Monday, April 6, 2009

Gendered Ethics

I've always been fascinated with arguments that derive philosophical insights from the social position and identity of the knowers rather than an abstract conception of an epistemic or moral agent. On one level, philosophy has proceeded usually to claim that epistemology attempts to discover the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge. For moral agency, moral philosophers usually attempt to discover what practical reasoning is across the spectrum for all human beings and what is entailed by this faculty has direct implication for knowing and acting morally. Traditional philosophy tries to achieve an abstract and universal understanding of agency in which what holds for one agent will hold for all others of the same kind. Feminist philosophers and social epistemologists are skeptical of this impersonal characterization of agency in both epistemology and moral philosophy. Instead, more attention is paid to the actual context in which knowledge emerges, and an open honest assessment usually reveals that the production of philosophy by men typically favors the abstract conceptions of agency, conceptions that only the most educated historically could emulate. In a way, traditional philosophy justifies conceptions and interpretations that favor the position they occupied.

In creating my own syllabus recently, I decided to include a reading of Annette Baier. Instead of agency, her target is an entire systems of moral philosophy, and their subsequent concepts. I've picked up on the agency requirements since its range of concern is familiar to me, and is one essential concept within moral philosophy. The argument is made similar in kind. Let's see if I can reproduce it with any satisfaction.

(1) All moral philosophies of the past favor conditions of agency that only men (the elite) could emulate.
(2) By (1), it is evident that all past philosophies are gendered meaning that philosophies produced by past social systems are products of their times in which women did not even participate in philosophical discourse.
(3) Females have a distinctive moral perspective
(4) Given that moral philosophy is gendered and females would have contributed to philosophy uniquely had they done so, a new feminist ethics is necessitated by the historical realities to address the conceptual gap of previous historical moral philosophies.

There are two major assumptions here that demand attention. First, the argument turns on the assumption that philosophy cannot reach anything near the universality of its claims. Instead, making universal claims is just a way of rationalizing or supporting one's social position over others. Post-structuralists are fond of this claim, thinking that the idea of the subject in philosophy is only a tool for oppressing those that are different from the subject. I'm unsure of this claim. While there might be something said for a sensitivity to historical context in which philosophies emerge, does the truth of a view depend entirely on that context? I answer in the negative. This cannot be a reason for thinking entire contributions to tradition are foolhardy. Otherwise, we would not think through Aristotle's text in our intellectual history since he doesn't understand particle physics. Aristotle's physics are regarded as false because of reasons beyond which history and context imply.

Still, the first assumption of history and context are not the most powerful assumption. It is premise (3). Proving that women have a different moral perspective than men is the most substantial claim a proponent of feminist ethics makes. The truth of (3) is usually based on Carol Gilligan's work in children psychology, or some qualitative analysis of how women favor more nurturing caring relationships than the impartial justice morality typical of past philosophies. As for agency, this conception is very compatible with a model of practical reasoning that stresses community over atomistic individualism of moral agency.

The problem with (3) is thinking that it follows had women been liberated in previous centuries that moral philosophy would have turned out differently. Maybe, it wouldn't change. We note the gendered differences now, but what holds for our experience of gender now is or could be starkly different than if women had been equal to men in a very Greek context. Such moves only invite speculation, and that's not the biggest problem with this expectation either. Essentially, this expectation is bugged down in a deeper problem, and the expectation purports the very gender essentialism that women needed to shrug off for the advances in feminist activism. Allow me to explain.

The belief that philosophy would have been different had women participated in our ethical tradition relies on the assumption that women differ essentially from men in the first place. The claim is not just an evaluative claim about the fairness of past philosophical discourse. Any self-respecting philosopher could see the disproportionate past from still the under-represented female amount of philosophers today. Moreover, the insights from those same social science studies that corroborate the truth of (3) rely on the categories of men and women to the exclusion of spectrum of bisexuals, trans-gendered people etc.

I'm not dismissing the truth of (3). I'm just thinking the claim should be less robust than feminist ethicists want. The criticism might be something like the moral content of our duties may not be as sensitive to caring relationships, and the failure of what we require from morality is the issue. The view of feminist ethics, I think, has more value in uprooting the past injustices of philosophical praxis. I think they are right in a very broad sense, just not for the reasons they hold about a range of issues.

1 comment:

TorturedArtist said...

Another great post, Vancouver philosopher! You're going to have to change your name in a couple months or you'll be lying to us all. You should keep this blog up as you finish up your PhD. If the quality stays up, this will surely become a well-known web-space for serious continental philosophy.

