A conversation between our editors Abigail, Anna, Clare, & Jesie
We see that discussions on morality and ethics are always on the forefront of conversation in the media. Engaging in ethics, ethical theory, or moral philosophy allows us to assess our values, and engage with feminist theory, through a philosophical perspective. To kick off our series, we had a conversation about the nature of ethical theories themselves, and what place feminism has in it.
Jesie: Hey Anna! When we talk about feminist ethics, it often relates to topics that are gendered - questions about abortion, raising children, being an egg donor etc. There’s an implication that feminist ethics should only ask questions about women’s bodies – I wanted to open up a discussion that would let us talk about care, ‘femininity’ and feminism in a way that’s not just limited to ‘women’s issues’. So to begin with, do you think morals apply to both men and women in a fair and equal way?
Morals are personal or societal standards of what is regarded as good or bad – a heavy topic of discussion in philosophy. Moral Philosophy is a study of the meanings and justifications behind moral claims. Some examples of moral claims: Lying is bad/good; Abortion is right/wrong.
Moral Philosophy tries to unpack why we make these claims, discover where they originate from, and how we justify them. It can also be used to critique different beliefs.
Anna: I don't really think so. I think there's a sort of double standard in traditional ideas of virtue ethics, in which men and women seem to have different moral responsibilities, and different virtues that are ascribed to them.
Jesie: Could you give us some examples of how this manifests?
Anna: I think we can see manifest in ideas of what it means to be a good woman as compared to what it means to be a good man. Values such as being empathetic or caring, or being a good mother are attached to women whereas things such as: rationality, being courageous or chivalrous are traditionally seen as things that are masculine- this is also demonstrated by a seperation of the private and public sphere.
Jesie: This reminds me of another famous quote: the personal is political.
Clare: Oh yeah! That’s from the beginning of feminist literary theory, where author and literary critic Kate Millett famously quotes that “the public and private must not be separate”. And that was something that became one of the foundational ideas that early second-wave feminists believed in.
Clare: Talking about traditional ethics, we can also refer back to the origins of Western philosophical ideas, especially in relation to politics, such as the 'Republic' by Plato, and the way in which virtues were really emphasised in ancient Greece: a leader was meant to be a man who upheld ethical virtues such as bravery and courage. In these ‘traditional ideas’, emotions were in fact seen as an inferior trait of which does not make capable, effective leaders or rational thinkers. Therefore, stereotypes enforced the idea that women and children tend to be more emotional and so they are not capable of being rational persons or political leaders.
Jesie: Quite like a self-fulfilling prophecy: for one to constantly be presented with a framework of expected behaviours and gendered virtues, or, ‘this is what the female experience is’… Hearing or seeing the same thing over and over and it is justifiable that it becomes a vicious cycle of repetition and emulation. Anyway, I was actually wondering how the current ethics system might actually hurt or disadvantage women?
Anna: Well, since moral philosophy tries to unpack our various moral claims, it’s natural that feminist ethics lets us challenge moral claims which relate to gender. Basically, feminist ethics gives us moral arguments against systems of inequality. Current systems are limited in their scope, they’re centered on a male point of view, so traits labelled ‘feminine’ are devalued, but we don’t examine why.
Basically, feminist ethics gives us moral arguments against systems of inequality.
Jesie: So how might this affect the distribution of power between men and women?
Anna: Feminist ethics asks us to call into question where we learn our morals- do we learn them from our parents, or from powerful social institutions (Religion , government, medicine etc). When we ask about the power dynamics in these social institutions this gives us in inkling into the systemic nature of inequality. Women lack presence and power in these social institutions and I think this goes back to what Clare was saying earlier about rationality and emotions as being seen as two separate pillars, and one being seen as more valuable than the other.
Jesie: I agree, I can definitely see that as an issue. A lot of women tend to be damned if they do, damned if they don't, especially on this preconceived set of notions that people have when they see a female leader. The ‘dragon lady’ is either too aggressive if they try to embody these so-called masculine values and traits, or they're seen as too weak or emotional which would be expected from a woman anyway. May even be used as evidence that women should not be leaders in the first place. So I can definitely see how power and simply access to power is entirely affected by these moral codes are ethics that are unspoken and subconsciously ingrained in society.
Clare: To add to the point, we can say that the human experience extends beyond this ‘public sphere’ we talk about. Activities in the private sphere should be taken into account too. So, how do we bring female values into the public sphere?
