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Feminism and the Logic of Morality

Feminism and the
Logic of Morality
A Consideration of Alternatives

Susan F. Parsons

As a feminist and a moral philosopher, I have for some time been
interested in the understanding of morality which emerges from
the great variety of feminist writing. It has, fIrst of all, been
intriguing that the shift from liberal to radical and socialist
feminisms has been paralleled by developments within moral
philosophy generally and this process reveals many of the same
concerns and disillusionments with liberal morality in particular.

Part of what I want to do here is to outline the reasoning which lies
behind this move away from the prevailing tradition of thinking
regarding morality, so that it is more clear to us exactly what
difficulties the question of gender raises in the process. However,
it seems to me that the alternative approaches also are not without
their problems. The moral arguments of some feminists raise
again the spectre of naturalism in which critical distance is
sacrificed and the point of being particularly ‘moral’ seems to be
lost Likewise the arguments of others suggest such a thoroughgoing social determinism that the person who decides or is
responsible for her behaviour and values is lost. Thus the other
purpose of this piece is to try to understand the problems inherent
within these non-liberal approaches to feminist morality.

I think I am probably a ‘sceptical feminist’ but of a different
variety to Janet Radcliffe Richards. My scepticism is not based on
the belief that an unbiassed examination of the ‘facts of life’ will
yield the obvious solution to our problem, if we only would choose
to view them rationally. Rather, mine is based on a concern that
feminist issues are challengng moral philosophy in such radical
ways that we need to tread with care over the ground in front of us.

We should be more clear than I think we now are about what new
beliefs regarding morality will be required of us, and ought really
I think to be questioning quite seriously whether and in what sense
we are ready to adopt a much-altered viewof what morality is, how
it works within the individual’s own decision-making, and what
moral imperatives might finally mean. It would be ironic indeed
if the moral enthusiasm with which feminists have, throughout the
years, pleaded their case were to result in such a total revamping
of the moral enterprise that the possibility for future changes of this
kind became more remote. I would fmally like to argue, therefore,
for an understanding of morality in which the elements of attachment and imagination are balanced, a view which I think is a more
constructive way forward for moral philosophy, and which also
illuminates feminist concerns more sensitively.


In moral philosophy, liberalism is characterised by a particular
approach to moral issues which has provided the rhetoric for
political thinking about social and legal policies, and its influence
in this regard is so widespread as to pass almost unnoticed in our
society. Its history reveals its central concern with rational
behaviour. Thus the belief that we can by the reasonable acceptance of principles control our actions to conform to what we know
is good or right is the keystone of its construction of morality.

What is required of the moral person is the choice,in a moment of
freedom and detachment, of the principleS for behaviour which
one is prepared to live by, and a corresponding commitment to
some ideal or value which is believed, felt or held to be important.

Nothing necessarily limits this chosen commitment, and it is
viewed as an entirely personal matter in which the mature individual engages in reflection upon those abstract directives which
could form the basis for responsible choices. One’s principles then
become general, universalisable statements which serve as the
fIrst premise in a practical syllogism and it is up to each moral
agent to guide future decisions in accordance with these. Rational
behaviour is understood to be the control of choices, that is,
reaching practical conclusions by calculating the best means to
one’s chosen end, or the best way of carrying out one’s general
principles. Living with other agents within a liberal society should
present no difficulties for the majority of evaluative decisions,
since we are free to choose how we wish to live, but this freedom
can become the rallying cry of liberation movements which seek
to extend social and political tolerance of personal choice. Problems emerge when it becomes clear that there is no limit, on this
account, to what can be chosen as a first principle, siJ?ce the description of these is formal and empty of particular evaluative
content 1.

This argument would be incomplete, therefore, without some
suggestion that there are bounds to the kinds of things which may
be chosen and that these limits are a feature of the nature of rationality. From the writings of Kant to those of Rawls, Gewirth, or
Nagel, the argument is that the structure of our moral thinking in
itself furnishes the necessary criteria for values, which those who
are rational recognise and conform to. Those who seek for the
autonomous self-legislation which this view of morality supports,

discover the implicit demand for consistency and non-contradiction, at the very least, in their moral reasoning or, more than this,
may realise the basis for altruism inherent within our capacity for
generalised, universal thinking 2. The hope here is to discover the
basis for an absolute morality, which is universally applicable and
relevant, and which can serve as the basis for a sense of justice
beyond the particular interests or backgrounds of any group of individuals. This absolutism is predicated on the assumption that
such universal standards will not be found as part of the world, that
moral values are not part of the ordinary furniture of our social or
physical environment, but rather are uniquely discovered as rational necessities which require our obedience. On this view,
rationality is more than a method for solving problems but yields
substantive moral principles which are self-justifying and authoritative. These cluster around the notion of the equal worth of
persons. The judgement of equality is founded on the capacity for
reasoning about what is good (Kant), or an innate sense of justice
(Rawls), or the fact that persons are prospective agents with
intentions to fulfill (Gewirth and Singer). In this way, a kind of
common denominator is indicated to which social and practical
problems can be referred for solution and the basis for a liberal
society is laid.

enough to define her as a woman’ 6, but furnishes only the material
stuff of existence upon which the transcendent consciousness
works. The activity of this nothingness, po ur-soi , is to distinguish
itself from being, en-soi, and it does so by refusing to abandon its
unique identity as freedom and by constantly determining the
meaning or value of whatever comes its way. The risk of choice
which this constant freedom entails brings dizziness, but women
can accept, in the same way as men, a resolve to avoid all forms of
bad faith, mauvaise foi, in order to lead an authentic life.

The liberal understanding of morality relies on the belief that
each of us is capable of transcendent consciousness, that we can
withdraw from the impulses of the body, the conditioning of our
social milieu, and the limits of the natural environment in order to
reflect upon what is the case and what ought to be done. This
faculty for self-knowledge and criticism is central to liberalism,
the only question being whether the principles for behaviour upon
which morality relies are chosen or discovered by the free rationality of the moral agent. Morality is understood to be a special
human activity both because its objects are epistemologically
unique and ontologically autonomous, and because its activity of
practical reasoning epitomises the control which knowledge can
have over behaviour. Liberal moralists are concerned to provide
a description of moral reasoning which best represents these
distinctive elements and thus retains the peculiar character of
human consciousness in its relation to the world 3.

In the early work of Simone de Beauvoir, the emphasis on this
type of freedom of choice is applied to feminist concerns. Like the
Sartrean ontology upon which it is built, de Beauvoir’s understanding of the life and consciousness of woman is divided
between a concern for the material embodiment of her self, and for
the nihilating capacity of her human consciousness. Insofar as the
body is concerned, ‘the data of biology’ demonstrate that certain
physical facts ‘cannot be denied – but in themselves they have no
significance’ 4. The human body may be ‘the instrument of our
grasp upon the world’, by means of which we develop a peculiar
perspective upon our environment, but it does not ‘establish for
[woman] a fixed and inevitable destiny’s. Thus, the ‘body is not

The fIrst of these principles is that the most important
purpose of society is to improve the well-being of sentient
things, which should all be as well off as possible 9.

Woman is the victim of no mysterious fatality, the peculiarities that identify her as specifically a woman get their
importance from the significance placed upon them. They
can be surmounted, in the future, when they are regarded
in new perspectives 7.

