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.

Pateman also extends her critique of classical liberalism into a telling reformulation of the accusation of patriarchalism. This charge, too, has been around for a while, but has seemed either vague or implausible. The claim that Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment political philosophers are patriarchal looks pretty odd. Locke, after all, wrote in repudiation of the time-honoured analogies between paternal and political power: Filmer’s Patiarcha was his target, not his position. No later thinker argued for the restoration of patriarchal rule. Pateman points to a sense in which Locke, and and much subsequent liberal thought, remains patriarchal. It rests, she claims, on unvindicated and undiscussed assumptions about relations between men and women. The social contract which liberals celebrate presupposes a ‘sexual contract’ about which they are coy. Although the archaic and feudal ‘sexual contract’ which gave powers to fathers and patriarchs (thereby subordinating sons as well as daughters) became obsolete, it was replaced with an implied contract between male citizens which establishes the subordination of women to men. The ‘sexual contract’ which underlies modern society centres not on father-right but on the legitimation of exclusive sexual access. It establishes what Pateman terms ‘fraternal patriarchy’, a revised subordination of women that is coeval with the emancipation of sons.

This new ‘sexual contract’ is no more explicit than the social contract. Pateman tries to discern its terms by inspecting institutions which regulate relations between the sexes. She argues that the crucial terms of the ‘sexual contract’ assumed by classical liberal writers can be read off their view of the marriage contract. The marriage contract is an aberrant contract. Its form is fixed and offers asymmetric terms for men and for women. (The contract between prostitute and client is the same in this respect, as is the surrogacy contract, which Pateman cites as supporting evidence.) If marriage were truly contractual, Pateman suggests, sexual difference would not be written into it: the gender of ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ would not be prescribed. In liberal thinking, she argues, marriage remained less a matter of contract than of status, and so secured women’s continued exclusion from civil standing and society. The sexual contract on which we actually rely is embarrassing to liberals because it undercuts the autonomous standing and capacity for consent on which liberal justice ostensibly hinges. Marriage can hardly be shown to be just by liberal standards merely by insisting that women ‘consent’ to life-long subordination with one emotionally fraught and socially sanctioned ‘I do’. Pateman follows John Stuart Mill in highlighting the analogies between marriage and forms of servitude; like Mill she insists that liberals should reject contractual servitude. If an unjust marriage contract is an accurate guide to the sexual contract, and the sexual contract is the basis for the social contract, there can be no just social contract, and liberalism founders.

At times it seems as if the contracts that Pateman takes as clues to the contemporary sexual contract are not those of the late 20th century, but of earlier times when marriage secured legal, political and economic oblivion for women. If our lives are regulated by an implied sexual contract, its terms must surely be inferred from the full range of contemporary practice. These terms, not just those of actual marriage contracts, must be vindicated if the political institutions that presuppose them are to be justified. These terms must be shown wanting if Pateman is to show that liberal ‘justice’ presupposes unjust sexual relations.

In spite of some gaps in her argument, Pateman’s fundamental move is powerful, and paradigmatic of Eighties Feminist writing. She turns feminist thinking, which derives from claims that justice should hold for all, against the arguments for those very claims. But the move is perilous as well as powerful. If it succeeds it will undermine the vaunted universalism of liberal and socialist principles by showing that they always depend on social relations which recognise and maintain the very differences between persons that the principles purport to bracket. If accounts of justice flout their own terms, and do so in ways that undermine the original agenda of feminism, feminists will need new starting-points. The strategy of seeking inclusion in the world men enjoy will not only have failed: it will be incoherent. We cannot have the rights and opportunities and the place in the sun which are available to some only because of others’ subordination. We cannot all have careers opened to our talents, yet lead lives buttressed by freedom from domestic chores and by the availability of others to supply care and support. Such lives remain available to (male) individuals in part because other (female) individuals remain subordinated. There cannot be universal rights to positional goods.

Feminists now face a dilemma. If their agenda remains justice for women, they must show that there is some just and feasible sexual contract. If they think there can be no such sexual contract, they can hardly continue to defend principles of justice which presuppose the subordination of women. Pateman’s work has taken the first line, although she does no more than hint at the terms of a just sexual contract. She does not dismiss justice as a marginal or ‘male’ concern. Other feminists – for example, Nel Noddings in Caring, Carol McMillan in Women, Reason and Nature and many contributors to these books – seem prepared, even eager to view supposed principles of justice as intrinsically inadequate. They are happy to renounce rather than re-educate the voice of justice, to celebrate women’s difference from men, to speak in the voice of care and to cultivate relationships. They see attempts to incorporate women within the domain of justice as one more denial of women’s difference, as an act of imperialism on the part of the theoretician.

At this point the costs of celebrating difference begin to mount. In repudiating universal principles of justice, feminists repudiate the political and social advantages those principles proclaim. One can hardly claim rights for women if one has condemned a focus on rights for covert gender bias. It is pointless for Marxist feminists to insist that the reproductive labour women do be taken as seriously as (other) productive work, if they have already (like Nicholson in Feminism as Critique), detected gender bias in assigning primacy to production. The friends of difference must start their thinking elsewhere.

