Feminist Care Ethics

Do women and men think differently? Do they make moral decisions differently? If so, does this arise from women’s experience, or from femininity?

Alison Jaggar says, traditional ethics overrates culturally masculine traits like “independence, autonomy, intellect, will, wariness, hierarchy, domination, culture, transcendence, product, asceticism, war, and death,” while it underrates culturally feminine traits like “interdependence, community, connection, sharing, emotion, body, trust, absence of hierarchy, nature, immanence, process, joy, peace, and life… It favours “male” ways of moral reasoning that emphasize rules, rights, universality, and impartiality over “female” ways of moral reasoning that emphasize relationships, responsibilities, particularity, and partiality. These do not apply to all women, or all men, but I know which I prefer.

JS Mill saw that in Victorian times women were seen as more moral than men. He considered this arose from social conditioning: women were moulded into self-abnegation. Mary Wollstonecraft saw this abnegation arising from women’s dependent position. Her answer was proper education, so that women would become rational, responsible, independent adults. Rational thought, rather than feeling, gave moral answers.

Charlotte Perkins Gillman wrote that so long as women are dependent on men for economic support, women will be known for their servility and men for their arrogance.

If men are more independent, and women more connected to others, the moral responses these positions produce are different, but not necessarily better or worse. Male ethicists have emphasised universal, abstract, impartial, and rational knowledge; women’s particular, concrete, partial and emotional knowledge may reflect better how people act in the world. I would take the categorical imperative, act such that you could will a universal law, and approach it from the concrete: I want for others what I want for myself. People do not act on their former expressed abstract beliefs, when they are personally concerned; and the problem with universal ethics is that every situation is particular; there are so many relevant circumstances that none will be repeated.

Women’s language of care emphasises relationships and responsibilities. The traditional language of ethics, overwhelmingly from males, is a male language of justice, rights and rules. In the feminine way, the highest moral response weaves my interests together with those of others. Women need to be men’s economic equals before they can develop truly human moral virtue, a perfect blend of pride and humility: namely, self-respect.

For me, Competitive and Co-operative are personality styles, both necessary for a functioning society, and not entirely aligned with men and women respectively. I asked H what she thought of care ethics, and she said she was not interested: that was the debate in the 1990s, and things have moved on. How fascinating, to be aware of the historic movement, and be at the forefront, of these debates. Men and women, cis and trans, are within our society and moulded by it. From a third wave feminism perspective, women are unique individuals, each with individual experiences and strengths. To become themselves, women must embrace conflict, even self-contradiction.

I was 27, volunteering in the CAB, on the Constituency Association committee of the Conservative Party, fairly traditional Christian with strong anti-abortion views. A woman came in to the CAB because she needed an abortion. I knew it was my role to answer her question without moral judgment; but my heart went out to her, I wanted for her what she saw as her good. Much later, when I saw on the TV an old male GP saying how he would not oppose abortion directly to his patient’s face, but delay because he disapproved, he repelled me. Or the paedophile. He said, “I want you to make it so I don’t have to fear any more” and my feeling for him changed from disgust and loathing to compassion. These experiences are a great part of my self-image, or self-knowledge- this is how I respond at my Best

in Love for the person in front of me. I don’t care if it is masculine or feminine. It is beautiful.

Taken from Feminism Ethics by Rosemarie Tong and Nancy Williams.

El Greco, The Holy Family

5 thoughts on “Feminist Care Ethics

  1. Regardless of gender I think, the more independent existentially the person is the “freer” the expression of morally coloured/associated opinion. I do agree with the suggestion that when women are economically equal to men their moral opinions will change – one can see the difference in today’s society that has both economically independent and dependent women… freedom to express what one really thinks differs markedly….

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