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MPA 8300
Leadership Ethics






Overview of feminist ethics:

Feminist ethics without feminist ethical theory












































































































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Feminism is a social and intellectual movement that, since its inception, has impacted nearly all aspects of social life including but not limited to politics, economics, education, history, art, and philosophy.  Critical to feminism is the issue of gender equality and the dignity accorded to being a woman.  What these notions mean, however, have evolved and changed as feminism has assumed a variety of forms since its early inception.

 A feminist ethics...

As feminism applies to ethics, most ethical speculation in the Western world until the 1980s voiced primarily what males had been propounding.  The rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, however, signaled a sea change in ethical discourse as females voiced serious and scholarly challenges to those aspects of traditional Western ethics that feminists viewed as depreciating or devaluing the experience of women while also neglecting the historical contributions women have made to ethical discourse.

It is a challenging endeavor to identify precisely what makes an approach to ethics “feminist.”  At a surface level, this body of speculation would certainly be women-centered and focused primarily upon women’s ethical experiences, as Gilligan (1992) noted.  More substantively, however, feminist approaches would be distinctiveand they are—by inquiring into power—issues of domination and subordination in a social structure—before inquiring into what constitutes the good as this may be expressed in virtues like justice and care, as ethical speculation in the Western world did until the 1980s.  These distinctions sometimes make feminist ethics appear to be political in the sense that the agenda proffered by feminist ethicists is committed, first and foremost, to eliminating women’s subordination—and, in some instances, that of any other oppressed persons—in all of its manifestations.  Feminist ethics, then, seeks to subvert rather than to reinforce any systematic subordination of women and other human beings.

In general, feminist ethics is the attempt: 1) to highlight the differences between how males and females experience and interpret their respective situations in life (e.g., biologically, socially, culturally); 2) to provide strategies for human agents to deal with the dilemmas arising in the private as well as in public spheres; and, 3) to deconstruct any ethic and ethical conduct that bolsters any systematic subordination of women and other human beings.  In short, feminist approaches to ethics have the goal of creating gender-equal rather than gender-neutral ethics, that is, an ethical theory which generates non-sexist ethical principles, policies, and practices for both females and males (Card, 1991).

 A very brief history of feminist ethics...

Although feminist ethics grew in popularity in the 1980s, its emergence in scholarly circles was not simply a consequence of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.  Debates about the allegedly gendered nature of ethics can be traced back at least to the 18th century.

Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, reflected deeply about what makes a character good and a personality socially acceptable.  Like ethicists before her, Wollstonecraft prized the ability to reason more highly than feelings which, she believed, distinguished human beings—not simply males—from brute animals.  In A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft (1988) concluded that, if women are to be regarded as ethical creatures, they should also display the psychological traits usually associated with virtuous men.

The 19th century utilitarian philosopher, John Stuart Mill, concurred that gender should define neither virtue nor intellectual prowess.  Arguing that society had set up a double standard which not only assessed ethics and ethical conduct differently for women and men but also specified and imposed upon women a set of virtues and intellectual powers which served only to re-enforce society’s patriarchal structure, Mill argued that female “virtue” was not something unique to females but, instead, something society imposed upon women.  In The Subjection of Women, Mill (1970) argued that to praise women on account of their virtue was to dictate that a woman’s worth is to be discovered in living for and sacrificing for others, to give and not to receive in return, to submit, yield, and obey, as well as to be long-suffering.  Like Wollstonecraft, Mill believed one set of virtues must apply equally to both women and men.  The set of virtues advocated by Mill, however, contained the psychological traits commonly associated with men.

While it may be asserted that Mill was an early forerunner or proponent of what later would be called "feminist ethics," it would later be argued that this was not the case.  Why?  Because Mill was male.  By virtue of this fact, he could no more articulate a feminist ethic than any other male in that males possess no experience of or ability to interpret a female's experience from a female's perspective.

