Moral Perspectives: Gender, Ethics, and Political Theory

Joan Tronto. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.

Beginning from the historical exclusion of women from most ethical and political concerns, feminist scholars in these fields try to understand how to think ethically and act politically to end women’s oppression. The challenges of this task are not only to determine the nature of oppression, but to challenge faulty claims that men’s experiences, concerns, and ways of knowing are the only possible ones. Feminist scholars must confront such basic questions as: How is the subject of human action, ‘what can she know?’ How can one persuade others about the necessity for moral and political reform or revolution? This essay explores these questions by focusing on feminist advances in thinking about human diversity: Who are women? What is knowledge about morality and politics? How do people develop their moral views? Standpoint epistemology and its resolution in a thick moral contextualism, the multifaceted subject, a feminist ethic of care, and a concern with the nature of evil are among the most distinctive advances in gender, ethics, and political theory.


Ethics considers the fundamental questions: How ought we to live our lives? What should be our goals? How should we act towards others? Ethics is intertwined with the study of political theory, which asks: How should we best structure institutions and practices so that we may live our lives to allow people to achieve their goals? Although women have always been a part of humanity, and although throughout history women have made contributions to answer these questions, their contributions have usually been ignored and their lives and experiences left out in thinking about these questions (Minnich, 1990). Recent feminist thinkers offer critiques of the old answers and provide new ways to think about these questions.

As one of the older disciplines, and one that considers itself at the center of the Western intellectual tradition, contemporary philosophy has been quite wary about including feminist insights into its disciplinary perspectives. Within professional philosophy, ethics has until recently been considered a less central aspect of the discipline as well. As a twice-forgotten subfield, feminist ethics has developed on its own and also has been related to the broader currents in women’s studies. Feminist political theory has also had a somewhat marginal status in political science. Most fields in feminist scholarship have a similar pattern to their history: scholars began by noticing the neglect of women in the canonical account of their field; they began slowly to ‘add women and stir,’ (Bunch, 1987) and later, they began to change substantially the concepts of the field. In both ethics and political theory, there are clear trends to include women and feminist perspectives, but a total paradigm shift has not yet occurred. This chapter describes the ways in which the fields of feminist ethics and political theory have emerged, the main debates in the fields today, and some prospects for future change.

Broadening Ethics and Political Theory: Changing the Starting Assumptions

As feminists began to wonder about women’s lives from the standpoint of these two disciplines, they noticed similarities in the ways that ethics and political theory approach the world. Andrea Nye described ethics in this way:

Like religious ethics, the form of secular modernist morality is deductive. Philosophers lay down first principles—natural freedom, universal value of pleasure, universalizability—and from them make inferences to lesser principles and applications. The model is law, a body of prohibitions, mutually coherent and authoritative, that justify action. The problems of moral philosophy are defined accordingly. Is there a clear application of principle? How can the actions prohibited or enjoined be defined? What happens when principles conflict? (1995: 140-141)

While not all political theory is equally rigid in following what Margaret Walker (1998) eventually called a ‘theoretical-juridical’ conception, political theory shares with ethics a search for a universal perspective. Looking at this philosophical tradition, feminist scholars found that two critical aspects of women’s lives were ignored. Neither ethics nor political theory provided a way to explain women’s oppression, and neither provided a way to take as central the importance of women’s moral experiences (Jaggar and Rothenberg, 1993).

Several major directions of feminist thinking have begun to transform the nature of political theory and ethics. Many of these trends are part of a broader movement in political thought and philosophy questioning the boundaries around these subdisciplines and reflecting interdisciplinary and less Eurocentric concerns throughout the world.

Within political theory, scholars have focused on its historical and conceptual dimensions. Political theory remains one of the most canonical of fields, teaching students about political thought through its history. Feminist scholars included new theorists and texts to the canon (Mary Wollstonecraft and J. S. Mill’s On the Subjection of Women, for example), and made feminist interpretations a vital part of ongoing readings of classic texts. Both Jean Bethke Elshtain (1981) and Susan Moller Okin (1979) offered early readings of women’s place in the history of political theory that presaged scores of outstanding articles and books. Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract (1988) offers a rereading of the historical social-contract tradition.

