Reading Summary 3

Reading Summary 3

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4/4/2021 Readings 1/9

Feminist Ethics


Feminist approaches to ethics, often known collectively as feminist ethics, are distinguished by an explicit commitment to correcting male biases they perceive in traditional ethics, biases that may be manifest in rationalizations of women’s subordination, or in disregard for, or disparagement of, women’s moral experience. Feminist ethics, by contrast, begins from the convictions that the subordination of women is morally wrong and that the moral experience of women is as worthy of respect as that of men. The practical goals of feminist ethics, then, are the following: first, to articulate moral critiques of actions and practices that perpetuate women’s subordination; second, to prescribe morally justifiable ways of resisting such actions and practices; and, third, to envision morally desirable alternatives that will promote women’s emancipation. The meta-ethical goal of feminist ethics is to develop theoretical understandings of the nature of morality that treat women’s moral experience respectfully, though never uncritically.

Just as feminist ethics may be identified by its explicit commitment to challenging perceived male bias in ethics, so approaches that do not express such a commitment may be characterized as nonfeminist. Nonfeminist approaches to ethics are not necessarily anti-feminist or male-biased; they may or may not be so.


The history of western philosophy includes a number of isolated but indisputable instances of moral opposition to women’s subordination. Noteworthy examples are Mary Wollstonecraft’s (1759–1797) A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), John Stuart Mill’s (1806–1873) The Subjection of Women (1869), Frederick Engels’ (1820–1895) The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), and Simone de Beauvoir’s (1908–1986) The Second Sex (1949).

In the late 1960s, however, as part of a general resurgence of feminist activism, an unprecedented explosion of feminist ethical debate occurred, first among the general public, soon in academic discourse. Actions and practices whose gendered dimensions hitherto either had been unnoticed or unchallenged now became foci of public and philosophical attention, as feminists subjected them to outspoken moral critique, developed sometimes dramatic strategies for opposing them, and proposed alternatives that nonfeminists often perceived as dangerously radical. First grassroots and soon academic feminist perspectives were articulated on topics such as abortion, equality of opportunity, domestic labor, portrayals of women in the media, and a variety of issues concerning sexuality, such as rape and compulsory heterosexuality. A little later, feminists displayed increasing ethical concern about pornography, reproductive technology, so-called surrogate motherhood, militarism, the environment and the situation of women in developing nations.

Despite the long history of feminist ethical debate, the term “feminist ethics” itself did not come into general use until the late 1970s or early 1980s. At this time, a number of feminists began expressing doubts about the possibility of fruitfully addressing so-called women’s issues in terms of the conceptual apparatus supplied by traditional ethical theory. For instance, a rights framework was alleged by some to distort discussions of abortion insofar as it constructed pregnancy and motherhood as adversarial situations. Other feminists charged that certain assumptions widely accepted by traditional ethical theory were incompatible with what was now beginning to be claimed as a distinctively feminine moral experience or sensibility. Contract theory, for instance, was criticized for postulating a conception of human individuals as free, equal, independent and mutually disinterested, a conception claimed by some to be contrary to the moral



4/4/2021 Readings

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