Moral Selves and Other Women Reflections on some Feminist

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Moral Selves and Other Women Reflections on some Feminist

James Gordon Finlayson University of Sussex Draft Only

    Moral Selves and Other Women:

    Discourse Ethics and Feminist Social Criticism

    Que nous veulent les lois du juste et de l‟injuste? Baudelaire

    γυμνωτέος δη πάντων πλην δικαιοσυνύνης… Plato

Gilligan and Sandel

    1. 1982 saw the publication of Carol Gilligan‟s In a Different Voice and Michael

    Sandel‟s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, each of which exploded onto the academic

    1scene and came to exert an extraordinary hold on political and social theory. Though

    they came out of different disciplines Gilligan‟s book, a critique of Lawrence

    Kohlberg‟s theory of moral development, is a work of developmental psychology, whilst Sandel‟s, a communitarian critique of John Rawls‟s A Theory of Justice [1972], is a work of

    political philosophy both apparently took aim at the same targets, namely at a certain a Kantian conception of the moral standpoint and a related notion of the moral self. Having these common targets enabled feminist social theorists building on Gilligan‟s

    2work to form a formidable alliance with communitarian political philosophers. The

    alliance was fortified by the assumption (made independently by both Gilligan and Sandel) that Kantian moral theory and liberal political philosophy are consanguine. Gilligan inherits this assumption from Kohlberg‟s moral psychology. Kohlberg worked

    in the tradition of the genetic structuralism of Jean Piaget, whose work, The Moral

    Judgment of the Child [1932], was significantly influenced by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kohlberg was a professor at Harvard and a colleague of Rawls‟s. Whilst Rawls had

    emphasised the Kantian and constructivist credentials of his theory of justice primarily in order to distinguish it from utilitarianism and certain kinds of moral realism, many, including Kohlberg, were led to believe that the theory of justice as fairness was a

    3deontological ethics à la Kant. Kohlberg thus happily ranked Rawls‟s theory of justice at

    4Stage 6, along with Kant‟s ethics and the Golden Rule. He argued that these theories

    satisfied these certain internal formal criteria of adequacy of Kohlberg‟s Stage 6, namely

    prescriptivity, universalizability, reversibility and primacy, better than the welfarist, contractual

    and utilitarian theories which he located at Stage 5 to the consternation of their


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    5 Indeed, he maintained that Rawls‟s idea of choosing principles of justice proponents.

    behind a veil of ignorance in the original position met the criteria of universalizability and reversibility better than the categorical imperative, and that it was therefore cognitively

    6and philosophically the most adequate form of moral reasoning. So even though Rawls

    used the term „justice‟ in a narrow, specifically distributive sense, and even though he restricted its scope to the questions pertaining to the basic institutions of society,

    7Kohlberg took justice as fairness to be a general theory of right conduct. Gilligan

    8followed Kohlberg in this, and so did many feminists inspired by her work. For his part,

    Sandel (no doubt influenced by Rawls‟s keenness to play up the Kantian credentials of

    his theory) claimed that Rawls‟s liberalism was founded on, and hence consanguine with,

    Kant‟s “deontological ethic”. He infers from this that arguments aimed at Rawls‟s

    deontological liberalism can do double service as argument against Kant‟s moral theory and

    9vice versa.

2. According to Gilligan the empirical evidence thrown up by Kohlberg‟s

    experiments suggested that women were less likely to reach the higher stages of moral development (5 and 6), which Kohlberg called the “Postconventional, Autonomous or

    Principled Level”, and more likely to remain at the “Conventional Level”, clustering

    10around stage 3, where he situated approval seeking, “good boy/nice girl” behaviour.

    However, instead of inferring from the data that these women had failed to develop into fully mature moral beings (like Kohlberg), Gilligan asked whether it indicated that there

    11was something awry with Kohlberg‟s model. She began to notice that women had a

    recognisably different way of approaching moral problems to men; one that accentuated care, sensitivity to and responsibility for others rather than rights and duties; one that

    12emphasised relationships and interconnections rather than separation and individuality.

