IPP 503: Environmental Ethics

AWAYMAVE - The Distance Mode of MA in Values and the Environment at Lancaster University

Week 10: Feminism and ecology


The term 'ecofeminism' was first used in 1974 by Francoise D'Eaubonne. Since then ecofeminism has become a large but diverse movement, encompassing thinkers from a wide range of perspectives from within the feminist movement and the environmental movement. Although ecofeminism is diverse, there does seem to be one core shared premise: that there is a link between what is understood as the domination of nature and the domination of women. Sometimes this is expressed as the view that oppression of women and the natural world are 'twin' oppressions, stemming from the same cause. Here's a classic statement of this perceived link:
"Women must see that there can be no liberation for them and no solution to the ecological crisis within a society whose fundamental model of relationship is domination. They must unite the demands of the women's movement with those of the ecological movement to envisage a radical reshaping of the basic socio-economic relations and the underlying values of this society" Ruether, Rosemary Radford (1975) New Woman/New Earth p.204

The language of oppression and domination makes clear that this is a value-movement: ecofeminists argue that both the oppression of women and nature is wrong, and should be eliminated. However, the nature of the link between these twin oppressions has been understood in many different ways and consequently the best way of eliminating these twin oppressions is also contested.

Initial Questions

Some have wanted to question this fundamental premise of ecofeminism, by asking the following:

a)Can "oppression" mean the same thing when it's applied to women and when it's applied to nature?
b)What kind of evidence, and what volume of evidence could possibly be adduced to support the idea of a link between the oppression of women and nature?

To help in thinking about this question, read
Karen Warren's introduction to the section on ecofeminism in Zimmermann: she provides a useful overview of all the different kinds of connections that have been claimed.

Beyond this shared premise about the twin domination of women and nature, there are a variety of different kinds of ecofeminism - as there are, more broadly, a variety of kinds of feminism. Two of the most important ecofeminisms are cultural ecofeminism and socialist ecofeminism. In brief, cultural ecofeminists tend to argue that women are essentially different from men, that they have a "nature"; in which particular characteristics (such as nurturing) are manifested, and that this nature makes women close to nature. (Note the use of "nature" in that sentence to mean two different things - in the first instance it means inner essence; and in the second, the non-human world). Sometimes cultural ecofeminism is associated with a goddess-based spirituality; but however this is viewed, in all cases, cultural ecofeminists argue that there should be a revaluation of "women's work" including the bearing and bringing up of children.
Socialist ecofeminism on the other hand maintains that although it may be widely thought that women are "closer to nature", this is a social construction. Some women do not have such characteristics, some men do, and everyone could learn them: that is to say, socialist ecofeminism rejects these kinds of essentialist claims about human beings. For socialist ecofeminists, racism, sexism, classism and naturism are entwined oppressions which can be changed; and they are committed to achieving such changes.

Reading Tip : Carolyn Merchant's book Radical Ecology (London: Routledge 1992) has a chapter introducing and outlining different kinds of ecofeminism.
Like deep ecology, ecofeminism has been worked out in a variety of spheres, including social theory and politics, and these aspects are important in getting a broader picture of ecofeminism as a movement. But since there is a good deal to say relating to environmental ethics, we will spend the rest of this block thinking about ecofeminism in an ethical context.

Ecofeminist Critique of "Mainstream" Environmental Ethics

Ecofeminists have offered a wide range of criticisms of the mainstream approaches to environmental ethics we considered in blocks 2 and 3, and also of deep ecology. Iwant to start by looking at some of these criticisms, because they provide a useful point of access from which to think about ecofeminist ethics in general. Three of these criticisms are summarized below.