Given this critique, one early forerunner of feminist ethics might be Catherine Beecher who rooted her reflections in a “separate but equal” theory of virtue which insisted that male and female virtues are different.  She viewed the home and the woman’s central role in it as absolutely essential not only for the well being of society but also the construction of a better society.  Together with her sister, Harriet, Catherine described the discipline of “domestic science” in The American Woman’s Home (1971) which required a different yet equally demanding kind of intelligence and skill as well as kind of virtue than that required in the public sphere of politics, commerce, and finance.

Building upon this notion, most feminist ethicists during the 20th century considered ethics to be gendered.  Rejecting the assumptions that autonomy develops and strengthens the sense of self and that rationality mirrors reality best, feminist ethicists generally embraced two different assumptions.  The first is that relationships—“connectedness” with others—develop and strengthen the sense of self.  The second assumption is that the more particular, concrete, partial, and emotional knowledge is, the more likely it is to represent reality as it truly is.

In Feminist Ethics, Alison Jaggar (1992) perhaps best summarizes the feminist position in ethical speculation as it developed during the 20th century, asserting that traditional Western ethics failed women in five inter-related ways.  First, this body of ethical speculation has demonstrated little concern for women’s as opposed to men’s interests and rights.  Second, traditional Western ethics dismissed as ethically uninteresting the problems arising in the “private world,” the realm in which women cook, clean, and care for the young, the aged, and the sick.  Third, this body of thought implies (at a minimum) that, on the average, women are not as ethically developed as men.  Fourth, traditional Western ethics prizes culturally masculine traits (e.g., independence and autonomy, mind and rationality, culture and transcendence, war and death) and exhibits little regard for culturally feminine traits (e.g., interdependence and community, body and emotion, nature and immanence, peace and life).  Fifth, this body of ethical speculation favors culturally masculine approaches to ethical reasoning which emphasize rules, universality, and impartiality over culturally feminine ways of ethical reasoning which emphasize relationships, particularity, and partiality.  The culprit?  Jaggar points the finger of blame directly at traditional Western ethics.

Some feminist ethical theories...

Arguably the most influential feminist ethicist, Carol Gilligan, has stressed that traditional Western ethical theory is deficient to the degree that it lacks, ignores, trivializes, or demeans those traits of personality and virtues of character culturally associated with women.  In a book in which she reports her study of how 80 men and women reacted to various hypothetical situations, In a Different Voice (1982), Gilligan discovered that women more often focus upon “care” while men focus upon “justice.”

The “care orientation” focuses upon emotional relationships of attachment and networks of concrete relationships, connections, loyalties, and circles of concern whereas the “justice orientation” focuses upon equality, impartiality, universality, rules, and rights.  While agents operating from the care orientation view human beings as so interdependent as to blur the boundaries demarcating them from one another, agents operating from the justice orientation are obsessed with the individual’s autonomy and inclined to think of human beings in the most abstract way possible.  Gilligan does not insist, however, that the care orientation is superior to the justice orientation.

Yet, Gilligan did assert that women are different than men and the “ears” of traditional Western ethicists have been attuned to male rather than female ethical “voices.”  American society, she argued, muffles boys’ and men's sensitivity and encourages them to be less than caring and fully nurturing human beings.  In contrast to this generation’s women who speak the ethical language of justice and rights nearly as fluently as the ethical language of care and relationship, Gilligan argued that this generation’s boys and men are largely unable to articulate their ethical concerns in anything other than the moral language of justice and rights.

Reflecting five years later upon her research, Gilligan summarized what she believed are its lasting impacts.  She wrote that her research

…shift[s] the focus of attention from ways people reason about hypothetical dilemmas to ways people construct [ethical] conflicts and choice in their lives…and [makes] it possible to see what experiences people define in [ethical] terms, and to explore the relationship between the understanding of [ethical] problems and the reasoning strategies used and the actions taken in attempting to solve them. (1988, p. 21)

For her part, Nell Noddings (1984) has argued for the development of a feminine relational ethics of “caring.”  Caring is not about simply feeling favorably disposed toward people with whom one has no concrete connection.  In Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, Noddings asserted that authentic care requires actual encounters with specific individuals—the “one-caring” and the one “cared-for”—something that cannot be accomplished through an agent’s good intentions alone.  Women have an innate and immensely powerful sentiment of care as is evidenced in their unflinching care for their infants (p. 247), Noddings insisted, and the feelings of ethical obligation women experience emanate from this innate sentiment.  Children also act from a natural form of caring that moves them to assist others simply because they want to.  But, as children mature, society distorts what children want to do, making it harder for them to care.  And, when they do care, “the deliberateness of ethical caring” supplements the spontaneity of natural caring.  The latter is better than the former and, according to Noddings, the condition of its possibility.

