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Feminism Ethics, Balanced or Imbalanced


How would you feel if you were always placed at second best and your efforts to rise were suppressed? Such is the case with women since historical times. The general perception is that women have been overlooked constantly and seen as vessels or weak beings. This perception is drawn from comparison with their male counterparts. Women are often seen as inferior to men and the perception has been carried through generations. Apart from being subordinated by men, their concerns have not been accorded the weight they require. Thus, a general perception has placed a woman in the house. People usually affiliate women to household chores and family matters while men are seen as heads of the house and leaders in the society. This has led to a world with only a few women who hold strong social position to mingle with men and challenge them in the economic, political and social spheres. In Tong and Nancy’s work, Allison Jagger, a feminist philosopher blames traditional ethics for such perception of women. Jagger shows how traditions oppress women in five ways. Firstly, traditions expose more concern to men’s issues. Secondly, they show that women do house work, look after children, the elderly and infirm. Thirdly, women are considered to be less moral than men in general. Fourth, they overrate masculine signs and underrate feminine signs. Lastly traditions favor male ways over female methods of reasoning. Eventually, feminism ethics tries to combat these perceptions. In pursuit to address these issues, many have been left to wonder whether the notion of feminism ethics is balanced or imbalanced. (Tong and Nancy "Feminist Ethics").

Tong and Nancy define feminism ethics as: “an attempt to revise, reformulate, or rethink traditional ethics to the extent it depreciates or devalues women's moral experience”. Feminism theory bases its argument on the assumption that the world is dominated by the male figure. Feminism ethics aims for equal political and social rights and opportunities for both men and women. Despite divergent views, most feminists are geared towards developing strategies that will address these issues neglected by traditional culture. Jagger also notes that many feminists champion against the oppression of any group of people, particularly women (Tong and Nancy "Feminist Ethics"). A few critics claim feminism to be imbalanced, though, upon a closer view, it appears to be balanced as it fights for equality considering different social groups. 

Background Information

The fight against women oppression has not been a recent development. It dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries with scholars like Cathreen Beecher, Charlot Perkins, John Stuart Mill, Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Candy Stanton who covered topics that addressed feminism. Some were for it while others argued against. In their works, they raise a number of questions about men and women’s moral virtues. Most of them based their arguments on moral virtues and gender traits. Some of the questions raised say: whether women and men should actually adhere to same moral virtues? Or whether feminine traits are natural/ biological or they result from social conditioning? (Tong and Nancy "Feminist Ethics")

Basing her work on the last question mentioned above, Mary Wollstonecraft (the18th century) came to a conclusion that morality should be uniform for both genders. She did not categorize them as women and men morality, but rather basically called moral virtues “human morality”.  Wollstonecraft held a strong opinion that women are not subordinates of their male counterparts. (105) In contrast to the claims that men and women morals are equal, the thinkers from opposing sides also raised their thoughts. Some of them were Beecher and Candy Stanton, who stated that men and women have different moral virtues. Thinkers like Carol Gilligan continued to fight for feminism ethics in the 19th century. Modern feminists are still upholding the feminism theory to date, in pursuit of equality between men and women. 


Carol Gilligan, a female feminist, points out those in support of traditional moral virtues that uphold men moral virtues over women’s; thus, her idea that female moral development is secondary to men’s.  They prefer standard ethical attitudes that include aggressive, masculine, hostile, supremacy, social order and principles of authority. These moral duties based on masculine traits are termed as “ethics of justice”. To counter this manly belief, feminists came up with the theory called “ethics of care”.  (103-105)        

Overall, the morality of women is simply divergent from that held by men, but it is not inferior to men’s morality as men claim (Gilligan, 73).According to Gilligan, the ethics of care: “speaks a language of care that emphasizes relationships and responsibilities” (qtd in. Pecorino, “Post Modernism – Feminism”). Feminism values like caring, sympathy, gentleness among other emotional values are overlooked by the public where traditional ethics rule. To prove this, she criticizes Kohlberg’s theory of moral development since he only based his theory on men only. She, hence, terms this theory biased.

Tong and Nancy present Kohlberg’s six step moral development theory as:

Stage One: “punishment and obedience orientation.” To avoid the pain of punishment and/or to receive the pleasure of a reward, children do as they are told.
Stage Two is “the instrumental relativist orientation.” Based on the notion of reciprocity — scratch my back and I'll scratch yours — children meet others' needs only if others meet their needs.
Stage Three is the “good boy-nice girl” orientation. Adolescents adhere to prevailing norms to secure others' approval and love.
Stage Four is the “law and order orientation.” Adolescents develop a sense of duty, defer to authority figures, and maintain the social order to secure others' admiration and respect.