Other political theorists focused on conceptual change. In a collection published in the mid-1990s, Mary Lyndon Shanley and Uma Narayan (1997) collected some of the work that reflects fundamental transformations in such concepts as freedom, power, and autonomy. Among the most important conceptual innovations is the focus on the changing border between ‘public’ and ‘private’ life. The relationship of public and private life has a long history in political theory, as it appears in Aristotle’s Politics in Book I and is a central part of the analysis of J. S. Mill’s account of liberty. Nevertheless, as feminist scholars began to think about the ways in which the containment of women in the private sphere furthered women’s oppression, the insight that the public and private are intertwined, not separate, was critical.

A number of perspectives on the relationship of public and private life are possible, and in a way, this issue frames some of the most important continuing debates within contemporary liberal political theory. For Aristotle, the relationship of public and private life was simple: private life was a prerequisite for the more important realm of public engagement. For traditional liberals, individuals exercise their vital rights to comprise the meaning of their life in the private sphere, but the public sphere exists to regulate the private. How might feminists best understand the relationship of public and private life?

One of the key questions that feminists put onto this agenda is the question of how public and private life are framed and constituted. Aristotle saw economic life as a part of the private sphere. For Marxists, economic activity is centrally a public concern. Insofar as broad-scale change occurs in the public arena, feminists began to puzzle through why and how women and their concerns had been so completely excluded from the public arena. Pateman (1988) argued that the shape of the private sphere, what counts as ‘private,’ is constituted in the public sphere, and only those who are permitted access to engagement in the public sphere have the power to set the boundaries between them. Women’s relegation to the private sphere and their exclusion from political life was determined by men in the public sphere, and women had no way of contesting this decision, since they had no public life. The social contract was imposed on women by men through their arbitrary exclusion from the public sphere.

The Place of Ethics in Feminist Philosophy

In ethics, the critical conceptual issue has not been the relationship of public and private life, since ethical questions arise in both spheres. Relatively little attention has been paid to the ways in which ethical issues might be different in the two realms (Hampshire, 1978). Instead, the feminist discussion in ethics has been parallel to a larger discussion about the centrality of ethics in philosophy and the connection between ethics and other branches of philosophy, such as epistemology and metaphysics.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, the presumption was that ethics was at best a lesser field of philosophy, given its closer association with the messy realities of human life and its less clear focus and status as an abstract realm of thought (cf. Lloyd, 1993). In recent years, spurred largely by the question of where women are in philosophy, the field of ethics has re-emerged as a vital philosophical field. A large part of feminist argumentation, however, has been devoted to challenging the terms for the philosophical hierarchy of concerns within the discipline and the treatment of different parts of philosophy as if they are entirely discrete. A number of important discoveries in feminist ethics have not really been in ethics at all, but in related fields of philosophy.

Standpoint Epistemology and Feminist Ethics

Feminist transformations in epistemology—the philosophy of knowledge-provide an important starting point for feminist ethics. Feminist epistemologists have insisted that knowledge is contextual, that is, knowledge is generated in a particular historical and geographical location. It is also embedded in bodily experience (Lloyd, 1993). Lorraine Code (1991) has suggested that the unequal distributions of power and privilege in society are reflected in the authority that different people have in making knowledge claims. Thus, the ideal that knowledge can be independent of its human knowers, who are themselves always embodied in social settings, appears to be an illusion. Once knowledge is so situated, how does that affect ethics? One possibility is that it makes ethics, understood as the process by which universal laws are derived, a suspect enterprise. Many feminists, though not all, have thus been highly suspicious of universal ethical claims. It also means, most importantly, that all ethical thought needs to be contextualized.