The critics...

Like all ethical theories, feminist ethics has its share of critics.  Perhaps this is an indication of the importance this body of speculation has assumed in recent decades.

Some critics—especially non-feminist critics—focus upon the relationship between justice and care, considered as two, gender-neutral ethical perspectives.  These critics assert that even if care is an ethical virtue and not simply a pleasing psychological trait human beings can cultivate, care is a less essential ethical virtue than is the virtue of justice.  Furthermore, when justice and care conflict, impartiality must trump partiality.  Why?  Because no one’s fundamental rights and basic needs are neither more nor less important than are any other else’s fundamental rights and basic needs.

To clarify this criticism, consider the following argument.

It logically stands to reason that in genuine cases of need agents would be better off if they were to act out of general ethical principles (e.g., to provide assistance to the poor) than out of feelings of care.  Why?  Because, in reality, principles are more reliable and less ephemeral than feelings are.  Many people in the South felt positively about the institution of slavery during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.  Ethically speaking, was it truly a "good" thing simply because people felt that way about it?

In addition, because feminist ethics focus upon power and how power is used to oppress women in particular, non-feminist critics assert that these approaches are “female-biased.”  These critics insist that ethics cannot proceed from a particular standpoint as Rawls has argued (1999, 2000)—for example, from the standpoint of women—and be regarded as ethics.  For centuries, traditional Western ethics has proceeded from the assumption that its values and principles must apply to all persons equally.  From this perspective, it is a misguided venture—and, an injustice—to construct an ethical program that deliberately targets a specific group of people and, in turn, to generalize that program to include all people for all times and in all places.  Yet, isn't that exactly the assumption feminist ethics is constructed upon, namely, to talk about women's experiences as a monolith?

Other critics—especially feminist critics—focus upon the fact that women are associated culturally with care and men are associated culturally with justice.  If women care “better” than men, it may be epistemically, ethically, and politically imprudent to associate women with the virtue of care.  Linking women and caring promotes the view that because women care, they should care no matter the cost to themselves.  In a patriarchal society, care would be dangerous to women, part of the problem rather than its resolution (Mullet, 1988).

Claudia Card (1991) has also explored some of the problems associated with the relational and caring orientation of feminist ethics.  She asked: Which of my relationships with others underwrite my ethical duties toward them?  After all, isn’t it fact that people with whom an agent has an emotional relationship comprise only a tiny fraction of the people in the world?  Shouldn’t one’s ethical obligations extend beyond that tiny fraction (pp. 257-258)?  Card also worried that a caring relationship can become abusive to one or both parties (p. 259).

Lastly, empirical research first conducted by Blasi (1980), and later substantiated by Rest (1986) as well as Stewart and Sprinthall (1994), which utilized psychometric instruments designed to test Kohlberg's (1984) theory, indicated no bias against women.  In fact, women appear to perform similarly—and oftentimes better—than males when responding on the instrument.  Women utilize principled thinking to support ethical conduct, undercutting the feminist argument that "care" supersedes "justice" in women's ethical decision making.

In summary...

Feminist ethics is a body of philosophical speculation that, from diverse perspectives, purports to validate women’s different ethical experiences and to identify the weaknesses and strengths of the values and virtues culture traditionally has labeled “feminine.”  There are, for example, liberal, Marxist, radical, socialist, multicultural, global, and ecological feminists who have offered various explanations and sometimes conflicting solutions to the problems posed by the differences between the sexes and as these are purported to resolve the value conflicts embedded in contemporary ethical dilemmas.  In addition, there are existentialist, psychoanalytic, cultural, and postmodern feminists who seek the destruction of all systems, structures, institutions, and practices that create or maintain invidious power differentials between men and women.  And that is to say nothing about lesbian ethics which emphasize how ethical value emerges from what Hoagland (1989) has called “energy field capable of resting oppression” where lesbians model for others the kind of human beings who refuse to participate in anything other than egalitarian relationships.