1.Criticism of the Emphasis on Rationality

Ecofeminists point out that many of the main approaches to environmental ethics we've considered emphasise rationality and denigrate feeling. Such a view, of course, characterizes many ethical positions, not just in environmental ethics. Kant, as you may remember, maintained that if one carried out an action in response to one's feelings, then it couldn't be ethical. Similar positions are maintained by a variety of environmental ethicists - see below:

"We were not especially "interested in" animals. Neither of us had ever been inordinately fond of dogs, cats or horses in the way that many people are. We didn't "love" animals. ..The assumption that in order to be interested in such matters one must be an "animal-lover" is itself an inclination of the absence of the slightest inkling that the moral standards we apply amongst human beings might extend to other animals….The portrayal of those who protest against cruelty to animals as sentimental, emotional animal lovers has had the effect of excluding the entire issue of our treatment of nonhumans from serious political and moral discussion" Singer (1975) Preface to Animal Liberation p. ix

"The attitude of respect for persons …is both a moral one and an ultimate one. It is a moral attitude because it is universalizable and disinterested. That is, each moral agent who sincerely has the attitude advocates its universal adoption by all other agents, regardless of whether they are so inclined and regardless of their fondness or lack of fondness for other individuals" Taylor (1986) Respect for Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press) p. 41

Ecofeminists, on the other hand, want to emphasise the importance of feeling in our ethical behaviour. Humans are not purely rational beings- we are not Dr Spocks! Ethics, they argue, should take into account that we are more complex beings composed from emotions as well as reason - and, further, that reason and emotion cannot be separated as easily as such approaches to ethics might suggest.

2. Criticism of the Emphasis on Universalisation

Ecofeminists point out that mainstream approaches to environmental ethics work on abstract principles of justice that are supposed to apply to all people everywhere. Underlying this is the traditional view that ethics must be universalisable. This "universalisation" plainly has different forms in different approaches to ethics. It might mean, as in Kant, a universal law. It might mean putting yourself in the position of an ideal observer. It might mean making the same calculations everyone would make. But in all these instances, the idea that a moral judgement should be universalisable, appropriate for everyone in that situation, and thus impersonal is fundamental. Singer, again, makes a classic statement of such a position:

"My ability to reason shows me the possibility of detaching myself from my own perspective and shows me what the universe might look like if I had no personal perspective". (Singer: How are we to Live p.229)

For some ecofeminist ethicists, this kind of position ignores the complex and particular nature of ethical situations in which we might find ourselves. It might be that in the same situation it is appropriate for different people to do different things, given their history, their background and their relations to other people involved. Nel Noddings, a leading feminist ethicist, puts it like this:

"A and B, struggling with a moral decision, are two different persons with different factual histories, different projects and aspirations and different ideals. It may indeed be right, morally right, for A to do X and B to do not-X." Noddings, Nel (1982) Caring (California University Press) p.85-6

Furthermore, ecofeminists urge that we should be suspicious of claims to be working from a universal position, the impartial "point of view" of the universe. Might not such "impartiality" simply obscure the interests of those involved by cloaking them in impartial language? In a sense this echoes a kind of Nietzschean understanding of ethics: that ethical positions are driven by underlying emotional commitments, but that in a step of self-deception these underlying commitments are not acknowledged, and claim to be "rationality". Look for instance at how Regan thinks "conformity with reflective intuitions" is important in ethics. But where have these intuitions come from? What drives them?

3. Criticism of the search for essence of moral considerability

A further problem ecofeminists raise with many approaches to environmental ethics is the search for necessary and sufficient "qualities" to earn moral considerability. If you have the right quality: sentience, subject-of-a-life, being alive etc - you can be let into the magic circle; if not, you are left outside it. Animal liberation theorists are obviously the greatest offenders in this respect - since they, especially Regan - leave most of the environment outside of the circle of moral considerability. But ecofeminists tend to argue that ethics should not be about expanding the circle in this sense - looking for ever broader and more inclusive criteria - but changing the terms on which things come to matter. Rather than search for essences - which is intrinsically individual-focused- they suggest, we should turn to relationships. This has the advantage of allowing for much more particular and contextual thinking. It allows non-humans to be taken into account individually, and differences between them to be considered. For instance, for Singer there is no moral difference between a pet dog and a wild wolf. Both are sentient and entitled to exactly the same moral treatment. But ecofeminists want to ask much more detailed questions about the individual animals, our relationships with them, how they relate to human society and other members of their species, and so on, before making moral decisions about how they should be treated.

reading tip
Plumwood, Val "Nature, Self and Gender: Feminism, Environmental Philosophy and the Critique of Rationalism" in 1st and 2nd edition of Zimmermann. and Plumwood's 1993 book Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (London: Routledge). It's widely regarded as one of the best systematic accounts of ecofeminism.


