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

401 Ethical Theory and Philosophical Method

Feminist Ethics

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So far in this module, we’ve looked at the more traditional ways of going about doing ethics: utilitarian consequentialism, Kantian deontology and virtue theory. Now we’re going to go on and look at a more recent approach – or group of approaches – towards thinking about ethical questions – feminist ethics. This part of the module falls into three sections: 1) a general introduction to feminist ethics; 2) a study of two readings from Sterba’s book Ethics: The Big Questions, and finally 3) a shorter section on moral discussion and dialogue, which draws on an article by the feminist writer Alison Jagger in Sterba’s book, and uses it to think about how one might deal with conflicting moral positions.


In the introduction to their book Ethics: A Feminist Reader, Frazer, Hornsby and Lovibond (p.3) comment:

“It should be clear that the term “feminist ethics” has a different logic from that of, say, “legal ethics” or “medical ethics”. To study ethics without paying particular attention to the special issues which arise in law or medicine is not automatically to be handicapped (except in the sense that ignorance of something worth knowing is always a handicap). But to study ethics without paying attention to feminism is to be disadvantaged from the outset. For it is to assume that we are all equally well equipped to understand ourselves in terms of theories which draw most of their vitality from the experience, not of human beings at large, but of male human beings. In contesting this assumption, “feminist ethics” undertakes to be more than just another specialism in an increasingly fragmented world: where ‘medical’ or ‘legal’ modify ‘ethics’, feminism, we think, transforms ethics”.

A question to reflect on:

Can we talk about “male experience” and “female experience”? How do other “differences” fit in here? (eg black experience, disabled experience) Can it be claimed that each of these “transform ethics”? If not, what makes feminism special?

One of the premises of feminist ethics has been that what seems to be the neutral language of ethical discourse is not gender-neutral at all. It focuses, for instance, on the so-called “public” sphere from which women have traditionally been excluded; it assumes that people are primarily rational agents; it tends to emphasise isolated unrelated individuals; it works with a model of a free, rational deliberator. (We will look at these issues in more detail later). All these aspects, feminist ethicists argue, reflect much more fully and typically aspects of traditional Western male lives than female ones.


In 1982, an American researcher, Carol Gilligan, published a now famous book called In A Different Voice. In this book, she laid out the outcomes of research about the different ways in which way in which different people approach thinking about ethical issues. She begins this book by saying

“I began to hear a distinction in these voices [of people talking about ethics] two ways of speaking about moral problems, two modes of describing the relationship between other and self”

These different voices, Gilligan suggests, are the different voices of men and women talking about ethics; her book explores the ways in which men and women are differently located in society, and how different approaches to ethics may grow out of them. She summarises a body of psychoanalytic theory which suggests that men construct their identity by differentiating themselves from others, whilst women construct theirs in relationship. Thus, it is argued, men find the creating of relationships more difficult, whilst women find differentiation of themselves from others more difficult. These different perspectives, Gilligan maintains, lead to different approaches to ethics. Of course, this body of research is highly controversial. However, you don’t need to accept it to find something interesting in the more empirical studies in Gilligan’s book in terms of thinking about how one goes about doing ethics.

On p.18 of In A Different Voice, Gilligan reviews one aspect of the psychological theory of the well –known psychologist, Kohlberg. Kohlberg is well known for having proposed that there are “six stages” of moral development from childhood to adulthood, based on a study of 84 boys he worked with for more than 20 years. At the higher stages of moral development, Kohlberg maintains, rules become increasingly significant; and ultimately can end up with appeals to universal principles of justice; such appeals, Kohlberg maintains, are the most mature forms of moral development. Women, according to Kohlberg, rarely pass beyond the lower stages, where morality is worked through in terms of caring for and attachment to particular others, and is not worked out in relation to universal principles. For him, this is so much the worse for women. But Gilligan’s research, whilst sharing some empirical conclusions with Kohlberg – women’s ethical approaches do have a different focus – evaluates them rather differently from Kohlberg. Her work, though, should be seen in relation to the importance which had been attached to his.

What, then, seem to be the central elements of the “different ethical voices” Gilligan hears? Through reporting and discussing a series of interviews with children and adults (some carried out by Kohlberg, and some by herself) about moral questions, she builds up the following picture:

  • Men tend to see morality as about logic and law, whilst women tend to see it as about communication in relationship.
  • Men tend to see morality as about abstracting, whilst women focus on the particular.
  • Men tend to see morality as relating to competing rights or claims, whilst women see it as about responsibilities.
  • For women, the critical moral issue is about causing hurt

Gilligan summarises this as an “ethics of care” of which she says (p.73)

“the logic underlying an ethic of care is a psychological logic of relationships, which contrasts with the formal logic of fairness that informs the justice approach”.

