Chat with us, powered by LiveChat Triple Notes on 'What is Feminist Ethics'? Submit triple notes on Hilde Lindemann's 'What is Feminist Ethics?' Actions Submission Guidelines 1 inch margins, double-spaced 12-point | Wridemy

Triple Notes on ‘What is Feminist Ethics’? Submit triple notes on Hilde Lindemann’s ‘What is Feminist Ethics?’ Actions Submission Guidelines 1 inch margins, double-spaced 12-point

Triple Notes on ‘What is Feminist Ethics’? Submit triple notes on Hilde Lindemann’s ‘What is Feminist Ethics?’ Actions Submission Guidelines 1 inch margins, double-spaced 12-point


Triple Notes on "What is Feminist Ethics" 

Submit triple notes on Hilde Lindemann's "What is Feminist Ethics?"


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What Is Feminist Ethics? Hilde Lindemann

Hilde Lindemann ofers us a brief overview of feminist ethics in this selection. She frst discusses the nature of feminism and identifes some of the various ways that people have defned it. Lindemann argues against thinking of feminism as focused primarily on equality, women, or the diferences between the sexes. She instead invites us to think of feminism as based on considerations of gender—specifcally, considerations to do with the lesser degree of power that women have, largely the world over, as compared with men.

Lindemann proceeds to discuss the sex/gender distinction and to identify the central tasks of feminist ethics: to understand, criticize, and correct the inaccurate gender assumptions that underlie our moral thinking and behavior. An important approach of most feminists is a kind of skepticism about the ability to distinguish political commit- ments from intellectual ones. Lindemann concludes by discussing this skepticism and its implications for feminist thought.

Afew years ago, a dentist in Ohio was convicted of having sex with his female patients while they were under anesthesia. I haven’t been able to discover whether he had to pay a fne or do jail time,

Hilde Lindemann, “What Is Feminist Ethics?” from An Invitation to Feminist Ethics (2004), pp. 2–3, 6–16. Reproduced with the permission of Te McGraw-Hill Companies.


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but I do remember that the judge ordered him to take a course in ethics. And I recall thinking how odd that order was. Let’s suppose, as the judge apparently did, that the dentist really and truly didn’t know it was wrong to have sex with anesthetized patients (this will tax your imagination, but try to suppose it anyway). Can we expect—again, as the judge apparently did—that on completing the ethics course, the dentist would be a better, fner man?

Hardly. If studying ethics could make you good, then the people who have advanced academic degrees in the subject would be paragons of moral uprightness. I can’t speak for all of them, of course, but though the ones I  know are nice enough, they’re no more moral than anyone else. Ethics doesn’t improve your character. Its subject is morality, but its relationship to morality is that of a scholarly study to the thing being studied. In that respect, the relationship is a little like the relationship between grammar and language.

Let’s explore that analogy. People who speak fuent English don’t have to stop and think about the correctness of the sentence “He gave it to her.” But here’s a harder one. Should you say, “He gave it to her who must be obeyed?” or “He gave it to she who must be obeyed?” To sort this out, it helps to know a little grammar—the systematic, scholarly description of the structure of the language and the rules for speaking and writing in it. According to those rules, the object of the preposition “to” is the entire clause that comes afer it, and the subject of that clause is “she.” So, even though it sounds peculiar, the correct answer is “He gave it to she who must be obeyed.”

In a roughly similar vein, morally competent adults don’t have to stop and think about whether it’s wrong to have sex with one’s anesthe- tized patients. But if you want to understand whether it’s wrong to have large signs in bars telling pregnant women not to drink, or to sort out the conditions under which it’s all right to tell a lie, it helps to know a little ethics. Te analogy between grammar and ethics isn’t exact, of course. For one thing, there’s considerably more agreement about what language is than about what morality is. For another, grammarians are concerned only with the structure of language, not with the meaning or usage of particular words. In both cases, however, the same point can be made: You already have to know quite a lot about how to behave—linguistically or morally—before there’s much point in studying either grammar or ethics. . . .