Some Ecofeminist Approaches to Environmental Ethics

Ecofeminist ethicists have tended to reject this abstract, rational and universalist approach to ethical thinking suggesting instead that environmental ethics, rather than being based on a particular universalising understanding of reason, can instead be built on relationships of care between humans and the non-humans/particular environments in which they are located. This does not mean that reason should be abandoned altogether; but rather that as Plumwood argues in Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, reason should "find a form which encourages sensitivity to the conditions under which we exist on the earth…and enables us to acknowledge our debt to the sustaining others of the earth".

This idea of "care" has been central to the development of feminist ethics more generally. It stems from a ground-breaking work by Carol Gilligan, called In a Different Voice, published in 1982. Gilligan studied children at play in school grounds and noticed that boys and girls tended to have different ways of formulating play. Boys' games seemed to focus around abstract rules of justice, to which players had to conform, whereas girls' games seemed to concern relationships and the expression (or not) of care. From these observations, Glligan theorized that there were different ethical "voices" - the voice of justice and the voice of care - and that men were more often associated with the first voice, whilst women were associated with the second. (These associations were not exclusive - some girls and women did use a justice voice, or even alternated voices; and Glligan didn't suggest that these different voices were "natural" rather than socially constructed). Gilligan suggested that both voices had a place to play in ethics, and that the voice of care shouldn't be excluded, a point she makes very tellingly in the quotation below:

"Theoretically, the distinction between justice and care cuts across the familiar divisions between thinking and feeling, egoism and altruism, theoretical and practical reasoning. It call attention to the fact that all relationships, public and private can be characterised in terms both of equality and in terms of attachment. And that both inequality and detachment constitute grounds for moral concern. Since everyone is vulnerable both to oppression and abandonment, two moral visions - one of justice and one of care - recur in human experience". Gilligan, Carol (1994) "Moral Orientation and Moral Development" in May and Sharratt (eds) Applied Ethics (NJ: Prentice Hall) p.262


Reading Tip
For a widely used, but controversial account of caring, see Noddings, Nel (1982) Caring (California University Press) Chapter 8 of this book is on "caring for plants, animals and other things" and suggests a view that we can't properly care for non-humans because they cannot recognise caring or reciprocate, and the nature of this non-response will not change (as with a human baby, for instance).

The idea of a voice of care in ethics, has been taken up by many ecofeminists as well as feminists more generally. It informs some of the key elements which recur in ecofeminist ethics, such as:

· Relationship is fundamental in ethical decision-making;
· Ethics is contextual and particular, depending on the constellations of relationships involved in any particular set of circumstances;
· There's a need to develop ethical attitudes (we might even say virtues) such as empathy & affection;
· Ethical thinking should be based on attachment, not detachment. Rather than being seen as a moral virtue, detachment can be seen as a moral problem because it leads to moral blindness or indifference and a failure to discern need. "Detachment is considered the hallmark of mature moral thinking within a justice perspective, signifying the ability to judge dispassionately, to weigh evidence in an even-handed manner, balancing the claims of other and self. From a care perspective, detachment is the moral problem". (Gilligan, in May and Sharratt above, p. 271)

In order to see how this works out in a bit more detail, let's look at the fourth reading in this block, by one of the leading ecofeminist ethicists, Karen Warren.

Reading 4
Karen Warren 'The Power and Promise of Ecological Feminism' in Zimmermann pp 325-344.
This article is often used as an introduction to ideas about ecofeminism. Warren identifies some of the ideas which she considers central to ecofeminism in general and evcofeminist ethics in particular.


