Feminist Ethics Are Different
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 4 - Ethics
Virginia Held, from "Feminist Reconceptualizations in Ethics"
Kem Stone - 5 October 2007
My first reaction to this article was that it is completely absurd to suggest that there is such a thing as a “feminist
ethic” that stands in contrast to the ethical systems we already have. First of all, there are so many different ethical
systems that to group them all under the category of “male-biased” and then claim that we must look to an as-yet-
undiscovered system of ethics that takes a woman’s point of view into account just seems ridiculous. Whether
one is male or female should make no difference as to whether an action is seen as right or wrong. I still feel that
way, but upon further scrutiny of the article I came to realise that Held is not making a philosophical argument
(though she may think that she is) but a sociological argument. Some of the points she makes are actually quite
good, but they do not lead to the conclusion that she makes—that we need to develop a new, feminist system of
ethics. If she has shown anything it is merely that we ought to recognise the male bias in our society’s
interpretations of the ethical systems we already go by, but she has certainly not shown why we ought to set up a
new system such as the one she advocates.
Held begins with the claim that “moral theory, like other philosophical theory, has a long history of gender bias.
Ethics, like most of philosophy, has been built on assumptions, and constructed with concepts, that are by no
means gender-neutral…From a feminist point of view, moral theory, along with almost all theory, will have to be
transformed to take adequate account of the experience of women” (221). The article then continues with an
examination of three assumptions that Held sees as gender-biased in the field of ethics.
The first assumption—that reason has priority over emotion—seems unchallengeable, but Held insists that it is the
result of male bias. She cites Kant’s categorical imperative, in which we decide the rightness or wrongness of an
action based on the rationality of whether its maxim would hold in all cases, leaving no room for emotion to enter
into the equation. Utilitarianism, which she cites next, takes pleasure and suffering into account, but it is essentially
a rational principle—the principle of utility—that serves as the root of all moral judgments.
According to Held, many feminist philosophers are questioning the superiority of an ethical system based on
abstract rules rather than a context-respectful approach. A feminist ethic would not judge an action according to
one abstract principle, but take the context into account and not dismiss emotion but instead rely on feelings of
care and empathy to guide the moral decision. “A feminist ethic will not just acknowledge emotion, as do
Utilitarians, as giving us the objectives toward which moral rationality can direct us; it will embrace emotion as
providing at least a partial basis for morality itself and certainly for moral understanding…Caring, empathy, feeling
for others, being sensitive to each other’s feelings—all may be better guides to what morality requires in actual
contexts than may abstract rules of reason, or rational calculation” (223).
Held does not believe it fair to dismiss this sort of feminist ethic as a relativistic “situation ethic” because she
contends that feelings can be as widely shared as rational beliefs. A commitment to justice, for instance, requires
relational feelings as well as a rational recognition of abstract principles. Most human beings do care about things
like the suffering of children on distant continents, the well-being of future generations, and the environmental state
of the planet, but “the mutually disinterested rational individualists of the liberal tradition would seem unlikely to
care enough to take the actions needed to achieve moral decency at a global level, or environmental sanity for
decades hence, just as they seem unable to represent caring relationships within the family and among friends”
(224). Before moving on I would pose the question: is this lack of caring on the part of the rational individualists a
fault of the ethical system itself or the pre-existing attitudes of those who make use of the system? I will return to
this point later.
The second assumption underlying present ethical theory that Held questions has to do with the distinction
between the public and the private spheres, and the supposed superiority of the public over the private. Held
points out that the distinction is not as clear as many believe, as the personal is always highly affected by the
political, for instance in cases of abortion rights or the greater earning power of men. But more importantly, it is
the public realm that is seen as the more human of the two, where the private realm is merely the natural region,
the primary function of which is for reproduction of the species. It is therefore an underlying assumption that men,
who participate in political life, are more engaged in human activity, while women are more determined by biology,
and because all animals reproduce their primary activity is not specifically human.
Held acknowledges that all human beings are both animal and human, but that it is absurd to make the distinction
between “man” and other animals without also distinguishing between “woman” and other animals. We all
perform biological functions, but none of these is completely separable from the cultural context in which they are
done. “Consider nursing an infant, often thought of as the epitome of a biological process, with which mothering is
associated and women are identified. There is no more reason to think of human nursing as simply biological than
there is to think this way of, say, a businessman’s lunch. Eating is a biological process, but what and how and
with whom we eat are thoroughly cultural” (226). There is far more to human mothering than animal mothering,
just as there is far more to humans sharing a meal than animals eating.
