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Feminist ethics is an approach to ethics that builds on the belief that traditionally ethical theorising has under-valued and/or under-appreciated women's moral experience and it therefore chooses to reimagine ethics through a holistic feminist approach to transform it.
Feminist philosophers critique traditional ethics as pre-eminently focusing on men's perspective with little regard for women's viewpoints. Caring and the moral issues of private life and family responsibilities were traditionally regarded as trivial matters. Generally, women are portrayed as ethically immature and shallow in comparison to men. Traditional ethics prizes masculine cultural traits like “independence, autonomy, intellect, will, wariness, hierarchy, domination, culture, transcendence, product, asceticism, war, and death,” and gives less weight to culturally feminine traits like “interdependence, community, connection, sharing, emotion, body, trust, absence of hierarchy, nature, immanence, process, joy, peace, and life.” Traditional ethics has a “male” orientated convention in which moral reasoning is viewed through a framework of rules, rights, universality, and impartiality. The “female” approaches to moral reasoning emphasise relationships, responsibilities, particularity, and partiality.
Feminist ethics developed from Mary Wollstonecraft’s 'Vindication of the Rights of Women' published in 1792. With the new ideas from the Enlightenment, individual feminists being able to travel more than ever before, generating more opportunities for the exchange of ideas and advancement of women’s rights. With new social movements like Romanticism there developed unprecedented optimistic outlook on human capacity and destiny. This optimism was reflected in John Stuart Mill’s essay The Subjection of Women (1869). Feminist approaches to ethics, were further developed around this period by other notable people like Catherine Beecher, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton with an emphasis on the gendered nature of morality, specifically related to 'women's morality'.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The American writer and sociologist Charlotte Perkins Gilman imagined a fictional "Herland". In this male-free society, women produce their daughters through parthenogenesis and live a superior morality. This women-centered society valued both industriousness and motherhood while discouraged individualistic competitive approaches to life. Gilman thought that in such a scenario women could relate cooperatively as there would be no requirement to dominate each other. Herland cultivates and combines the best “feminine” virtues and the best “masculine” virtues together as co-extensive with human virtue. If a society wants to be virtuous, according to Gilman, it should exemplify the fictional utopia of Herland. However so long as women are dependent on men for economic support, women will continue to be known for their servility and men for their arrogance. Women need to be men's economic equals before they can develop truly human moral virtue, this is a perfect blend of pride and humility that we call self-respect.
Feminist care ethics
Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings are exponents of a feminist care ethics which criticize traditional ethics as deficient to the degree they lack, disregard, trivialize or attack women's cultural values and virtues. In the 20th-century feminist ethicists developed a variety of care focused feminist approaches to ethics in comparison to non-feminist care-focused approaches to ethics, feminist ones tend to appreciate the impact of gender issues more fully. Feminist care-focused ethicists note the tendencies of patriarchal societies not to appreciate the value and benefits of women's ways of loving, thinking, working and writing and tend to view females as subordinate.
Feminist justice ethics
Feminist justice ethics is a feminist view on morality which seeks to engage with, and ultimately transform, traditional universal approaches to ethics. Like most types of feminist ethics, feminist justice ethics looks at how gender is left out of mainstream ethical considerations. Mainstream ethics are argued to be male-oriented. However, feminist justice ethics does differ considerably from other feminist ethics. A universal set of ethics is a significant part of feminist justice ethics. Feminist justice ethics is clear in dividing "thick" morality from “thin” morality. Other ethical approaches that define themselves by differentiating groups from one another through culture or other phenomena are regarded as "thick" accounts of morality. Feminist justice ethics claims that "thick" accounts of morality, as opposed to "thin" accounts of morality, are intrinsically prone to eroding valid feminist critique.
Feminist ethics and the future
Feminist ethicists believe there is an obligation for women's differing points of view to be heard and then to fashion an inclusive consensus view from them. To attempt to achieve this and to push towards gender equality with men together is the goal of feminist ethics.
"The goal of feminist ethics is the transformation of societies and situations where women are harmed through violence, subordination and exclusion. When such injustices are evident now and in the future, radical feminist activists will continue their work of protest and action following careful appraisal and reflection"
Feminist ethics and International Relations
Feminist theories and that of ethics broaden the scope of the predominantly masculine sphere of International Relations. This is especially important for issues of the private realm to take stage into the public which includes issues such as children’s rights, gender violence and discrimination, gender relations in war torn societies, and other similar issues which remain difficult to appear relevant in the mainstream discussions of ethics in international relations. The feminist dialogues of ethics are almost inescapably present to the private realm and are known to only shadow dominant ‘male’ paradigms of ethics in the public realm. This is especially a reality in discussion of ethics in International Relations where it is predominantly built on a language of violence, technologies or economics and what are known to be the masculine topics of discussion.
Selection of Authors and applied theory in International Relations
Watson discusses the issue of children born of wartime rape and uses feminist theory of ethics in addressing these marginalized issues. The invisibility is emphasized in the traditional construction within much of the existing international discourse of motherhood as a ‘private sphere activity’ where important focused issues such as children of wartime rape can be lost in translation of international dialogue and minimally touched upon. Feminist theory of ethics is provided in terms of broadening theoretical dialogues of international relations and addressing issues that remain marginalized.
There is evidence that failure to broaden the current scope of ethics in peacekeeping operations and rebuilding strategies, surrounding arms and violence, results in failing to meet the needs of both men and women. Puechguirbal argues that conflict is a ‘gendered experience’ and discusses the importance of peacekeeping operations keeping in check the differential impacts of war on women,men,boys and girls in post conflict society so as to not further marginalize the most vulnerable groups of the population( Currently, peacekeeping operations are heavily masculine in the sense that security revolves around the cessation of hostilities and disarmament. Peacebuilding operations must shift the focus from solely disarming and cessation of hostilities against gang members to social constructions of violence against women, men, and children that is embedded in societies broken apart by conflict. Gender issues have not been part of mandates of peacekeeping missions and urges women to take a more active role in political processes in post-conflict reconstruction. Applying Feminist ethics in peacekeeping and re-building strategies can reach a wider range of issues as well as deemed not of dire importance in dialogues of International Relations. Current strategies are not reaching target goals of generating peace and cessation of gender violence and sexual abuses that continue to reach high levels in incidences. This remains a residue of post-conflict societies that must be addressed. Implementing feminist ethics generates greater peacekeeping and peacebuilding strategies for gendered strategies to meet the needs of both genders so as to be implemented into not only the institutions but society.
- Gender equality
- Gender mainstreaming
- Material feminism
- Feminist political ecology
- Feminism in 1950s Britain
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- Mary Wollstonecraft
- Girl power
- Jessica Valenti
- Judith Butler
- Naomi Wolf
- Postmodern feminism
- Pro-life feminism
- Rebecca Walker
- Second-wave feminism
- Sex-positive feminism
- The left and feminism
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