Feminist ethics suggest several paths women can walk, each of which is alleged to lead toward the singular goal of an all women-centered ethics, namely, the elimination of gender inequality and the liberation of women (and perhaps all other human beings) from any subjugation to a lesser form of human dignity.  In general, all feminist ethics require an agent to listen first to others’ divergent points of view and, then, to develop an ethical theory and practice which will, despite the shortcomings of each, help as many women as possible move toward the goal of gender equality with men.

Lacking an appropriate theological base, the feminist critique of previous ethical theories is not as strong as it could be.  For example, the Christian theology of the Trinity provides one such base.  As Ratzinger (1990) has noted, St. Augustine's discussion concerning the Trinity is rooted in something that feminist ethics is very interested in, namely, an understanding about human beings and their relations to one another.  Ratzinger argues:

...the three persons that exist in God are in their nature relations.  They are, therefore, not substances that stand next to each other, but they are real existing relations, and nothing besides.  I believe this idea of the late patristic period is very important.  In God, person means relation.  Relation, being related, is not something superadded to the person, but it is the person itself.  In its nature, the person exists only as relation.  Put more concretely, the first person does not generate in the sense that the act of generating a Son is added to the already complete person, but the person is the deed of generating, of giving itself, of streaming itself forth.  The person is identical with this act of self-donation.  One could thus define the first person as self-donation in fruitful knowledge and love....  (p. 439)

Absent this appropriate theological basis, feminist ethics succumbs to the trap into which the Enlightenment project is ensnared, that is, a sterile and rugged individualism that ultimately ends in alienation.  Understanding the human person as a relational being, one who is by nature intrinsically related to other human persons and discovers oneself in relation to other persons, provides the most appropriate foundation for a feminist ethics that offers the hope and promise of overcoming sterile individualism—the "autonomous person"—that ends in alienation.


Beecher, C. E., & Stowe, H. B.  (1971)  The American woman’s home: Principles of domestic science.  New York: Aeno Press and The New York Times.

Blasi, A.  (1980).  Bridging moral cognition and moral action.  Psychological Bulletin, 88(1), 1-45.

Card, C. (Ed.).  (1991).  Feminist ethics.    Topeka, KA: University Press of Kansas.

Gilligan, C.  (1982).  In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gilligan, C. (Ed.).  (1988).  Mapping the moral domain: A contribution of women's thinking to psychological theory and education.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hoagland, S. L.  (1988).  Lesbian ethics.  Palo Alto, CA: Institute of Lesbian Studies.

Jaggar.  A. M.  (1992).  Feminist ethics.  In L. Becker & C. Becker (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Ethics (pp. 363-364).  New York: Garland Press.

Kohlberg, L.  (1984).  Essays on moral development (Vol. II).  New York: Harper & Row.

Mill, J. S.  (1970).  The subjection of women.  In A. S. Rossi (Ed.), Essays on sex equality (pp. 125-156).  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Mullet, S.  (1988).  Shifting perspectives: A new approach to ethics.  In L. Code, S. Mullet, & C. Overall (Eds.), Feminist perspectives: Philosophical essays on method and morals.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Noddings, N.  (1992).  The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education.  New York: Teachers College Press.

Ratzinger, J.  (1990, Fall).  Retrieving the tradition: Concerning the notion of person in theology.  Communio (17), 439-447.

Rawls, J.  (2001).  Justice as fairness: A restatement.  Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Rawls, J.  (1999).  A theory of justice (rev. ed.).  Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Rest. J.  (1986).  Moral development.  New York: Praeger.

Steward, D. W., & Sprinthall, N. A.  (1994).  Moral development in public administration.  In T. L. Cooper (Ed.), Handbook of Administrative Ethics (pp. 2325-349).  New York: Marcel Kekker.

Wollstonecraft, M.  (1988).  A vindication of the rights of women (M. Brody, Ed.).  London, UK: Penguin.