To remain fully human demands the constant tension of being and
nothingness in which the individual projects herself into being by
means of her intentions and schemes for living, and it is in this
process that values are created by human agency. The ‘enormous
burden’ of such creative responsibility has, so far, only been
bearable to men, but it is her belief that women will come one day
‘to regard the universe as [their] own … to justify the universe by
changing it, by thinking about it, by revealing it’ 8. It is thus
consistent with the understanding of humanness which this type of
existentialism represents that women are understood to have
fundamentally the same requirements of rational moral behaviour
as men.

JanetRadcliffe Richards, in The Sceptical Feminist, searches
for the rational principles by which such feminist moral thinking
could be guided. Like de Beauvoir, she argues that women have
the same capacity for judgement and valuation as men, and that,
to be consistent with this, women must discover independently of
their biological nature what principles best encapsulate and protect the worth of persons. After a careful and detached scrutiny of
‘the proper place of nature’, Radcliffe Richards believes that
reason alone can reveal the necessary precepts for use in solving
the practical issues of women’s lives. She suggests:

With this rational guide, we are saved the problem of the utterly
free choice which continually plagued Sartre’s attempt at moral
philosophy, and find the missing link between the insistence upon
personal decision and the recognition that we live with other
persons in society 10. In addition to this statement of the end which
moral judgements should be seeking to fulfill, there is also a
principle regarding means, namely:

everyone’s well-being is to be considered equally; when
social structures are planned no individual or group is to
be given more consideration than any other 11.

Radcliffe Richards argues that these principles are ‘intuitively
acceptable’ to rational persons and their consistent working out is
the project of the ~tical feminist as she seeks for the distribution
of equal rights in her society.

Thus, the history of feminist thinking in the modem world
reveals some very close links with this type of moral reasoning.

From the early days during the Enlightenment through to the
development of utilitarian thinking in the 19th century, feminists
have made use of this understanding of rational moral behaviour
in order to plead the case for women’s rights. It has been a strong
point of their arguments that the liberation of women is not merely
consistent with liberal views of morality but that opposition to
such extensions of justice is self-defeating in that it contradicts its


own presumptions. Liberal feminists thus persevere in their application of universal principles and assume that biological facts can
get no purchase here. The insistence upon the special character of
moral values means a rejection of naturalism of any kind. If values
are not part of ‘the fabric of the world’ 12, if good is a non-natural
property, then morality relies upon the human acts of willing,
choosing, valuing, practically reasoning. And the logical extension of this, as feminists saw, was that descriptions of their
physical or psychological natures could in no way entail evaluations of the meaning or importance of these facts. Valuing is
personal and, accepting the abstract defmition of what constitutes
such personhood, feminists find no grounds for the exclusion of
women from this special human activity, nor from its natural
outcome in the revision of society 13.

However, such a view of reason may prove to be itself the
victim of the genderedness which it seeks to overcome by its transcendence; its very abstractions may be implicitly formulated in a
gendered way. Instead of presenting an understanding of reason
which is in fact available to both men and women, Western
thinkers have predicated their descriptions of this human faculty
on two assumptions: frrstly, that nature is understood to be feminine and it is nature which reason transcends in order to function
at all, and, secondly, that women are understood to be more bound
by their embodiment while reason is capable of thinking itself
beyond this prison.

Rationality has been conceived as transcendence of the
feminine; and the ‘feminine’ itself has been partly constituted by its occurrence within this structure 14.

The irony is, as Lloyd suggests, that ‘Gender, after all, is one of the
things from which truly rational thought is supposed to
prescind’ls, so the discovery of ‘the maleness of the Man of
Reason’ will not come as a welcome insight to those who believe
that reason is beyond such relativities and determinations. If
woman is the being who is formed as one of the terms in the
dualism, if she is ‘the Other’ which it is the project of free
rationality to elude, then participation in moral reasoning, understood in this way, becomes an implicit recognition of the superiority of the male, and particularly inappropriate for a feminist

This genderedness of our concepts is embodied by liberal
societies in the division of public from private areas of life.

The presumption that human beings are rational, metaphysically free, prudential calculators of marginal utility and all think alike in this regard in the public sphere of
politics and understanding – is used as a contrast model for
the qualities and activities in a private world from which
the public sphere is bifurcated theoretically 16.

The difficulty is not just that the moral principles appropriate to the
public realm may not fit the needs and realities of the private 17, but,
more than this, that they may no longer be workable at all, once the
separation upon which they are founded has been exposed. Liberal
feminism works so long as its devaluation of the private sphere is
acceptable to women, so long as women view their problem as
restriction or confinement which can be overcome by transcendence, by entering the public realm on the same terms as men. But
when the private realm is itself asserted to have important insights
into the nature of good and to provide a fund of moral values
unavailable in the public, then the method of reasoning founded
upon such contradictions breaks down. It is thus dishonest at that
point to claim the irrelevance of gender in the formulation of these
principles in the frrst place. Many current moral debates conducted in liberal terms, like those involving abortion or new
fertilisation techniques or even our treatment of animals, suffer, I


think, from exactly this kind of difficulty in applying rational
principles. It becomes clear in the course of these arguments both
that abstract principles, like equal worth or respect for agency, may
not be full enough for all our moral needs and thus distort to some
extent our understanding of the issues, but also that to use them at
all relies upon an acceptance of a dualistic framework which may
no longer be tenable.

As liberal feminists try to make use of this approach to moral
decision, they may find that the transcendence of reason around
which it revolves turns out to be illusory. Is it really possible for
us to discover a ‘decontextualised and ahistorical’ defmition of
justice which all “‘right-minded people” would accept’ 18? The
claim that such abstractions are self-verifying may be merely
disguised prejudice, for they only seem convincing within the
socio-historical context out of which they emerge. The moral and
political recommendations ofliberal feminists could, therefore, be
viewed as culturally relative, not universally sound as they believe, and to be unaware of this determination of our moral ideas
and values is to promote the illusion that the rational person can
utter and believe timeless truths. The case becomes ‘enfeebled’

because it recognises no perspective from which its own can be
challenged. The attempt at complete objectivity results in isolation and estrangement from the real lived conditions which feed
the moral consciousness in the frrst place and it is an awareness and
sensitivity to these which may provide us with the grounds for
social and political change.

Liberal thinking is thus characterised by a longing for objectivity, but it does not escape the suspicion that its construction of
rational moral precepts is context-dependent. The intention of
providing such a picture of rationality is to assure us of a kind of
aloof perspective from which to comprehend and judge particular
cases, so that values come to reside in the world and attach
themselves to facts wherever we consider them appropriate.

However, the adopting of moral onlooks may not really take place
in such a neatly segregated way [19]. Our acceptance of particular
values may have a great deal to do with our sensitivity to certain
facts which take on importance as we reflect on our situation, and
our attempt to encapsulate these values into condensed generalisations may only disguise their attachment to the facts from which
they emerged. The proponents of this model may be attempting to
escape the inevitable vertigo of moral reasoning by promoting a
‘consoling myth’ of transcendence which is unsuitable and illusory.

It is only an illusion that our paradigm of reason, deductive
argument, has its rationality discernible from a standpoint
not necessarily located within the practice itself… The cure
for the vertigo, then, is to give up the idea that philosophical
thought, about the sorts of practice in question, should be
undertaken at some external standpoint, outside our immersion in our familiar forms of life 20.

Abandoning the myth may help us to avoid the simplistic moral
psychology which divides desires or commitments from beliefs
and struggles to reattach them in some way 21. And it may also
encourage us to appreciate the presence of moral realities within
our world, in and amongst the ordinary facts we perceive.