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What Is Feminism? What, then, is feminism? As a social and political movement with a long, intermittent history, feminism has repeatedly come into public awareness, generated change, and then disappeared again. As an eclectic body of the- ory, feminism entered colleges and universities in the early 1970s as a part of the women’s studies movement, contributing to scholarship in every academic discipline, though probably most heavily in the arts, social sciences, literature, and the humanities in general. Feminist ethics is a part of the body of theory that is being developed primarily in colleges and universities.

Many people in the United States think of feminism as a movement that aims to make women the social equals of men, and this impression has been reinforced by references to feminism and feminists in the news- papers, on television, and in the movies. But bell hooks has pointed out in Feminist Teory from Margin to Center (1984, 18–19) that this way of defning feminism raises some serious problems. Which men do women want to be equal to? Women who are socially well of wouldn’t get much advantage from being the equals of the men who are poor and lower class, particularly if they aren’t white. hooks’s point is that there are no women and men in the abstract. Tey are poor, black, young, Latino/a, old, gay, able-bodied, upper class, down on their luck, Native American, straight, and all the rest of it. When a woman doesn’t think about this, it’s probably because she doesn’t have to. And that’s usually a sign that her own social position is privileged. In fact, privilege ofen means that there’s something uncomfortable going on that others have to pay attention to but you don’t. So, when hooks asks which men women want to be equal to, she’s remind- ing us that there’s an unconscious presumption of privilege built right in to this sort of demand for equality.

Tere’s a second problem with the equality defnition. Even if we could fgure out which men are the ones to whom women should be equal, that way of putting it suggests that the point of feminism is some- how to get women to measure up to what (at least some) men already are. Men remain the point of reference; theirs are the lives that women would naturally want. If the frst problem with the equality defnition is “Equal to which men?” the second problem could be put as “Why equal to any men?” Reforming a system in which men are the point of refer- ence by allowing women to perform as their equals “forces women to

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focus on men and address men’s conceptions of women rather than cre- ating and developing women’s values about themselves,” as Sarah Lucia Hoagland puts it in Lesbian Ethics (1988, 57). For that reason, Hoagland and some other feminists believe that feminism is frst and foremost about women.

But characterizing feminism as about women has its problems too. What, afer all, is a woman? In her 1949 book, Te Second Sex, the French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir famously observed, “One is not born, but becomes a woman. No biological, psychological, or eco- nomic fate determines the fgure that the human female presents in soci- ety: it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine” (Beauvoir 1949, 301). Her point is that while plenty of human beings are born female, ‘woman’ is not a natural fact about them—it’s a social invention. According to that invention, which is widespread in “civilization as a whole,” man represents the positive, typical human being, while woman represents only the negative, the not-man. She is the Other against whom man defines himself—he is all the things that she is not. And she exists only in relation to him. In a later essay called “One Is Not Born a Woman,” the lesbian author and theorist Monique Wittig (1981, 49) adds that because women belong to men sexually as well as in every other way, women are necessarily heterosexual. For that reason, she argued, lesbians aren’t women.

But, you are probably thinking, everybody knows what a woman is, and lesbians certainly are women. And you’re right. Tese French femi- nists aren’t denying that there’s a perfectly ordinary use of the word woman by which it means exactly what you think it means. But they’re explaining what this comes down to, if you look at it from a particular point of view. Teir answer to the question “What is a woman?” is that women are difer- ent from men. But they don’t mean this as a trite observation. Tey’re say- ing that ‘woman’ refers to nothing but diference from men, so that apart from men, women aren’t anything. ‘Man’ is the positive term, ‘woman’ is the negative one, just like ‘light’ is the positive term and ‘dark’ is nothing but the absence of light.

A later generation of feminists have agreed with Beauvoir and Wit- tig that women are different from men, but rather than seeing that dif- ference as simply negative, they put it in positive terms, affirming feminine qualities as a source of personal strength and pride. For example, the philosopher Virginia Held thinks that women’s moral

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experience as mothers, attentively nurturing their children, may serve as a better model for social relations than the contract model that the free market provides. The poet Adrienne Rich celebrated women’s pas- sionate nature (as opposed, in stereotype, to the rational nature of men), regarding the emotions as morally valuable rather than as signs of weakness.

