Feminist Ethics

A category of ethics less than a generation old, feminist ethics advocates social change, the elimination of injustice and eschews male-attributed conflicts such as war. The primary concern of feminist ethics is that patriarchy dominates society, which also assumes women are limited by nature and biology. Whether one sees feminist ethics as an ethics of duty, respect, egoism, rights, utility or justice, feminist ethical action and moral accountability also pursues equality.

external image sue_sherwin_killlam.jpgFeminist ethicist Susan Sherwin[i] defines feminist ethics as follows:
“…feminist ethics is a type of ethical theorizing that is informed and motivated by a feminist analysis of women’s oppression, including a commitment to the elimination of patriarchy[ii]. Feminist ethics considers the interconnectedness of persons in society to be morally significant, in contrast to the assumption common to most of the leading Western ethical theories that persons are essentially separate, autonomous beings. It seeks to replace relationships of dominance and subordination with those that foster equal power trust and respect.[iii]


Examining the imperatives of nature was central to early feminist ethicists, notably in 1978 after the first in vitro fertilization (IVF). In the 1980s and 1990s publishing boom, a common reading is psychologist Carol Gilligan’s[iv] findings (1982) on gender and moral development that also deconstructed a Lawrence Kohlberg study. Two years later, Nel Noddings released; Caring, a Feminine Approach to Ethics & Moral Education (1984). Christine Overall edited the first Canadian collection (1989) on reproductive technologies, writing that reproduction “…is by no means just ‘natural’ or merely ‘biological;’” it’s subject to “the pressures and constraints of social construction… reproductive relations and structures are political in nature; that is, they both reflect and preserve the power inequities between men and women.”

Trade books flourished on women’s’ topics such as infertility, IVF, donor eggs, surrogate mothers, abortion and the “right” to bear children. Additional concerns emerged in clinical testing that eliminated women, healthcare issues and bioethics. It was recognized that these issues were not just in the purview of women and not all women care about such issues, hence Overall’s Smurf Theory: in viewing Smurfs “as comic representations of some human foibles, one would never guess that more than 50 percent of all human beings are female.” Her theory applies whenever a woman “is expected or expects herself to” give the woman’s point of view.”[v]

One foundation of feminist ethics is feminist theory, with these common characteristics: a celebration of difference; the impact on social change; acknowledgement of scholars’ backgrounds and values; inclusion of women’s experience; a study of the gaps and silences in traditional scholarship; and new female sources of knowledge[vi]. Ever evolving, the field has become stratified with sub-specialties such as ecofeminists and multicultural feminists, the latter with racial subsets, e.g. Aboriginal[vii], as the alignment with feminism can be a form of cultural imperialism. These sub-specialties support Sherwin’s theory of interconnectedness.

Besides challenging authority and tradition, feminist ethics also battles a type of mainstream (malestream[viii]) moral imperialism, perhaps where the right thing is said but practices are not changed, supporting Sherwin’s theory that feminist ethics“…focuses on concrete situations and persons and not on free-floating abstract actions.[ix]

It is crucial to note that not all feminist ethicists are female. Theorist and philosopher John Stuart Mill[x] was an early feminist: he described patriarchy as a primitive form of society and believed there were no essential differences between genders; women had equal status as moral agents. In his 1869 book, The Subjection of Women, Mill wrote that the ethical problem for women was how to claim equal rights. “In the first place, the opinion in favour of the present system, which entirely subordinates the weaker sex to the stronger, rests upon theory only….And in the second place, the adoption of this system of inequality never was the result of deliberation, or forethought, or any social ideas or any notion whatever of what conduced to the benefit of humanity of the good order of society.”

Related topics: Feminist Philosophy, Feminist Social and Political Theory, Feminist Bioethics

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[i]A Canadian philosopher and feminist ethicist, whose works include her 1992 book, No Longer Patient: Feminist Ethics and Health Care, by Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA.
[ii] Originally noted in Sherwin’s article A Feminist Approach to Ethics in Dalhousie Review, Vol. 64:4, Winter 1984-1985.
[iii] See pg. 259 in Christine Overall (Ed), (1989), The Future of Human Reproduction, Toronto, ON: The Women’s Press.
[iv] See Carol Gilligan (1982). In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press.
[v] Pg. 224, Christine Overall (2001). Thinking Like a Woman: Personal Life & Political Ideas by Sumach Press, Toronto, ON.
[vi] See Mary Lay’s 1991 article, Feminist Theory and the Redefinition of Technical Communication; helpful to understand scientific objectivism and communication. In Journal of Business and Technical Communication. Sage Social Science Collection. Vol.5:4, pp 348-370.
[vii] See Andrea Smith, (2007), Native American Feminism, Sovereignty and Social Change. In Joyce Green (Ed). Making Space for Indigenous Feminism, Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing, pp 93-107.
[viii] Mary O’Brien (Rodgers et al) in The Politics of Disciplinary Advantage: “This is a term commonly used within feminist discourses. It is designed to denote the unquestioned normalcy of masculine traditions - i.e. of history being both all about men and severely neglectful of talking explicitly about them.” O’Brien published The Politics of Reproduction (1981).
[ix] See pg. 227 in Susan Sherwin’s 1987 article Feminist Ethics and In Vitro Fertilization. Reprinted and in numerous anthologies, see Anthony Serafini (Ed.), Ethics and Social Concern (1989). New York, NY: Paragon House. pp 216-234.
[x] See J.S. Mill’s The Subjection of Women. Originally published in 1869 by D. Appleton & Company, New York, NY. PDF image of archival text retrieved from www.google.books.ca.