An alternative style of thinking about morality is available in
naturalism and, while in many ways its proponents’ values overlap
with those of liberalism, nevertheless its view of decision-making
is distinctive and it presents another interpretation of rationality.

The structure of naturalistic morality is built up around human
nature; some description of this nature forms the central core from

which the motives for moral behaviour spring and to which moral
actions are directed. Under the influence of Aristotelian thinking,
naturalism views the moral project as teleological, its raison d’ etre
being to bring to fulfilment those features of our humanness which
are present as potentialities within us and which constitute our
uniqueness as human 22. To act rationally is to train oneself in the
choices which will allow the realisation of one’s nature. Thus
rationality is not transcendent in the same way as in the previous
model, for human nature is not considered something confming or
restricting which must be overcome in order to discover what is
good. Rather, rationality works within the boundaries set by what
we are. In general, because this nature of ours is multi-faceted and
multi-layered, there is plenty of space within it for self-transcendence to occur, in moments of thoughtfulness or self-reflection.

Butler considered this to be the primary function of the conscience,
knowledge shared with oneself about one’s attitudes or behaviour,
and it requires no metaphysical detachment in order to function as
a critical yet sympathetic judge of our selves 23. What is needed,
therefore, is some understanding of our nature, since this furnishes
the entire context of moral thinking, and as we develop and deepen
this knowledge of ourselves, so our moral reasoning becomes
more relevant and fortunate.

Naturalism thus warrants the grasping of moral issues ‘from
the inside out’ 24. Moral decisions are related ultimately, not to the
first premise of a syllogism which sets out some universal imperative or principle of action, but rather to some characterisation of
our selves, our problems, our possibilities. This characterisation
is both evaluative and descriptive; it is formulated both as a set of
beliefs about our basic human needs, interests, and distinctive
properties, and as an implicit appraisal of the relative importance
and desireability of these features. Some hierarchical ordering of
these makes the act of choosing what to do more clear, for
decisions become a matter of discerning, considering, discriminating within the context of these priorities what is to be done in
given circumstances. The understanding of human nature provides a more or less elaborate and detailed specification of the
kinds of things which are held to be true of oneself and which one
ought also to make true by one’s choices. Thus, morality is as much
a matter of being a certain kind of person as it is of doing certain
kinds of things. It requires the development of those qualities of
character by which moral discernment also improves, and reciprocally, the ability to distinguish the important features of a
situation is what the attainment of a virtue consists in.

In moral upbringing what one learns is not to behave in

conformity with rules of conduct but to see situations in a
special light, as constituting reasons for acting; this perceptual capacity, once acquired, can be exercised in complex
novel circumstances, not necessarily capable of being
foreseen or legislated for by a codifier of the conduct
required by virtue, however wise or thoughtful he (sic)
might be 24.

The circularity of this process is unavoidable since naturalism
claims no standpoint outside our natures from which we could
view the progress of morality or make any sense of its activities.

It represents therefore an alternative moral epistemology.

Feminists have also used this model in order to express the
special nature of women’s lives. Radical feminists, in particular,
have asserted the uniqueness of woman, the positive qualities of
her character, the important insights which she brings to moral
considerations. Rather than appealing to some abstract understanding of what c-onstitutes personhood, radical feminists assert
the necessary link between biology and personal identity, so that,
in particular, men and women are understood to be two different
kinds of person. The biological makeup of each is claimed to be

more than a mere factual description of external properties, since
any such description is, at the same time, an assessment of relevant
features which have moral import. What has been mistaken in the
past, according to this view, is not what the liberal feminists argue
– namely that woman’s value has been tied to her embodiment, a
tie which rational thought and judgement can finally detach – but
rather that the understanding of the meaning or value of that embodiment has been wrong. And this reassessment can only take
place from within gender, not from outside, from within the onlook
regarding one’s embodiment, not from without The inappropriateness of the evaluative descriptions of women’s nature from our
tradition is increasingly feZt by women who now, on the basis of
their own lived experience, call for other features of their natures
to be given credit, to be considered ‘salient.’; to be rendered
meaningful within a new onlook. It is the point of radical feminist
writings to offer this new vision of woman and, through their
utopian fictions, to provide some happier prospect for the renewal
of society in which women’s morality predominates.

In the work of Carol Gilligan on the moral development of
women, a subject which had always remained hidden within
studies of the purported moral development of human beings, she
illustrates the pervasive maleness of the model of moral maturity
which has so far been used in work of this kind. Men have
described morality in terms familiar to them and have thereby
considered boys, in their development, and men, in their later life,
as the ones who develop most fully, while girls never reach the
final crowning stages and are thus classified as ‘morally immature’. Freud already had proclaimed this in his observation that
women refuse ‘blind impartiality’ in decisions and thus have an
inadequate sense of ‘justice’ 26, an observation which Gilligan’s
discussions with women confmn. The result has been a lived
contradiction, expressed by Virginia Woolf as ‘a mind which was
slightly pulled from the straight and made to alter its clear vision
in deference to external authority’ Zl. Women experience this in
self-doubts, and in a divided conscience, when their ‘public
assessment and private assessment … are fundamentally at
odds ’28, and the resulting confusion constitutes the major hurdle in
women’s moral development What emerges from Gilligan’s
study is that women consider moral issues in quite a different way
to men, that indeed the liberal model of morality, which is so
widely assumed to belong to humanity in general, is alien to
women, fitting uncomfortably to their lives and misrepresenting
their ideas and interests. Thus, ‘a morality of rights and noninterference may appear frightening to women in its potential justifica-


tion of indifference and unconcern’ 29. Women seem much more
concerned, in their definition of what constitutes morality, with
relationships, interdependence, intimacy. To question the belief
that this latter is a deformed or immature morality is to begin to
undermine some fundamental assumptions about what the logic of
morality is. Gilligan herself begins to interpret this in terms of
rejecting ‘the Greek ideal of knowledge as a correspondence
between mind and form’ , in favour of ‘the Biblical conception of
knowing as a process of human relationship’ 30. Her challenge is
that the essence of morality may, in fact, be its perspective-bound,
relational quality.

This point is pressed home most vehemently in the writings of
Mary Daly, and her work reveals the extreme implications of
taking such an ‘inside’ view of morality. The critical part of her
analysis is a methodical investigation of man’s creation of woman,
a vivid and gruesome study of the way in which man makes
woman into ‘the Other’. Man’s understanding of woman as less
human, as imperfect or deficient in relation to himself, as incapable of transcending nature, as an object or possession requiring
his moulding and direction, reveals the fundamental link between
his moral ideas and his own embodiment. He is revealed as the one
who seeks domination, who attempts to control nature, who makes
and produces things, who creates culture and its images, and he
does these things as the natural expression of his physiological
makeup. His morality is bound up with his interpretation of his
own biology, and is thus labelled ‘phallic morality’ and its social
outcome, ‘patriarchy’. Daly’s critique is intended to be sweeping
and general, for she wants to expose the entire worldview which
has been built up around male nature as it expresses itself in every
place and time.

