In Theory: Feminist thinkers challenge ‘traditional ethics’

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The recent Women’s March across the globe set out to “harness the political power of diverse women and their communities to create transformative social change,” according to a mission statement associated with the movement.

A driving force for this revolution might be a subject taught in women’s studies and modern-day philosophy courses known as “feminist ethics,” a branch of thought that argues “traditional ethics” neglects the perspective of women.

Ideas largely introduced by feminist thinker Carol Gilligan in her 1982 book “In A Different Voice” contend that feminine “ethics of care” stress “caring” as opposed to the more theoretically masculine “ethics of justice,” which stress “duty” as a moral view.

The notes for a philosophy course at Texas A&M posit that “Doing one’s moral duty ... does not mean that we should ignore the circumstances, people or future interpersonal impact of our judgments.”

One might recognize this philosophy in marchers calling for “dismantling systems of oppression through nonviolent resistance and building inclusive structures guided by self-determination, dignity and respect.”

Q. Are the “traditional ethics” of Western Civilization essentially male? Do ethical differences between sexes exist, and if so, what accounts for them?

We first must determine what the ethical sources of Western Civilization are before we speak of its “traditional ethics.”

I am not qualified to speak of the Greek input into our ethical system as any authority, but it seems that Greek and Roman culture as well as ancient Middle Eastern cultures were male dominated. The legal systems of those places were as well. Interestingly enough, ancient Sparta afforded full citizenship to its women while Athens did not. Roman culture was built on slavery.

Now, to the Judaic part of Western Civilization. Its base ethical document is the Ten Commandments. Its contemporary ethical document is the Code of Hammurabi. What differentiates the “Big Ten,” as we call them, from other codes of conduct is not what it says, the others speak of stealing, adultery, murder (kill is a mistranslation), and bearing false witness against your neighbor, as well, but in what is missing. In Hammurabi’s Code for example, the rules are for free born to free born citizen. The Ten Commandments only says, “Thou Shalt Not” and goes on to list the offensive acts.

Also, it includes the stranger in the celebration of the Sabbath. Once again, a radical departure from the ethical systems of the Ten Commandments’ contemporaries.

The basic Judaic “traditional ethics” is not male oriented; the problem is men have always been legally in charge and they have “traditionally” interpreted the community’s ethics to fit their needs. To their minds, they needed to establish different ethical standards by which to carry the banner of their maleness into the battles of the sexes and thereby “alienated” women and others they deemed “strangers” to their context.

Rabbi Mark H. Sobel

Temple Beth Emet of Burbank


As much as we like to think of ethics as universal as math, we sure do like to change our minds. There’s no denying that, like language and laws and art, the concept of “ethics” is mutable and alive. Even in the exciting transition between the “Old” Testament and the new one we have an ethical jump between “An eye for an eye” and “Turn the other cheek”! And, while it may be painful to admit, we are a suggestable group, susceptible to changing our minds based on the people who say things rather than what they are saying. Are Trump’s drone strikes really worse than Obama’s, for example?

It is reasonable to say, then, that the constructs on which westerners base their ethics were more likely male-oriented simply because men were more likely to have the means to get their viewpoints heard. And that a female perspective is lacking.

Where things get sticky is why we have to use the qualifier “traditionally” and where we wonder aloud about how our traditional roles as men and women may have influenced our ethical worldview. As those roles change—let’s say “change” rather than “evolve,” because adaptation is not necessarily evolution—how will our ethics? Maybe ethics will have the opportunity to be more like math the more perspectives we allow, and an understanding of how we should treat one another will yield as universal an answer as “What is the sum of two plus two?”

Marty Barrett, Board President

Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills (UUVerdugo)


Yes and yes.

Western civilization has manfully plodded along, often falling into barbarism. Recall that Mahatma Gandhi, the liberator of India, when asked his opinion of Western Civilization, famously said that it would be a good idea.

Meanwhile women, uniquely possessing a womb and functional mammary glands requiring us to be caring, traditionally had the mere task of perpetuating the human species. In our spare time we invented agriculture, leading to permanent settlements which allowed the formation of institutions underpinning education, science and the arts. In other words, the cultural amenities which make us civilized.

More than 100 years before Carol Gilligan, the philosophical ideas of feminist ethics were articulated by 19th-century thinkers and scholars such as Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, Catherine Beecher, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Then as now, feminism provides a theoretical basis for a political “fight against injustice,” to quote a New York Times survey of our 21st-century version.

Reading the news lately, it is clear to me that it is still up to women and our feminist male allies to keep civilization not only civilized but surviving.

Roberta Medford