Nancy Hartsock first raised the question of what has come to be called standpoint epistemology (1978; 1998). Following Georg Lukács’ reading of Marx, Hartsock argued that the objective and structural location of some people made them better situated to understand their own circumstances and those of others around them. Thus, Lukács posited that the working class were better equipped to understand the nature of capitalism than capitalists, since they understood their own positions as well as those of their bosses. This approach was different from the previous Marxist view, which had given equal or greater weight to the more powerful to understand the nature of the world around them. Hartsock similarly argued for the radical idea that women’s subordinate position provides them with a way to understand the world more completely, since they must understand the world both from their own perspective and from the perspective of dominant men. In both cases, Lukács and Hartsock make the claim that those who are less well off are actually in a better place to understand the world than the more powerful.

This feminist standpoint, however, is not the same thing as the subjective sensibilities of women. In the first place, it is possible not to be genuinely observant of one’s circumstance. More seriously, though, being in a situation where one might be able to see the world more clearly is no guarantee that one will see the world with clarity. It is possible to be misled or deceived. People might be unwilling to recognize the reality around them. Marxists frequently call such forms of deception or partiality ‘false consciousness.’ False consciousness seems to be a difficult epistemological tool for feminists, though. Feminist thinkers have found it difficult to be in a position to say that mainstream philosophy has ignored women’s experience only to turn around and say that some women are deluded by a kind of ‘false consciousness’ and do not understand their own experience (Grant, 1993).

There is also the question of whether there is only one possible feminist perspective. Feminist scholars who focus on the experiences of women of color quickly observed that just as women might have access to a different kind of knowledge because they are women and suffer from sexist oppression, so, too, women of color experience and know how systems of racist oppression affect them and the racially privileged. Lesbians made a similar point about hetero-sexist forms of privilege. Soon, the neatness of the feminist standpoint seemed to dissolve into the complexity of multiple standpoints.

In answering these charges, feminist scholars (including Hartsock herself in 1998) have agreed that multiple standpoints are possible. Nevertheless, it is still possible to describe how a standpoint provides knowledge that is different, and more comprehensive, than knowledge understood as simply facts about the world around us. Knowledge from a standpoint always involves an analysis and a realization of the power differentials operating among different individuals. It requires recognition of multiple ways of seeing, and of understanding why the centrally powerful way of seeing operates to exclude other points of view. Although feminists no longer believe that there is a single ‘feminist standpoint,’ standpoint epistemology, and the knowledge that comes from taking multiple perspectives, continue to be powerful tools for understanding feminist ethics and politics.

Feminist Ethics and Politics from Multiple Standpoints

Given multiple standpoints, how might feminists interested in ethics proceed? Throughout the twentieth century, ethics proceeded as a field of study from the recognition of a reliable way to produce knowledge. With multiple points from which to gain knowledge, is all of feminist ethics open to the charge of relativism? If there is no certain and universal moral knowledge, is ethics possible at all? The question of how the study of ethics should proceed, metaethics, is the subject of Margaret Urban Walker’s Moral Understandings (1998). Urban Walker draws a contrast between two ways of moral theorizing. Traditionally, ethics has used a ‘theoretical-juridical’ conception of morality which aims to produce impersonal, action-guiding rules that are timeless, context-less, and pure. In contrast, Urban Walker urges feminists to think of ethics in terms of an ‘expressive-collaborative’ model, in which social practices, and the ways in which ethics actually operates in people’s lives, are primary. As Urban Walker writes:

Morality is always something people are actually doing together in their communities, societies, and ongoing relationships. Its not up to academic philosophers to discover it or make it up… Without already knowing a good deal about (what we call) moral reasoning, moral rules, moral responsibility, and so on, we wouldn’t know where to begin or what we are talking about. We’re all in the same boat, epistemically, in this way. Feminist, race, gay and lesbian, and post-colonial philosophy has taken this farther: what we know about the social relations that embody our moral ones, and so what we are inclined to identify as the subject matter of ethics, is likely to be directly related to which places in our particular ways of life we occupy, and what the particulars of those ways of life are. (Walker, 2002: 175)

These ‘particulars’ that Walker (1998) describes are similar to the thick descriptions of the multiple standpoints that Hartsock invokes, as well as to the question of context in all non-universal forms of ethics. Particularities raise another important issue to feminist ethics—the definition of a moral person.