As her positive suggestion, she urges the expression of
woman’s own embodiment, by means of reclaiming the language
of misogyny. All words are to be rewritten with feminist meanings
foremost and, by means of this simple trick, the domination by the
alien body-mind of man will be broken 31. These new insights
come, not from some external perspective, but from looking hard
at the words which women have, up until now, been willing to
utilise for their own self-understanding, until the penny drops and
they see their own oppression. Likewise, this freedom is gained
by a reinterpretation of actions, which once again does not rely
upon women’s abandoning what comes naturally to her. Those
activities which have been kept in their place within patriarchal
societies, which have been mistrusted and labelled ‘sin’ – most
importantly women’s spirituality and communion with nature –


these are to be freed from determination by male priorities and
fears, and allowed full freedom of expression and realisation as
woman’s superiority. Woman’s own self-image is restored to her
by means of fmding within her place and her own nature those
qualities by which she can experience the joy of living and the
world, hopefully, can be freed from its devastation by man. She
then can see the various features of her life which have been
distorted and misjudged, and, viewing them in a new light, come
to evaluate herself positively. Daly’s feminist recreation of
woman is naturalistic reasoning about moral values; the meaning
of the moral imperatives in her scheme is to be discovered within
her reinterpretation of the meaning of gender. Her portrayal of the
situation as a struggle between female and male, life and death is
separatist, dualistic, and uncompromising, for there is no possibility of one seeing the other point of view by leaving their own nature
behind 32. What is called for here is the reconsideration of our view
of gender ‘from the inside out’ ,and it reveals just how deeply these
issues may cut into our moral epistemology. To reconsider moral
concerns in this area is to look more closely at what exists within
the terms of our available moral vocabulary until we recognise
something new and discern a different reality. The issue which
radical feminism finds at the heart of morality is the need for such
renewed vision.

However, it is the logic of this moral vision which constitutes
the central problem facing a naturalistic account. This is the root
of the challenge, by liberal thinkers, that such moral reasoning is
guilty of committing the naturalistic fallacy 33. Women who
identify goodness with whatever a woman does, and assume evil
to be by definition what is of male origin or intention, are committing this fallacy and the problem with engaging in this fallacious
reasoning is that moral language becomes either contradictory or
redundant. .Since, according to the liberal model, it is by means of
our rational distance from embodiment that we are capable of
evaluation at all, ‘naturalistic’ feminists seem to depend upon an
objective principle of judgement which Jheir description of good,
as ‘equivalent to what is female’, cannot accommodate. If good
is defined as a natural property, then the use of the word ‘good’

becomes unnecessary; if it has some special meaning, then it is
contradictory to define it in purely naturalistic terms. Naturalism
therefore seems self-defeating. Morality which prides itself upon
being intrinsically partisan leaves no room for getting outside by
means of increasing generalities or abstractions. The notion of a
transcendent rationality has been one way of avoiding the narrowness, and ultimate circularity, of this concern by indicating to us
the rational necessity for discovering independent criteria by
which to assess particular actions or policies, criteria which can be
applied to any circumstance at any time.

Naturalism runs the risk of being so deterministic in its
description of the basis for moral evaluation, that the force of
‘ought’ is lost in its moral prescriptions. Many radical feminist
arguments seem to reiterate what has previously been said of
women in a new guise, namely that ‘biology determines destiny’ .

The response of radical feminists to the history of male determination of biology is to urge a reversal of values, but within the same
overall confines of physical determination. The landscape is still
dominated by sexual differences; biology is both the problem and
the solution 34. What is in danger of being lost from such an account
is the fact that how biological realities shape our thinking and
acting is partly, at least, up to us. This argument does not
demonstrate well enough how our interpretations of biology
interact with physical realities in the first place. Is the force of one
point of view overcome by the force of another? Does the change
from one view to another occur without language and thought? If
the vocabulary of our oppression is utterly alien to the new one of
liberation, then how do we recognise its presence or appreciate its

importance to life? If the process of this reevaluation of biological
facts does not occur on the basis of some detached criterion, which
radical feminists seem intent upon debunking, then how it does
take place needs more careful examination. Otherwise we are left
with the need for some conversion to a new point of view, a
conversion shaped by realities more powerful than our consciousness of them.

While naturalism makes it easier to understand the attachment
of an onlook to its natural grounding and context, which is
essential to its construction of morality, it makes more difficult the
prospect of coming to fmd a common ground by means of each
individual leaving behind the particular aspects of her perspective.

If rational considerations are bounded in the way that naturalism
suggests, then this affects relations between women and men very
deeply. The notion of two separate moralities can result in a
distortion of our full understanding of what morality is. There are
instances of imperatives for men’s lives which require of them also
a concern for relationships, for sacrifice of their personal interests
to benefit the group and these suggest that morality is one, though
it may be bisexual 3S. There are increasing numbers of men who
believe thmselves to be genuinely in sympathy with the values and
qualities of life which radical feminists admire. Thus, they also
decry the elimination from public life of the values traditionally
consigned to the private realm, and it seems particularly inappropriate to call their concern self-centred, or deviously powerseeking, merely because they are biological males 36. Male writers
have been just as damning of phallic morality, seeing in it all the
fears and insecurities which plague the psyche of man and encourage his pretentious destruction of nature 37. How are we to
understand these moral arguments if the gulf between men and
women is so wide? Surely we do find ourselves in sympathy with
some of what is said; we can at least make sense of it and appreciate
its impulses. Naturalism makes plain to us the discreteness and
particularity of vision which is characteristic of both moral and
aesthetic values, but it also requires some description of the hinges
which remain for the door between two points of view to be opened

The emphasis in naturalism on the particularity of moral
onlooks can mask the presupposition which nevertheless seems to
be essential to morality of any kind – namely, that its impulse is
towards the general and inclusive. Without such transcendent
appeal, moral language may become superfluous and the claim of
feminists no more or less important than those of anyone else
looking after their own interests. Naturalism furnishes this by
means of a conception of shared human nature, thus confining the
spaces in which moral thinking takes place. Its description of this,
however, can become just as decontextualised and ahistorical as
the liberal emphasis on universal rationality. Unless we recognise
our participation in the creation of this context, we will be left with
a preconditioning of life too heavy to be shifted by creative
thought. Particularities of embodiment may shape our evaluations, but these are, in the end, what we make of them. How such
generalisations regarding the essence of human nature actually
work in our moral reasoning becomes an important matter, therefore, and one which we should handle with care.

Social Construction Ism
Yet another way of understanding morality is available from those
who would claim that moral ideas and values are a construct of
various social conditions, including both material and ideological
elements. Rather than emphasising the autonomous person who
freely decides how to act as in the liberal approach, and rather than
assuming that human nature by itself can form a sufficient background for choices, this approach presumes the priority, both

historically and epistemologically, of the social over the individual. The distinctive features of this approach are, fIrStly, the moral
significance which is given to roles and relationships within a
certain social order, and, secondly, an observation that our language and therefore our thought are confmed to the parameters of
the socially defmed. The first aspect is expressed by the claim that
the general moral principles and particular practical guidelines
which we use for decision-making are the products of the needs
and interests of the social group. They are already established as
possibilities when we reflect upon a given situation or problem.

We learn our behaviour and our self-identity in the fust place as
members of a group and in the process of this practical education,
a way of life in which we also share is imposing itself upon us.

Once again, Aristotle is the seminal figure here in demonstrating
the link between value and social function, and, according to this
case, in suggesting that practical decisions can be related nonsyllogistically to statements of one’s role, rather than to general
principles or universal imperatives 38. Our understanding of
ourselves as moral beings is fundamentally shaped by networks of
relationship and institutional customs, and we are therefore acting
out these pre-existing patterns in our personal choices 39. Values
are thus part of the fabric of society into which we are woven; they
embody social concerns and they confrrm the social ordering
necessary for a way of life to continue. Without such foundation,
they lose their attachment to the very realities to which they are
intended to bring meaning 40.