Stage Five is the “social-contract legalistic orientation.” Adults adopt a utilitarian moral point of view according to which individuals may do as they please, provided they do not harm other people.
 Stage Six is “the universal ethical principle orientation.” Adults are no longer ruled by self-interest, the opinion of others, or the fear of punishment, but by self-imposed universal principles. (Tong and Nancy, "Feminist Ethics")

To refute Kohlberg’s theory, Gilligan also comes up with a scale to show the different levels included in woman’s moral development. Gilligan’s first stage defines that a woman only minds about herself as she is vulnerable, helpless and finds comfort in isolation. She refrains from any type of relationship. In the second stage, the woman notices others around her and develops personal contact. She acquires a feeling of devotion and responsibility to care for others. From her innate goodness, she is able to make sacrifices for these people. In the third stage, she finally masters how to balance the first two stages- caring for herself and others. She must first care for herself so that she can care for others effectively (27). By this, Gilligan shows that balance of care is a universal factor among ethical principles that portray a woman as able to control moral concerns regarding herself, as well as concurrently care and provide for others. To describe this, Gilligan uses a woman who is contemplating whether to have an abortion or not. The woman will consider herself, the other person or people and lastly consider everyone involved in her decision. Commonly, the human nature of women appreciates the importance of emotions in ethical assessment and reasoning. She admits that if women are to abide by the ethics of justice or standard principles they might become heartless and merciless. For a fair moral judgment to be reached, there must be an emotional connection with the person being judged so that the real reason behind their actions can be identified. Despite this the masculine/traditional ethical principles discourage emotions in making moral judgments.

Care ethics dictates that principle rules cannot be used to make judgments where a certain relationship is concerned. A classic example is when a mother is supposed to decide whether to help her friend’s child or not. Such situations cannot be determined by traditional ethics. Care ethics makes a consideration of all parties involved which is contrary to masculine ethics that only adheres to rules that are already decided and inconsiderate.

Also, the main aim of care ethics as a part of feminism ethics is to instill the values of respect for responsibility, respect of other people and importance of personal relations. Hence, society should respond to situations with such values above all other factors.

Traditional perception that women are naturally less virtuous than their male counterparts is not factual. Generally, women are considered second to men by nature. This claim is supported by the opponents of feminism by saying that women have weak moral traits. Even though their moral traits might not compare to that of men, it does not mean it is below that of men. It also does not mean that it cannot be rectified. Wollstonecraft attributes this to the fact that women have been deprived of enough opportunities to advance and develop their rational powers and, hence, they end up being self-indulgent, hypersensitive, narcissistic, and emotional individuals. Wollstonecraft also admits that these traits are cured by rigorous education. She adds by saying that masculine morals are highly regarded because they enjoy a proper education. Women should be given the same education eventually they will become morally mature as men (Wollstonecraft, 105).

Feminism acknowledges reasoning as the distinguishing factor between human beings and other animals. This shows that despite traditional moral virtues downsizing reasoning traits over principles, the level of reasoning in humans is what makes human beings superior to other animals in the universe. Wollstonecraft points this out and supports her idea by contrasting behaviors people might master against morals that need critical thinking. She says boys that parents teach their morals while they teach girls manners. Generally, she blames society for twisting women virtues into vices, and encouraging women to develop negative psychological characteristics like immaturity, cunning and vanity. She gives an example of gentleness, a psychological trait attributed to women that is easily turned into obsequiousness (Tong and Nancy "Feminist Ethics").

Contradicting to the traditional theory, Wollstonecraft states that women are not meant to engage only in household duties and family matters (Tong and Nancy "Feminist Ethics"). Virginia Held says that traditionally, the realm of women has always been taken to be the private domain (household). On the other hand, the public domain (for example politics) has always been associated with masculinity, reason, and determinate active form. Contrary to this, the private domain has been linked to female weakness, emotion and seen as inferior and passive. (qtd. in Silbergeld, Jonsen and Pearlman, 158)

Held notes that differences between the public and the private domains are made by a number of notions. Firstly, the government is managed by a citizen (who is traditionally male) while a woman (not considered as a citizen) reproduces life (basic natural function). Second, men are warriors/ protectors of women and men must provide natural needs for women such as shelter and food. Third, men are obligated to their responsibilities while women conduct theirs out of love. Fourth, male morals aim to avoid harm while female morals are aimed at doing good deeds. Fifth, the traditional place for men is in the public domain, politics and markets, while women’s domain is at home. Sixth, the traditional moral virtues aim at punishing rule breakers and wrong doers while female moral virtues aim is to reward good deeds. Seventh, male views perceive relations as contractual while women views see relationships as natural. Eighth and lastly, ethics of justice portray masculine activities with the realms of reason, the public and the market place as “human characteristics” while the traditional theories present women’s actions as “animal- like” and just natural. (qtd in. “Feminist Ethics - UCF Case Studies in Ethics.")

