Rather than attempting to deal with all of Levin’s ‘arguments’ in his article “Is There a Female Morality?” I would like to focus on one particular claim. ♠1 Levin argues that
Whether the male or female outlook is better is a silly issue. Every life needs elements of both. One should encounter life with both involvement and detachment, following high ideals but keeping your feet on the ground as you dispense justice and mercy. The sexes seem destined to disagree on the right proportions, and it is doubtful that there is a neutral perspective from which to decide what they would be (Levin, 710).
I would like to agree with Levin’s conclusion that we need both detachment and involvement, but disagree with (among other things) his resignationism when it comes to ethical ‘sex differences’. Instead of giving up entirely on reducing or eliminating gender bias in ethical theory, I think that such a project is both desirable and viable. Using the work of Cheshire Calhoun as exemplary, I would like to argue that we can, in fact, re-evaluate our theoretical priorities in order to critique gender bias while still engaging in productive, gender-sensitive normative theorization. That is, critiquing gender bias does not, as I think Levin would argue it does, entail giving up on all non-relative normativity, nor does it entail a slanted, exclusively ‘female’ morality.
Before I illustrate my point using Calhoun’s arguments, I would like to provide a more full discussion of Levin’s point. Amid the somewhat overly rhetorical meanderings of his article Levin seems to be making the point that ethics is not the place to assume a non-neutral, politically engaged, standpoint because such a position automatically leads to some sort of radical relativism. He argues that the feminist position that “female morality is better for women” (Levin 703) (the only 'feminist' position he deals with seriously) may be found by feminists to be “prohibitive” (Levin 703) because
“It forbids them from describing the female voice as better than—or worse than, or precisely as good as—the male. It forbids them from describing male concern with male problems as bias, a word which implies violation of some gender-neutral norm of equity. Contrary to their clear intent, feminists would have to surrender any common standard against which such judgments could be made. Indeed, if the female voice is “better” only in the sense of being better-for-women, its being better does not exclude its also being worse, for it is presumably worse-for-men” (Levin 703).
This seems to make some intuitive sense. If we want to argue that the ‘female’ standpoint is better for women, we have to accept that this standpoint is only relatively ‘better’ than the ‘male standpoint’ (because the female view would, obviously, not be ‘better’ for men but worse). Thus, if we want to assert that the female view is better, we can do so only relativistically, and are then susceptible to a number of arguments against relativism♠2. This sort of reasoning is very much in line with a traditional rationalist view. Kant, for example, formulated an autonomous rational subject precisely in order to escape the temporal, empirical biases of particular ethical situations. Rather than focusing on our empirical situations, Kant wanted us to be able to ground our ethical decisions in a rationality that would (contra-Hume) allow us to escape our own passions/biases. Levin sees this project as worthwhile, though sometimes problematic. Rather than giving it up wholesale, as he seems to think ‘feminist ethicists’ (a suitably broad category) would prefer, Levin believes that traditional objectivity and rationality still have merit left in them. He argues that
The supreme achievements of human genius—the deepest scientific and mathematical discoveries, the great artworks, the most visionary philosophical treatises, the world-transforming inventions—are all the work of men. Presumably this fact is related to the male inclination to abstraction, as well as the obsessed energy to keep going on a Sistine Chapel or Principia Mathematica. This energy combined with man’s frightening cleverness often finds destructive outlets, but to control it man has invented another of his most splendid products, the internal constraints of morality.” (Levin 710-711)
So Levin thinks the historical products of men should illustrate that objectivity, rationality, and the morality based upon them are all still productive and worthwhile endeavors. Particularly, the objective edifice of science itself should, Levin thinks, illustrate the benefits of what he thinks is the oxymoronic pairing of andro-centrism and neutrality.
I would like to argue that Calhoun’s work evades at least this particular criticism that Levin levels at ‘feminism’ in general. Her work does not entail relativism at all, and in fact looks forward to a less biased and thus more objective rationality. Her discussion in “Justice, Care, and Gender Bias” focuses on problems stemming from our general theoretical focus, rather than on particular ethical theories. She states that
“Starting from the observation that the ethics of justice has had centuries of workout, I want to ask what ideological implications a concentration on only some moral issues might have and which shifts in priorities might safeguard against those ideologies. This particular tack in trying to bring the ethics of care to center stage has the double advantage of, first, avoiding the necessity of making charges of conceptual inadequacy stick, since it does not matter what the ethics of justice could consistently talk about, only what it does talk about; and, second, of avoiding the question of what, from an absolute, ahistorical point of view moral theory ought to be most preoccupied with.” (Calhoun 689)
So, against Levin’s arguments that the ethics of justice (traditionally ‘male’ ethics) can treat the problems that feminists seem to think are ignored, ♠3 Calhoun argues that while they can be treated♠4, and may have been treated, they have been empirically ignored, for the large part. Her claim is less susceptible to Levin’s critique because it is an empirical claim about what the ethics of justice (her terminology) has, in fact, been concerned with over its lengthy reign.