Ontology and Feminist Ethics

Another key question within philosophy that has a bearing on feminist ethics is the question of ontology, or being itself. What does it really mean to be a person? What is the notion of the self? This issue is central for feminist thinkers, many of whom have argued, in a variety of ways, that the category ‘human,’ and the very notion of what it means to be human, have been mainly inflected by the lives of men. Since Kant, most philosophers have presumed that what it means to be a human individual is to be autonomous, that is, literally, capable of making one’s rules for oneself. Feminist scholars have noted how often the experience of oppression distorts this capacity for making one’s own choices. In recent years, feminist philosophers have begun to describe humans as possessed of ‘relational autonomy,’ that is, an autonomy that is not absolute but also needs to be contextualized (Mackenzie and Stoljar, 2000).

Finally, feminists have insisted that philosophers cannot ignore the intersection of their disciplinary concern with ‘ethics,’ how we ought to live, and moral psychology, what actual human beings are capable of doing, in terms of moral reasoning and action. A recent collection considers how feelings, our capacities for memory, and so on, affect our ethical possibilities (DesAutels and Walker, 2004).

All of these findings in philosophy have consequences for the shape of contemporary feminist debates in ethics. The main effect of all of these discoveries is similar: it is no longer possible to describe ethics as the kind of field where scholars fix the rules and think about their consequences without reference to the actual people who will be responsible for applying them. Thus, feminists have revitalized ethics by reintroducing questions that were, until recently, considered somewhat passé. Among them are the nature of virtues, the nature of moral action, and large questions such as the nature of evil. Once this basic point is admitted, though, a number of challenges remain for feminist ethics.

Current Debates

The great progress made in adding the question of context to feminist ethics and political theory is an accomplishment of note. Nevertheless, difficult questions lie ahead. How should we think about the aspects of human contexts that are relevant to ethical discussions? In this section, I will consider the issues that currently concern feminist scholars in ethics and political theory. These include the nature of the self, the definition of ‘women,’ the care-justice debate, and the problems of evil and responsibility for wrongs.

Who is the Subject/Self?

In both ethics and political theory, the question of who constitutes the subject of the inquiry remains a thorny and unavoidable issue. After all, in order for ‘someone’ to act, there has to be a someone to do it. Or does there? One of the most ferocious debates throughout feminism in the last twenty years has concerned the status of postmodern or poststructuralist thought, and whether these currents are useful and important to feminists. Postmodernism and post-structuralism are not the same, and there are many varieties of these systems of thought. In general, though, postmodernism refers to the social condition of being in a new historical era. In this new moment, humans are made by a variety of competing and dizzying forces. Material and symbolic forces are all accorded importance and then produce much flux in the relationship of fixed ‘realities’ and apparent constructions of gender, race, nationality, senses of self, and so forth. Poststructuralism refers to the conceptual location that is beyond the assumption that there are enduring and deep structures, especially in human language, that provide a foundation for knowledge and action. Both postmodernism and poststructuralism pose the same challenge to the idea in ethics and political theory that there is a fixed self who can make decisions about the best course of action or the best way to structure institutions.

Part of the virulence over this discussion is the fact that in their most severe academic forms, neither side is very appealing. On the one hand, postmodernists accuse their critics of ‘essentializing,’ that is, fixing and exaggerating the realities that they see around them. On the other hand, non-postmodernists accuse poststructuralists and postmodern feminists of ignoring the realities of women’s lives and offering a description of social reality that leaves little space for real action. In truth, feminist theorists all remain committed to fundamental social change, but this struggle over the best strategies for doing so cuts to the core of the relationship between feminist activity as thinkers and feminist political action.

In political theory, the discussion of the self quickly branches into the topic of poststructuralist concerns. If there is no self, then how can one make a coherent argument for political activity that will culminate in a political movement (Moi, 1999)? Some feminist thinkers have argued that the need for a coherent and whole self is not necessary in order to make political theory meaningful (for example, Brown, 1995).

