, moving from autonomous moral agents into a harmonious existence with one another.  For a good example of how entrenched a perspective had become, Google Rousseau’s educational tract “Emile” (1762), and see how much has not changed.  Given that, the resulting philosophical underpinnings we have are:

3 – impartiality and universality – Kant – the ideal rational moral agent acts on maxims that can be universalized; the utilitarian works as the ideal impartial calculator.  And life grows and interweaves itself among those markers.

But what if it were possible to cast a different light upon this course of life?

1 – the starting point – the mother/child combination instead of the isolated individual.  A kind of connectedness instead of a stranger with the associated ramifications [Carolyn Whitbeck].

2 – a building of trust, as distinct from a contractual idea [Annette Baier].

3 – the resulting reliance on relationshipinstead of impartiality and universality [Carol Gilligan].  Is Lioi advocating the overthrow of all previous ethical work? Of course not.  Just add this to it.  Another overlay.  Another light with which to view the moral life.

B)Ethics of Care – as a gathering response to the male-oriented history of ethics, Carol Gilligan (1982) published “In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development.”  Ok, so it wasn’t about ethics as such, but it did shine a different light on a whole bunch of areas: philosophy, religion, clinical psychology, political science, literature, art criticism.  Women began finding their voicein every field.  The metaphor of voice became the symbol, the marker, the focal point.  Voice over theory became the perspective.  Voice was potentially more capable of integrating differences harmoniously.  There’s no individuality in theory.  In voice we have tone, texture.  Voice combines both emotion and content – how as well as what is said.  Voice is not true or false, but strong or weak, lilting or deep, hesitant or confident.  Voices may be different without excluding one another, as in singers in a chorus. 

Another way of appreciating the theory-voice transformation is using the “Heinz Dilemma:”  Heinz’s wife is critically ill with a rare form of cancer.  The only druggist who has a possible cure is charging an outrageous amount of money which Heinz just doesn’t have.  The ‘traditional’ question posed is:  should Heinz steal the drug?  Why or why not?  The ‘traditional’ expected response was yes or no and a reason.  That’s what boys responded (for example, human life is more valuable than property).  But when girls were asked, the result was a conversation.  The girls asked questions: couldn’t Heinz get a loan?  Work out a payment plan?  They looked for hidden alternatives.  They were offering a different view of moral discourse.  Instead of staking a position and reasons, ethical discourse is primarily a conversation, an interchange – leading to the conclusion that morality is primarily about caring.

C)Feminist Moral Theory – begins with the awareness of women’s oppression and argues for corrective policies.  Here are four conditions that must be met for an ethical theory to count as Feminist Theory [Alison Jaggar].

1—must be sensitive to gender inequality, never beginning with the assumption that men and women are similarly situated.

2—must understand individual actions within the larger context of broader social practices.

3—must be able to provide guidance to issues traditionally seen as within the private domain, such as personal relationships and family issues.

4—must take the moral experiences of women seriously, though not, of course, uncritically.

It’s clear that issues of gender involve issues of power.  Feminist Ethics maintains the importance of relationships but refuses to cooperate with any efforts to confine women within traditional patriarchal power relationships.  As philosophers take the moral experiences of women seriously, they begin to see that there are a number of previously neglected moral issues that merit attention.  In many cases these can be understood through the application of traditional moral concepts in new contexts.  The following is what I refer to as Emergent Issues – practices and occasions that have arisen, but need constant attention:

  • Distinction between public and private (you’ll notice that much has changed) – private used to mean the realm of women, children, beyond the realm of moral protection: childrearing responsibility, incest, child abuse, domestic violence – experienced by the powerless.
  • Justice and family issues – [Justice, Gender and the Family” by Susan Moller Okin] – just distribution of responsibilities, equal opportunity in the workplace, employment history.
  • Violence and powerlessness – psychological and physical. Seeing the world in terms of relationships makes evil the destruction of relationships.
  • Sexism – stereotyping women and devaluing their moral experience, making women less capable. Somehow embedded in our culture.  Consider the word “fuck”  – used as a noun, verb, adverb, adjective, exclamation.  As a legitimate ancient Anglo-Saxon word which has descended into the category of words to be avoided, it’s now used to shock – and even that is lessening.  But behind its almost inadvertent use today is the disturbing picture of sexual intercourse as a hurtful activity that men inflict upon women.
  • Sexual harassment – seeking to extract sexual ‘favors’, using threats for compliance.
  • Pornography – reinforces sexist attitudes, but feminist philosophers are committed to free speech; feminists agree that porn is offensive; some [Catherine MacKinnon] maintain that porn is action, therefore should not shielded by free speech laws.
  • Feminization of poverty – poverty as a condition that women are more likely to encounter than men. Equal pay for equal work?  Equal pay for comparable work?  Distribution of pension after divorce?

Final Comments:  We all live in the same world.  Women’s moral voices spur reassessing traditional moral theory, expanding our stock of fundamental concepts.  Feminist moral theory opens up the possibility of a richer, more diverse moral conversation.


Watch the movie “North Country”  (note instances of emergent issues)

Essay: take three emergent issuesfrom this Module 12 posting and link them to specific scenes from the film using the language and graphic representation of the film.  An “A” paper will include them; avoidance of these terms and pictures glosses over the impact that they have in the real life of real people.

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