She suggests that when women think about ethical problems, they consider questions about their relationships to those involved, what might constitute caring behaviour rather than selfish behaviour with respect to them, and how hurt might best be avoided. So, as Gilligan concludes on the last page of her book, “While an ethic of justice proceeds from the premise of equality – that everyone should be treated the same – an ethic of care rests on the premise of non-violence – that no-one should be hurt”.

Thinking About In a Different Voice

Gilligan’s work, as I have already suggested, raises all kinds of questions from her critics. For instance:

  • Is this difference in approach to ethics supposed to be “natural”, or culturally constructed? (Gilligan suggests the latter, but some kinds of cultural feminists might suggest the former).
  • If culturally constructed, could not the “ethic of care” be produced by women because they are already in a subordinate social position (ie, produced by bring subordinate, not by gender)?
  • Empirically, is it really the case that women universally, or even generally, approach ethics in this way? Could the sample size really suggest such a conclusion? What about in other cultures? (Gilligan’s work seems to be based on American women).
  • Equally, can it really be insisted upon that men (even in the same culture) approach ethics so differently to women? How far is it a “tendency”, rather than anything stronger?
  • Can men adopt an ethics of care? Can women adopt an ethics of justice?
  • Can an ethics of care and justice operate alongside one another?
  • Is an ethics of care better than an ethics of justice? Is Gilligan suggesting this?

Developments after Gilligan

Many of the questions raised above are still discussed in relation to Gilligan’s work. But what is if importance here is that her work gave an impetus to considering ways of going about doing ethics which do not correspond to the more traditional accounts such as utilitarianism and Kantianism. Rosemary Tong, in a useful article on Feminist Ethics in The Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics defines feminist ethics as an “attempt to revise, reformulate or rethink those aspects of traditional Western ethics that depreciate or devalue women’s experience”.

Although many of the writers who have developed such alternative accounts have been women, and their focus has been often, though not exclusively, been on versions of an ethics of care, such accounts rarely suggest that they are only applicable to women (this may not be true of “lesbian ethics” which only applies to women, and primarily to lesbian-identified women). Rather, most feminist ethicists want to emphasise some of the difficulties, as they see it, with traditional ways of thinking about ethics (which are regarded as “masculine” in nature) and to suggest other ways of going about ethical reflection. (These criticisms apply much less to virtue theories, to which some forms of feminist ethics have an affinity). Tong argues that, alongside this dissatisfaction with traditional ethics, feminist ethics may also have some or all the following characteristics: they highlight the differences between men’s and women’s situations in life, both biologically and socially, rather than assuming a “universal” human being; they provide ethical strategies for dealing with one’s private life; they offer ways of acting to undermine the subordination of women; and they aim to create a gender equal ethics.

Some Feminist Criticisms of Traditional Ethics

Writers who adopt feminist ethics offer a range of criticisms of traditional approaches to ethics, summarised below:

Little concern for women’s lives or interests. This point is discussed by Alison Jaggar in her article “Feminist Ethics: problems, projects prospects” in Claudia Card (ed.) Feminist Ethics (1991: University Press of Kansas). She notes how areas associated with women (however tendentiously) – the family, the “private” sphere etc have been passed over in ethics; how the really interesting moral questions have been considered to be those that arise in the public and political spheres.

Emphasis on rationality. Both utilitarianism and Kantianism either implicitly or explicitly deny any place to feelings in making moral decisions. Bentham was proud of the “objectivity” of his account – a moral calculation is something any rational person could make and come to the same conclusion about. Similarly, Kant utterly rejected the inclusion of feelings in making moral decisions – in fact for Kant their inclusion undermines anything ethical that might be involved. As Paul Taylor puts it:

“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

In both these approaches to ethics, reason is given priority; emotion is ignored. But the “other voice” Gilligan heard in her research on ethics was one which, on the contrary, emphasised the importance of feeling in moral decision-making, In particular, it emphasised the importance of care and the presence of relationship in ethical decision-making.