    She concluded that in moral matters women had a “different voice” to men and that

    Kohlberg‟s six stage theory of moral development was skewed towards male

    13development. Kohlberg‟s Stage 6 morality – the Kantian-Rawlsian conception of the

    moral standpoint that privileges rights and duties may represent the highest stage of

    male development, but not, she claimed, the highest stage of child development. Women

    appear to develop along different lines and though their moral reasoning might seem less adequate judged by the formal criteria of universalisability and reversibility, in other respects, such as the awareness of the complexity of moral situations, it seemed more adequate. Gilligan concludes by suggesting that her study of women‟s experience and of


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    what she calls the “ethic of care” has helped to expand “the concept of identity” to include “the experience of interconnection” and to enlarge “the moral domain” (at the post-conventional level - GF) to include the aspects of responsibility and care in

    14 relationships.

3. Gilligan‟s In a Different Voice is a profound, original and suggestive study but its

    15conclusions are not very clear. What did the thesis that women have a different voice mean?

    It meant at least that when faced with moral dilemmas women sought different solutions to men, that they had a different order of priorities, that they were sensitive to different evidence and to features of situations especially their complexities - often ignored by

    16men, and that for these reasons they had “alternative conception of maturity”. It also

    implied that they had an alternative conception of the moral standpoint, conceived not as a hierarchy of ever more general principles, but as an interconnected web of substantive

    17reason-giving considerations, the force and relevance of which are context dependent.

     Gilligan Kohlberg

     Women Men

    Stage 6 6. Universal Ethical Principles.

     5. Prior Rights and Social Contract or Stage 5 Utility.

    4. Social system and conscience Stage 4 Maintenance

    3. Mutual Interpersonal Expectations, Stage 3

    Relationships and conformity.

    Stage 2 2. Individual Intstrumental Purpose


    Stage 1 1. Punishment and Obedience

    What follows from all this, if it is correct? Gilligan oscillates between two different conclusions. She sometimes suggests that women and men have fundamentally different and incompatible ways of moral reasoning in a later essay she explicitly argues that

    what she calls an “ethic of care” is “fundamentally incompatible” with an “ethic of

    18justice”. (This conclusion, however, outruns the slender basis of empirical evidence she


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    19) At other times, she argues that they are complementary presents in In a Different Voice.

    post-conventional moral outlooks and that the Kohlbergian model needs to be adjusted

    20if it is to adequately account for women‟s as well as men‟s moral experiences. There is a

    further ambiguity in Gilligan‟s work. Is she merely arguing that Kohlberg‟s model of

    post-conventional morality is incorrect, because not sufficiently inclusive (of women‟s voices), and that his moral phenomenology is incomplete? Or is she making the deeper normative criticism that moral selves who only think in terms of rights and duties are somehow deficient? Is the upshot of her critique that there is something wrong with moral theory, or is it that there is something wrong with actually existing Stage 6 moralities?

    4. Gilligan‟s dispute with Kohlberg is in the first instance a dispute within the theory of moral development, and is best understood as a correction of the latter‟s model of moral development. Gilligan‟s hypothesis is that there exists a complementary path of moral development for women (see 3. above). If true, this view raises some tricky

    21questions for deontological normative ethical theory. 1. Is care a genuinely moral

    concept? 2. Is the ethic of care a rival to an ethic of justice, i.e., are they competing and incompatible conceptions of what morality is? Or is the ethic of care complementary to

     the ethic of justice?3. Is care particularistic and personal (unlike justice) or impartial and universalisable (like justice)? 4. How do considerations of care relate to the kind of impartial and universalisable concerns that, on Kohlberg‟s schema, characterise Stage 6

    2223morality. Which is prior, if any, justice or care?

     24 4.1 Vieles wäre/Zu sagen davon as Hölderlin once wrote. One thing that may be

    said is this: the idea that the relation between care and justice is a salient question, makes

    sense only if, like Kohlberg, Gilligan and Sandel, one assumes that „justice‟ is roughly

    equivalent with the general notion of moral right and wrong. It cannot be Rawls narrow

    sense of distributive justice that is at issue here. Another pertinent point is that even if we grant this (mistaken) assumption, answering such questions is difficult in the absence of any further specification of the concept of care. For example, it is nearly always assumed

    regarding activity, but the activity of caring can be, and that caring is an exclusively other

    often is, self-regarding. There is nothing essentially altruistic about care. Care of the self as much as care of others has since ancient times been considered as a peculiarly

    25feminine activity. Morality and justice in the Kantian and liberal traditions, by contrast,


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    is usually understood to be concerned mainly with other-regarding actions and

    26judgements. So the question of whether care is directed to oneself or to another person is central to the issue of whether it is a genuinely moral concept, and of how it relates to impartial notions such as justice‟ and „right and wrong‟. Second, the verb to care‟, in

    English, can be used with two different prepositions which nowadays have two quite distinct senses: to care for and to care about. In the first sense, caring for somebody means

    27actively looking after them and tending to their needs. (Women have traditionally been

    assigned the role of primary carer to their children in just this sense.) In the second sense, caring about somebody means valuing them, appreciating them and taking them into consideration. If I care about someone, their fate matters to me.

