Feminism, Ethics, and What I Think

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Today I have been reading Caring: Nurses, Women and Ethics (my ingenuity knows no bounds when it comes to avoiding finishing reading Alchemystic).

It’s basically about the development of a specific nursing ethics system, and what form such a system should take. Previous authors have argued for an ‘ethics of care’; Kuhse, the author of this current book, argues that basing nursing ethics on an ethics of care is not only a bad thing in and of itself, as care ethics is a fundamentally flawed approach, but it also contributes to the professional disenfranchisement of nurses (and thus women) by giving them an ethical approach that does not equip them to discuss ethical subjects with others. Kuhse argues for a ‘just caring’ approach. Although she does not utter the words ‘virtue ethics’, she is arguing for an ethical paradigm that combines principlist with virtue ethical approaches.

In her discussion, Kuhse refers to the history of feminist ethical and philosophical thinking, and some rather interesting points are unearthed. Historically, women have been regarded as ‘lesser’ than men – less intelligent, less capable of reason, less capable of rational morality. Women, instead, have been praised for passivity, docility, obedience, and respectfulness. A good woman, say many of the great thinkers of history, is a woman who looks after her husband and children, does what her husband tells her, and provides him with unconditional love and approval. While a virtuous man is brave, honourable and principled, with the intellectual capacity to discern what is right and the courage to fight for it, a virtuous woman is very different. A virtuous woman is gentle, loving, kind, and caring. Her concerns are within the home and family, not directed towards the outer society.

There has been some research done on the way men and women approach moral problems; men, it is said, tend to see moral problems more like a mathematical problem with people: you add up the risks and the benefits and come to a decision. Women, on the other hand, tend to think more about relationships and personal responsibilities.

Certain authors, therefore, have advocated a specific ‘feminist ethics’, based around the ‘caring’ female virtues, whereby the right thing to do is the most caring thing; principles and rules are too restrictive and simplistic, and should be abandoned.

One can see the allure of this: if women are naturally more inclined to a caring-based process when making ethical decisions, surely this should be explored, and even celebrated? As feminist authors have pointed out, the traditionally male rule-based ethical systems don’t seem to have produced a utopian paradise. Maybe it’s time for caring feminine ethics to come to the fore?

Unfortunately, in a blog post, there just isn’t enough room to do justice to the arguments on both sides. So I’ll make the points that occur to me.

As Kuhse says, a pure ‘care ethics’ approach fails abysmally because without principles, how do we know what we are supposed to be caring about – or for whom? To what extent? When? A care ethics approach also assumes that the only persons to whom we have any kind of moral responsibility are those with whom we have a caring relationship, and therefore denies that we have any moral responsibility towards strangers. Additionally, without clearly articulated principles, it’s impossible to discuss ethical theories in any more detail than “I feel…” and “I think…” These are clearly serious weaknesses in a moral theory.

However, quite apart from care ethics’ weakness as a moral theory per se, even more worrying is what it potentially says about women. By marketing care ethics as a suitable ethics for women, its proponents – feminists! – are reinforcing the woman’s role as a caring one, where reason and logic are not only not expected, but not desirable. These feminists simply say that being caring is better than being logical; an emotional decision is better than a reasoned one. Why would any woman want to be logical when she can be caring?

To me, this is simply playing into the hands of the male chauvinists:
MALE CHAUVINIST: “Women are better fitted to caring roles, such as wife and mother, than logical, technical roles like being doctors and lawyers and bankers.”
CARE ETHICIST: “Yes, but caring roles are better; it’s far more praiseworthy to be a nice person like a mother or a nurse than a cold-hearted logician like a doctor or a lawyer or banker.”
ME: “What about me? I don’t want to be a mother or a nurse. I want to be a lawyer.”
MALE CHAUVINIST & CARE ETHICIST (together): “Then you are a bad example of womanhood! You should learn to know your place and relish the caring role for which Nature intended you.”

The care ethicist, then, has bought into the male chauvinist opinion that women are not fitted for logical thinking and reasoned argument, but comforts herself by declaring that logical and reason are not qualities worth having anyway. Fox and grapes, anyone?

This Fox has a longing for grapes:
He jumps, but the bunch still escapes.
So he goes away sour;
And, ’tis said, to this hour
Declares that he’s no taste for grapes.

This way of thinking seems to be found amongst quite a few vocal feminists, and I find it deeply disturbing. Not simply because it perpetuates the image of the Ideal Woman as the wife and mother (with some feminists now declaring that motherhood is, indeed, the highest calling of any human being and women are therefore better than men because men can’t be mothers, poor things) but because it reinforces the impression that women are unfitted for many roles in society – often the most respected or lucrative. It also reinforces the belief that all women think the same way. Feminist ethicists of this type seem to believe that all women want the same things, and can therefore be put in the same conceptual box (labelled ‘CARER’).

Also, almost worse, it drives a wedge between men and women. It perpetuates the existence of the ‘gender war’, where the name of the game is prove one’s own gender superior to the other. Whatever happened to recognising that women and men in general may think differently, but neither one is necessarily superior?