The second aspect of this approach is expressed in the Wittgensteinian notion of language games, which suggests the limits of
our rational transcendence and the concurrent determination of
consciousness and behaviour. We are always thinking within one
strand of language or another, and there is no place altogether
outside these which can provide us with a pivotal point. Thus, once
again, the supposed objectivity of liberal principles collapses into
particular context-dependent concerns of particular groups or
individuals 41. Morality cannot therefore be a matter of leaving or
transcending some world in order to discover what one ought to
do, nor does it require us to return to impose this advice upon
ourselves. Rather it is a matter of learning how to play the game
and discovering within the rules what one is expected to do in order
to qualify as a player. How we see ourselves and how we learn to
act within various social contexts are parts of the same process,
and their interdependence makes the link between thought and
behaviour real 42. What is creative about our moral reasoning must
then be the construction of new variations which are possible
within these bounds, and they are tested by whether or not they
work successfully in these terms.

There are feminist writings which rely upon this social constructionist model of morality, and its distinctiveness becomes
more clear when we consider the way in which gender issues cut
across its field. These feminists have tried to demonstrate the determination of women’s lives by the various role models and
opportunities for expression which society makes available, and
have shown how women’s consciousness and morality is an
internalisation of such outward social necessities. When young,
women are taught their self-identity in terms of certain expectations and possibilities, and learn to relate moral decisions about
behaviour to these directly, from statement of role to evaluative
conclusion. Thus, de Beauvoir is again used, this time for her
belief that women are made, not born; it is the intention of this view
to disclaim ‘bIological essentialism’ of any kind which would
materially and physically determine what woman is. Social roles
and relationships not only defme women’s lives and become
deeply carved into their self-understanding, but they are learned as
behaviour patterns which have moral importance and which
express, in a social way, what women understand themselves to be

personally. It is the task of the critical feminist to become aware
of these determinations by using available language and thought,
and by means of this description of the nature of women’s lives, to
test the fit between any particular set of social institutions and
some notion of what would be more fulfilling for women. There
is no attempt here to discover universal principles which apply to
all persons regardless of gender, nor to fmd some ahistorical
understanding of women’s nature that can be used as a permanent
foundation for revision. Rather, these feminists believe that within
present realities lie the seeds of change, which the women who
understand the morality of the present order can nourish, by their
critical insights, into a healthier new society grown out of the past
Juliet Mitchell is a good example of this type of feminist
thinking, particularly in her early book, Women’s Estate. It is
important for women to be precisely aware of the economic
functions which their lives are meant to perform, to see how the
four social structures of Production, Reproduction, Sexuality, and
Socialisation oppress their lives and build upon their supposed
biological weaknesses and proclivities. The second step is to
understand the ideological covering of these functions, since it is
this which women take into their consciousness and are thereby
produced as women~ Ideology provides the sense of historical
continuity and gives the illusion of a permanent, autonomous
source of value. In each of these areas, women are exploited by
cultural necessities and made to believe that these functions are
essential to her nature. To understand this is to become critically
aware of the imperfections, or contradictions, of the present social
order, and it is in the gap between these and her own self-awareness
that women’s new understanding is to make its impact 43. Thus we
begin with the factual questions: ‘What is the situation of the
different structures today? What is the concrete situation of the
women in each of the positions in which they are inserted?’ and we
discover there the sources of change.

A revolutionary movement must base its analysis on the
uneven development of each structure, and attack the
weakest link in the combination. This may then become the
point of departure for a general transformation 44.

Mitchell understands this change as the breakup of ‘an oppressive
monolithic fusion’ 4S, after which each of these functions can begin
to discover a new identity and express themselves as ‘life-giving’ ,
rather than as institutionalised death. It is her hope that a new
social order can be devised out of the antipathies and alienation of
the old, which will more adequately express the ‘bio-social universal’ of human existence, and it is this which furnishes the basis for
the moral consciousness to pry open the oppression of any given

Rosalind Coward, on the other hand, rejects the ‘base/superstructure’ model of Mitchell’s analysis, in which revolutionary
morality can get a grip, and offers instead a description of the
tightly-knit relation of consciousness to culture. Like radical
feminists, she claims that women’s consciousness is produced and
structured by an ideology which expresses the biological and
psychological needs of men. The interest of men in promoting
their particular perception of sexuality and in developing a culture
which expresses this phallic superiority, has so far dominated
human history. This universality of cultural production demonstrates the way in which biological realities are mediated via social
constructions and discourses. Therefore, unlike radical feminists,
she claims that there is no way to get back through all of this to a
pure or unstructured conception of what the reality underlying it
all might be. As a result, she is more pessimistic about changes
within the terms so far established. Her book is an attempt to


that various accounts of the family or the history of the
family rely on a notion of the sexual drive as a given, which
has as its aim sexual reproduction. Concomitantly, men
and women are theorised as having radically different aims
and pleasures; sexual relations and sexuality are seen as the
same thing, both deriving from absolute sexual difference
in the service of reproduction 46.

This determination of our categories of thought is so profound that
Coward believes all of the discourses so far used to understand
ourselves have relied, with the exception of psychoanalysis, ‘on a
notion of sexual identity (and therefore sexual regulation) as pregiven’ 47. It thus becomes ‘virtually impossible’ for us to break out
of this circle and understand ourselves in any other way.

Discourse-analysis, however, does provide for Coward a critical
basis, for it helps us to find what is invisible or hidden within what

In the fullness of the discourse, there are oversights,
lacunae, the ‘blanks on the crowded text’. To see these
blanks, something more than close attention is needed.

What is required is a new gaze, an informed gaze, itself not
the product of anyone individual, but made possible by
changes on (sic) the exercise of vision, changes in social
and political conditions 48.

The unique challenge of feminism is to ask unasked questions and,
in so doing, to make the gaps in present structures more obvious.

In this task of deconstructing what is given, new possibilities can
emerge, but these are understood, not as somehow more adequate
to an u!!derlying humanness which might lie outside our discourse,
but rather as more adequate to the particular discourse of feminism
itself. Having untied the link between our language and some
foundational reality, there is left only our language, in one form or
another, and its relative values and moral expressions. Freudian
analysis at least provides a critique of sexual constructions from
the standpoint of an ‘initial bisexuality’, but Coward herself goes
further into eradicating ‘the individual’, who is supposed to go
through such sexual developments, from discourse altogether.

The result of her version of social constructionism is that the idea
of a coherent subject who is either the outcome or the origin of
social roles is seen as ‘a fantasy’. Thus, ‘not only is identity a
construct, but it is also continuously and precariously reconstructed’ 49. In the end, male and female are constructions of social
identities relying upon this notion of a centred self which has
instincts, dispositions, anatomical characteristics, and behavioural patterns, and it is only in finally coming to terms with, and
rejecting, this, that feminism can carry through its radical argument for getting beyond dualism.

This view of morality understands values, therefore, to be fundamentally expressive both of social requirements in themselves
and of the human exigencies around which the society is formed.