Emphasis on abstraction and universalisability: Universalisation can mean any number of things, but we’ve seen it in action in both utilitarianism and Kantianism. Moral decisions, according to these views, are the kinds of things that are universal. Anyone in the same situation should do the same thing. In this way, universalisation is seen as capturing impartiality. No favouritism is involved in moral decision-making; a kind of universal perspective which anyone would adopt seems to exist. Singer, for instance says “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”. (How are we to Live p.229)

Feminist ethicists have a variety of responses to this. They may maintain that there is no impartial “point of view” of the universe, and they are suspicious that such approaches simply obscure their own interests in adopting impartial language. They wonder whether ethical positions of this kind 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”. Further, almost all feminist ethicists maintain that such a universalising approach abstracts away from concrete situations. It fails to recognise that in every ethical context different individuals with different personal histories and relationships are involved – and that one decision may be right for one person, but wrong for another. As Nel Noddings says, in her important book Caring:

“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. We may, that is, connect right and wrong to the ethical ideal. This does not cast us into relativism, because the ideal contains at its heart a component that is universal: Maintenance of the caring relation” Noddings, Nel (1982) Caring (California University Press) p.85-6

Emphasis on separate individuals: Feminist ethicists are concerned that utilitarian and Kantian perspectives on ethics reflect a deeply individualistic view of the world, where separation and autonomy are seen as fundamental to moral decision-making. There is little sense that individuals are located in communities – and, indeed, in environments; and little sense that they are in relationships with one another. Indeed, some feminists argue that these approaches to ethics tend to assume that the good of one is the sacrifice of another. Goods are in competition, not co-operation. But, feminists argue, relatedness constitutes what we are. We are not whole, complete individuals for whom relationships are a kind of “add-on”. Relationship is not accidental, it is essential. Utilitarians and Kantians think that detachment in moral decision-making is a virtue: judging dispassionately, weighing evidence even-handedly etc. From a care perspective, detachment is the moral problem. (Gilligan, p. 271)

In general, a stress on culturally masculine traits and moral reasoning, and an undervaluing of culturally feminine traits and moral reasoning. That is to say, characteristics traditionally associated with men such as independence and autonomy are valued over those characteristics traditionally associated with women such as relationship, interdependence. And, similarly, moral reasoning which emphasises abstraction and rules is emphasised over partiality and particularity.

Feminist ethics

Given this critique of utilitarian and Kantian ethics, it is unsurprising, then, that feminist ethicists have developed different perspectives, focusing on:

  • care as well as (or instead of) justice
  • the need to develop ethical attitudes such as empathy & affection; emphasis on terms like dependence and responsibility
  • the fundamental significance of relationships in moral decision-making
  • the significance of special ties that bind when making moral decisions – one may have different moral responsibilities to people one is close to than to others
  • the unique, context-bound and specific nature of each moral decision.

Although many forms of feminist ethics do emphasise these aspects, it is worth noting that feminist ethics is commonly “classified” into the following groups:

Feminine Ethics:

This is usually thought of as the ethical writing following most closely in the footsteps of Glligan’s work, emphasising care alongside (or instead of) justice. One of the most important books in this tradition is Nel Nodding’s book Caring, which has been quite influential, although quite controversial, in developing ideas about caring in ethics.

Maternal Ethics:

Another significant school of thought within feminist ethics uses mothering as a model for thinking about ethical problems. As Tong suggests, for this group of ethicists “maternal thinking is moral reasoning at its best”. Perhaps the most important writers in this category are Victoria Held and Sara Ruddick.

Political Feminist Ethics:

This is an “umbrella” title for a range of different political approaches to feminist ethics which have grown out of, or been influenced by a range of political traditions: most notably Marxism, socialism and the ecology movement. (Much more on ecofeminism is covered in module 403).

Lesbian Ethics:

As suggested above, lesbian ethics is generally intended to be a women’s-only ethics, primarily for lesbians. In this sense it does not have the general application of the other kinds of feminist ethics, which could be adopted by anyone. Lesbian ethics, it is worth noting (and we will think about this problem later on) is uncomfortable with the emphasis on caring in other versions of feminist ethics. Caring, after all, they argue has led women to self-sacrifice, and to put their interests second to those they care for (men in particular).

This overview of feminist ethics leads us to the point where it is helpful to look at the writing of some feminist ethicists in more detail. So I want to consider some of the papers on feminist ethics in Sterba, James (ed.) Ethics: The Big Questions.