Where can they begin? It was all very well for Gilligan to begin from evidence about women’s actual moral discourse and beliefs. That was what she was investigating. For broader philosophical and political purposes it will hardly do to appeal to women’s discourse or self-consciousness. Yet various papers both in Women and Moral Theory and in Feminist Perspectives in Philosophy (an entirely British volume published in the US) urge us to start our thinking by considering women’s point of view. No doubt women’s experience – even ‘women’s concrete experience’ – is as important as men’s experience, and no doubt it is less considered. But can it provide foundations for feminism?

It seems to me that it cannot, for several reasons. First, as many contributors to these volumes note, subjection works at the ideological level too. Women’s concrete experience is full of evasions and accommodations, of unrecognised deferences, even of the rhetoric of rights that the radical feminists of the Eighties see as symptoms of gender imperialism. Experience mirrors rather than criticises existing social practices. Second, if personal experience is the starting point, we need to show why the differing experiences of different women do not each constitute a different voice. Insisting on respect for difference will lead nowhere, as Paula Boddington points out in Feminist Perspectives in Philosophy, if we end up with a cacophony of differing moral voices. Third, even if we find commonalities in women’s experience, take them at face value, and use them to construct a moral voice that is to replace the voice of justice with the voice of care and concern for relationships, we will still need to say something about the political and economic context of women’s lives. An ethic of caring and relationships will be adequate only if we assume lives that are confined to the nursery or the boudoir. Notoriously such lives are also filled with the sorts of care feminists and others deplore. If we are to pursue feminism as critique, we need to be careful not to jettison so much that we undercut both feminism and its critical potential.

Some contributors to these books can be seen backpedalling quite hard in their final estimates of the different voice. We are told that the voice of care is indeed a different voice, and a fine voice, but we are also warned by several including Benhabib, Michael Stocker and Gilligan herself, not to think that it can be the only voice. In short, even if we care about care we had better care about justice too. This is a rather familiar message. Near the start of his Second Treatise of Government Locke spoke of ‘the great maxims of justice and charity’: these two have been in partnership before; they have even been linked within the liberal tradition. Care is not a new voice, but the domesticated descendant of charity, and liberals have not always been hostile to charity or to other virtues.

Why then has the recent advocacy of care seemed so novel? Why has it seemed as though we had to choose between justice and care? Part of the answer perhaps lies in a peculiar narrowness in some contemporary liberalisms, which not only restrict political as well as moral philosophy to the domain of rights, but also assert that liberals cannot say anything reasoned about the virtues. Such liberals – Ronald Dworkin, Robert Nozick, to a large extent John Rawls himself – suggest that liberals can only be ‘agnostic about the good for man’. The friends of virtue and of care conclude that the liberal tradition offers them no footholds. They look to neo-Aristotelian, neo-Hegelian or Wittgensteinian backing to make a case for the virtues and for care. Feminists and the other recent friends of the virtues forget that the classical liberals – Locke, Rousseau, Kant – all linked theories of justice with doctrines of virtue. They imitate the modern liberalism they criticise in assuming that we have to choose between good institutions and good characters.

A clue to this oversight may lie in the strange picture of justice that feminists and other contemporary advocates of an ethic of virtues paint. Justice, they rightly hold, is a matter of applying universal and abstract rules. They then insist that justice must be not merely universal but uniform, and so blind to differences. This is simply false: if we think that taxation ought to be based on ability to pay, we advocate a universal principle (it applies to all), but hardly uniform treatment. Only advocates of the poll tax want uniformity as well as universality in taxation. Universal principles can take account of differences.

Still, it will be said, principles of justice have to be simple. Even if they do not mandate uniformity, they cannot take account of all differences. This is true, and much to be desired. We want justice to bracket many differences: for example, we want it to be blind to fear and favour. However, too much should not be made of this. Since principles of justice are abstract as well as universal they legitimately bracket many differences: equally their application often and legitimately takes account of differences. One reason why legal proceedings are elaborate and slow is that a lot of differences have to be taken into account. The application of rules is never algorithmic. Justice, too, requires deliberation and consideration of particular cases.

The difference between the two voices is less fundamental than many recent advocates of care and virtues suppose. It is not a contrast between rigid adherence to uniform rules and mere responsiveness to cases. Justice is not uniform; care is not unprincipled. Care is not just a matter of registering differences, but of responding to them in distinctive, reasoned ways. Both moral voices have to respect principles and to deliberate about their application. Feminist critique of the latent gender bias of liberal and socialist thinking has not shown that justice for women is a suspect ideal. It has shown that principles of justice are inadequate if they covertly build in subordination for some and domination for others, and that much liberal and socialist thinking has done so. This is a major intellectual achievement. Its importance is masked if feminists go on to caricature justice as a matter of imposing rigid uniformities, or to diminish care and other virtues to mere responsiveness to difference.