To take the point even further, Held asserts that mothering is perhaps the most culturally influential activity of all.
It is essentially the activity of creating new social persons who will potentially transform society. How a child is
raised by his mother is not at all insignificant in the broader sociological and historical contexts, yet mothering is
placed at the periphery of modern moral theory, rather than at the centre where Held firmly believes it ought to
be. As strong a point as this is, however, I would again ask the question of whether this is a symptom of the
moral theory itself, or the patriarchal culture we live in.
The final assumption Held tackles is the concept of self as the ego, or self-interested individual upon which most
ethical theory is based. Traditional ethics has recognised only a distinction between this ego, and the universal all.
But between the individual and the class of all rational beings lies an entire intermediary realm of relations between
family and friends, groups and neighbourhoods, and so on. “In seeing the problems of ethics as problems of
reconciling the interests of the self with what would be right or best for ‘everyone,’ standard ethics has neglected
to moral aspects of the concern and sympathy that people actually feel for particular others, and what moral
experience in this intermediate realm suggests for an adequate morality” (227). The ties between family, friends,
and communities are not morally neutral, but are actually a very significant aspect of what we think of when we
think of “self”. Our family and the groups we belong to are just as much a part of who we are as are our
biological traits or our rational beliefs.
Many ethical matters simply can not dismiss the interconnectivity of people as they exist in families and groups.
“What matters may often be the health, growth, and development of the relation-and-its-members in ways that
cannot be understood in the individualistic terms of standard moral theories designed to maximise the satisfaction
of self-interest. Neither can the universalistic terms of moral theories grounded in what would be right for ‘all
rational beings,’ or ‘everyone’ handle what has moral value in the relations between mothering person and child”
(228). This is a questionable claim, but it is a legitimate point that most discussions of moral theory do not take
into account a view of the self as it relates to particular others.
Studies have shown that daughters comes to define themselves in terms of their relations to others while sons tend
to see themselves as disconnected and separate, which suggests that this tendency toward the individualistic
concept of self is the result of a male bias. Some feminist philosophers have expressed concern over whether this
tendency of disconnecting ourselves from particular others might not make it easier to make rational moral
judgments as prevalent ethical theories suggest, but that it could actually render us less capable of behaving
morally if we see ourselves as autonomous individuals with no ties to others. It may be the case that responding
emotionally to particular others has a great deal to do with moral behaviour, but where this fits into moral theory
Held concludes with a discussion of what a feminist ethic would look like, and what kinds of transformations
society would undergo if this ethic were put into place and male dominance were to be overcome. Though she
does not outline anything resembling a feminist ethic of her own, she insists that any such ethic “will have to
combine aspects of an ethic of care with aspects of an ethic of justice. An ethic of care is indisputably important
for a context in which we feel concern for and engage in the actual care of particular others, and we must insist
that this context be reorganised as one that is as relevant to moral theory as any of the contexts traditionally
attended to” (230). What she advocates is the development of an ethical theory based more heavily on emotions
of empathy rather than rational principles.
Should male dominance be overthrown and such an ethic put in place, Held contends, society itself will be greatly
transformed. Some institutions would remain fundamentally the same, such as a democratic political system, but
there would be true equality for women in this system at all levels. A feminist society would not be composed of
individuals pursuing their own self-interest and evaluating public institutions by how well they contribute to one’s
own advancement. Such a society would have various distinct segments, with some more influential than they
currently are, “and with all such segments embedded in a wider network of social relations characterised by social
caring and trust” (231). Finally, any feminist society will place central importance on children, cherishing new
people and recognising in them “both the specialness of a unique person and the universal features of a child’s
wonder and curiosity and hope” (231). The health and education of children will not be, as they are today, merely
marginal concerns given vastly less importance than military strength or corporate profits, but in feminist society
would be considered the highest priority.
This final point, like most of the others Held makes in this article, is certainly a strong one. I would certainly rather
live in a society in which the well-being of children was accorded more significance than the well-being of multi-
national corporations, but just like the rest of the argument this point is sociological, not philosophical. I agree
that the concept of self ought to incorporate our relations to particular others, just as I agree that the private
sphere is no way inherently less human or inferior to the public sphere, but though these points are both perfectly
legitimate criticisms of society, they have nothing to do with the purely formal aspects of ethical theory.
