Feminist Ethics

The area of feminist ethics is large and important enough to deserve a chapter to itself; within the context of feminist philosophy of religion, however, a brief account of it must suffice. The impetus to much recent writing in feminist ethics came from the now very famous work of Carol Giliigan, a Harvard psychologist who pointed out that much of the work on the moral development of children by Kohlberg and others was in fact based on studies where all the subjects were male. Giliigan conducted studies which compared the moral responses of groups of boys with groups of girls, matched for age and socio-economic background. Her findings showed that whereas boys tended to emphasize fairness and rule-governed behaviour, girls were more likely to emphasize care for one another, and showed much stronger commitment to finding solutions to problems which would enable them to maintain relationships, rather than insisting on preconceived ideas of justice (Giliigan 1982).

Feminist writers on ethics were quick to use Gilligan's findings to begin a critical analysis of modern ethical systems from Hobbes to Rawls, showing how their ideas of justice are, in fact, ideas which privilege dominant males (Kittay and Meyers 1987; Okin 1989). A constructive effort also developed, in which feminists explored the ideas of care and connectedness as a basis for moral thinking (Noddings 1984; Andolsen et al. 1985; Code et al. 1988). Nevertheless, feminists quickly realized that while ethical theory and moral issues have much to gain from an emphasis on care and connection, it is all too easy to slip back into the notion that women are the ideal carers of society, the ones to whom the 'private' issues of care can be left while the men get on with the more public concerns requiring an emphasis on justice and fairness. Although such a dichotemizing view should certainly not be attributed to Giliigan herself or to feminist ethicists who build on her work, it is clear that feminist ethics requires not only a strong commitment to care and connectedness, but also a robust account of justice, and of the ways in these concepts need to interpret one another (Grey 1991; Jantzen 1992).

The person who has done most to foster rigorous feminist ethics within a framework of Christian philosophy of religion is Beverly Harrison, to whose work a double issue of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (1993) has recently been dedicated. Harrison has consistently emphasized the significance of the patriarchal social context within which the formation of the moral character, for both males and females, takes place (Harrison 1985:54-80; 83-114). Not only the moral character, but all of its specific moral choices too, occur within a social and religious context, and are misunderstood if they are seen as an ahistorical exercise of the autonomous will. Consequently, while Harrison broadly welcomes the work of Giliigan and the formation of an ethic of care, she calls attention back to the patriarchal social determinants of men and women that predipose them to emphasize justice and care respectively. If an ethic of care, by focusing on individual moral decisions, deflects attention from the need to dismantle these oppressive structures, including their religious underpinnings, or if it channels the energy of women away from the struggle for social justice by characterizing that as unfeminine, then more will have been lost than gained by noting the gender differences in (current, white, Western) types of moral decision-making. Harrison speaks of the urgency of ethical revaluation of the complicity of churches and theologies in strategies of oppression, and, far from dampening women's anger at injustice, seeks to mobilize 'the power of anger in the work of love' (Harrison 1985:3-21).

That 'work of love' demands an effort to change the world, to make it a place for human habitation for women and for men, who learn to live in ways that foster dignity and community. Sharon Welch has explained how well-intentioned liberal efforts to change the world easily end up in 'cultured despair', an abandonment of all effort as useless because no single effort can accomplish everything. Yet as Welch points out, such an attitude is the mirror image of the desire for an unholy omnipotence, an unwillingness to accept risk, to do the next thing. What we need to seek is not for a 'final solution' but for ways that will take the struggle for justice forward (Welch 1990:10380). It is this struggle for justice to which the intellectual and imaginative resources of feminist philosophy of religion are dedicated.

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