Now read

Annette Baier “What do women want in a moral theory?” in Sterba (ed.) p.325-331

Baier, like many of those writing in feminist ethics, begins with reflection on Carol Gilligan, and finds in women’s ethical writing “the voice Gilligan heard, made reflective and philosophical”. This leads her on to make a number of interesting points it’s worth thinking about further.

She talks, on p.326, about what constitutes writing a complete moral theory, and comments at the end:

“Most of what are recognised as the current moral theories are also incomplete, since they do not purport to be yet really comprehensive. Wrongs to animals and wrongful destruction of our physical environment are put to one side…and in most “liberal” theories there are only handwaves concerning our proper attitude to our children, to the ill, to our relatives, friends and lovers.”

Rodin's thinkerQuestion: Are the moral theories you’ve considered so far on this unit really incomplete in this sense? Is “not covering” such areas a sign of an incomplete moral theory? Are there reasons (which Baier doesn’t suggest) why women might not yet have produced systematic moral theories?


Baier then moves on to think about what a systematic female theorist might produce as a moral theory and suggests that it would be an “ethics of love” which would be acceptable both to “reflective women and reflective men”. Such a theory, she suggests, should “swallow up” previous ethical theories by taking into account male insights (which male philosophers always have put forward) and female insights (which male philosophers have ignored.) To do this, women’s moral theories will have to connect “love” and “obligation”.

Discussion point: Arguments like this show how heavily Gilligan’s work has influenced the premises of some approaches to feminist ethics. Yet it seems like a number of difficulties present themselves. In associating women with the language of love, and men with obligation; and women’s ethical concerns with the private sphere whilst men’s is with the public, aren’t traditional ideas of male/female roles being reinforced? Does the idea that women’s ethics is truly inclusive of male and female concerns overcome this difficulty?

Baier suggests that appropriate trust should lie at the heart of an inclusive ethics of love:

“the variety of goods we may trust others not to take from us, the variety and sorts of security or insurance we have when we do, the sorts of defenses or potential defenses we lay down when we trust, the various conditions for reasonable trust of various types...”

these, she suggests might form the basis of an ethical theory, and fits well into an ethics of love.

Rodin's thinkerQuestions:

What could be meant by love here? Is love something one can theorise about? Can one choose to have it or not have it? Is it understood here as a feeling, a practice, or both?

Do you think “Who should trust whom with what and why?” (p.329) makes a good central question for a moral theory? Can you think of ethical situations which might not be well served by it, or where it might not be an appropriate question? Do you think it really does “swallow up” the more traditional approaches of utilitarianism and Kantianism or, more generally, “men’s and women’s moral intuitions”?

Now read

Joan Tronto “What can feminists learn about morality from caring?” in Sterba p. 346-356


This article looks in more detail at an aspect of feminist ethics of which we have already heard a great deal: caring. I want to use this article, on which there will be quite extensive reflection, as a basis for thinking in more detail about caring as an approach to ethics. Tronto provides a very helpful way in to considering a number of questions in more depth. Amongst other things, Tronto explores what caring might mean in a feminist context, and some of the pitfalls which might arise if the term isn’t used carefully. She also makes a useful distinction between feminist and feminine.

What is caring?

Tronto suggests that “caring” is a word we use in two different ways: caring about things, and caring for things. In these instances, she suggests, caring has something in common: an “ongoing responsibility and commitment”; the assumption of a burden. She notes that in all forms of its use caring is a relational term. However, we can distinguish “caring about” as a general term for less concrete objects from “caring for” – a specific, particular object. She relates “caring for” to the needs of others, whilst caring about has no such relationship; and she suggests that our society relates “caring for” to women and “caring about” to men.

In the course of this discussion, Tronto raises a number of intriguing issues about caring. She suggests that some forms of caring-for have been privatised and marketised, leaving providers of market services to feign care.

Rodin's thinkerQuestion:

in what sense is this care feigned? What does the use of this term tell us about Tronto’s idea of what caring is?


Tronto then argues that caring is not necessarily a moral issue. This is clearly the case where “caring about” is concerned. I might care about whether Martina Hingis won the tennis, but this isn’t a moral concern. Caring for, though, Tronto suggests does raise moral issues. And here, again, she makes some interesting comments. She suggests, for instance, that social expectations of what constitutes caring-for may be based on class, race and gendered assumptions. She also counters the argument that caring seems to be seen as something we have to do, rather than something we choose to do, and hence is not part of the moral sphere. In countering this argument, she focuses on the question not only whether one ought to care for someone in any particular set of circumstances (a more common question in ethics) but also on the question how one should care, that is to say the practice of caring. Even if one were to accept that there are situations where one has no choice about caring, clearly there are many choices about how one should care, and how (for instance) one should deal with conflicting caring concerns.

