Feminist Ethics?

As one who would regard himself as a feminist, i.e., one who has argued many times in favor of women’s rights, I confess I have some qualms about the position of those who might be called “radical” (“rabid”??) feminists. I have no quarrel with the desire to right the ship, level the playing field, provide women with an opportunity to show that they can do everything that men can do — and then some. I would like very much to personally take a sledge-hammer to the glass ceiling. My stand goes back to Plato who insisted that women could become philosopher kings in his ideal republic because they were as fit as men to rule.

But, at the same time, I have a problem with those who insist that women should be treated the same as men, that there are no real differences, when there are obvious differences (not just physically); in the eyes of many radical feminists those differences are fundamental. There’s a contradiction here somewhere.

One of the most eloquent of the radical feminists is the psychologist Carol Gilligan who wrote the book (In A Different Voice) about the important differences between men and women, especially when it comes to ethics. She developed what she called the “ethics of care,” stressing the fact that women tend to be more intuitive in their thinking and group oriented (“the self and the other are interdependent”), whereas men tend to be more self-assertive and seek power and success rather than love. Above all else, in Gilligan’s view, men and women reason differently. This has given rise to the peculiar notion of “male reason.” As she notes:

“. . .the moral judgments of women differ from those of men in the greater extent to which women’s judgments are tied to feelings of empathy and compassion and are concerned with the resolution of real as opposed to hypothetical dilemmas. . .  Power and separation secure the man in an identity achieved through work, but they leave him at a distance from others who seem in some sense out of sight.”

The argument runs that men’s reasoning in ethics stresses respect for persons as individuals — as with Immanuel Kant — whereas her ethics of care stresses the sympathy all humans should have for other humans. As she puts is:

“The moral imperative that emerges repeatedly in interviews with women is an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate the ‘real and recognizable trouble’ of this world. For men, the moral imperative appears rather as an injunction to respect the rights of others and thus to protect from interference the rights to life and self-fulfillment.”

The problem I have with this argument is that it smacks of black and white thinking: men and women are totally unlike; they reason differently about important matters. According to Carl Gustav Jung, whom I respect highly, we are all of us a strange blend of both the masculine and the feminine. And with healthy folks the integration of the two is complete. We all know of masculine women and feminine men, but that’s not what Jung is talking about. He is talking about the fact that each of us has the capacity to reason and also to act in the ways Gilligan spells out. This is the Yin and Yang of Eastern religions. The ethics of care, therefore, is not reserved for women. Men can and do act with compassion and concern for others. And the notion that women do not reason about their actions is a bit strange and even counter-factual. A complete ethics, it has always seemed to me, would involve both care and a respect for the rights of all humans. The failure to find balance between the two selves results in mental and emotional imbalance, not only in our thinking about ethical issues, but in all aspects of our lives. The two selves are not mutually exclusive. Karl Stern put it well in his remarkable book The Flight From Woman:

“. . . affect, untempered by reason, and rationality unfettered by the heart, are both, each in its own particular way, manifestations of trouble.”

And this takes us back to my quarrel with the radical feminists. They cannot insist both that women and men are fundamentally different and at the same time insist that women ought to be allowed the same opportunities as men because they really are no different. Because each of us is male and female, yin and yang, both men and women are capable of embracing an ethics that stresses respect and care at the same time. We can all reason and care for others: care about all those whose rights we realize must be acknowledged.


8 thoughts on “Feminist Ethics?

  1. Hugh, it is always hard to avoid generalizations. As the Myers-Briggs personality tests show, there are varying ways all people process, interpret, weigh and use information or input. We all are different in our own ways, but we are similar as well. Women deserve ever opportunity to succeed as you note, especially when women are treated so poorly around the globe and even here in the US, in certain areas. Yet, I value the diversity of thought and perspective, so I am eager to see more women in decision making roles. Again, trying not to generalize, I believe men have been taught to be more competitive, which can reveal itself in decision making in less than positive ways.

    A good example is it took ten female senators, who worked together, to avoid the US defaulting on its debts in October, 2013, thanks to the hyper competitive actions of Senator Ted Cruz. This would have been a disaster, but that was lost on Cruz who wanted to win an argument. I realize I am painting with extreme strokes, but it shows why diversity of thought is needed. It also shows why Cruz is such a poor candidate for President, but that is an aside.

    Good post, Keith

  2. Whilst i agree with your comments, you have made no reference to modern feminist philosophy – the woman as victim. This is the complete opposite of what feminism is all about – or should be. Germaine Greer (if she were dead) would turn in her grave.

    • Thanks, Ray. I do think that is a topic for another post! And, despite the fact that everyone and his dog claims to be a victim today, I do think women have a very good case to be made.

      • Like you, I think women have a good case to be made for equality. In fact it stands to reason and I cannot understand why there is still any barrier to the case. But I was upset by the strident feminism of the 1970s and 1980s where females needed to ‘punish’ males – that was never what feminism is about. But the modern swing towards victimhood is much more insidious. I look forward to reading your post in the future. Tony

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