Is there a need for something called feminist ethics at all? I know that J.S. Mill argued that there are
no essential differences between men and women, that they have, at least in theory the same status
as moral agents, so how can feminists deal with their claim of the equal rights they are entitled to?
How can one define the advantages and inadequacies of a feminist ethics?
I looked up feminist ethics on the internet and, to my surprise, found that its quite interesting. You can
go to http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-ethics/for details on the subject.
Apparently, Mill thought that women's moral nature — their inclination to subservience and sacrifice
for others — was not a result of their inner propensities but imposed upon them by a patriarchal
society, so there is no such thing as "women's morality". As far as we behave morally, free from
social conditioning, we are all the same. The contrary view makes a distinction between male and
female virtues and claims that female virtues — nurturance, empathy, compassion, self-sacrifice,
kindness — are morally superior. So the question arises whether men should try to develop these
virtues, or whether women's virtues should not be seen as virtues, since this won't help them to break
free of their subservient role in society. But, as mentioned, it is also argued that there is a value to
subservience and sacrifice especially within the family. So basically, feminist ethics draws a
distinction between men and women which is both sociological and biological.
Mill's view supports women's rights because he doesn't think that women are naturally given to
subservience and sacrifice, so they ought to fight to overthrow a male dominated society. To
champion women's superior virtues is not compatible with claiming the right to equality, because it is
to recognise that women are naturally caring and supportive so they are best suited to bearing
children and caring them, or looking after the elderly. However, women can agree with Mill and claim
being caring is not a virtue, or support their claim to equal rights simply by denying this supposed
difference between men and women. Its easy enough for women to deny that they are kinder and
more compassionate than men, and it may not be a natural tendency in a woman to be nurturing,
since this can be the result of social conditioning, or the way women are raised differently from men
and treated differently by their mothers. However, women have different experiences from men, such
as being pregnant and giving birth which naturally prepares them for the role of nurturing.
If it is argued that there is difference between men and women, then women can claim the right to
greater recognition of their value because of their natural moral superiority.
The interesting aspect of feminist ethics is that it constitutes an attack on traditional ethics which is
held to value so-called masculine traits such as reason, autonomy and transcendence. Feminist
ethics places value on emotion and interdependence. Any new approach to ethics, based upon
human nature, should be welcomed. It also raises questions about what we take virtue to be.
However, drawing a distinction between reason and care in masculine/ feminine terms is of doubtful
use if there is no real truth to it, which would be an inadequacy to focus on. Also, the idea that
sacrifice is related to subservience and is only made by women is questionable, and there is no
sacrifice in being caring and supportive if this is what is natural for women. Men make sacrifices too.
It is not a natural propensity in a man to go to the office eight hours a day, for instance and men are
often subservient in the work place.