I recently finished a class in ethics, which was great, and very interesting. The topic of my paper for the class was feminist moral theory (naturally), and there is a great, diverse body of work on this subject. I thought I would share some of my findings on the topics I researched.To begin, the three main types of ethical theories are as follows:
- Consequentialist, which holds that the rightness and wrongness of actions can only be determined by the consequences of those actions. Utilitarianism is the most common form of consequentialism; the tag line for this theory is "the greatest good for the greatest number." The most famous consequentialist is John Stuart Mill.
- Deontological theories, which hold that people may never be used merely as a means, but as an end in themselves (this is straight out of Kant's categorical imperative). Other than Kant, deontology has led to rights-based moral theories, like that advocated by Robert Nozick. This type of moral theory is important because it places restrictions on how people may be treated, which consequentialist theories do not.
- Virtue ethics, which holds that the most important moral question is not "What should I do?", but rather "What kind of person should I be?" Virtue ethics has to do with striving to posess and display certain characteristics that are deemed objectively good; out of these characteristics arise good actions. This theory is appealing because it involves the intentions of actions rather than simply the results of actions. The creator of virtue ethics is Aristotle.
Okay, the theory is out of the way (although of course there are so many arguments and questions to be answered about each of these theories, and I have hardly done them justice here). The beginnings of feminist moral discourse began in the 1980s with the publication of a work by psychologist Carol Gilligan, called In a Different Voice. The book outlined a study Gilligan did over a period of several years that examined the question of why women scored lower on psychological tests for morality than did men. It turned out that the problem lay with the tests themselves; the framework of the tests used a standard of moral agency that incorporated traditionally masculine traits. Gilligan found that males typically view moral issues in terms of justice, or competing rights claims, and in terms of moral rules or laws that are absolute. Females, on the other hand, tend to view moral issues in terms of conflicting responsibilities of care and concern for those involved, and tend to search for resolutions that allow for the continuation of the relationship between the parties in conflict. Because tests for morality are built on the model of justice, women's ethics of care are excluded; thus, women score lower on test for morality and were largely deemed to be morally deficient.
I'll give an example to illustrate the point. One of the questions on Kohlberg's test for moral development involves a hypothetical situation. A man, Heinz, has a sick wife. She will die if she doesn't get a particular medicine, which is rare. The druggist in his town can produce the drug, but is charging an exorbitant amount of money for the drug and refuses to lower his fee. Heinz breaks into the pharmacy and steals the drug. Is this morally permissible?
Typically, men respond that yes, it is morally acceptable for Heinz to have stolen the drug, because his wife's life is worth more than money. The issue is cast in terms of competing rights-claims. The wife's right to life is stronger than the druggist's right to property.
Women, however, are split on the issue. Many use the model of justice (I'll discuss this a bit more) to arrive at the same conclusion as the men surveyed, but others use the model of care and decide that Heinz should not steal the drug, but should find an alternate arrangement with the druggist. The reasons given for these conclusions are that the relationship between the druggist and Heinz would be damaged by stealing the drug, and potentially the relationship between Heinz and his wife could be damaged should Heinz be caught and go to jail for theft. The focus is on the relationships, and the solutions offered are alternative, constructive solutions rather than black and white This or That options.
As a result, women who responded in this way scored lower on Kohlberg's test, because their answers did not fit into the framework set out by Kohlberg when the test was designed. At best, the questioners recorded that the women did not understand the question, and so were deemed not only morally deficient, but cognitively deficient as well!
As a result of these findings by Gilligan, feminist moral theory exploded. Some claim that the ethic of care is better, and should replace the ethic of justice upon which our legal system is based. I completely disagree with this move; if the complaint about traditional ethical theories is that it ignores the moral experiences and intuitions of women, then transitioning to an ethic of care excluses the moral experiences and intuitions of men. Some women do use an ethic of justice, but virtually no men use an ethic of care. My opinion is that women who do use an ethic of justice have assumed some masculine traits in order to succeed in a patriarchal world.
My theory is that moral frameworks do need to change in order to incorporate the moral experiences and intuitions of women. I see the point of difference lying in the fact that males and females are socialized differently, and taught to strive to embody different kinds of virtues. Males are taught to be strong, brave, independent, and just. Women are taught to be gentle, caring, self-sacrificing, and demure. The pictures of a "good" man and a "good" woman are very different. The way I see it, both the ethics of care and the ethics of justice are virtue ethics theories, and out of these virtues come the frameworks used to create other moral theories focusing on acts. However, accepting both sets of virtues is not enough; a moral theory should strive to eliminate oppression and protect the vulnerable, like Kantian and rights-based ethics do in many ways. I think only a feminist theory of morality can accomplish this, since feminism is more sensitive to problems of oppression that other moral theories. I'm not sure how to construct this theory of morality; I don't have all the answers, but I think I've got a good start.