Values are created out of material conditions; they constitute the
meaning that has been constructed out of the lives and circumstances of the participants in society S0. Their authority is thus
understood by those within the system, as it were, and cannot be
grasped independently of this. What becomes more problematic
here is to explain, without reference to a transcendent rationality,
how a society could ever imperfectly express its required values,
or vice versa, how any values could ever be used as critical of the
society from which they emerged in the first place. Without
reducing itself to a blind tautological statement that what a society
values is what it values, this view must both maintain that values
are intelligible within a way of life, and that social and historical
changes occur on account of the imperfect fit of values to the
realities which they supposedly serve. The dialectical method of

resolving this problem suggests that, due to the historical (i.e. nonstatic) character of human social life, it is always conceivable for
the individual or group awareness to stretch beyond its horizons
into future possibilities. However, either these must rely on some
unrealised potential which exists now within the order of things,
and that requires some ‘base’ which the ‘superstructure’ imperfectly mirrors, that is, a non-linguistic reality against which the
language of values can be measured. Or this method needs some
view of the outer reaches of imagination or thought which would
have to be, to some extent, free of being fixed by social realities,
and indeed be capable of judging or criticising them; and this
thought might then be considered ‘unreal’ and lose its character of
immanence because we could not get a handle on its meanings.

Part of the case which is made here is the same as the one the
liberals hoped to make, namely that biology and value are not
necessarily linked in any authoritative way. Women who realise
this can thus be freed to reconsider the meaning of their biological
existence in ways that may be felt as more authentic, and this view
seems to suggest that it is possible for us to do this. Indeed, it is
the responsibility of the reflective woman to do so. On the other
hand, its description of the social character of language and values
makes it plain that whatever those links have been thought to be,
however the ties between biology and value have been knitted, has
served and continues to serve as an expression of some underlying
need or reality. While we would like therefore to fly as birds into
imaginative new principles of judgement, we discover our feet of
clay which fix us in an even more rigidly determined reality. In
turning to Freud, both Mitchell and Coward find evidence for this
universalism of patriarchy. While the former believes that Freud
is describing women in a particular society – namely under the
conditions of advanced capitalism – which might ultimately be
overthrown so that their ‘true’ natures could be realised, the latter
considers such optimism to be naive, since the base in human
nature upon which the revolution could be constructed is believed
to be deterministic SI. The freedom which is supposed to be
produced by this realisation of our social determination seems
therefore to be elusive. We are still not the makers of ideology, no
matter how unattached it may be from natural realities, and thus
the totality of women’s oppression seems more unassailable than
ever S2. One wonders why we are thinking about it.

Ultimately, social constructionism can become too concerned
to debunk our notion of what is ‘real’ by claiming that our handle
on reality is linguistically shaped. Thus, ‘the categories through
which we appropriate “the real” in thought are discursively
constructed rather than given by the real’ . At one level, this insight
is ‘tautological to the point of banality’, since it only serves to
indicate that ‘our knowledge of the real cannot exist outside
discourse’ . Admitting that this is the case, however, does not
require us to sever the bonds of knowledge and reality altogether,
so that all becomes discourse or varieties of language use S3. We
can avoid the dogmatism of distinctive viewpoints, and the determination of moral values by non-moral realities, not by doing
away with these distinctions altogether, but by making wiser and
more careful use of them. Indeed Barrett, quoting Timpanaro,
calls this a kind of ‘extraordinary arrogance’ which conjures away
external reality by claiming the only valid object of study to be our
knowledge of objects of study 54. Giving us the perspective of the
divine but without any of its power seems of little point. To focus
so exclusively on how our thought understands itself is to lose the
initial attachment to natural human activities which language must
have in order to be learned, and to overlook the discernment of
‘salient’ features of reality which it is the concern of morality to
represent in some overall pattern of meaning.

What is challenged by these issues is the nature of the moral
agent. While the initial enthusiasm for this approach was surely

fIred by personal experience and concern, it ends by threatening
the existence of a person at all who might have lived this or could
alter it. On the one hand, this is a way of describing our complicity
in the structures that shape our lives such that no individual guilt
is incurred. Since we are utterly the products, mind and body alike,
of material or ideological conditions, it is more easily understandable that so many women live out their lives in perfect conformity
to their situation, without question or even unhappiness. If we are
what we have been made to be, then no disruption can or need
occur, and personal responsibility is absolved. Here is the passivity of the consciousness which only receives from its surroundings
the material it requires for moral reflection. On the other hand, the
extent of this impersonal determination makes us feel the hopelessness of our circumstances even more keenly, but without
giving us the necessary grasp of some reality by which to shift the
present one. No longer may a revolution be effected by a poem ss,
since even this will be shaped by prevalent meanings and existing
possibilities. This viewpoint encourages us to look back upon
ourselves, our language, and our values in a way which might be
consoling, but which leaves us with no way to grasp the future that
is not yet determined because it has not yet happened. How that
future is to come about may not be predestined, and it is certainly
part of our moral experience to sense some risk, some responsibility, some decision by which it may be realised. The phenomenology of the moral consciousness reveals the active attempt of
individuals to grasp or make sense of their situations in ways that
are novel, and indeed it may be this very activity upon which future
hopes inevitably must be founded.

What this suggests is that we need to find some balance in this
perspective between the inner and the outer points of view. One
of the things we can do is to examine the windscreen of the car we
are driving so that we can notice its cracks, see where it is
smudged, observe the way in which the particular material of
which it is made distorts our vision of what is around us, or find the
clear spaces by which we can get a good view of what lies ahead.

In this way, we become aware of our finitude, our limitations, our
unique perspective which constitutes our identity as persons with
a point of view. But it is quite another thing actually to drive the
car, an activity in which staring at the windscreen would be a
serious liability since it is what we need to use in order to be able
to get anywhere at all. Unless we desist from the activity for which
windscreens were originally devised and found practicable, we


must sometimes merely use them to go forward without noticing
them. So with our moral concepts and language. It is the human
activity of making sense of life which gave rise to these in the first
instance, albeit in a social environment, and they retain what
meaning they have in the context of human purposes and pursuits,
interests and intentions. Examining them to see just how limited
and proscribed they are, finding the bits of dirt that blur our moral
vision, criticising the criteria which are used for judgement, is necessary for moral clarity, but is not the end in itself. The point of
such refinement of moral vision is to move forward towards a
closer approximation of language and reality, or of social mores
with the human activities from which they spring. Feminist
challenges in this area may turn out to be an instance of Williams ,
claim that ‘reflection may destroy knowledge’, since what we find
here is, ultimately, the inability to provide moral knowledge or
guidelines when one is so heavily sedated by an overdose of selfreflection 56.

Feminist writings, by contributing to the present criticisms of
moral epistemology, have left in their wake a great number of
issues which now call for some imaginative and sensiti ve handling
if we are to develop in our understanding of the moral enterprise.

We need to consider an account which is not only more satisfactory
in its understanding of feminist concerns, but also more adequate
as a rendering of the logic of moral reasoning, for these two are
inextricably bound up with one another.

From the liberal perspective on morality, feminism seems to
provide no unusual or disturbing challenge, since its requirements
are believed to fit comfortably with the general principles for just
treatment and considerations of equal rights which are central to
its moral prescriptions. Continuing dissatisfaction from feminists
in this area seems inappropriate since their needs are so easily
accommodated. Feminist issues are either treated as trivial because their resolution seems, on liberal grounds, so patently
obvious; or they seem to be irrelevant to liberal principles, because
any attention paid to the uniqueness of the women’s issue, as
opposed to any other, is an unnecessary fuss for such abstractions
as justice and equality; or they are considered to be uninteresting
for any ‘real’ concern of morality since feminist demands are
personal or partisan. There are presumably many who believe that
the theoretical moral issues raised by feminism have therefore
been resolved and nothing further remains to be said, though there
may be a lot more to do to clear away the remnants of injustice. The
way in which liberalism expresses its concern for women’s issues
is to emphasise what it takes to be the obvious need of any morality,
namely, some general principles regarding what ought to be done.

