Feminist Ethics… it’s all about relationships and having a voice..


Carol Gilligan, a prominent feminist, has the following to say about the ethics of care

To address the question of why the ethics of care is still embattled (especially in the U.S.) but also now in Europe), to consider the ethics of care in light of new evidence in the human sciences that as humans we are by nature empathic and responsive beings, hard-wired for cooperation. Rather than asking how do we gain the capacity to care, the questions become how do we come not to care; how do we lose the capacity for empathy and mutual understanding? It is also crucial to clarify that within a patriarchal framework, the ethics of care is a “feminine” ethic, whereas within a democratic framework it is a human ethic, grounded in core democratic values: the importance of everyone having a voice and being listened to carefully and heard with respect. The premise of equal voice then allows conflicts to be addressed in relationships. Different voices then become integral to the vitality of a democratic society.

A feminist ethic of care is an ethic of resistance to the injustices inherent in patriarchy (the association of care and caring with women rather than with humans, the feminization of care work, the rendering of care as subsidiary to justice—a matter of special obligations or interpersonal relationships). A feminist ethic of care guides the historic struggle to free democracy from patriarchy; it is the ethic of a democratic society, it transcends the gender binaries and hierarchies that structure patriarchal institutions and cultures. An ethics of care is key to human survival and also to the realization of a global society.

And.. as for the definition of the ethics of care:

As an ethic grounded in voice and relationships, in the importance of everyone having a voice, being listened to carefully (in their own right and on their own terms) and heard with respect. An ethics of care directs our attention to the need for responsiveness in relationships (paying attention, listening, responding) and to the costs of losing connection with oneself or with others. Its logic is inductive, contextual, psychological, rather than deductive or mathematical.

Like other ethical theories, feminist ethics is grounded in a broader philosophical set of theories.  Each of these theories includes a means of understanding the world in a particular way — and under that, a means of acquiring knowledge — that knowledge includes moral knowledge.

By now, if I told you that a theory of knowledge concluded that knowledge was gained by observation (empiricism), you’d probably see that empiricism probably results in a consequentialist theory like utilitarianism because the results are observed.  If I told  you that a theory of knowledge relied on internal structures and reasoning about observations, you’d probably think about Kant.. Feminist ethics are similar.

The basic idea behind feminism is that all persons ought to be considered equal.  That seems pretty basic, but the general idea is that there are deeply held assumptions about the proper “role” for men and women — but, there is no real basis for these roles outside of the messages society sends us about those roles.

When it comes to acquisition of knowledge, many feminists believe in what is often called “standpoint epistemology” — the idea behind standpoint epistemology is that every individual has a unique point of view — and that point of view informs the way they process information.  So, two people could see the same situation very differently based on their unique perspectives.  “Truth” comes when people from different points of view contribute to the creation of knowledge.  When the different points of view are compared and contrasted, the real “truth” comes to light.

When  you apply the feminist theory seen in standpoint epistemology to the acquisition of moral knowledge, the results are the ethics of care.  In terms of ethics, feminists recognize that individuals create unique and valuable relationships among one another.  These relationships are important to the happiness of all involved, and that ethical behavior involves keeping these relationships sound.  So — listening to the people you are in a relationship with, considering their needs and your own needs — then acting in a way that is beneficial to everyone is the basis for the ethics of care.

This isn’t an objective theory, like the other theories — it’s a theory based on the understanding that the best way to act is a way that promotes the well-being of those around you.  Since this is the kind of moral decision-making that has traditionally been in the realm of the female-caregiver position in the family, many ethical theorists reject it out of hand.  Feminism seeks to give value to the ethics of care with an eye toward giving more intellectual credit to the work women have been doing for generations.


1 Comment

Filed under Applied Ethics, Business Ethics, Environmental Ethics, Ethical Theory, Feminism, Intro to Philosophy, Medical Ethics, Uncategorized

One response to “Feminist Ethics… it’s all about relationships and having a voice..

  1. John Weimer

    I would like to say that I found your article very interesting. I am currently taking a class in ethics and we are studying Feminism Ethics this week. I agree that it is human nature to care about those around you, however you brought up a very interesting point about how men and women should be treated as equals…I too feel that should be the case. In my viewpoint, if a women can do the same job as a man, then why should she not get the same pay and benefits? However to change this would take some work. In Human in Ethics Communication, Rita Manning states “we need not reject conceptions of human nature as providing a foundation for morality”…”an ethic of care requires a new conception of human nature.” (Johannesen, Valde, & Whedbee, 2008). I think that the mindset that is currently being used when it comes to equality is one that needs to be revamped or restructured. As society changes, so should the rules that go along with it. Additionally, telling it slant, phrase from Emily Dickinson, has become a popular phrase. It means to twist or stretch the truth to a more acceptable term. An example of this is if a women has a female issue, she would not want to tell her male employer exactly what was going on. She would have to tell it slant to let her employer know that something is wrong and she needs to take care of it. I feel that this is could be one of the reasons that women may not get the ethics of care, equal treatment, that they deserve. Again, I think that this was an interesting article and I found it very informative.
    John Weimer
    Drury Student
    Johannesen, R. L., Valde, K. S., & Whedbee, K. E. (2008). Ethics in human communication. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press

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