But defning feminism as about the positive diferences between men and women creates yet another set of problems. In her 1987 Feminism Unmodifed, the feminist legal theorist Catharine A. MacKinnon points out that this kind of diference, as such, is a symmetrical relationship: If I am diferent from you, then you are diferent from me in exactly the same respects and to exactly the same degree. “Men’s diferences from women are equal to women’s diferences from men,” she writes. “Tere is an equal- ity there. Yet the sexes are not socially equal” (MacKinnon 1987, 37). No amount of attention to the diferences between men and women explains why men, as a group, are more socially powerful, valued, advantaged, or free than women. For that, you have to see diferences as counting in cer- tain ways, and certain diferences being created precisely because they give men power over women.

Although feminists disagree about this, my own view is that feminism isn’t—at least not directly—about equality, and it isn’t about women, and it isn’t about diference. It’s about power. Specifcally, it’s about the social pat- tern, widespread across cultures and history, that distributes power asym- metrically to favor men over women. Tis asymmetry has been given many names, including the subjugation of women, sexism, male domi- nance, patriarchy, systemic misogyny, phallocracy, and the oppression of women. A number of feminist theorists simply call it gender, and through- out this book, I will too.

What Is Gender? Most people think their gender is a natural fact about them, like their hair and eye color: “Jones is 5 foot 8, has red hair, and is a man.” But gender is a norm, not a fact. It’s a prescription for how people are supposed to act; what they must or must not wear; how they’re supposed to sit, walk, or stand; what kind of person they’re supposed to marry; what sorts of things they’re supposed to be interested in or good at; and what they’re entitled to. And because it’s an efective norm, it creates the diferences between men and women in these areas.

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Gender doesn’t just tell women to behave one way and men another, though. It’s a power relation, so it tells men that they’re entitled to things that women aren’t supposed to have, and it tells women that they are sup- posed to defer to men and serve them. It says, for example, that men are supposed to occupy positions of religious authority and women are sup- posed to run the church suppers. It says that mothers are supposed to take care of their children but fathers have more important things to do. And it says that the things associated with femininity are supposed to take a back seat to the things that are coded masculine. Tink of the many tax dollars allocated to the military as compared with the few tax dollars allocated to the arts. Tink about how kindergarten teachers are paid as compared to how stockbrokers are paid. And think about how many presidents of the United States have been women. Gender operates through social institu- tions (like marriage and the law) and practices (like education and medi- cine) by disproportionately conferring entitlements and the control of resources on men, while disproportionately assigning women to subordi- nate positions in the service of men’s interests.

To make this power relation seem perfectly natural—like the fact that plants grow up instead of down, or that human beings grow old and die— gender constructs its norms for behavior around what is supposed to be the natural biological distinction between the sexes. According to this distinc- tion, people who have penises and testicles, XY chromosomes, and beards as adults belong to the male sex, while people who have clitorises and ova- ries, XX chromosomes, and breasts as adults belong to the female sex, and those are the only sexes there are. Gender, then, is the complicated set of cultural meanings that are constructed around the two sexes. Your sex is either male or female, and your gender—either masculine, or feminine— corresponds socially to your sex.

As a matter of fact, though, sex isn’t quite so simple. Some people with XY chromosomes don’t have penises and never develop beards, because they don’t have the receptors that allow them to make use of the male hormones that their testicles produce. Are they male or female? Other people have ambiguous genitals or internal reproductive structures that don’t correspond in the usual manner to their external genitalia. How should we classify them? People with Turner’s syndrome have XO chromosomes instead of XX. People with Klinefelter’s syndrome have three sex chromosomes: XXY. Nature is a good bit looser in its categories than the simple male/female distinction acknowledges. Most human

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beings can certainly be classifed as one sex or the other, but a considerable number of them fall somewhere in between.