These are understood to have a rational necessity which enhances
the human freedom by means of which they are discovered and,
thus, they are believed to be the best hope for retaining distinctively human qualities. Having distilled this essence of morality,
liberalism need only pursue the practical business of applying its
principles in an even-handed way. This is what moral reasoning
requires and, in its exercise, there are no gender distinctions.

The trouble with both the naturalistic and social constructionist accounts is that the temptation to generalisation is once again
present, although the lines are drawn in slightly different ways. In
the fIrst case, the move towards fInding a common denominator in
human nature leads to a tension within its account of morality.

Beginning with an analysis of the way in which decisions are tied
up with our understanding of ourselves, it helpfully illuminates the
particularity of moral choices. Yet it increasingly presses for the
description of the foundation for morality and in so doing conjures
up abstractions of another kind to liberalism, but which are


nonetheless ahistorical and essentialist 57. The recognition of this
natural grounding becomes a statement of such overall patterns
that it lends itself to an endless search for counter-examples. In
this case, what begins as a genuine reconstructive task using
feminist insights ends as either hopelessly separatist or too vague
for the derivation of any helpful guidelines. Indeed, unless
analysis of the logic of onlooks regarding our humanness is
handled with more care, there will be nothing to prevent the
traditional, long-lasting descriptions of the male-female relationship from being trotted out once again, with a reactionary sneer of

Likewise, in social constructionism, the effect of feminism has
been to make us aware of the very deep consciousness and
symbolic value of gender as it seems to express itself over and over
again in the construction of social organisations, roles, and relationships. As a critique of the way in which value is expressed and
ordered in social groups, this perspective challenges us to be more
self-aware of the determination of thought and language by these
gender categories, but its conclusions seem morally self-stultifying. Feminist questions arose in the first instance, presumably
because of some gaps or imperfections in the fit between moral
injunctions, with all their underlying assumptions, and lived
experience. To raise questions about the confinement of women’s
lives by social definitions was to discuss something about which
women cared and which was therefore understood to be more than
a bland factual analysis of what does and does not exist. However,
not only the original morality, but now also one’s concern about it
are viewed as instances of the unintentional construction of meanings; for the spaces which we think we have’ chosen’ to occupy as
social revolutionaries are in fact the ones laid out for us by the
available options. What reality there was to begin with, against
which the present order of things seemed to measure up so badly,
now turns out itself to be fabricated, as a projection of present
meanings. Once we understand this, there is nothing available to
us for moral awareness, and moral sensitivity bectlmes reduced to
the one-dimensional phenomenon of thought thinking about itself.

Such generalities require detachment to be grasped but there is
nothing further to be done with them; morality can be abandoned
as ‘humanistic’ or ‘essentialist’.

My concern with these tendencies in naturalism and social
constructionism is for the loss ofthe person, which becomes either
a particular instance of general human essence or a decentred self.

It seems to me that this is not only too high a price to pay for the
feminist in sights which may be derived from these accounts, but
also an unnecessary abstraction for any development of practicable feminist morality. And this is the task which really now
should face us. Perhaps I could just begin to sketch out such an
account. Morality is a matter of personal development in sensitivity towards ourselves and the others with whom we share life, a
sensitivity which is practiced by deepening one’s in sights into
present social realities, by learning to discern the nuances of
meaning in the language and thought which confront us, and by
committing ourselves to realising some possibilities as more
fulfilling than others. As in artistic creation, we can hear more
harmonies or visualise more arrangements, the more attuned we
become to what is already there; our innovative contribution
comes as we make those real, and they are fortunate when they do
in fact work. Human nature provides the overall context in which
the reasoning mind searches for its possible courses of action, and
it does so within the confines of social structures. Moral thinking
comes up against social and natural realities that are not entirely
of our own making and these are subject to continuous historical
changes. This can be seen, not as a limitation to our moral
questioning, but rather as a source of its purpose and signifIcance,
since ultimately there are choices which will or will not succeed,

in the here and now, in creating human fulfilment. We understand
what these might be as our sensitivity to particular instances and
realities develops. The active dialogue between the changing
aspects of our humanness amidst various social interactions and
our enquiring imagination is what shapes moral questions and
their answers. Reality and imagination are bound together. We can

form our new self-understanding imaginatively out of the materials given to us by taking advantage of the spaces within what is
there. In this process, new meanings will emerge as the dimensions of our insight are opened out, and we will discover the
sources of moral inspiration for use in the future S8.









. See the discussion of this problem in Sartrean ethics by Mary
Warnock, Existentialist Ethics (London: Macmillan, 1967), pp.

18-52. For the issues raised by the prescriptivist account see J. L.

Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Middlesex: Penguin.1981),esp.part40n ‘Universalization’. Mackiestates: ‘On
this view there are only formal, but no material, constraints on
what can count as moral. The form, universal prescriptivity, is determined by the logic of moral terms, but the content is entirely a
matter for decision by the person – or of course it may be a group
of persons – who makes the moral judgements or subscribes to
and adopts the moral system’ (pp. 85-86).

H. J. Paton, The Moral Law (London: Hutchinson University
Library, 1969), pp. 67-68 [The categorical imperative]. See also
Thomas Nagel, The Possibility ofAltriusm (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1970).

See Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy
(London: Fontana, 1985) for a discussion of the impasse between
two aspects of moral thinking: on the one hand the risk of free
choice which morality implies and, on the other, the attempt to
ground this choice in some limiting facts about rationality.

1974), p. 31.

Ibid., p. 29.

Ibid., p. 33.

Ibid., p. 685, my italics.

Ibid., p. 671.

Janet Radcliffe Richards: The Sceptical Feminist (Middlesex:

Penguin, 1982).

See de Beauvoir’s recognition of the insufficiency of freedom
alone to resolve the problems of women, op. cit., ‘It is not to be
supposed, however, that the mere combination of the right to vote
and a job constitutes complete emancipation.. .’ (p. 639). Her
thinking in response to this, however, creates problems for the
liberal model; see Ann Foreman, Femininity as Alienation (London: Pluto Press, 1978), Chapter 8.

Radcliffe Richards, op. cit., p. 121.

Mackie, op. cit., p. 15.

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women
(Dublin, 1793): ‘Let woman share the rights and she will emulate
the virtues of man; for she must grow more perfect when emancipated, or justify the authority that chains such a being to her duty
– if the latter, it will be expedient to open a fresh trade with Russia
for whips’ (p. 256).

Genevieve Lloyd, The Man ofReason (London: Methuen, 1984),

Ibid., p. ix.

Jean Bethke Elshtain, Public Man, Private Woman (Oxford:

Martin Robertson, 1981), p. 118.

See Marjorie Weinzweig, ‘Philosophy, Femininity and
Feminism’, Philosophical Books, Vol. 24, No. 3, July 1983, for a
discussion of the inappropriateness of the notion of freedom as
‘self-control’ which is possessed by both men and women, particularly in the areas of sexual relations and of pregnancy and
childbirth. See also Radcliffe Richards’s reply.











Jean Grimshaw, ‘Feminism: History and Morality’, Radical
Philosophy 30, Spring 1982, p. 3.

Donald Evans, The Logic of Self-Involvement (London: SCM
Press, 1963): ‘ … if I do deliberate concerning the formulation or
acceptance of a typical onlook, it is misleading to depict the
logical structure of this deliberation either in terms of a decision
– that and a decision – to which are completely independent, or
in terms of a decision – that which is totally dependent on a decision – to’ (p. 137).