    4.2 This analysis (which is not meant to be exhaustive) opens up four different notions of caring: a) caring for oneself; b) caring for others; c) caring about oneself; d) caring about others. The answers to the above four sets questions will obviously differ greatly depending on which of the four notions are in play. Consider for example the question of whether care is a universal or indeed an impartial notion. And let us only consider the other-regarding notions. It is impossible that one person care for every other,

    28and hence that everyone care for everyone else. It is not impossible, though it would be

    by no means easy, for a person to care about everyone else, and hence for everyone to care

    about everyone else. Nor is it impossible that each person care equally about everyone else, as impartialist moralities such as Kantianism and the saner versions of utilitarianism demand, on the grounds that all persons have equal moral worth. Now, the first notion of care is not universalisable, at least, not without further modification, while the second is. If we assume that morality requires impartiality and that impartiality comprises both universalisability and agent-neutrality, then we can say that while the former is not a

    29genuinely moral notion the latter is. So the question of which notion of care is in play

    turns out to be of the highest importance.

    5. While Gilligan published her critique of Kohlberg, Sandel launched his attack on Rawls‟ liberalism. Two Rawlsian liberal doctrines in particular, each of which, Sandel alleged, originated in Kant, came under heavy fire: first, the priority of the right over the good, or the primacy of justice; and second, the priority of the self over its ends. According to Sandel, although Rawls had replaced Kant‟s untenable two worlds

    metaphysics the doctrine of transcendental idealism and the assumption of noumenal


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    agency with the device of the original position and the veil of ignorance (plus some assumptions from rational choice theory) he ended up with a conception of the self not dissimilar to Kant‟s that suffered from not dissimilar defects. Rawls‟s stipulation that

    principles of justice be chosen under a veil of ignorance is supposed to model conditions of fairness and equality by eliminating any individual or group-specific information by which they can calculate their own advantage and tailor their distributive principles accordingly. According to Sandel, this device has three deleterious effects: first, it deprives the choosers of any individuating features and generic differences. Second, it reduces all participants to one and the same abstract rational person, hence it cannot tell us anything interesting about how a plurality of human beings can found a political association. Third, and worst of all, the single self behind the veil of ignorance is “incapable of constitutive attachments” and devoid of “constitutive ends”. He asserts

    30 that Rawls‟s “unencumbered self” is “wholly without character, without moral depth”.

    Sandel‟s critique, as Rawls hastened to point out, assigns ontological significance to the selves or choosers in the original position, rather than to the real citizens in the political community whom they are supposed to represent, which indicates that Sandel has

    31mistaken the status of the original position as a device of representation. This error

    notwithstanding, Sandel‟s criticism was enormously influential, as can be seen by how swiftly his quirky phrase “the unencumbered self” was absorbed into the lingua franca of

    32political philosophy, even though its critical point was entirely unclear. Once the

    polemical fog had lifted there seemed to be at best a difference of emphasis between the position Sandel endorsed and the position he criticised. The target of his criticism, Rawls‟

    claim that “the self is prior to the ends which are affirmed by it” can be interpreted either

    as the relatively innocuous empirical observation that in a liberal society no life-project or attachment or end, however deep, is beyond re-examination and revision, or as a normative claim that each person should be free to interpret and re-interprets his or her

    33own life as he or she sees fit compatibly with everyone else‟s similar freedom. When

    push came to shove Sandel was reluctant to deny either the empirical or the normative

    34claim. If what he meant by the rejoinder that selves are, pace Rawls, “encumbered” was

    only that “some relative fixity of character appears essential to prevent the lapse into

    35arbitrariness, Rawls could perfectly well agree. Too many hours have already been lost

    poring over the details of this debate. Here I only want draw attention to a tension in Sandel‟s study that recalls the ambiguity we noted in Gilligan‟s critique of Kohlberg. (See