Te powerful norm of gender doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the in-betweens, though. When, for example, have you ever flled out an application for a job or a driver’s license or a passport that gave you a choice other than M or F? Instead, by basing its distinction between mas- culine and feminine on the existence of two and only two sexes, gender makes the inequality of power between men and women appear natural and therefore legitimate.

Gender, then, is about power. But it’s not about the power of just one group over another. Gender always interacts with other social markers— such as race, class, level of education, sexual orientation, age, religion, physical and mental health, and ethnicity—to distribute power unevenly among women positioned diferently in the various social orders, and it does the same to men. A man’s social status, for example, can have a great deal to do with the extent to which he’s even perceived as a man. Tere’s a wonderful passage in the English travel writer Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (1831), in which she describes the exaggerated delicacy of middle-class young ladies she met in Kentucky and Ohio. Tey wouldn’t dream of sitting in a chair that was still warm from contact with a gentleman’s bottom, but thought nothing of getting laced into their cor- sets in front of a male house slave. Te slave, it’s clear, didn’t count as a man—not in the relevant sense, anyway. Gender is the force that makes it matter whether you are male or female, but it always works hand in glove with all the other things about you that matter at the same time. It’s one power relation intertwined with others in a complex social system that distinguishes your betters from your inferiors in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of purposes.

Power and Morality If feminism is about gender, and gender is the name for a social system that distributes power unequally between men and women, then you’d expect feminist ethicists to try to understand, criticize, and correct how gender operates within our moral beliefs and practices. And they do just that. In the frst place, they challenge, on moral grounds, the powers men have over women, and they claim for women, again on moral grounds, the powers that gender denies them. As the moral reasons for

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opposing gender are similar to the moral reasons for opposing power systems based on social markers other than gender, feminist ethicists also ofer moral arguments against systems based on class, race, physi- cal or mental ability, sexuality, and age. And because all these systems, including gender, are powerful enough to conceal many of the forces that keep them in place, it’s ofen necessary to make the forces visible by explicitly identifying—and condemning—the various ugly ways they allow some people to treat others. Tis is a central task for feminist ethics.

Feminist ethicists also produce theory about the moral meaning of various kinds of legitimate relations of unequal power, including relation- ships of dependency and vulnerability, relationships of trust, and relation- ships based on something other than choice. Parent–child relationships, for example, are necessarily unequal and for the most part unchosen. Parents can’t help having power over their children, and while they may have chosen to have children, most don’t choose to have the particular children they do, nor do children choose their parents. This raises questions about the responsible use of parental power and the nature of involuntary obligations, and these are topics for feminist ethics. Similarly, when you trust someone, that person has power over you. Whom should you trust, for what purposes, and when is trust not warranted? What’s involved in being trustworthy, and what must be done to repair breaches of trust? Tese too are questions for feminist ethics.

Tird, feminist ethicists look at the various forms of power that are required for morality to operate properly at all. How do we learn right from wrong in the frst place? We usually learn it from our parents, whose power to permit and forbid, praise and punish, is essential to our moral training. For whom or what are we ethically responsible? Ofen this depends on the kind of power we have over the person or thing in ques- tion. If, for instance, someone is particularly vulnerable to harm because of something I’ve done, I might well have special duties toward that per- son. Powerful social institutions—medicine, religion, government, and the market, to take just a few examples—typically dictate what is morally required of us and to whom we are morally answerable. Relations of power set the terms for who must answer to whom, who has authority over whom, and who gets excused from certain kinds of accountability to whom. But because so many of these power relations are illegitimate, in that they’re instances of gender, racism, or other kinds of bigotry, fguring out which ones are morally justifed is a task for feminist ethics.

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Description and Prescription So far it sounds as if feminist ethics devotes considerable attention to description—as if feminist ethicists were like poets or painters who want to  show you something about reality that you might otherwise have missed. And indeed, many feminist ethicists emphasize the importance of understanding how social power actually works, rather than concentrat- ing solely on how it ought to work. But why, you might ask, should ethi- cists worry about how power operates within societies? Isn’t it up to sociologists and political scientists to describe how things are, while ethi- cists concentrate on how things ought to be?

