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Feminism and Ethics

Moral theory

Feminist ethics: Introduction and overview (Part 1)

Information: An introduction to feminist ethics, looking at some of the key issues and concerns feminists have about traditional approaches to questions of morality.

Key terms

  • Patriarchal/patriarchy - Any form of social, religious or knowledge-based organisation, which revolves around male leadership/authority, or male interests. In other words, 'ruled and led by men'.


Picture - Feminist fistAlthough feminists may differ in how they interpret and understand the nature of women's oppression, there is one fundamental starting point for them all - that of women's experience. All feminists argue that for too long now, a woman's point-of-view has been largely ignored and neglected throughout the course of human history. The bottom line for all of this is that our various societies, religions, philosophies, sciences and even moral theories have been basically shaped and formed by men, for men, and according to male interests and needs.

Something to think about: How many of the classic religious, philosophical and moral ideas you have studied have been work of women?

In seeking to redress this balance, feminists use the notion of women's experience to evaluate how patriarchal institutions/systems of knowledge have oppressed women, what relevance these systems have been/are to women, and also what their continuing role/purpose/place is in the lives of women today.

'Men have created an image of us as 'the other' - different from them and to be kept inferior! When are women going to fight back with our own images and experience, to establish our equality with men?' (Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex)

The nature of sexist ethics

'Sexist ethics' may be understood as any moral theory that is fundamentally biased towards the interests of one gender. Feminists believe that all major moral theories can be considered sexist for the simple reason that they are biased towards the male point-of-view, male interests and male needs. Now any thoughtful student of moral theory will most likely be scratching their head right now, for it seems unclear how Utilitarianism or Deontological ethics (for example) might be considered sexist, and in particular biased towards men or male-interests. Well, not only were they the creation of men (in their modern forms - Bentham/Mill and Kant respectively), but more importantly they (and many more like them) tend to bundle-together the interests of all people, in order to present a universal 'one-size-fits-all' moral theory. For example:

'Nature has placed mankind under two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure... Of an action that is conformable to the principle of utility one may either say that it is one that ought to be done.' (Bentham J., Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)

'Act as if the maxim of your action was to become through your will a universal law of nature.' (Immanuel Kant)

Woman in a hatFrom these two quotations, we can see that both Utilitarian and Deontological ethics suggest that moral questions can (and should) be reduced to a common-denominator. In the case of Utilitarianism, this is to only act in ways which increase personal/social well-being (or happiness/pleasure), in the case of Kant's Deontological ethics, this is to only do those things we would be willing for others to do.

Although at first glance these moral theories might seem to be the basis for living the 'good' life, feminists are concerned that universal moral theories cannot (and do not) reflect the diverse nature of people and their varied interests. In particular, they do not appreciate that there are fundamental differences between male and female perspectives, particularly when it comes to understanding and evaluating moral issues.

'Adopting a universal perspective toward moral situations tends to (although it does not need to) reveal generic persons and relationships whose psychological subtleties have been washed away. Specifically, the fact that human beings are gendered is likely to be deemed irrelevant to moral deliberation. It is too bad if the stereotypic woman - with all her reproductive organs, emotions, and kinship ties to particular others - does not fit the category of Plain Wrap Human being.' (Virginia Warren, Feminist Directions in Medical Ethics, Thirteen Moral Questions in Ethics)


In terms of ethics, feminists also believe that men have a tendency to organise, order and control things in order to gain moral superiority (or power) over them. This is why they like the 'one-size-fits-all' approach. As an example of this, consider how the Catholic Church (largely a male institution) morally 'controls' it members by suggesting that what is 'good', must conform to a God-ordained natural (moral) law.

Cycle of life logoNow on the basis of this universal law, the Catholic Church considers it morally wrong (or unnatural) for women to have an abortion, and so forbids its members to do this. This is because unhindered, they say that pregnancy will normally (or naturally) lead to a woman giving birth. So stopping this is essentially preventing a natural process (which they believe God has instigated) from continuing its normal cycle. However, feminists are concerned that a universalising principle such as natural law does not (and cannot) take into account the specific situation each woman finds herself in, and as such, by ignoring this men (via the Church) are essentially oppressing women!

For feminists, the 'big test' to see if a moral theory is sexist or not, is whether a person's gender is deemed to be important when discussing moral issues. If it is not, then there is a good chance that the unique perspective and interests of women (and also men) are being glossed-over. This would also suggest that the theory is biased in favour of one gender's point-of-view (normally men's).

Something to think about: Are there any ethical theories you have studied, which seem to adopt an inclusive approach to moral issues?

How society has been shaped by sexist ethics

Although it might not be easy for people to see (especially men) how we live in a world shaped and formed by sexist ethics (as far as feminists are concerned), the best way to illustrate this is to reflect on the attitude of society towards the public (outside the home) and private (inside the home) aspects of life.

It is very common to find feminists criticising the way a woman's role in society has been limited to the domestic (private) sphere, but they largely do this to expose the way this role has been shaped and undermined by patriarchal attitudes. For instance, the 'job' of a stay-at-home parent (still largely done by women) is basically unpaid work (despite the long hours), and comes with no medical or pension benefits. In fact, some might say that it is practically a form of slave labour. On the other hand, work performed outside the home is normally fully paid (often including overtime), and comes with medical and pension benefits.

Now despite the fact that many people say that the 'job' of a stay-at-home parent is important, this is clearly not reflected in the laws pertaining to work and conditions of employment in society. For if it was, then we should expect that those people who work to care for their children would be being paid, receiving medical and pension benefits, and even being given paid holiday time (as these are things society deems it lawful for people to get when they work in the public sector).

Also, if society has been shaped and formed by men according to male interests and needs (patriarchy), then we will expect to find that their role in the public sphere is given more prestige and importance that that of the stay-at-home parent (which is why men who have chosen to 'stay-at-home' are sometimes given a hard time). This is why feminists argue that the inequality which exists between work done in the public and that in the private sectors, is basically due to society being shaped and formed by sexist ethical principles.

The evidence suggests (based on the type of work that is 'rewarded') that those areas of life in which men have been more closely associated with, are more fully acknowledged and valued than those they have not.

Feminist ethics: Introduction and overview (Part 2)

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