    3. above.) On the one hand, his main claim seems to be that the picture of the


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    unencumbered self presupposed by the original position is false, and that the

    concomitant picture of society as a procedural republic, i.e. as an aggregate of lone,

    36 rational, unencumbered selves who value choice above all things, is also untrue.Sandel‟s contention here is that in reality neither self nor society is like the one in the Rawlsian liberal picture. At other times, he argues that the (Rawlsian) liberal picture of both self and society is true, more is the pity. Here he is making the normative claim that,

    due in part to the nefarious influence of liberal ideas and political theories, self and society have become what (Rawlsian) liberalism says they are; that liberalism has led to the emergence of an atomised society of self-interested rational choosers with no orientation to the common good, and is to this extent responsible for the atrophy of political association and for the increase in feelings of alienation and disempowerment

    37among citizens.

6. We have seen Gilligan‟s critique of Kohlberg and Sandel‟s critique of Rawls are

    congruent in important respects. First, they take aim at the same target, the Rawlsian-Kantian conception of the moral standpoint and its attendant doctrines: the privileging of questions of right and justice over questions of the good, the overemphasis on autonomy and separation, the occlusion of the self‟s relations to others etc. Second, they

    make the same questionable assumption, namely that Rawls conception of justice as

    38fairness is a kind of deontological normative ethical theory. Finally, their criticisms

    contain the same ambiguity. Are they aimed only at the theories of Kohlberg and Rawls, or

    are they also aimed at the practical and institutional embodiments of those theories? Are they arguing that the moral and political theories of Kant and Rawls are incorrect, or that

     39actually existing moral and political reality is in some way flawed? One effect of this

    congruity is that it lends Gilligan‟s critique of Kohlberg a political significance and

    relevance (for a critique of liberal-democracy) which it otherwise lacks. Conflating Gilligan‟s critique of Kohlberg together with the communitarian critique of Rawls appeared to make it pertinent not just to the theory of moral development and normative ethics, but to social and political theory, and furthermore to the embodiments of these theories in actually existing moral practices and social and political institutions. So there is a lot more at stake in Gilligan inspired feminist criticisms of morality than there is in her work: there is more at stake than an alternative conception of the moral standpoint and of the moral self. The feminist critique of morality is the point of departure for a much wider and more far-reaching feminist critical theory of society.


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The Feminist Critique of Morality

    7. The feminist critique of morality comprises two different arguments, inspired by Gilligan and Sandel, and levelled both at the conception of the self as the subject of rights

    and duties, and at moral standpoint. The first of these is that the moral self is formal, abstract or neutral, and thus devoid of gender and any other substantive characteristics and qualities. (A parallel criticism is levelled at the moral standpoint.) The second

    40 criticism is that the moral self is a male self masquerading as neutral and universal.

    (Again there is a parallel criticism of the moral standpoint.) Both arguments loom large in the relevant feminist literature. They are also incompatible, for only one of them can be true: the moral self and the moral standpoint cannot be in fact both male and gender-neutral. It is worth examining each in turn, in order to decide which is the more telling.

    7.1 The first criticism is the weaker and more defensible of the two. It is complex and comprises several related claims. (a) The moral self is criticised as a merely formal and abstract person who is the holder of certain rights and the subject of certain duties. (b) The moral standpoint is criticised on the grounds that it is defined by formal criteria of universalizability, reversibility of perspective, and hence gives rise to a narrow conception of the moral domain. (c) The moral domain is criticised for being narrow, i.e. restricted to questions of justice, which is constituted by the rights and duties belonging to the abstract person, and for disregarding questions of the good. As a consequence, it is argued, morality so conceived finds no place for the kind of moral experiences that Gilligan argues are characteristic of women; it is blind to the importance of considerations of care and responsibility for others. This leads to a “privatisation”,

    41“personalisation” and a devaluation of women‟s moral experiences. This argument

    presupposes that care, responsibility for others and their attendant emotions and affections, etc. are in fact central moral concerns, and that their exclusion from the moral standpoint and omission from Kohlberg‟s higher stages 5 and 6 is a distortion of the

    moral phenomena and a defect in the model of moral development. Prima facie, it looks

    like an internal dispute within moral theory about the scope of morality, the phenomenology of the moral, and the moral relevance of certain values that women

    42cherish more highly than men. But the two conflations identified above: the conflation

    of Kantian moral theory with Rawls‟s theory of justice, and the conflation of moral and political theory with actually existing moral and political reality, indicate that the stakes


