Relativism and the Feminist Critique of Objectivity

Antifoundationalism in moral philosophy has taken a number of different forms. One of them, relativism, has once again emerged as a serious option in moral epistemology. The doctrine associated with the ancient Sophists—that objectivity, truth, and knowledge are matters of adhering to sociocultural convention rather than of attaining insight into nature—has been revived and expressed in more sophisticated ways by Gilbert Harman (1975), Bernard Williams (1985), Joseph Margolis (1991), and David Wong (1984). Wong, for example, maintains that the concept of "an adequate moral system" is relative to particular places and times: There is no single, universally valid moral system available, even as an unattainable ideal. Within each extant system, there are resources available for evaluating and criticizing rival systems binding on all who share its standpoint. Wong is neither a subjectivist nor a noncognitivist. There is, however, no standpoint outside all such systems from which judgment could be passed upon each of them indifferently. For Wong, the collapse of epistemological foundationalism, and the acknowledgment that our "moral systems" are not the deliverances of pure, universal human reason but are products of historical contingencies, supports a form of relativism that is less concerned about specific judgments of right or wrong than with the assessment of moral systems or cultures on the widest scale.

Many critics of contemporary relativism have argued that it retains most of the self-referential inconsistencies that plagued its earlier incarnations. Can the relativist maintain that the relativistic thesis is "true" or "reasonable" without begging the question? (See Putnam.) Other critics argue that the historical contingency of moral beliefs and their lack of necessary epistemic foundations does not imply relativism, since it does not preclude the possibility of one moral system being more rationally adequate than its competitors (see Stout).

Yet this response elicits a further question: Whose conception of "rationality" is being employed when someone judges a moral system superior or inferior? Several important feminist philosophers have responded to this question by noting that, generally, the "rationality" employed and championed by moral philosophers has been "rationality" as understood and defined by men, who are ideologically biased by their place in a patriarchal social system and who tend to exclude the experiences and judgments ofwomen (Tong; Code; Tuana). The idea that reason and objectivity could be "gendered" concepts has led some feminists to conclude that men and women evince different kinds of moral knowing, and to champion a feminine "ethic of care" as against a masculine "ethic of principles" (Gilligan), just as it has led others to reject those very "feminine virtues"

as yet another aspect ofwomen's oppression by men (Bartky; Puka). Whatever the ultimate outcome of these debates, contemporary feminism has done much to reinforce the antifoundationalist and historicist critique of "objectivity" and "rationality" as universal, unproblematic features of human thought and discourse. But does that critique undermine the idea of "moral knowledge" as such?

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