Personally, I’m an equalitarian. I don’t believe that women are better than men, or vice versa. I don’t believe in ‘men’s jobs’ or ‘women’s jobs’; I believe that a person should pursue the occupation for which he, or she, is best fitted by character, intelligence and inclination. I don’t think that there is any such thing as a ‘feminine ethics’ or a ‘masculine ethics’ – there is only ethics; the same system should apply equally to everyone, and should be applied equally by everyone. While logic and reason do not have all the answers, neither does an emotion-based approach; a fusion of both is required, something that is neither masculine nor feminine, but only human.

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7 thoughts on “Feminism, Ethics, and What I Think

  1. mrswalker2013

    I really enjoyed reading this; thank you. Two things occur to me off the top of my head. First, I think there is space for a feminist code of ethics – a code that speaks to how we as feminists approach life in a feminist way, how it informs our actions and relationships, in personal and social spaces… Not one based on traits identified as feminine but on the principles of feminism as a political movement – the quest for equality, justice, fairness.

    Second, I think you would enjoy Professor Howard Sercombe’s Youth Work Ethics. I admit to an interest – I know Howard and earlier this year I co-taught an ethics module with him, using the text, to a group of community learning and development students. For me, this approach to ethics (and the codes of ethics Howard has been part of writing) incorporates the positive, caring stuff found in nursing and other similar professions but has a bit more edge.

    Thank you again for your reflections.

  2. Theophania Elliott


    I don’t identify myself as a feminist; for me, that seems… narrow? I don’t see men as the enemy, that I should wish to differentiate myself from them by calling myself a feminist as opposed to, what, a masculinist? I would rather describe myself as an equalitarian – equality for women is part of that, but also equality for other groups, such as homosexuals and ethnic minorities. If the principles of feminism as a political movement are the quest for equality, justice and fairness, then why should these desirable outcomes by limited to women? And if the aim is to achieve equality for other disadvantaged groups (which includes men in some circumstances!) as well, then, logically speaking, it can’t be described as feminism.

    I suppose an additional reason I’m very wary of an idea of ‘feminist ethics’ is because I don’t seem to think the way a lot of women do. My friends are mostly men, my hobbies are traditionally male, and I was clearly behind the door when maternal instinct was handed out. It would seem, therefore, that if I am to be disadvantaged by mainstream ethics on the grounds of being female, and excluded from feminist ethics on the grounds of not being very (psychologically) feminine and therefore not identifying with feminist ethical approaches, I’m left sitting in an ethical no-man’s-land. In self-protection, therefore, I’m desperately clinging onto the idea of a code of ethics that is neither masculine nor feminine, but takes into account the valuable insights and ideas that everyone brings to the table, and comes up with something that is fair to everyone. Also, if we have mainstream ethics (for white men, because they invented it), and feminist ethics (for women), presumably we should also have a specific ethical code for every other disadvantaged group? Is there such a thing as Gay Ethics? That could get really, really confusing after a while.

    I am a born hole-picker, and I also like a good discussion where things are dragged out into the sunlight and subjected to a rigorous going-over. So don’t hesitate to tell me where I’ve completely missed the point!

    Thanks again – and I’ll see what I can do to find Prof Sercombe’s book; it’s not in the university library (I just checked).

  3. charliezero1.wordpress.com

    I highly recommend you reading this book.

    The Last Sex
    Feminism and Outlaw Bodies by: Arthur Kroker.

    I do apologies for my absence. I’ve been feeling a little under the weather. But now, I am feeling great and back to reading blogs and blogging again. 🙂

  4. Acelyn

    Great post! I enjoyed reading it! In the book Ethics in Human Communications by Richard L. Johannesen, he devotes a whole chapter to feminist ethics, the first one mentioned being ethics of care. Psychologist Carol Gilligan characterizes ethics of care as ‘the feminine voice (Johannesen, 205).’ She goes on to say that this voice is “rooted in the primacy of actual relationships and the interdependence of self and others (Johannesen, 205).” I think, as a general rule, this would be true. Women tend to be the more caring sex, and we tend to look to relationships when we make decisions. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.
    I agree with you in that male and women should be considered equal and that neither is better than the other.

    Johannesen, Richard L., Kathleen S. Valde, and Karen E. Whedbee. Ethics in Human Communication. 6th ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 1983.

  5. Jordan Smith

    Men need to realize that women in today’s world are no where near what they used to be. Women’s roles are changing dramatically. Obviously, the men in our world are not ready to deal with it. Back then, women were expected to stay home and take care of the house and children. Our world is changing faster than we can keep up, so now both parents are working all day. Since women are working so hard, they are getting very good job positions and making close to what men make. This is a very new thing to our world. Women never used to make as much as men, but now they can even make more. Women are definitely stepping up in our world and starting to be bigger in the business world. I am proud of all of the women in our world that are stepping up to par. I am proud to call myself a women and the fact that I am striving to be a big person in an accounting company.

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