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    are much higher. The real target is the moral, social and political reality of modern liberal-democracy. This raises the question how objections (a), (b) and (c) relate to the

    exclusions that matter to real people, (especially to women and to feminist social critics) e.g., to the whole gamut of social and historical exclusions, unfair discriminations, injustices, and inequalities that women have suffered under the gender-system, as distinct from the exclusions that matter mainly to moral theorists and moral psychologists e.g., the scoring of the care ethic at Kohlberg‟s Stage 3 and the restriction of the moral domain to

    questions of „justice‟. Their connection to the feminist critical theory of society, their social and political implications for women‟s emancipation is far from straightforward.

    7.2 One such connection is implied by the conclusion that the criticised features of Stage 6 moralities (a) (b) and (c) have led to the “privatization” or “personalisation” of

    43 This might be taken to mean that the historical injustices towards women‟s experience.

    and discriminations against women that have been concealed by the gender-system cannot be recognised as such from the standpoint of justice or morality, because they

    are considered as domestic or internal family matters. Rawls rebuts this same objection to justice as fairness, by rejoining that gender oppression and the exclusions that matter can be

    revealed by and criticised on the basis of the principles of justice. A similar counter-claim could be entered on behalf of Kant‟s ethics, for surely much of the sexism, oppression

    and unfair discrimination to which women have been subject can be condemned as immoral from the standpoint of the categorical imperative too. The failure of this argument highlights the difficulty: there is no royal road from objections to theories of morality inspired by Gilligan‟s work to the feminist critical theory of society. It is not obvious what the implications of this line of criticism are for feminist social criticism. This is not to say that such connections cannot be made. Maria Markus offers a good example of how this can be done with the help of empirical social theory. Suppose that women‟s self-identities differ from men‟s in the way Gilligan‟s work suggests, that women place a higher value on care, responsibility for others, relationships and the family, and that this affects the day to day lives of women more than men. Now consider the familiar if depressing set of facts: that women are over-represented in the modestly rewarded caring professions, such as nursing and teaching; that women are underepresented in high-powered and highly rewarded professions; that women are often prevented or discouraged from holding high political office; and that women‟s careers

    often suffer by comparison with those of men of like ability in the same profession.


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    Markus observes that career advancement in many sectors (including higher education) occurs nowadays to an increasing degree through external recruitment rather than through internal promotion. To benefit from this system one has to be prepared to move around. Women traditionally have “lower mobility” due to the higher value they place on family attachments, on established social networks and human relations at work, and

    44 This nicely shows how men hence have tended to fare worse than their male colleagues.

    reap certain economic and social advantages, from not having the same moral priorities and values as women.

    8. The second line criticism is that the moral self and the moral standpoint are only apparently universal and gender-neutral, but are in fact reflections of an inherently male ideal. This argument, which insofar as it goes is consistent with Gilligan‟s conclusions, can, and often is, extended with the claim that morality (as understood by Kohlberg, Rawls and Kant) is thus patriarchal and sexist. This raises several points. To begin with, it is a different and much stronger claim, for even if it is true that Kohlberg‟s Stage 6

    conception of the moral standpoint is a male ideal, it does not follow that it is patriarchal and sexist. Secondly, it does not follow either from the fact that morality emerged historically under conditions of patriarchy. Indeed it is not an empirical or an historical claim at all, but rather a variant of Marx‟s thesis in the German Ideology that the “ideas of

    45the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” Finally, it goes beyond anything

    Gilligan‟s work can support. Gilligan not only does not make this Marxian claim that

    morality is a form of patriarchal ideology; such a claim would be inconsistent with her considered view that the ethics of care is a much needed complement to the ethic of justice.

9. Now, one of the well-known difficulties besetting Marx‟s so-called dominant

    ideology thesis is that it does not explain why the thesis itself is not just another expression of the dominant ideology. Similar difficulties beset the feminist version of the thesis. Why, for example, is not the ethic of care also a form of the dominant patriarchal ideology? It is quite plausible to argue that the beliefs, attitudes and values that characterise women‟s moral self-identity reflect the material, socio-economic conditions

    (and also the cultural and symbolic conditions) under which it is formed. Consider the case of the women whose moral development according to Kohlberg is arrested at stage 3, the stage associated with interpersonal relationships of “mutual affection, gratitude,


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