This leads Tronto to think in more detail about the nature of caring; on p. 349 she outlines 3 areas in which “caring for another raises questions about the moral life”:

a) the necessary attentiveness to the other’s needs;
b) questions about autonomy and authority;
c) problems which arise out of the particularity of caring for another.

Let’s look at these in turn:


Attentiveness to the needs of the other is central to “caring for” as Tronto understands it. She maintains that this view is distinct from those of more traditional forms of ethics because:

  • They work with abstract ideas of individuals, not particular individuals
  • The abstract ideas of individuals are projections of philosophers’ introspections from themselves
  • So starting from the question “how would I feel?” is inappropriate.

Rodin's thinkerQuestion:

Do you think Tronto is right about this? Doesn’t utilitarianism, for instance, work by adding up the particular pains and pleasures of others?


Because of the very specific nature of this knowledge needed to care for, attentiveness is centrally significant. Attentiveness means attentiveness not only to what the other thinks they need, but what they really need; and Tronto stresses the difficulty of achieving this because of the ways in which our own needs and perceptions which we may not fully understand ourselves, cloud our vision of others.

This leads Tronto on to consider some of the more difficult questions raised by an ethics of care:

How far should one sacrifice oneself? How far should one put one’s own concerns in the back seat in order to care for others? As we have already seen, this is the kind of question lesbian ethicists ask about the ethics of care: is this a re-validation of the cultural position women have found themselves in where they are the carers at the expense of their own interests and needs? And what about where someone sacrifices themselves in care to someone who abuses their care? Aren’t there times when it is appropriate to stop caring (and perhaps think about self justice?) Marilyn Friedman, for instance, emphasises the potential for violence and harm in caring relationships. Nel Noddings maintains that there is no obligation to care if caring cannot reach completion in the other, that is, if there is no acknowledgement of the caring in the individual being cared for. (The latter position is one which Tronto here declares to be “clearly wrong”).

What about the risk to oneself? A further, related question concerns the degree of risk involved in adopting the kind of concentrated attentiveness being advocated here. Suppose the cared for individual is lost, due to death, separation or just growing up and leaving home? How does the attentive carer deal with this? Tronto suggests that the carer needs to find a place somewhere between the aloof, detached self and the emptied out, engulfed self, to maintain caring relations which are not everything to the carer.

Question: Both these issues raise pretty serious questions for an ethics of caring. Do you think they undermine it? Or do they, rather, help to clarify how an ethics of care should operate?

Authority and Autonomy

In this second section, Tronto raises a series of other important issues concerning caring (though it should be said that she raises more than she answers!) She points out that caring relations may have features atypical of the kinds of ethical issues found in more traditional accounts of ethics. For instance:

  • Cared for individuals may not be “moral agents” in the traditional sense (that is, rational, autonomous thinkers, of the kind central to Kantian ethics)
  • Cared for individuals may be physically dependent on carers
  • The carer is likely to be both a moral agent and responsible for dealing with the cared for’s dependency.

This can set up a power relationship (where there is even the possibility that the carer will want to maintain the dependent relationship.)

These issues are, again, difficult ones, and Tronto, having raised them, passes on fairly quickly. But you might want to look at them more closely. For instance:

What might the moral significance of dependence be? Does it make a difference whether you have created the dependence or not? (for instance, in having a child or breeding a pet you have created a dependent relationship; but you are not responsible for the state of your bed-ridden elderly mother).

Reading Tip

Alistair Macintyre’s book Dependent Rational Animals develops some of these ideas, and thinks about the moral significance of dependence in human life.


The third area Tronto discusses is particularity. As we have already seen, one of the characteristics of more traditional ethics is universalisation: if one person should do something, so should anyone who finds themselves in that situation. Tronto maintains that this is not necessarily the case, coming up with instances where universal rules will not work unless they are so general as to become meaningless (or, though she doesn’t say this, so specific as to become particular!) (this position of hers works particularly against broadly Kantian thinking).