Calhoun proposes, like Levin, that we not give up entirely on “involvement and detachment” (Levin 710) and focus strictly on the always-involved stance of the relativist. She also proposes, however, that despite what Levin might argue about the historical interest in a sort of ethics of care (see footnote 3), for the most part the concerns that would be addressed in such an ethical theory have been largely ignored in favor of the (individualistic) concerns of the traditional ethics of justice. She argues, in short, that the centuries long focus on questions of property, autonomy, and justice has empirically led to the political exclusion of other questions. Given this empirical fact, Calhoun believes we should at least look into the political after effects that our philosophical theorization may have. Rather than a purely philosophical approach to ethical questions, Calhoun can
…see no way around this politicization of philosophical critique, if we hope to shape culture, and not merely to add bricks to a philosophical tower, we will need to be mindful of the cultural/political use to which our thoughts may be put after leaving our wordprocessors. This mindfulness should include asking whether our theoretical work enacts or discredits a moral commitment to improving the lot of women. (Calhoun 689)
Perhaps, then, the way to avoid the critique of relativism given by Levin is not to propose a purely female morality, but, rather, to actually examine the effects of gendered theorization in the political realm. Instead of using our common rationality or our common drive toward utility (for example) as the only normative principle guiding our ethical decisions, Calhoun asks why it is that we cannot and have not focused on questions of difference.
The objection here is not that a formal, abstract notion of the moral self’s common humanity is wrong and ought to be jettisoned. Nor is the objection that a formal notion of the moral self logically entails a substitutionist universalism. The objection is that repetitive stress on self: the belief that our basic moral interests are not significantly, dissimilarly, and sometimes detrimentally shaped by our social location. Unless moral theory shifts its priority to knowledgeable discussions of human differences—particularly differences tied to gender, race, class, and power—lists and rank orderings of basic human interests and rights as well as the political deployment of those lists are likely to be sexist, racist, and classist. (Calhoun 691)
That is, assuming too much similarity is as dangerous as assuming too much difference. If we all make our ethical choices in precisely the same way (as Kant would argue we should), we are necessarily insensitive to certain factors that should be weighed. The effects of class, race, and gender are not merely extraneous to certain moral questions and Calhoun thinks that treating them as such leads to dangerous ethical and political situations (the West’s treatment of the third world, for instance; or, the racial inequality that is rampant in North America). It seems to me that Calhoun’s argument is that the feigned naïveté of traditional ethics towards questions of politics (i.e. treating ethical questions as unconnected to political questions) has gone on far too long, and that such naïveté is indeed part of the theoretical grounding of the very inequalities it tends to ignore.
In conclusion, Levin argues that a purely female morality is a nonsensical, and inherently relative, notion. He concludes from this that pursuing questions of gender and politics within ethics and philosophy is a bankrupt endeavor as long as it is seen as a philosophical endeavor (“When Calhoun asks for a shift in theoretical priorities in ethics, she is really asking for a shift from ethics to biology, psychology, and sociology” (Levin 710)). Thus, political questions are banished from the purely philosophical realm. What I have argued, alongside Calhoun, is that precisely this banishment is the problem at hand. It is the quasi-Kantian treatment of philosophical questions as utterly separate from the fray of the political world that has led to the systematic ignorance of questions of, as Calhoun would put it, gender, race, class and power. And, further, this ignorance has had real political consequences: it has allowed important questions (about the third world, about gender and racial inequality, and about the dangers of a so-called egalitarian polis) to be swept under the philosophical rug into the realm of “biology, psychology, and sociology” (Levin 710). Calhoun proposes, and I would follow, that we examine these questions and that a new constellation of theoretical priorities is necessary. Rather than examining new questions under the same theoretical rubric (a proposition she does not deny all value♠5) we should seek out new questions and new ways of approaching them, in hopes of reducing bias and moving towards a new, truly, egalitarian ethical theory and political outlook. So while Levin is quick to banish the impure and politically engaged from the circle of philosophy, Calhoun, it seems to me, is eager to seek out new members, new outlooks, and new modes of thinking.
- ♠1 Just as Levin himself, when dealing with ‘feminists,’ is “left with little choice but to characterize feminism as he understands it” (Levin 697) I am unable to reconstruct a unified thread in Levin’s argumentation. Thus, I am forced to deal with a particular strand that I will extrapolate as typically ‘Levinistic’.
- ♠2 This is not to say that relativism as such is an indefensible position. I am only arguing here that a so-called ‘feminist’ ethics does not logically entail relativism.
- ♠3 Levin notes that, “many political theories—notably those of Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel—are not “individualistic” at all. “Male” sociopolitical theories are quite cognizant of tradition and social bonds as well as individual rights” (Levin 700).
- ♠4 Calhoun herself says, “I want to concede this point that the ethics of justice leaves logical room for special obligations” (Calhoun 693).
- ♠5 She notes, “Although we can and should test the ethics of justice by asking whether it could consistently include the central moral issues in the ethics of care, we might also ask what ideologies of the moral life are likely to result from the repeated inclusion or exclusion of particular topics in moral theorizing” (Calhoun 689).
- Cheshire Calhoun, “Justice, Care, and Gender Bias” in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Fourth Edition, edited by Louis P. Pojman (Wadsworth, Toronto, 2002).
- Michael Levin, “Is There a Female Morality?” pp. 696-712 in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Fourth Edition, edited by Louis P. Pojman (Wadsworth, Toronto, 2002).