From the above distinction it is clear that women have been undermined by the society as a whole. These traditional theories expect women to simply take up on the basic natural functions that human body can do, and household/ family duties and let men run all other aspects outside the house.

The importance of values has acknowledged that care ethics is applicable in different life situations. Care ethics exists due to absence of obvious method of resolving conflicts. (Krisman, “On Care Ethics: Post modernism feminism”) She gives an example of a person having to make a quick decision in time shortage. In such situation, there may not be adequate time to negotiate and debate; hence, the decision maker will base his decision on care and ethics. Also, a study by Gilligan and Attanucci on moral development theory showed that both ethics of care and ethics of justice were found in both sexes, but were gender oriented. The research used a real life example of a pregnant woman who is considering abortion. Men used ethics of justice more while most ladies analyzed situation using ethics of care. (Gilligan & Attanucci, “Two moral orientations: Gender differences and similarities”)

Traditional ethics causes people to ignore their natural emotions so that they may not be subjected to the perception of being weak as the traditional masculine-oriented society “ethics of justice” believes.  Gilligan says that ethics of care is an ideal component of a sound moral thought, thus, children must learn to “value their hearts over their heads” may show higher levels of moral than men. (qtd in. Pecorino, “Post Modernism – Feminism”)


Despite the efforts made by feminists and ethicists to instill feminism and care ethics into the society, they have been faced with criticism from opposing sides. For example, some of the oppositions and criticism include those mentioned below.

Thinkers of the eighteen hundreds are among those against feminism and care ethics. They argue that virtue should not be the same for men and women. Instead, they provide a different similar to virtues theory which claims that male and female virtues are different. Others hold it that female virtues are better than the virtues of men. However, these groups of thinkers hold diverse opinions whereby they differ amongst themselves on how to assess the characteristic associated with women (kindness, compassion, nurturance, self-sacrifice, empathy etc.). Therefore, the below questions were raised :( a) whether genuine virtues can be developed by women as well as men? (b) Are positive psychological characteristics to be developed by women only? (c) Should the development of negative traits be the issue of concern for both sexes? (Tong and Nancy "Feminist Ethics")

Society is too oriented on ethics of justice to shift to ethics of care and feminism. The masculine belief and self-interest consider human response as low supplements to traditional ethical principles. The society still regards reason and intellect superior to feminine ethics. Therefore, most critics emphasize that the world is dominated by males.

Feminist ethics has also been criticized due to a number of inconsistencies within the issue itself. Critics argue that difference in opinions and claims cause feminist ethics theory to lack coherency as compared to traditional ethics.  For example, feminist ethics has differed on the issue of assisted reproduction. Some feminists are of the opinion that assisted reproduction empowers women, while others say that it causes male dominance since women may be forced to have children.

Critics have also cited defaults with the ethics of care theory saying that: (1) only women are able to agree with the ethics since humans only apprehend what they can relate to; (2) it forms its basis on traditional women’s values in pursuit for new virtues; (3) it is politically unwise to associate women with care values; (4) the theory does not empower women; (5) it is not possible to have gender free morality; (6) it is not possible for a person to care for someone if he/she is psychologically, socially, and/or economically forced to do so; (7) they criticize inconsistency in modernism yet care ethics holds inconsistent norms; (8)it emphasizes the irrational; (9) feminists cancel out themselves by surrendering truth claims in their own works; (10)the theory does not allow natural activities of men;(11) lastly, it calls for a shift in behavior to suit each individual situation. Consequently, critics argue that in such case there is no genuine theory of behavior if it is being changed to suit somebody’s needs at the time. (Krisman, “On Care Ethics.” Post Modernism Feminism)


Based on the claims made above, it would be fair to say that feminism ethics is balanced. Despite critiques that it is inconsiderate of men, it only tries to raise the perception of women to equate with men. Centuries back, women have been viewed as second best to men in almost all aspects expect the household and family matters.

The public domain also provides a field that does not uphold fair distribution of rights and responsibilities since it is dominated by masculine principles. This makes it hard for women to adjust and effectively compete with men. The perception of women being inferior has been passed through generations and, hence, is deeply rooted. Comments like: “why are you hitting it like a girl”, “take it like a man” or “man up” serve as a proof and a good example of the above said.

Feminism ethics and care ethics, which is also a strand of feminism ethics, are trying to position women on the same level as men, more so to resurrect them from the shadows of men in the society. Ethics of justice clearly subordinates women, and hence, should be the theory considered as imbalanced.  “A utopian vision of the patriarchal family remains intact despite all the evidence which proves that the well-being of children is no more secure in the dysfunctional male-headed household than in the dysfunctional female-headed household.” (Bell, 77)

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