Though there are problems of this kind involved in acting in accordance with rules, there are also difficulties in rejecting them to rely on care – as Tronto acknowledges.
A central problem here is the possibility of a kind of ethical nepotism, where one privileges those for whom one cares over those for whom one doesn’t. Tronto talks with some concern about the position of Nel Noddings here. Noddings sees caring as:

  • Personal, focused on caring for individuals
  • Focused on caring for those whom one encounters
  • About engrossment in others.

For Tronto, these characteristics are troubling. She asks, quite rightly, about the social context of these caring encounters and relationships: how it comes to be, socially that one might encounter particular people, and what, indeed, about those people one never encounters, and for whom nobody cares?

Rodin's thinkerThis raises what I think are some of the most difficult questions for an ethics of care.
Let’s spend a bit of time thinking about this. Let’s take the question:

In what ways could an ethics of care deal with the question of needy, distant strangers?

If we consider an ethics of care as we have so far looked at it, we find a focus on caring for individuals with whom we relate, and towards whom, perhaps, we have responsibilities. But what about people whom we will never meet? Or, indeed, people we choose not to meet? For instance, we might live in a city with a very poor neighbourhood; if we went there we might encounter people and feel some sort of responsibility to care; but by never going we can avoid encounter, and thus never get entangled in any caring responsibility.

A number of possible strategies could be adopted by an advocate of an ethics of care at this point. They could say:

Hungry people in distant countries, and impoverished communities in my own are political and social issues. They may raise moral questions too, but these generally fall out of the purview of an ethics of care, which primarily relates to the personal, not the public sphere.

Such a response might go on to suggest that a justice perspective (such as one based on utilitarian or human rights principles) would clearly be the best way to tackle such a question. A response of this type, then, would be confining an ethics of care to a particular place in the sphere of possible ethical theories: an ethics for dealing with personal questions. It would be adopting a view perfectly compatible with the non-universalism of much feminist thinking, by suggesting that in the world of moral theories, it’s “horses for courses”, and whilst an ethics of care is appropriate in personal situations, in the public, political sphere, justice is more appropriate. One can switch between theories, depending on the moral issue.

Of course, this raises meta-ethical questions about pluralism in moral theories, which it is perhaps not appropriate to go into here. Suffice it to note that this view would be resisted by many ethicists of care, who want to assign caring a wider moral role. As Tronto suggests towards the end of her article, such an approach could have the effect of “adding-on” a bit of extra caring as a corrective to morality (understood as being about justice, and according to feminist ethicists, as we have seen, fundamentally male-oriented). Bt the responses of ethicists who want to broaden the scope of caring could take at least two different forms:

The Noddings response

As characterised by Tronto in the article we have been looking at, moral questions of this kind can be fitted into the personal sphere. Tronto summarises this (perhaps a bit brusquely!) by saying “for Noddings, this problem is solved by saying that because everyone will be cared for by someone, it is not anyone else’s concern to wonder about who is caring for whom in society” (p.353). So if there are people distant from us who need caring for but are not being cared for, it is the dereliction of someone else’s responsibility, not our own to take on. If everyone did all the caring for which was their responsibility, everyone who needed caring for would be cared for! Thus Noddings limits the zone of caring – which does mean that no-one is responsible for taking the cares of the world onto their shoulders - but which also seems to deny altogether a public sphere for morality.

Rodin's thinkerQuestion:

Do you think Nodding’s response is adequate?

If so, why? If not, why not?


A “public relationship” response

A second kind of response – one to which Tronto herself moves towards – is what I call a “public relationship” response – that is to say, working from the basis that relationships or (interpreted in a broad sense) encounters need not necessarily be personal. Tronto comments that Noddings:

“ignores the ways in which the modern world is intertwined and the ways in which hundreds of prior public and private decisions affect where we find ourselves and which strangers show up at our doors”. (p.353)

For instance, one might not ever have a face to face encounter with a hungry child working on a cocoa plantation in West Africa.. But one does buy chocolate. And thus, through a strong of public and private decisions, one does have a kind of relationship with the child – a sort of encounter. Similarly, one may not meet the people who inhabit the impoverished part of town – but one does participate in and vote within a political and social system with particular policies on education, housing, taxation, transport and unemployment. In another sense, then a public relationship is set up. And this entails a kind of caring – and it is, I think, a caring for as well as a caring about. But its implications for how one lives are somewhat different to the more immediate caring Noddings envisages – tending for one’s family, neighbours and friends. It sees caring for as manifesting itself in a range of actions: what one consumes, where one works, how one travels, how one votes. This kind of response circumvents the problem with which Tronto is concerned, and which she sees manifest in Noddings’ work - of using caring as “an excuse to narrow the scope of our moral activity”.

