Feminist versus Feminine Ethics

Gilligan's ongoing effort (Gilligan et al., 1988; Gilligan et al., 1989; Brown and Gilligan) to characterize the moral reasoning of girls and women in terms of care has occurred in tandem with important developments in feminist ethics. It is useful, however, to distinguish between the care ethic that Gilligan describes, which has been called a feminine ethic, and the development of feminist ethics. According to Susan Sherwin, the primary concern of feminine ethics is to describe the moral experiences and intuitions of women, pointing out how traditional approaches have neglected to include women's perspectives.

In addition to Carol Gilligan, both Nel Noddings and Sara Ruddick have made important contributions to feminine ethics. Whereas Gilligan emphasizes the unique form of moral reasoning that caring engenders, Noddings focuses on caring as a practical activity, stressing the interaction that occurs between persons giving and receiving care. From this perspective, she identifies two distinctive features of caring: engrossment and motivational shift. Engrossment refers to a receptive state in which the person caring is "receiving what is there as nearly as possible without assessment or evaluation"; motivational shift occurs when "my motive energy flows towards the other and perhaps ... towards his ends" (Noddings, 1984, p. 33, 34). Critics of Noddings's approach raise the concern that her interpretation of caring may lead to exploitation (Houston) or complicity in the pursuit of evil ends (Card, 1990).

Unlike Gilligan and Noddings, Ruddick emphasizes maternal thinking, which she says develops out of the activity of assuming regular and substantial responsibility for small children. Although Ruddick acknowledges that the work of mothering falls under the more general category of caring labor, she argues that it cannot simply be combined with other forms of caring because each form of caring involves distinctive kinds of thinking arising from different activities (Ruddick). Ruddick delineates maternal thinking as a response to the small child's demands for preservation, growth, and acceptability. These demands elicit in the mothering person the responses of preservative love, fostering growth, conscientiousness, and educative control, which Ruddick identifies as the hallmarks of maternal thinking.

In contrast to feminine ethics, the primary concern of feminist ethics is to reject and end oppression against women. Susan Sherwin defines feminist ethics as "the name given to the various theories that help reveal the multiple, gender-specific patterns of harm that constitute women's oppression," together with the "diverse political movement to eliminate all such forms of oppression" (p. 13). By oppression, Sherwin means "a pattern of hardship that is based on dominance of one group by members of another. The dominance involved ... is rooted in features that distinguish one group from another" and requires "exaggerating these features to ensure the dominant group's supremacy" (p. 24). Feminism aims, in this interpretation, to show that the suffering of individual women is related because it springs from common sources of injustice. According to Rosemarie Tong, feminist ethics is typically far more concerned than feminine ethics with making political changes and eliminating oppressive imbalances of power (1993).

In many respects, however, feminine and feminist ethics are interrelated. The careful study of women's lives and moral reasoning that feminine ethics undertakes can contribute substantially to dismantling habits of thought and practice that enable women's oppression to continue. Both feminine and feminist ethics share the goal of adding women's voices and perspectives to various fields of scholarly inquiry. Finally, as Ruddick notes, feminist ethics can lend important support to the ideals that feminine ethics upholds. For example, feminist ethics can help to ensure "women's economic and psychological ability to engage in mothering without undue sacrifice of physical health and nonmaternal projects" (p. 236).

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