Judith Butler’s pathbreaking account of how gender is constructed and performed, rather than biological or set, is an important example of how poststructuralist thought operates (1990). Butler argues that gender is not so much a fixed category as a set of contested pieces that are constantly in negotiation. In saying this, Butler does not mean that anyone can invent her own idea of gender, but that the categories that seem to be fixed are in fact malleable. Butler’s work has inspired an entire generation of scholars, especially those in cultural studies and queer studies, to deconstruct seemingly fixed moments and practices.

Martha Nussbaum is one critic of postmodern and poststructuralist thought. In a strong attack on Butler in particular, she argued that postmodern thought is too far removed from the lives of actual women (1999a). To Nussbaum, Butler’s poststructuralist writings can quickly become an arcane exploration of social forms. In her view, too great an appreciation of multiplicity and fluidity results in a kind of relativism that lacks power to make clear arguments about what is wrong with such forms. For Nussbaum, categories such as justice are too vital for assessing harm to allow them to be deconstructed. Nussbaum (2000) continues to find a more universal account of human needs, the necessary conditions for human flourishing, as a way to evaluate women’s lives.

The question of whether the search for a self is a meaningful one is complicated when we recognize how this question intersects with categories such as race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and so forth. On the one hand, racial identity is a good example of a socially constructed category that is ‘essentialized’ by social practices and forces. To deny this construction its power would be a liberating step, indeed. On the other hand, as thinkers such as Patricia Williams have argued, women of color have been denied their identity, their rights, and their dignity in many ways; at this moment when they are about to gain recognition, what is the point of a discourse that argues that no such thing exists (1991; 1995)? Clearly, for Williams, some appreciation of post-structuralist insights is necessary, while at the same time, it is not appropriate to abandon entirely the frameworks of rights.

There are other and more complicated questions that arise from the nature of the self. Are all selves the same? Some feminist thinkers have been able to write highly nuanced and thoughtful accounts of human lives from deep reflection of what ‘selves’ do (Bartky, 1990; Meyers, 1994). Just as feminist scholars have gone beyond the notion that only epistemology and ontology are central concerns in ethics, moral psychology has become an increasingly important part of the study of feminist ethics. How does a ‘self come to be the person that she is? Is there is a fixed ‘self of some kind? To what extent does one’s social status affect and determine what kind of person one will be?

One way that this idea of the self has been expressed in political and ethical terms is around the question of ‘identity.’ What does it mean for a person to have a particular identity? How central is identity to one’s self-conception? To what extent does identity also function as a kind of privilege, since some women can use their accounts of their identity without running afoul of entrenched social privileges and prejudices, while others cannot? To what extent does the brute fact that women occupy female bodies affect how women negotiate the moral and political world?

One such identity that has been extremely important in the formulation of feminist ethics is a lesbian identity. Numerous scholars have noted how important sexuality is for one’s sense of self. Some writers, such as Monique Wittig (1992), have emphasized that to be a lesbian is to have a different sensibility about the entire world. Other scholars have taken an approach that makes no claims about lesbians’ ultimate differences from other women, but have stressed the ethical difficulties forced upon lesbians by their status as outcasts from society.

What, in the end, does the question of identity mean for feminist ethics and political theory? Some feminists have been highly critical of the practices of ‘identity politics’ because it seems to narrow and constrain women’s possibilities and to rely upon, and thus to reinforce, categories that have been used rigidly for purposes of oppressing women (Brown, 1995). One political theorist who has proposed a solution to this problem is Nancy Fraser (1997), who has argued that the key issues facing women in their struggles to end oppression are both redistribution (gaining equality and access to resources) and recognition (having others treat one as fully human). To think of recognition as a solution, though, requires an ability to solve a difficult and fundamental philosophical question: How does one conceive of the self in relationship to others? Is the creation of ‘others’ a necessary part of our self-definition, as some philosophers seem to have argued? Or is it possible for us to see our self in relation to others, as Walker (1998) would suggest that we must, and to be certain that the moral conclusions that we draw do not simply rest on our embedded assumptions about social life?

Who are ‘Women?’