I'm going to respond piece-meal to this post, because it's fairly long, so bare with me.

First, you claim, "Traditional philosophy tries to achieve an abstract and universal understanding of agency in which what holds for one agent will hold for all others of the same kind." I share your concerns about the futility of such approaches to ethics and agency, but I'll point out that there are many ethicists and action-theorists who are our allies in this...there's particularists, contextualists, relativists, many shades of naturalism, and even some consequentialists and virtue ethicists would deny that ethics goal is to provide universal understandings of agency such that what holds for one agent must necessarily hold for all agents of the same type. So, I guess my only initial thought is that it's not so far from traditonal to deny this assumption...but this is a minor point, of course.

On to your formalized argument. First, I'm not sure if I should grant your first premise. I know this is only a blog post, but you really do need to say more in the way of argument for the claim that only men (the elite) could achieve the form of agency that is demanded by traditional ethics. I mean, even if the only options under traditional ethics were the big 3 (Consequentialists, deontologists, and virtue ethics), I don't see why woman (the non-elite) are incapable of satisfying the agency requested. Consequentialists, broadly construed, merely demand that an agent consider the action that leads to the best consequences and that the moral thing to do is said action. Surely, this is not a demand that woman are incapable of meeting. Take a simple example, assume 'caring for children' is an activity typical of woman (the non-elite). It seems within the agential capacities of the non-elite that they could, while performing the activity of 'caring for children' exercise their agency such that they are performing acts that lead to the best consequences for the children they are caring for(or more generally, for all children cared for in similar circumstances). I think similar conclusions follow for both virtue ethics and deontology. . . so I'm skeptical about this assumption, but I'll grant it for argument sake, and move on.

The remainder of this argument attempts to establish that woman have not participated in the formation of the modern ethical tradition, that they have a unique ethical perspective, and that we should allow for its inclusion in future ethics. I'm willing to grant this, for argument sake, but I'm not sure how true it is. It is true that woman have been excluded from academic discourse for most of western history (although there are notable exceptions). I'm not so sure about woman having a 'unique moral perspective'. I know alot of feminists want to claim this, but the psychological literature used to establish this claim (like Carol Gilligan's seminal 'Care Ethics') is pretty shoddy. I mean, I agree that woman should be included, that 'traditional ethics' is severely inadequate, and that woman have important contributions to make here, and so does a careful look at the social and cultural situation of agents that are part of the moral environment, but I think that these contributions will be made, not by saying that woman have a special view of reality that is inacessible to men, but rather by allowing for many rational and intelligent people who were previously silenced a place at the table AND by actually looking fully at the facts rather than grossly over-simplifying things. It's sort of like the problem with economic game theory during the early 20th century. It was assumed that agents were fully rational and always made choices that were in their best interest. This was, of course, an overly-simplistic view of agents and the results were inadequate theories of agency. But, the solution was not to assume that game-theory had adeqautely characterized typical agents and also needed to allow for the inclusion of non-typical agents. It was rather to point out that agents, in general, are much more complex that game-theorists ever imagined, and that a full picture of them and their environments needed to be part of a complete game-theoretic model. I think the contribution of the non-elite to ethics is more like this; we're working off an impoverished view of agents and their environments. It's not that woman (and other non-elites) have a unique ethical perspective that is not included in an ethics that is adequate for men (and the elites). It's that the whole project is inadequate precisely because it mis-characterizes agents and their environments/choices.

I said I'm going piece-meal, so I'm just now getting to your actual claims. It looks like you agree, for the most part, with what I've said. Yeah, you do. We're defending consistent positions.

I'll add something on 'essentialism'. I agree with you that it's a huge error to think that biological men and biological woman (and those with indeterminate sex) have essential properties/characteristics...that in virtue of being born female or born male one will necessarily approach the world in a certain way. I agree that this view, is likely false, was something that woman needed to overcome to gain equality, and that there is a danger for those defending a unique 'woman's ethics' of reverting back to essentialism about men and woman. But, I wonder if a proponent of a claim like this could defend the claim by tying the 'female take on ethics' to 'gender' rather than 'sex'. That is, one could say that a biological woman could be a gendered man, and vice-versa (and then also make some room for gay/bisexual/etc.). And from here, then maintain that there is a unique ethical perspective tied to the gender(woman) and the gender (man), and that Western philosophy has excluded the perspective of those gendered (woman) from the development of ethical theories. This seems to be consistent with denying biological essentialism, and does seem to allow for race-theoretic critiques of ethics, feminist critiques, and queer-theoretic critiques.

Anyways, great post. Keep it up.