Many critics claim that feminist ethics are relational because they recognize contextual truth. However, many feminists claim that they have as much of a problem with relativism as with objectivism.

Objectivism traps us in a world where an ultimate truth really does exist and Aquinas' (just to pick a random philosopher) knowledge of the way the world works and his moral imperatives and guidelines that were developed by a white, European, Christian, misogynist male who lived centuries before us can really the the Truth. Feminists have issues with this because they believe that experience and the context from which we see the world changes how we recognize truth. They also recognize the past wrongs that have been done by allowing one person or one kind of person decide what is right and what is wrong - when women's voices (or any other groups voices) are left out of the philosophical conversaton, which they inevitably are when a person (such as an objectivist) does not recognize context.

However, this does not make feminist ethics relativist, either. This is because relativism falls into an equally serious, but different trap as objectivism. Relativism allows that ALL views are equally and differently right, that the KKK's racist, sexist, and oppressive ideas and actions are just as right as MLK Jr's fight for equality, because they are in different contexts. This is also something that feminist ethicists cannot support, especially because they lose any sort of moral gound that they really NEED to be able to raise consciousness or educate on the dangers of sexism and all of the other isms in this society. Basically, objectivism tells too many people that one way is the only way and relativism tells people that all ways are equally as good. Neither of these fit into the moral and ethical paradigm set up by feminist ethicists.

Therefore, feminist ethicists have made up their own definition of feminist ethics. This is a that of a particular, but not relative or objective ethics. Particular ethics recognize the importance of the context of an idea or opinion, but they also require that a person must defend and justify his or her opinion or process of thought. A particular ethics therefore allows all people the same possibility of having the Truth, but they also require a justification of belief, avoiding the major pitfalls of both relativism and objectivism.

Against "Particularist" Ethics


"Therefore, feminist ethicists have made up their own definition of feminist ethics. This is a that of a particular, but not relative or objective ethics. Particular ethics recognize the importance of the context of an idea or opinion, but they also require that a person must defend and justify his or her opinion or process of thought. A particular ethics therefore allows all people the same possibility of having the Truth, but they also require a justification of belief, avoiding the major pitfalls of both relativism and objectivism."


The gyst of the particularist argument given above seems to be this:

  • We seem to have a problem here. Objectivity isn't really what it's cracked up to be. It posits this strange metaphysical, ahistorical subject, the kind of subject that feminist critiques (among others) have debunked over the last half century. But, relativism isn't a practical system at all. I mean, if we become relativists, we have no recourse to justify that our beliefs are better than those hollow earth nutjobs now do we? Nor can we say that something like murder is wrong: because if all ethics are relative, then the ethics of the murderer are no better or worse than that of the cleric, or the feminist scholar.

  • So, if neither objectivity or relativism (as defined above) are viable options (both for different reasons) we must come up with a third alternative! We'll just have to make up a new system that takes all the good things from objectivity (i.e. the possibility of ethical or epistemic justification) and disregards all the bad things (the apparent necessity of positing some sort of ahistorical unmoved mover)! That way, we can be good historicists but STILL keep the crazies out!

The problem is that the move from either objectivism or relativism to the warm snuggly middle of particularlist justification is a difficult one, and most theorists (all of them that I've encountered...) don't have the moving insurance to cover the damage. If it were simply a matter of realizing that we have to eliminate the transcendental character of the objective subject, ethicists and epistemologists from Aristotle to MacIntyre would have slipped on through and set up their own 'particularist' version of ethics/epistemology.

The problem is an obvious one: in order to escape the bloody claws of relativism (who would dare consider relativism a VIABLE option? (me)) you have to be able to justify your ethical choices (and your epistemological beliefs as well...). But, if we admit that all our ethical choices/knowledge claims are situated in particular historical/social/political frameworks, its hard to see just how we can escape those frameworks in order to justify our choices/beliefs.

Now, the particularist ethics discussed above (as well as various Standpoint Epistemologies) all hope to escape this problem. But none of them seem to be able to present a viable or coherent option. It always seems to me that just when you get to the nitty gritty of the particularist ethicist's (or standpoint epistemologist's) account of their theory, they get pretty vague, or use flimsy, undefined (even undefinable!) terminology. I know more about standpoint epistemology than I do about particularist ethics, but I think the points I'm about to make apply to both,judging by the account given in the writeup above.


Why I think the Particularist/Standpoint project for a renewed objectivity (a "Third Option") fails:

It does not escape the objectivist problematic of the so-called "god-trick". That is: though it may posit a new kind of historicized subject/community with which to justify its claims/choices, this subject must still rise above its historical nature in order to escape the problem of relativism. The traditional (feminist) standpoint/particularist response to this problem is to ground ethics/knowledge in 'women's lives'. My main objection is twofold: the definition of women's lives is either entirely impossible, or, if possible, relapses into relativism. So, how can we define 'women's lives'?

There are (it seems to me) two answers to this question.

1. A conglomeration of the lives of individual women.

If this is the case, then we have nothing more than relativism. Simply accumulating various individual (yet still entirely socially situated) lives/life stories cannot make a knowledge claim or ethical choice any more 'objective'. None of the standpoint theorists seem to claim this sort of answer, so I will concentrate on the second type of response.

2. The term 'women's lives' refers to an abstraction from the lives of all women. All women are 'oppressed'. It is this oppression that lends this new brand of objectivity to ethical choices/knowledge claims based on this particular definition of 'women's lives'.

This seems even more problematic to me than the first sort of response. Rather than go over exactly why I think this sort of answer fails (a topic which I have covered in another writeup A Critique of Feminist Standpoint Epistemology) I will simply list a number of unanswered questions that pop up:

  • 1. How do you justify privileging the oppressed over the 'dominant'
  • 2. Why are women privileged signifiers for the oppressed?
  • 3. Does this sort of definition rely on biological differences (sex differences) or social ones (gender based)? And, what would either answer mean for the theory?
  • 4. Who do we count as women? All women? White women? North American? Can we homogenize the voices of women?
  • 5. In what way are we 'basing' our claims on/in the lives of women? How does this process work?

So, let's wrap it all up in a nice neat little package then. Though I believe these sorts of ethics/epistemologies are valuable pragmatic tools, I do think they become problematic/unusable if we attempt to clothe them in objectivity. Rather than saying, "If we can't have solid epistemological/ethical grounding for our claims then anything goes!" I think we should say "Epistemological grounding is nice for philosophers, but it really shouldn't affect the way we are doing things here. We should try and de-marginalize the marginalized not because our philosophy tells us to, but because we think its a good thing to do."

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