Questions: Does this broader interpretation of caring work? For instance, can one be attentive to the needs of those whom one never meets? Or would justice do the same work and do it better?

Some Questions about Tronto’s conclusions:

Tronto returns at the end of her article to worry again at the gender issues bound up with caring.

She says, very bluntly that she can make the generalization that men care about and women care for in this society. Do you agree with her insistence on this point?

She expresses her anxiety about the gendering of caring for as feminine, suggesting that the attentiveness involved “may be a reflection of a survival mechanism for women or others who are dealing with oppressive conditions, rather than a quality of intrinsic value on its own” (p.354); reflecting service and deferentiality. What do you think she has in mind here? Is it a really telling criticism of caring?

Tronto wants to distinguish between a feminine and a feminist account, where a feminist account asks broader social and political questions and contextualises caring within them. Do you think this is possible? Does she end just where the hard questions start getting asked – like what does this mean in practice?

I want to end thinking about an ethics of care by posing a couple of further questions, and adding a quotation.

  • Is caring being understood as an emotion, a disposition, a practice or all three here? Could one say it is, for these ethicists, a virtue to be caring?
  • And a question which follows from the above: what about people who don’t care? If caring is an emotion, and we just don’t have it, are we to blame? Or – as it were - can we not not have it? Is caring a fundamental human characteristic?
  • Does holding a view that it is make one an essentialist about human nature – and would that be a bad thing? Or is caring a practice of attentiveness to others’ needs which one can carry out irrespective of how one feels?
  • Is caring too vague to offer any firm moral guidance? – and if so, would this distinguish it from utilitarianism, Kantianism or virtue theory?

And the quotation, from a more recent paper by Carol Gilligan:

“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


As we all know, many ethical issues are highly contentious. Issues ranging from euthanasia to vegetarianism, from the treatment of asylum seekers to the taking of illegal drugs are debated daily in moral terms in the popular press. In grappling with almost any ethical problem in, say, medical or environmental ethics there are bound to be a number of strongly held views put forward by those from different interest groups or with different social, cultural or religious perspectives. Furthermore, there are almost certainly moral voices which are being suppressed, squeezed out of public discussion. How should one deal with such ethical situations?

Now read

Alison Jaggar’s article “Towards a Feminist Conception of Moral Reasoning” in Sterba p.356-374

Jagger considers some ways of approaching these issues by means of what she calls FPD or Feminist Practical Dialogue. So what we will be looking at in the last section of this part of the module on feminist ethics is a feminist way into thinking about ethical dialogue involving those whose views are ethically divergent and those whose voices are often not heard.

First, then, we should ask what makes this specifically feminist. In answer to this question, Jaggar says it’s not that its been developed by feminists, nor that women are, culturally, more likely to engage in dialogue than men (though both might be the case!) Rather, it is because it is an ethical dialogue that has a “distinctively feminist commitment to ending women’s subordination”. Of course, this isn’t an essential part of ethical dialogue, but we will be thinking about this distinctively feminist version.

Jaggar identifies a number of characteristics of ethical dialogue which have emerged from a variety of feminist settings. Some of these are as follows:

  • Recognition of the validity of personal experience (rather than the dismissing of it as anecdotal);
  • Non-judgemental responses, certainly at early stages in discussion; at later stages critical but constructive responses seem acceptable;
  • Recognition that difference in ethical perspectives can be valuable in extending debate and introducing different aspects to it which might otherwise be missed;
  • Taking responsibility for actually voicing one’s own opinions;
  • Technical knowledge is important, but not all that is at stake in ethical debate;
  • Respecting the views of others;
  • Searching for areas of agreement, even though there may still be areas of disagreement.

She suggests that consensus agreements are particularly valued in such dialogic contexts (rather than, for instance, majority votes, or decisions being steamrollered through).

Questions: How do you react to these characteristics of moral dialogue? Do you think they are obvious – and clichéd? (Think how often we hear politicians beginning a sentence with “With respect…” – are they abusing the term?) Or do you think they are vague and unhelpful; or, perhaps; leading to interminable debates that never come to any conclusion because those engaged in them will never agree, but never act to impose their will on others?

