It’s a man’s world — according to traditional theories of ethics, anyway.
Ethics is a branch of philosophy studying the ways people define “right” and “wrong." The roles women play in defining a society’s moral character have been downplayed in traditional ethics. Feminist ethics is a field of study pointing out the ways in which women have been neglected, and also creating more gender-balanced theories of ethics that can play an important part in the pursuit of gender equality today.
Traditional ethics divides the world into neat, binary categories. There is the “masculine” character, based on intellect, independence, hierarchy and domination. Then there is the “feminine” character, defined by emotion, interdependence, community and cooperation. Traditional ethics places much more value on the masculine traits, positioning men as having superior characters by default, because a world organized around reason and logic has long been held to be the more perfect world. Traditional ethics is all about perfectionism and abstract ideals.
As discussed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, feminist ethics is a more inclusive exploration of the world of morality and value. Feminist ethics advocates that those traditional feminine characteristics are not inferior at all, and that they have real value. It looks at these traits, such as being more emotional and more concerned with community, and reveals how they play an equal role in determining the moral character of a society. Feminist ethics is less concerned with what a perfect world should look like, and focuses more on how the world really is.
Feminist ethics began as a way to challenge traditional schools of thought by pointing out the ways in which they neglect to factor in the importance of women and women’s roles. By advocating for a more inclusive view of morality, however, feminist ethics is also on the forefront of the pursuit of gender equality. It challenges the idea of the superiority of "masculine" traits, a long-held belief entrenched in both the personal and the professional spheres.
Traditional ethics teaches that men are logical, cool-headed, focused on facts. They don’t get “hysterical,” or overly emotional, and they are not unreasonable. Man is the wise leader, the upright citizen, the logic-minded lawmaker and keeper.
Women are weak in part because they are emotional creatures, stereotyped as being prone to hysteria and therefore generally unreasonable individuals. They also value relationships and reliance over set rules and hierarchy. Feminist ethics challenges the assumptions that women are naturally hysterical by asserting that people grow into the roles assigned to them. They tend to behave the way they are taught and expected to. If we are taught a woman is weak, or silly, that she feels too much or that this is inappropriate, we will as a group come to believe that this is true. Feminist ethics says it isn't our nature that's weak or in any way flawed. Our ethics and what values we pass on are.
Think of the stereotypical romance novel: the big, strong man rides in to save the sweet, innocent woman from some threat of danger. And yes, her soft ways soothe his inner animal, helping him become even more civilized, but it’s not a one-to-one complimentary pairing. The man is still the hero. As writer Alex Townsend points out in her article "Tropes of Love," the woman, no matter how plucky, is still the victim, still plays a secondary role to the man in terms of power, and usually at some point needs rescuing. The man who saves her does so with his intellect and strength, his independence and superiority over his enemies. Basically, his manliness saves the day.
How many princess movies did you watch growing up? How many of them featured the heroine as, at best, the darling sidekick of her love interest? This binary categorization, that men are strong and women are soft, still exists in our society. And it is still the underlying framework of traditional schools of ethical thought. We still learn that logic trumps emotion, that men are naturally more logical, and women more emotional. Children learn this. You learned this. Feminist ethics wants you to unlearn it.
Ethics of care is a theory of feminist ethics that states the values of a society are built around interpersonal relationships and community, rather than universal rules and hierarchy. It upends not only the “natural” superiority of the masculine character, but the male-centered lens through which society is traditionally viewed.
We are not our laws, says feminist ethics of care. Rather, we are our relationships. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, these relationships play a large part in dictating morals, because they are based on the changing roles and needs of individuals. It also states the value that women and traditionally feminine characteristics bring to these relationships.
The work of feminist ethicists such as Carol Gilligan (read an interview with her on ethicsofcare.org) is based on the idea that people depend on people on a more or less level playing field, rather than in a way that divides “types” of people into a hierarchy. The “care” in ethics of care is the idea that meeting the needs of these relationships inform our values. Feminist ethics of care is built on a more fluid view of morality, influenced by an economy of needs, something that is seen as feminine and inferior in traditional ethics.
By centering on the importance of the traditional feminine character, feminist ethics of care moves beyond the more black and white abstract ideals of those traditional ethics. It adds more color to the world of morality by bringing in more moving parts. This builds a more real world “feel” to a traditionally stark and logical branch of philosophy, and as a result has some very real world applications.
Philosophy is more than just a college major for kids who can’t pick a college major. It makes us think about how we look at the world, how we define our society, and our roles in it. Traditional ethics tells us that men and women are morally different, and that we can assign a degree of value to each sex based on those differences. Feminist ethics takes into account the experiences of the so-called inferior nature of the feminine and give it both value and a voice.
Feminist ethics isn’t just upsetting traditional theories of how the world is organized, of who is superior and why. It’s exploring and even influencing the ways gender roles are dealt with today. By focusing on philosophical aspects of gender disparity, feminist ethics is creating a more diverse way of looking at and thinking about how we define the world, and ourselves. It’s a more inclusive school of thought, one that places equal moral value on the roles and characteristics of women.
Because it’s not just a man’s world. It never was.
Heather Adams is a freelance storyteller living in a tiny home on wheels. She loves weird fiction and geeking out over off-grid alternative lifestyles, among many, many other things.
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