Feminist Ethics

The same set of questions – but now encompassing a global range of ethical frameworks – may be asked. In particular: if your cultural context(s) and/or culture(s) of origin are non-Western, so that you already have a strong familiarity with especially non-Western ethical frameworks, now might be a good time to undertake the more global version of these questions. (And/or: you and/or your instructor may decide it’s better to wait on these until the further review of the discussion of these frameworks that is about to follow.)

Either way, this exercise should begin by asking you to take up two frameworks – one characteristically Western (e.g., utilitarianism) and one characteristically non-Western (e.g., Confucian, Buddhist, Hindu, African, etc.). With these two frameworks as your starting point, the questions in (1) can then be pursued.

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As the discussion so far demonstrates, virtually all of the philosophers who have developed important ethical frameworks in Western (and, as we will see, Eastern) traditions are men. Especially for the second- wave feminists of the 1960s and 1970s, this observation naturally leads to an important question: is it possible that the conceptions, approaches, values, etc., that make up prevailing ethical (and other philosophical) frameworks reflect characteristically “male” or “masculinist” ways of knowing and thinking? Or, to state it negatively: is it possible that these prevailing ethical frameworks thus tend to ignore or exclude what are characteristically women’s ways of knowing and reflecting on ethical issues?

In the domain of ethics – specifically, in the area of developmental psychology concerned with how people reflect on and seek to resolve ethical difficulties – these questions were given particular force through the work of Carol Gilligan. Gilligan’s landmark book In a Different Voice documented both important parallels and distinctive differences between the ways in which men and women characteristically approached central ethical dilemmas. Briefly put, Gilligan’s interviews with women facing difficult ethical choices (including the possibility of abortion) challenged the then-prevailing schema of ethical development established through the work of Lawrence Kohlberg – work that, in fact, built on observations of and interviews with men exclusively. On the one hand, for both Gilligan and Kohlberg, the evidence of their interviews and observations suggested that individuals develop their abilities to recognize and come to grips with ethical issues over time and in ways that can be described by a three-stage schema (with each stage in turn involving two sub-stages). Preconventional morality, describing how pre- adolescents grapple with ethical matters, works on a simple reward– punishment schema: one is “good” because good acts are rewarded, and one (usually) avoids being “bad” because bad acts are punished. Conventional morality, characteristically the moral stage of young adolescents and adults, reflects the values, practices, and expectations prevailing in the larger society, with an emphasis on justice and correlative notions of recognizing and preserving basic individual rights – at least as these contribute to the maintenance of the status quo. Postconventional morality, by contrast, represents a move into significant sorts of ethical autonomy (in Kant’s term), as individuals take conscious responsibility for their ethical principles and reflections in new ways, so as perhaps to radically critique and re-evaluate prevailing social claims regarding rights and justice. As is often the case, such reflections can lead individuals to draw new ethical conclusions regarding right and wrong that run against the prevailing morality of their larger society. Historically, such postconventional moralists have been important for what we think of as ethical and social progress: their postconventional morality has led them to challenge prevailing social practices and values and, in the view of subsequent generations, helped to lead society more broadly to a set of values and practices that are seen as ethically preferable over earlier ones.