Friends of Difference

Onora O’Neill

  • Women and Moral Theory edited by Eva Kittay and Diana Meyers
    Rowman and Littlefield, 336 pp, $33.50, May 1989, ISBN 0 8476 7381 2
  • Feminism as Critique edited by Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Cornell
    Polity, 200 pp, £25.00, September 1987, ISBN 0 7456 0365 3
  • The Sexual Contract by Carole Pateman
    Polity, 280 pp, £25.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 7456 0431 5
  • Feminist Perspectives in Philosophy edited by Morwena Griffiths and Margaret Whitford
    Indiana, 244 pp, $35.00, June 1988, ISBN 0 253 32172 7

Feminists used to know what they wanted. They wanted women to share the rights, the opportunities and as much of a place in the sun as men enjoy. Variations on this agenda were agreed in pioneering days, and shared until very recently by liberals, Marxists and the ordinary feminist in the street.

In the Eighties a lot changed. Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, published in 1982, was a major catalyst. Ostensibly it called in question received views of moral development; it has since been used to subvert other and larger intellectual projects. Gilligan noted that the standard account of moral development proposed by Kohlberg (with Piaget in the background) depicted women as morally immature compared to men, and as particularly bad at abstract reasoning about justice. She argued that the measuring rod rather than women’s moral capacities were at fault. Women are not morally immature: rather their moral understanding centres not on rules and regulations, but on relationships and care for others. It looks deficient only if we judge it by reference to abstract, rule-following moral reasoning. Women are actually better at taking full account of the specific character of human situations, and less likely to smother real differences under bland formulae. The theorists who had judged women morally immature had failed to note that women discuss moral issues in a different ‘voice’. Since 1982 the contrast between the ‘male’ voice or perspective which emphasises justice and rules, and the ‘female’ voice which insists on care and other virtues has been central in feminist discussions not only of moral education but of moral and political philosophy. Advocates of the different voice have joined force with communitarian critics of liberalism to decry preoccupation with justice, rules and rights and to celebrate an ethic of virtues and specifically of care for others.

Women and Moral Theory contains ample, and interesting, discussions of the ramifications of Gilligan’s work. Most of the contributors endorse her view that there are two ethical voices, one more commonly spoken by men, the other by women. On the whole they think the ambiguously-named voice of care rings truer. They are sceptical about the voice of justice, which was the mainstay of earlier feminist writers, and of the liberal and socialist traditions from which feminism emerged. Like other feminists of the Eighties, they criticise not only the founding figures of liberalism and socialism, but the very conceptions of justice on which feminists have hitherto relied.

They accuse liberal and socialist accounts of justice of covert gender-bias. These accusations have been around for a while, without looking convincing. In the Seventies feminist writers combed the classical texts for misogynist passages: they assembled a gloomy collage of misogynist rhetoric, but didn’t show whether these passages were removable blemishes or evidence of deep theoretical failure. Now we are taken through passages in standard writers where the argument shifts without warrant from claims about individuals (persons, workers) of unspecified sex, to claims which can be true only of male individuals (persons, workers). This rereading of standard texts is done impressively in Pateman’s discussions of Locke and Hobbes, in Linda Nicholson’s discussion of Marx in Feminism as Critique, as well as in Susan Miller Okin’s recent discussion of John Rawls in Philosophy and Public Affairs. They leave us in no doubt that the persons, individuals, workers and citizens whom political theorists presuppose must at times be construed specifically as male. They point to theoretical evasions in the heart of classical and modern liberal and socialist writings, and go some way to explain why it proved so easy for so long to proclaim the Rights of Man while settling for the rights of men.

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