There is nothing intrinsically male biased about Kantian ethics or Utilitarianism. One can use the categorical
imperative to justify the very society that Held describes at the article’s conclusion: I would wish that it be a
universal law to give more consideration to children than to my own self-interest. Utilitarianism can also justify
such sentiments on the grounds that a society giving greater priority to the care and up-bringing of children than to
the earning power of corporations would in fact lead to greater happiness and less suffering for most of the
individuals concerned. It is not the ethical theories themselves that are the cause of the social injustices that Held
is speaking out against, but the fact that these theories are usually applied from a standpoint of male bias, and thus
the well-being of children is rarely even taken into account when the categorical imperative or the principle of
utility is applied.
Held claims that “Feminist theorists are rethinking and reorganising the private and the public, the personal and the
political, and thus morality” but this is simply wrong. By questioning these social institutions she is not reforming
morality, but merely the social institutions that she is seeking to reform. What is right is still right and what is
wrong is still wrong whether we are in the sphere of the public or the private. Whether priority is given to the
personal or the political is an issue for sociologists, not ethical theorists.
The only claim Held makes that does apply directly to ethical theory is that it should not dismiss emotion, but at
least be partially based on feelings of care and empathy. To this I would challenge her to show me a system of
ethics based in emotion that is not so riddled with problems as to simply collapse under the weight of its own
inconsistencies. There is a reason that most ethical systems have been based on rational principles rather than
emotions: rational principles are solidly grounded in logic, while emotions are fluid, malleable things that do not
even approach the possibility of being considered universal. Held claims that some emotions are just as
widespread as rational beliefs, and this may be a fair point but it does not justify using emotion as a basis for
morality. To be sure, finding a rational basis for morality is nearly impossible because not everybody shares the
same rational beliefs, but this does not excuse the development of a system that will be even more relativistic and
It is true that emotions cannot be ignored when it comes to morality—when you boil it down our moral feelings
are essentially products of emotion in the first place—but when trying to develop an ethical system to be
universally adopted, as Held is here advocating, you cannot rely on emotions that we know from the beginning not
everyone will share. At least an ethical system based on rational principles can be argued for. But if your ethic is
grounded on your emotions, I can simply dismiss it on the grounds that I do not share your feelings. For instance,
if you claim that we ought to make sacrifices to feed starving children in Africa, and this claim is based on the
emotions of caring and empathy, I need only assert that I do not share these feelings of empathy in order to refute
your claim. But if you had claimed that it is our duty to feed these starving children, or that the happiness brought
about by feeding them will outweigh the minor inconvenience of the sacrifice I will be called on to make, I will
have a much harder time arguing against you.
Finally, allowing emotions to enter into moral theory as a legitimate basis for action is far more dangerous than
Held seems to realise. If we admit to the proposition that emotional states can serve as a legitimate basis for
moral decisions, we may be able to justify things traditionally seen as good such as nursing a sick child back to
health on this basis of love and caring. Yet what is to prevent anyone from attacking the issue from the other side
of the spectrum, and to justify the murder of a sick child on the basis of anger and malice? What makes love a
more legitimate basis for moral decision-making than hatred? Can you offer me any argument that does not itself
appeal to emotional preferences that I might not share?
I have perhaps been too harsh in my criticisms of this article, but I do feel it is important to be wary of emotional
arguments that come in the guise of philosophy. Though the intentions behind such arguments are often good, as
Held’s most certainly are, to accept them without critical examination can often lead to unforeseen negative
consequences. Held’s argument for a feminist ethic has no rational basis, but merely appeals to our emotional
reaction to the disparity between where the moral priorities of society are and where we might feel they ought to
be. In itself this would not be so dangerous, but she goes so far as to advocate the complete revision of rational
moral theory to be replaced by one based on emotion, and as I have shown, the ultimate consequence of thinking
about morality in such a way can be downright dangerous.
However, I can not completely condemn this argument, as the existentialist ethics to which I subscribe contain no
such warnings against ethical decisions being based on emotions. According to the principles of existentialism as
outlined by Sartre, ethical systems can not be based on emotions, but neither can they be based on rationality, as
we can find no solid ground for rational principles in this absurd existence anyway. Therefore I believe a feminist
ethic might possibly work if seen in the context of personal responsibility. We may be able to justify acting purely
out of emotions of care and empathy if we acknowledge that we do so for no other reason that we are choosing
this for all humanity, and that if we do choose to go the other route and act purely on the more violent emotions,
we must take responsibility for that as well.