JohnMcDowell, ‘Virtue and Reason’, The Monist, Vol. 62, No. 3,
July 1979, pp. 346 and 341.

John McDowell, ‘Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical
Imperatives?’ The Aristotelian Society, Suppl. Vol. LIl, 1978, p.


See G. 1. Wamock, Contemporary Moral Philosophy, 20(London: MacMillan, 1967): ‘ … if it were not the case that there existed
a certain range of considerations, having to do in general with the
welfare of human beings, about which most people cared very
much some of the time, and cared to some extent much of the time,
then not only would moral argument, however conclusive, be
pointless and ineffective; moral discourse would simply not
occur’ (p. 71).

Bishop JosephButler, Sermons (1726), edited by W. R. Matthews
(London: Bell, 1969). See the very clear discussion of this matter
in Mary Midgley, Beast and Man (London: Methuen, 1980), pp.


McDowell, ‘Virtue and Reason’, p. 331.

McDowell, ‘Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?’, p. 21. See also his description of ‘salience’ in ‘Virtue and
Reason’, pp. 344-45.

Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Cambridge, Massachusetts:

Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 18. See Sigmund Freud,
‘Femininity’, in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis
(New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1933): ‘Women have but little
sense of justice… We also say of women that their social instincts
are weaker than those of men, and that their capacity for the
sublimation of their instincts is less’ (p. 184).

Quoted by Gilligan, op. cit., p. 16. from Virginia Woolf, A Room
of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1929), p.


Gilligan, op. cit., p. 16.

Ibid., p. 22.

Ibid., p. 173.

Mary Daly, Pure Lust (London: The Women’s Press, 1984); see
the entries in ‘Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the
English Language’.

Thus Daly abandons hope for a Tillichian overcoming of dualism
by means of increasing abstraction, in favour of a more gnostic,
and Jungian opposition of forces. Compare Mary Daly, Beyond
God the Father (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973) in which there is a
‘beyond’ described in Chapters 3, 4 and 7, with Gyn/Ecology: The
Metaethics of Radical Feminism (London: The Women’s Press,
1979) and Pure Lust, in which no such ‘place’ exists.

See especially Radcliffe Richards, op. cit., pp. 25-29 passim.


AIison Jagger, Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Sussex:

Harvester Press, 1983); see pp. 98, 107. Cf. Janet Sayers,
Biological Politics (London: Tavistock, 1982), p. 188. This
problem also seems to be characteristic of the feminist writings of
Luce Jrigaray, as discussed by Margaret Whitford, ‘Luce Jrigaray
and the Female Imaginary: Speaking as a Woman’, in Radical
Philosophy 43, Summer 1986.



chal Structures’ co-authored with E. Cowie and S. Lipshitz in

Papers on Patriarchy (Lewes: Women’s Publishing Collective,

Frigga Haug, ‘Morals also have Two Genders’, New Literary


Review, Vol. 143, Jan/Feb 1984.

For a good example, see Robert Paul Wolff, ‘There’s Nobody
Here But Us Persons’, in C. Gould and M. Wartofsky (eds.),
Women and Philosophy (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1976),
pp. i28-44.

See particularly Brian Easlea, Science and Sexual Oppression
(London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981), and Fathering the
Unthinkable (London: Pluto Press, 1983).



Aristotle, Nicomachaen Ethics (Indiapolis: Bobbs-Merrill,
1962), translated by Martin Ostwald. See Book One, section 7 in
which goodness is related to function. See also Dorothy Emmet,
Rules, Roles and Relations (London: MacMillan, 1966); Philippa
Foot, ‘Goodness and Choice’, The Aristotelian Society, Suppl.

VI. XXXV, 1961; and G. E. M. Anscombe, ‘Modem Moral Philosophy’ and ‘On Brute Facts’, in Analysis, Vol. 18, 1958.



F. H. Bradley, ‘My Station and Its Duties’ , in Ethical Studies, 2nd
ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1927).


See A. C. McIntyre, A Short History of Ethics (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976) for a description of the history of
ethics from this viewpoint See also his argument that unless such
community is restored in the modem world, morality will have
lost its meaning forus. The confusion of moral perspectives in our
day leaves us with no way of choosing between available alternatives without a meaningful social context. After Virtue (London:

Duckworth, 1982).

See Williams, op. cit., ch. 2 on ‘The Archimedean Point’. See also
McDowell, ‘Aesthetic Value, Objectivity, and the Fabric of the
World’, in Eva Schaper (ed.), Pleasure, Preference and Value
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983) for a critique of
this possibility.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (Oxford: Basil Blackwell,
1969) translated by G. E. M. Anscombe and Denis Paul: ‘It is our
acting which lies at the bottom of the language-game’ (para. 204).

See also Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (London: Hutchinson, 1949).




Juliet Mitchell, Woman’s Estate (New York: Vintage Books,
1973). See particularly chapters 5 and 6 which illustrate these
conditions of women’s lives and consciousness.


Ibid., p. 122
Ibid., p. 150.


Rosalind Coward, Patriarchal Precedents: Sexuality and Social

Relations (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983), p. 188.

Ibid., p. 259. See also her article on ‘Psychoanalysis andPatriar-



1976) in which she describes more fully the acquisition of gender
consciousness in children. For an anthropologist’s analysis of
this universal gender construction, see Sherry B. Ortner, ‘Is
Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?’ inM. Z. Rosaldo andL.

Lampher (eds.), Woman, Culture and Society (California: Stanford University Press, 1974).

Ibid., p. I, quoting from Althusser.

Ibid., p. 265. See also her book, co-authored with John Ellis,
Language and Materialism (London: Routledge and Keg an Paul,
1977), especially chapters 1 and 5 which offer a critique of
humanistic reification.

Karl Marx, The German Ideology (London: Lawrence and
Wishart, 1974): ‘ … language,like consciousness, only arises from
the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men… Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product.. .’ (pp. 50-51).


Coward, ‘Re-reading Freud’, Spare Rib, May 1978. She also
criticises the limitations of Marxism for its economic determinism, which tends to yield a universalist thesis regarding the
necessary ideology of women’s oppression. See ‘Re-thinking
Marxism’, mlf2, 1978.


See the critiques of both Mitchell and Coward in Sayers, op. cit.,
pp. 134-45 and Foreman, op. cit., pp. 48-51.


Michele Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today: Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis (London: Verso, 1984), pp. 34-35.

Ibid., pp. 35-36. See also the review by Howard Feather,
‘Reconstructing Structural Marxism’, Radical Philosophy 43,
Summer 1986, in which similar epistemological problems are
discussed with reference to Althusser, particularly p. 35.



Attributed to Virginia Woolf. See how this problem is described
by JosephMcCamey, ‘What Makes Critical Theory “Critical”?’,
Radical Philosophy 42, Winter/Spring 1986. .


Williams, op. cit., especially ch. 9, ‘Relativism and Reflection’.

See my initial attempt to formulate this in ‘Feminism and Moral
Reasoning’, Australian Journal of Philosophy, special issue on
Women and Philosophy, June 1986.


My thinking throughout this piece has been greatly stimulated by
Sabina Lovibond, Realism and Imagination in Ethics(Oxford:

Basil Blackwell, 1983). While I have not quoted directly from
this work, I want to acknowledge her provocative analysis of
moral epistemology and to express a hope that one day I can
investigate her suggestions in a more full and direct way. My
thanks also to the members of the Radical Philosophy Group for
very helpful comments on the frrst draft of this paper, which has
benefitted from their careful attention.

As well as critical commentary on contemporary philosophical issues, and a continuing engagement with the
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