Anna: I think the pre-existing frameworks of ethical theory and the structure of moral philosophy have all the right frameworks for us to build upon. It's about re-adjusting and shifting our perspectives towards something new. It's scary and it's vulnerable because it's something we haven't really seen before.
‘Feminine traits’ are constantly devalued in society which directly contributes to inequalities.
Jesie: So it's interesting that you brought up a point about application. Because purely from an epistemological perspective, being the production of knowledge itself, we place more importance on empiricism, and making sure that we use our rationality through hard numbers and science. Evidently falling into the category of male-driven ethics and reason. A lot of the times we discount sources like lived experiences for their lack of value or dependability. So the very way we produce knowledge is also affected by said ethics and their double standards, which ultimately feeds back into society.
It's about re-adjusting and shifting our perspectives towards something new. It's scary and it's vulnerable because it's something we haven't really seen before.
Clare: Do you think the way in which society, or the public sphere, has kind of prioritised the rational and the logical, over something like emotions, that tend to fluctuate is because of a fear of kind of manipulating emotions to make it something that's performative rather than genuine?
Abigail: I think there's a possibility of that. I think people are scared of being, I guess vulnerable, or emotional in public because nobody wants to be vulnerable. I would say I feel like we don't value emotions and empathy and being caring enough, just because we've never done it. I mean if we go back to a hunter-gatherer survival way of life, everyone cares about the gathering and the hunting. No one cares about what's going on inside the home, which is caused like a huge informal economy with unpaid care work that’s just not valued at all. Do the ethics inside of us need to change first before we see changes in politics? Or is it the other way around? Which one is more influential?
No one cares about what's going on inside the home, which is caused like a huge informal economy with unpaid care work that’s just not valued at all.
Anna: This relates back to what Jesie was saying about the personal being political. Carol Hannisch said “personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time”. So the problems which at a superficial level relate to one's personal life (for example access to birth control) are political problems because they have greater social implications. Personal experiences of sexism, racism, etc. all require political changes. So I think that social change needs to happen concurrently to internal change. An example of this is you know, Singaporean ministers saying that we're not ready to repeal 3778 because society is not ready for this step, but at the same time without taking this political step towards equality you can’t ensure the rights of your people.
Abigail: I also find that it's hard to find like ethics and morality and those kinds of values that people hold. There's also institutions of religion and other parts to play that. What is their role to play in all this?
Jesie: For sure, like oh you mean like some sort of justification within the system because for some ethics, it's not just an abstract thing like you said it's institutionalised in a lot of physical organisations. So a lot of the time people like when we talk about how women are both victims and oppressors that simultaneously subscribe to that value system. And to those ethics that they've internalised because society has institutionalised these things within forms like religion and whatnot and it's hard because that is in the sense of reflection, a lot of the time. This means actually unlearning, a lot of the things that have been subconsciously fed to us, like you're saying, ethics, which is definitely abstract and comes through the form of things like religion and society and culture, etc. So it's definitely about unlearning certain things, or at least reflecting, acknowledging, empathising.
Clare: And I also think, if we are aiming to unpack ideas of feminism and the roles of women in society and in the world, it is important to stress and remember that the end goal is not this “moral absolutism” which we are criticising. More so pushing for a need to emphasise that what some women want are not the same as what other women want, and choice is a big factor to think about. Which reminds of this piece called ‘Do Muslim Women Need Saving?’ by Lila Abu-Lughod.
Jesie: I can imagine older generations would label conversations as this as being ‘snowflake’ sensitive, or kids complaining about something. Truth is, at its farthest, it reaches into crime, violence, all as implications of being emotionally unintelligent. When we teach men to suppress what they have inside, it can manifest in extremely dangerous ways – can lead to unstable behaviour, violence, drug and/or alcohol abuse. This all becomes a long-run problem for society, but often people don’t connect the dots to the stem of the problem to health issues, violence, etc. I think what we can conclude for sure is that current ethics without feminist perspectives is harmful to both men and women.
Anna: Feminist ethics isn’t really a form of ethics, or a field but rather its a methodology or a way of doing ethics. So we don’t need new ethical theories, or frameworks, we just need to do ethics a bit differently- this involves including marginalised perspectives in our discussions and valuing minority voices. Understanding that feminist ethics isn’t just about asking questions about the application of ethics, but that it has an important role to play in creating moral theory. It gives us the moral tools to question systems of power, and roots of inequality.
We will be continuously revisiting philosophy & its relations to feminism – hope you'll join us!