After a long struggle, it seems today that women have achieved equality after many centuries of oppression. Women have acquired financial independence and a strong voice in the public space. In addition, women are now present in politics and respected as leadership figures. This does not mean however that the Western societies have reached gender equality. Moreover, it is not even clear that being equal necessary fulfills women’s needs, particularly since, this equality was obtained by bringing women’s status close to that of men, in a patriarchal society which defines needs primarily through a man’s point of view. Therefore, this paper will draw upon two different ethical theories, care ethics and virtues ethics, in order to assess whether men and women are equal, and if so, whether this is a positive outcome of women’s centuries-long feminist struggle. Because women’s personal growth is assessed according to a masculine worldview, and feminine virtues are considered inferior to men’s women may not considered equal to men in today’s world and care ethics is the best ethical theory to support this view.
Application of Two Ethical Theories
Virtue ethics is one of the three approaches to normative ethics, which emphasizes the virtues that should motivate a virtuous person to do the right. The three main concepts that govern virtue ethics are arête (virtue), phronesis (practical wisdom) and eudaimonia (flourishing) (Hursthouse 2012). A virtue is a type of disposition that is used in order to cause some positive outcome for oneself or others (Annas 2006). However, this has to be a conscious disposition that one has thought about and reflected upon (Annas 2006). Simply performing an action that is considered virtuous does not make the person virtuous, but the motivation behind the act is important as well (Hursthouse, 2012), because the person needs to perform the act because of her conviction that it is the right thing to do, rather than, from fear or shame. Virtues may be used wrongly and do more harm than good and therefore, practical wisdom is also required of a virtuous person (Hursthouse 2012). Living a flourishing life means being generous, fair, and standing up for others for example, in summary, living a virtuous life.
Virtue ethics becomes meaningful if we realize that the beliefs people live by nowadays are inadequate, because they may be sexist for example, and that they need to be revised if one tries to become a better person (Annas, 2006). However, there is no manual, or list of right actions, that would allow a person to know what the right thing to do is. In order to derive the ‘right action’ from a list of possible actions, a person needs to identify the ideal treats of character that he reports to, and then try to cultivate virtues as close to the ideal ones. Nevertheless, people should not be bound to their cultural space, because their own culture or time may promote ideas or rules that contradict the paradigms of virtue ethics. This is also Annas’s (2006) view, when she says that virtue could never be achieved by complying with the society’s conventions, but rather, trying to live better.
Conceiving virtues as unbound by cultural borders in necessary in order to have virtue ethics at all, as a viable philosophical direction, because different types of virtues are particularly relative to the cultural environment, thus being subject to change. For example, virtues such as submissiveness and timidity may have been admired in women centuries ago, but this is not the case anymore, at least in Western cultures. However, virtues that constitute the ideals towards which people should strive are more general, and timeless, being identified as targets by both men and women. From this point of view, virtue ethics is a particularly important way to address the idea of women’s equality in society, by analyzing the way in which they are able or likely to be encouraged to cultivate the same virtues as men. For example, if bravery and patriotism, or standing up for others, are important virtues which transcend time and culture, but women are denied the opportunity to cultivate them, than gender equality is not achieved in the society. Similarly, kindness or compassion is an equally universal virtue, but the society, through media or religion, encourages it in women, and discourages it in men. Parents, teachers, sports coaches and the media all discourage boys from showing compassion and kindness and instead encourage them to be tough and merciless. From a virtues ethics point of view, gender equality is impossible to achieve today because men and women are encouraged to develop different virtues and discouraged from displaying others.
Feminist ethics is based upon the idea that traditional ethics undermines women’s morality and constructs a masculine type of ethics, because men’s morality is considered more complex and mature. Thus, the purpose of care ethics, or feminist ethics, is to create a type of ethics which specifically targets women’s moral system and their different construction of ethics, based on gendered principles and ideas about the world. One of the most important contemporary authors in the field is Gillian (1982), who specifically criticized traditional views (such as Freud’s ) according to whom, women are not as morally developed as men. She pointed out that traditional ethics is male-biased because it takes into consideration masculine morality development as the norm against which all people should be assessed, when in fact girls or women have a completely different inner system of thinking, based on ‘feminine’ values and principles, which cannot be compared successfully with those of boys or men. Based on this critique, Gillian (1982) developed her ideas of a ‘care ethics’ theory which is specifically feminine because it emphasizes relationships and mutual responsibilities within a community or a group. This kind of ethics is situated outside the traditional ethics, and cannot be assessed by using traditional parameters, because they are specifically based upon masculine values, such as rights and rules, and therefore, they will seem confusing for the researcher. This failure to assess feminine morality properly has led to centuries of undermining the feminine moral experience.
Held (1990) also appreciated that the society in general is construed upon masculine values, being for centuries populated by men, while women were confined to the domestic space. Having finally emerged as public figures, women must now find ways to ‘function’ in a space constructed upon masculine principles, and which follows masculine ‘rules’, which were specifically defined as opposite to women’s (Held 1990). In addition, Held (1990) explained that, “the gender system leads men to seek autonomy and power over others and to undervalue the caring and relational connectedness that is expected of women” (pp.341-342). Therefore, not only is the public space conceived as a masculine space, but the feminine traits that characterize the domestic space are undervalued and dismissed as unimportant. For this reason, ethical principles have drawn upon the norms of behavior in the public space, thus being specifically masculine.
Of course, one opposition to feminist/ care ethics is that women were traditionally educated to adopt this kind of morality by being constantly reminded that they needed to help, listen, nurture, be nice, mediate, bound, etc., thus creating them as opposite to males. If this is so, then by giving up this stereotypical ‘care’ framework, women would be able to free themselves. Such a view is provided by Held (1990), according to whom, women are not constrained by the ties which bounded them to the domestic space any longer, and they have freed themselves in the recent years from the traditional ‘relational’ self in search for a more satisfactory identity. However, this objection is irrelevant because by arguing that feminine morality based on care and responsibility towards others is imposed rather than natural, it is implied that masculine morality based on rules and justice, is ‘human’ morality, and that it should govern human ethics, in general. This is unlikely since emotion, which governs feminine morality, although it is a human trait in general, would this way remain an undervalued aspect of morality.
Care ethics and virtue ethics are two important frameworks by which gender equality can be assessed in today’s Western societies, in which women have finally managed to achieve equal rights, at least apparently. However, one should not forget that most Western societies are patriarchal and therefore, masculine-oriented, thus forcing women to adopt masculine values and ethical principles in order to succeed in the public arena. In this context, virtue ethics is a great way to notice that women and men are not encouraged to adopt and develop the same virtues, and thus, it makes it impossible for them to become virtuous individuals, because in order to be considered thus, one has to develop the most important virtues equally. However, a more comprehensive framework for developing a moral judgement in this regard, is care ethics, by means of which it is easy to understand that, not only are women still unequal in the society because their ethical system is undervalued, but they should not even try to reach an equal status, because this way, they should lose their gendered moral system in favor of a masculine system. Rather, women must affirm their place in the public space by remaining faithful to their own morality, and by trusting it to be a healthy way of perceiving and assessing the world, because their morality based on emotions such as empathy and care, is not only valuable, but necessary in order to counterbalance the logical, rule and justice –based morality of men.
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Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from https://lms.manhattan.edu/pluginfile.php/26517/mod_resource/content/1/Gilligan%20In%20a%20Different%20Voice.pdf 2
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