A second ongoing debate in feminist political theory and ethics is the question of multiculturalism. Feminist scholars have been leading advocates for the position that, given the centrality of context in ethical and political theory, one needs constantly to be sensitive to the differences among women and among their varying experiences. Racial category, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, linguistic capacities, disability—all of these conditions affect how a given woman is able to live her life and engage in political and moral activity. Women of color raised these criticisms early and continuously as an attempt to make feminists aware of the limitations of their theories. Third World women also raised these concerns and pointed to the limitations of viewing the world only through Western eyes.5

But a serious question arises about whether, at some point, one has been too accommodating to cultural differences, obscuring the main point of feminist critique. Susan Moller Okin raised such a criticism in the important article ‘Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?’ (Okin et al., 1999). Okin et al. argued that, on balance, cultural deference was likely to give power to religious leaders, damaging the possibility of creating coherent support for women’s lives throughout the globe. Many critics accused Okin et al. of being insensitive to cultural differences in general, and to making arguments that would not, strategically, yield strong arguments that women could use to improve their life circumstances.

Nussbaum (1999b; 2000) is another thinker who has criticized feminists for their too ready acceptance of multiculturalism. Following the work of the economist Amatyra Sen, Nussbaum posits that it is possible to identify some categories for human flourishing. This approach, called the human capabilities model, identifies a number of essential capabilities that all humans have, and argues that any decent society will try to make certain that all of its people are able to develop these capabilities to the fullest. Thus, in societies where girls are forced to leave school while their brothers continue their education, because boys are more likely to get good-paying jobs, the girls are deprived of the equal development of their capabilities. Because these capabilities will be defined by local practices, Nussbaum believes that she is sensitive to context. Nevertheless, she argues that feminists can retain a standard for making universal judgments.

Another standard by which some scholars advocate making universal judgments is that of international human rights. Although the language of rights is an old and foundational part of the liberal intellectual tradition, the language of ‘human rights,’ as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1945), makes a clear set of claims that lay out the basic rights every human is entitled to have honored. The Declaration has been adopted by virtually every government in the world, and human rights have become a rallying call and a point for expanding political participation and discussion throughout the globe. Over half a million human rights organizations exist now in the world; they do not all share the starting premises of Lockean individualism, but they do all subscribe to the same Declaration.

Women’s groups have been especially successful in changing some aspects of the focus of the discussion of international human rights. While the first rights described in the Declaration consider political and civil rights that are most likely to be violated by the state itself, women have argued that often the greatest threats to them do not come from the state but from the failure of the state to protect them against violators of their human rights and dignity who may operate in their own society. Violence against women, the threat of rape, and the threat of domestic violence all reduce women’s capacities to enjoy their human rights. Increasingly, human rights advocates have also begun to assert the importance of human security, arguing that the state’s duties to secure itself are not over when it has protected its borders from physical attack, but only when it also protects its citizens from others and from each other. Children and women are especially vulnerable to such internal attacks, and the logic of human security, extended from the desire to enjoy human rights, is an attempt to persuade all states to take such concerns seriously.

These discussions raise critical questions for feminist thinkers. To what extent should people be able to make judgments about the lives of others? To allow no such judgments would require that everything collapses into relativism. On the other hand, is it not equally insulting for some women to presume that their understandings of the world make sense, not only for themselves, but for everyone? One issue, for example, that has been much discussed by Western feminists is the question of female genital cutting in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Feminists have written about their outrage at this practice, at the same time expressing their appreciation for the rights of women in different cultures to make decisions for themselves. Yet it is somewhat disturbing that this practice has received so much attention while other issues of women’s health, such as the remarkable and widening gap of global inequalities in access to health care, and other issues, such as vulnerability to HIV infection and AIDS, remain less fully explored.