Jaggar moves on (p.360-361) to describe practices of feminist pedagogy, arguing that it’s important to create a sense of community in the classroom to get dialogue really going. These include “not only an attentive ear, but food, drink, haircuts and hugs”.

Question: Would you like that sort of classroom (or virtual classroom?) Do you really think it helps with learning? Is what Jaggar suggests possible within the formal context of higher education, for instance?

Formal characteristics of FPD

Jaggar then brings these different techniques together into a more formal account of feminist practical dialogue.

Rodin's thinkerRead Jaggar’s account on p. 362-369 carefully.

Before reading my summary, write down what you think are the key characteristics of FPD as Jaggar presents them.



My summary suggests that the following are of central significance:

1) First person narrative, where contributors can recount their own experience in their own terms allowing others to encounter very different lives and ways of viewing the world;
2) Allowing such personal reflections to become part of collective reflection, where there are “counterstories” and reinterpretation of experiences;
3) Trying to include diverse perspectives from people of different ages, classes, races etc – especially those who are “on the fringes” of society who may be especially affected by discrimination, and whose voices are rarely heard;
4) Including emotions as part of moral discussion, rather than exclusively relying on abstract rules or principles;
5) The practice of virtues including responsibility, self-discipline, sensitivity, respect and trust – as well as good will, and effort.
6) Trying to see and hear what other people are really saying
7) Placing the dialogue within the context of striving for friendship and caring, as a discussion between concrete individuals
8) Approaching dialogue not as a battle, or “adversarial debate” but as a co-operative and nurturing enterprise
9) Emphasising the importance of listening as well as speaking
10) Aiming at consensus, even where this proves unattainable.

Some further questions about FPD

1. Jaggar herself raises the question whether competitiveness and critical questioning might produce moral reflection more effectively than nurture and co-operation. She attempts to counter this view, but do you think the countering is effective?
2. Do you think there are some contexts where this kind of discussion would be more appropriate than others? (if so, suggest some more/less effective contexts). Or do you think all moral discussion should approximate to this – or no moral discussion should approximate to this?! Try to explain why you hold your view. NB: In answering this question, you may want to think about context a) in terms of the setting of the moral discussion (eg on the radio or tv, in a letters column in a newspaper, in a meeting of the local council, in a local residents meeting, in a university seminar…) and b) in terms of the people who might be involved (for instance, a debate about medical ethics where representatives of powerful drugs companies are present; a debate about abortion with both pro-life and pro-abortion campaigners in the room as well as women who have just had, or decided not to have abortions).
3. Imagine that you are in charge of organising a local debate about a proposal to build a bypass through a rural area. Would you implement any of the ideas of FPD? If so, which? If not, why not?
4. Jaggar concludes her article by pointing out what she considers to be some of the major advantages of FPD: its concrete origin in activism rather than an academic’s head; its respect for women’s moral autonomy, experience and insights (and thus its feminist nature) and its operation within a context of care for particular others; and its pragmatic optimism. Do you think these are all strengths? Or might they (or some of them) turn out to hinder any process of moral decision-making? Do you think this process really is as practical as Jaggar maintains?

Conclusion and Summary of Feminist Ethics

In this section, we have examined:

1) The beginnings of feminist ethics in the work of Carol Gilligan, with her emphasis on two moral voices, the voice of justice and the voice of care;
2) Feminist criticisms of traditional ethics for lack of interest in women’s concerns and moral experience, emphasis on rationality, universalisability, emphasis on autonomy, separate individuals, and generally overvaluing culturally male moral experience;
3) Developments in feminist ethics, including feminine ethics, maternal ethics, lesbian ethics and political ethics;
4) Baier’s text on thinking about women and moral theory, and specifically on the importance of appropriate trust;
5) Tronto’s discussion of caring; her gendered distinction between caring for and caring about; difficulties raised by ideas about caring; questions about dependence and about caring for needy strangers; different ideas of the scope of caring as a moral theory;
6) Jaggar’s account of feminist practical dialogue (FPD) ; how to go about conducting moral discussions co-operatively and aiming at consensus; the difficulties and drawbacks of FPD

In this discussion of feminist ethics I hope to have introduced some of the background to feminist ethics and some of the main ideas which dominate it today – both in terms of how feminists might construct moral theories (or, at least, how they might approach ethics) the particular case of an ethics of care; and one way in which feminists might approach moral discussion where there are different and dissenting voices.

This section written by Dr Clare Palmer