Responsibility Ethics

The ethics of care is based on a morally crucial relationship between people that has too often been ignored or dismissed by nonfeminist ethicists, but relationships other than those involving care are also morally important, and they too give rise to responsibilities. Nor are relationships the only source of the moral demands made on people. For these reasons, several feminist ethicists have gone beyond care to develop an ethics of responsibility.

Margaret Urban Walker is less interested in the abstract questions that philosophers have traditionally raised about the conditions under which someone is morally responsible (Was he free to act otherwise? Did she form the proper intention?) than in examining how practices of responsibility operate within actual moral communities. People hold one another to their promises, excuse them, demand an explanation, give them a standing ovation, let them stew in their own juice, award them the Nobel Prize, and sentence them to death by lethal injection. In these and other ways responsibility is assigned, accepted, taken, deflected, redirected, and renegotiated.

How one is expected to participate in society's practices of responsibility depends just as much on one's gender, class, age, ethnicity, and race as it does on one's own achievements. Who gets to do what to whom is largely determined by the social power that is distributed according to these demographics, as is the matter of who must account to whom. And just as social position influences whether and to what extent one may take, assign, or avoid responsibility, so too it plays a role in determining who may set or change the rules that govern when, how, and by whom this may be done.

As Walker points out, however, the system is rigged. The social forces that allow some people to take responsibility for the things that are pleasant or rewarding, while imposing on other people the kinds of responsibility that keep them from attaining many of the good things in life, are the same forces that hide the fact that this is going on. Some of these forces naturalize the uneven distribution of responsibility, concealing the coercion that sustains the arrangement by representing it as natural—as when women are said to have a maternal instinct that qualifies them to care for children while men do not. Other forces normalize the unfairness, focusing so much attention on the norms or standards for fulfilling a particular responsibility that the question of why a particular kind of person must assume the responsibility is completely hidden from view. Incessantly barraging women with the norms for looking attractive, for example, is a wonderful way of concealing the unfairness of requiring them to take far more responsibility for their appearance than men.

Practices of responsibility look forward as well as backward. In The Unnatural Lottery, Claudia Card points out that people who have suffered from unfair distributions of responsibility can do more than make backward—looking assignments of blame for past wrongs. A woman who has been raped, for example, can adopt a forward—looking stance that allows her to take responsibility for what happened to her—not in the sense of blaming herself, but in the sense of refusing to be a victim. She can be responsible for rebuilding her life at the same time as she holds her attacker responsible for his deed.

Normally, adults are expected to know the moral rules and to be aware of the standards by which other people judge them. That is part of what it means to be a morally competent person. But in "Responsibility and Reproach," Calhoun observes that morally competent people can lose their competence in abnormal moral contexts, such as the one that feminists take themselves to inhabit. If, for instance, the normal moral context allows men to deflect responsibility for changing their babies' diapers, then even a well— meaning man is unlikely to see the sexism behind his assumption that when he does change a diaper, he is doing something nice rather than doing merely what he ought. As he is behaving irreproachably according to the standards of the moral context he inhabits, it hardly seems fair to blame him. One could, after all, excuse him for the same reason one excuses young children's wrongdoing—that he is not responsible for his attitude because he has not yet learned the moral rules that govern the abnormal moral context feminists occupy. But Calhoun thinks he should be held responsible anyway. When feminists reproach people who engage in sexist behavior, she argues, they teach them that what they are doing is wrong, motivate them to change their behavior, and show them respect rather than treating them like children. This is one way in which feminists can take responsibility (in Card's sense) for sexism.

The ethics of care and responsibility ethics display some common themes. Both reject the idea that persons are essentially self—sufficient and unconnected, insisting instead that selves are always nested in webs of relationship. Both emphasize the differences among people rather than making abstract generalizations about human nature. Both use gender as a central category of analysis. Both use the language of responsibilities rather than rights or duties. And both begin from careful examinations of actual, real—time personal interactions. This on—the—ground quality is highly characteristic of feminist ethics—it is a way of avoiding the mistake of theorizing from too limited a set of examples.

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