Within political theory as well, feminist scholars have begun to recognize the need to think beyond the experiences of women in Europe and the Americas, and this broader perspective now informs feminist theorizing. As to the problem of relativism in ethics and political action, Walker provided this solution:

I don’t mind being some kind of relativist, as long as I am not the kind that renders individuals’ or societies’ moral self-criticism incoherent, or that declares intergroup or intercultural moral evaluation and criticism impossible or forbidden. (1998: 6)

Care Ethics and the Justice/Care Debate

Another current key debate in feminist ethics and political theory is the discussion of care and justice. Feminists have made important contributions in understanding justice; Iris Young provides a rich rethinking of justice (Young, 1990), as does Nancy Fraser (1997). But the care-justice debate arose out of feminist discourse, not out of the philosophical mainstream. This debate originated in the writing of Carol Gilligan, whose pathbreaking text, In a Different Voice (1982), posited that the progress of moral development charted by her mentor, Lawrence Kohlberg, had been too narrow because it left out women. Kohlberg’s original research on stages of moral development had been conducted only with men as subjects. When women subjects were added, they seemed to be less moral because they scored less high on Kohlberg’s single hierarchical scale. This discrepancy led Gilligan to posit that there were, in fact, two ways to describe moral development, a difference characterized ‘by theme, not gender.’ Nonetheless, Gilligan has been read as arguing that women have a different course of moral development. She identified this alternative account as ‘an ethic of care’ as opposed to ‘an ethic of rights.’ What distinguishes the ethics of care, Gilligan argued, are three aspects. First, the ethic of care is about different moral concepts; it is about responsibility and relationships rather than rights and rules. Second, it is about concrete circumstances rather than abstract and formal rules. Third, it expresses morality best not as a set of principles but as an activity.

Based on a liberal understanding of moral psychology, Gilligan’s correction of Kohlberg was treated by mainstream philosophers as a contribution to an understanding of private morality. Around the same time, though, Nel Noddings (1984) had begun to explore the meaning of care, starting from an Heideggerian perspective. She argued that care was not simply an added approach to morality, but a way to think about morality that started from one’s existing situation and was somewhat constrained by the necessarily close and dyadic nature of care. Thus, Noddings argued that care is essentially unprincipled; it is guided by the needs of those to whom we are closest.

Feminist scholars reacted in two ways. Many were very wary of the similarity between such an ethic of care and the tradition of responsibility for others that had oppressed women’s lives. Others enthusiastically embraced the idea that women’s lives were to be the starting point for a serious rethinking of the values that had driven men to structure social and political institutions as they had (Held, 1993). I suggested one approach to breaking this impasse when I argued that care was best understood not as a gendered account of ethics, but as an alternative way to think about ethics. Although it had been eschewed by the mainstream intellectual tradition and thus appeared more closely associated with the moral positions advocated by women, US minorities, and others outside the intellectual mainstream, there was no reason to reject an ethic of care as not an adequate and worthy approach to ethics (Tronto, 1987).

As time has gone on, virtually all feminist scholars agree that care and justice are related approaches to ethics; neither is complete without including some of the insights of the other perspective. Nevertheless, the question of how to reconcile the two perspectives remains a serious and ongoing concern. Is there such a thing as care, or can what feminists describe as care be described in other terms? Is care a different kind of moral theory, more closely related to approaches that emphasize virtues, than to principled approaches to justice? Can care be well accommodated in traditional liberal frameworks? Eva Kittay (1998), who uses a Rawlsian framework, demonstrates how necessarily unequal burdens of care in private life need to be accommodated in public accounts of justice. Kittay notes that some humans, such as children and those with a severe disability, are inevitably and completely dependent on others, and their care-givers have a burden that affects their equal opportunity to participate fully in the rest of life. Not to notice this inequality, Kittay argues, is unjust.

For some theorists of care, the most profound challenge returns to some of the questions about the nature of ethics raised earlier. From the standpoint of care, if morality is measured as an activity, it cannot be presumed that the moral actor is always an autonomous self, acting on the basis of set ethical principles and possessed of all of the requisite knowledge to act morally. After all, humans are all always (though at some times more than at other times) care receivers as well as care givers. The care perspective requires that we think about the moral dimension of receiving care as well as that of giving care. It requires that we reflect upon the place of dependency, illness, insecurity, and death in human life. These have not been the central concerns of moral philosophy and political theory. Furthermore, exploring the personal provision of care makes clear how limited our individual capacities are and how much we depend upon others for guidance and direction. Even the seemingly most ‘natural’ of caring acts, mothering, is a complex set of human practices that are well served by constant moral reflection (Ruddick, 1989).