Clarifying Warren's Ideas:

1) What does Warren mean by "oppressive conceptual frameworks"?
2) What's a "logic of domination", and why is it so important in Warren's analysis?
3) Do you think there's a kind of virtue theory lurking in Warren's argument (eg on p. 333)?
4) How exactly does Warren interpret relationship? Look especially at the top of p. 334.

Some questions about Warren's article

1) Warren talks quite a bit about hierarchy, and when value hierarchical thinking is appropriate. Be sure you understand the distinctions she is making, and then think about some of the environmental ethicists we've considered (eg Regan or Attfield). Are they value-hierarchical? If so, would it be justifiably so in Warren's terms?

2) Can rocks be subordinated? Can one have relationships with them? Can one care for them? Does it matter whether one climbs a rock to dominate it, or as part of a caring relationship with it? If so, why?

3) Do you agree with Warren that rocks can have some kind of ethical significance, in contexts in which one is relating to them? Could it be argued that this is another extended kind of egocentrism?

4) On p. 328, Warren formally lays out a kind of argument she thinks has been historically pursued which has led to the oppression of both women and nature. Can you think of historical evidence for this argument? And do you think this argument can be found active today?

5) Warren seems to be arguing that feminism must be ecofeminism. Do you think she's right?

6) Is the "first person narrative" a possible way forward for environmental ethics? If so, why? If not, why not?

7) How do you respond to the 8 principles of ecofeminist ethics Warren outlines? Are there points where you strongly agree or disagree? (There seems something odd in the text here - is there a repetition of the same points in slightly different words?)

Some General Questions about Ecofeminist Ethics

1) If ecofeminist environmental ethics is contextual and non-universalist, does this mean that there are no absolutes, that "anything goes"? Warren, in the article we've looked at, resists this interpretation by suggesting a series of "boundary conditions" which must be met if an ethic is to be described as "feminist" at all (for instance, it must exclude sexism and racism). But can ecofeminists consistently have such boundary conditions? Does this compromise their contextualism?

2) Doesn't an ethic of care result in a kind of ethical nepotism? We've encountered this question earlier, but it is precisely to avoid this charge that the "mainstream" environmental ethicists practice universalisation! What kind of place can justice have in ecofeminist ethics?

3) What about people who don't care/can't care? Should they be re-educated? What if this doesn't work?

4) What about abusive relationships of care? What happens in cases where someone sacrifices themselves in caring to someone who abuses their care? Aren't there times when it is appropriate to stop caring (and perhaps think about self-justice?)

Web Tips:

The main ecofeminist site is at: http://www.ecofem.org/

For a bibliography, see http://www.ecofem.org/biblio/

There are a number of articles on ecofeminism in Ethics and the Environment Volume 4, Issue 2,
Pages 125-250 (1999) - a journal available online through the university library.

Summary of Block 4

This block looked at deep ecology and ecofeminism as important schools of thought in environmental philosophy. It considered
1. The diversity of both deep ecology and ecofeminism as schools of thought
2. Deep ecology as a movement with metaphysical, ethical and political faces
3. The metaphysics of deep ecology with its emphasis on interrelatedness and holism and versions of "the new physics" and ecology
4. The variant ethics of deep ecology including a form of biocentric egalitarianism, but also positions valuing the "extended self"
5. The 8-point deep ecology platform
6. The political developments linked to deep ecology, including bioregionalism, direct action and spiritual/ecological ritual
7. The writing of Arne Naess
8. Ecofeminism as emphasizing the "twin oppression" of women and nature
9. The critique of "mainstream" environmental ethics by ecofeminists on the grounds of its emphasis on rationality, universalisation, essentialism
10. Ecofeminist ethics emphasizing care, context, relationship and attachment
11. Karen Warren's account of ecofeminism.

To complete this block make sure that you have responded to some of your peer's contributions to the discussion site

These web notes were written by Clare Palmer

| AWAYMAVE Home | 503 Home | Aims and Outcomes | Module Description |
| Tutor Details | Biblio | Assessment | Resources | discussion |