As the philosopher Margaret Urban Walker has pointed out in Moral Contexts, there is a tradition in Western philosophy, going all the way back to Plato, to the efect that morality is something ideal and that ethics, being the study of morality, properly examines only that ideal. According to this tradition, notions of right and wrong as they are found in the world are unreliable and shadowy manifestations of something lying outside of human experience—something to which we ought to aspire but can’t hope to reach. Plato’s Idea of the Good, in fact, is precisely not of this earth, and only the gods could truly know it. Christian ethics incorporates Platonism into its insistence that earthly existence is fraught with sin and error and that heaven is our real home. Kant too insists that moral judgments tran- scend the histories and circumstances of people’s actual lives, and most moral philosophers of the twentieth century have likewise shown little interest in how people really live and what it’s like for them to live that way. “Tey think,” remarks Walker (2001), “that there is little to be learned from what is about what ought to be” (3).

In Chapter Four [omitted here—ed.] we’ll take a closer look at what goes wrong when ethics is done that way, but let me just point out here that if you don’t know how things are, your prescriptions for how things ought to be won’t have much practical efect. Imagine trying to sail a ship with- out knowing anything about the tides or where the hidden rocks and shoals lie. You might have a very fne idea of where you are trying to go, but if you don’t know the waters, at best you are likely to go of course, and at worst you’ll end up going down with all your shipmates. If, as many feminists have noted, a crucial fact about human selves is that they are always embedded in a vast web of relationships, then the forces at play within those relationships must be understood. It’s knowing how people are situated with respect to these forces, what they are going through as

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they are subjected to them, and what life is like in the face of them, that lets us decide which of the forces are morally justifed. Careful description of how things are is a crucial part of feminist methodology, because the power that puts certain groups of people at risk of physical harm, denies them full access to the good things their society has to ofer, or treats them as if they were useful only for other people’s purposes is ofen hidden and hard to see. If this power isn’t seen, it’s likely to remain in place, doing untold amounts of damage to great numbers of people.

All the same, feminist ethics is normative as well as descriptive. It’s fundamentally about how things ought to be, while description plays the crucial but secondary role of helping us to fgure that out. Normative lan- guage is the language of “ought” instead of “is,” the language of “worth” and “value,” “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “bad.” Feminist ethicists dif- fer on a number of normative issues, but as the philosopher Alison Jaggar (1991) has famously put it, they all share two moral commitments: “that the subordination of women is morally wrong and that the moral experi- ence of women is worthy of respect” (95). Te frst commitment—that women’s interests ought not systematically to be set in the service of men’s—can be understood as a moral challenge to power under the guise of gender. Te second commitment—that women’s experience must be taken seriously—can be understood as a call to acknowledge how that power operates. Tese twin commitments are the two normative legs on which any feminist ethics stands. . . .

Morality and Politics If the idealization of morality goes back over two thousand years in Western thought, a newer tradition, only a couple of centuries old, has split of morality from politics. According to this tradition, which can be traced to Kant and some other Enlightenment philosophers, morality concerns the relations between persons, whereas politics concerns the relations among nation-states, or between a state and its citizens. So, as Iris Marion Young (1990) puts it, ethicists have tended to focus on inten- tional actions by individual persons, conceiving of moral life as “con- scious, deliberate, a rational weighing of alternatives,” whereas political philosophers have focused on impersonal governmental systems, study- ing “laws, policies, the large-scale distribution of social goods, countable quantities like votes and taxes” (149).

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For feminists, though, the line between ethics and political theory isn’t quite so bright as this tradition makes out. It’s not always easy to tell where feminist ethics leaves of and feminist political theory begins. Tere are two reasons for this. In the frst place, while ethics certainly concerns personal behavior, there is a long-standing insistence on the part of femi- nists that the personal is political. In a 1970 essay called “Te Personal Is Political,” the political activist Carol Hanisch observed that “personal problems are political problems. Tere are no personal solutions at this time” (204–2

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