Whatever the final outcome of this discussion on care and justice, it nevertheless demonstrates the basic insight of feminist explorations in ethics: the ongoing and deep importance of context. In response to the claim that care is only about private life with details of moral relations that remain to be worked out after the larger questions of ‘justice’ have been settled, feminist political theorists and ethicists have insisted that, in fact, justice is also context-dependent (Tronto, 2000; Sevenhuijsen, 1998; White, 2000). They have begun to pay attention to the larger contexts within which both care and justice must be situated. Julie White (2000), for example, has insisted that care practices that are divorced from concerns for democratic practices are not good care practices. Selma Sevenhuijsen (1998) has argued that care requires trust. It is the ongoing concern with context, with recognizing that morality is embedded in social institutions and our capacity to make broader moral judgments, that continues to make the outcome of the care-justice debate crucial.

Evil, Responsibility, and Complicity

Another set of questions that feminist thinkers have begun to explore is the nature of evil. In a way, all feminist ethics starts from a presumption of at least one evil: gender oppression. But partly in response to the ever-growing sophistication about the relationship of women to questions of victimhood and agency (Brown, 1995), the question of what constitutes ‘evil’ and what to do about complicity becomes more real. Claudia Card (1999) finds it useful to refer to moral locales, following Primo Levi, as gray zones. Card’s insistence on the gray middle is important in observing that virtually all people are complicit in some way in systems that deny people their moral agency.

Another dimension of this concern with wrong-doing is what Walker calls moral repair. How should individuals make up for wrongs done in the past? How should they come to understand these wrongs, and how should they act to correct them? Walker’s argument extends her claim that feminist ethics needs to be an ‘ethics of responsibility,’ that is, ‘a normative moral view [that] would try to put people and responsibilities in the right places with respect to each other’ (1998: 78).

As important as it is to understand the questions of evil and of responsibility, what does it mean when a group of feminist moral theorists have decided that they are central questions? Partly it arises out of a sense that they wish to avoid making mistakes that are similar to the ones that they criticize from the past. But it is also probably a sign of the historical maturity of the women’s movement. No longer motivated by a hope that a fundamental and transformative revolution is around the corner, the discussions in feminist theory lack some of the urgency and assertiveness that characterized the debates of twenty years ago. Then, it seemed as if all that feminists needed to do was to determine the proper framework for change within which to devote their energies. Feminist scholars now are much more aware of their own location in a position of relative privilege in a world that does not much engage in theoretical activities, and in which discussions of broad-based change seem not to be at the center of possibilities. In such a setting, the ongoing and haunting questions of whether to apply universal standards or to recognize local context, who may make judgments for whom, and who are the subjects and objects of feminist change, remain knotty.

Future Directions

The increasing concern of feminist thinkers with evil and moral repair also points towards another change that has occurred in feminist writing. It is no longer possible to portray women simply as the victims of a patriarchal order that oppresses them. While this shift of view makes the prospects for simple arguments and answers less bright, it also makes possible a more genuine contribution to ethics and politics. The lack of consensus in feminist political theory and ethics reflects the complicated realities of the world. Feminism began with a hope to liberate women from patriarchal oppression, but the variety and depth of oppressive mechanisms and the complicity of all or some women in their operation has made liberation much more difficult than early feminist thinkers hoped. In confronting the study of political thought and ethics, feminists have come to insist on the importance of placing all knowledge into its social setting, and, as a result, recognizing the positions from which philosophers and theorists begin their work.

Feminists have insisted that ethics and political theory as fields of study must start from the real world of power and oppression. As a result, ethics and political theory now more accurately reflect the complexities of self, society, political institutions, and the nature of change. Whatever the future brings, feminist scholars will continue to insist that our hopes start from a global, complex, and morally inclusive vision.