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Unformatted text preview: Meta Vol 31 no 5 9/11/00 7:57 am Page 452 © Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000.
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Vol. 31, No. 5, October 2000
0026–1068 ETHICS NATURALIZED:
FEMINISM’S CONTRIBUTION TO MORAL EPISTEMOLOGY
ALISON M. JAGGAR ABSTRACT: A survey of Western feminist ethics over the past thirty years
reveals considerable diversity; nonetheless, much recent work in this area is characterized by its adoption of a naturalistic approach. Such an approach is similar to
that found in contemporary naturalized epistemology and philosophy of science,
yet feminist naturalism has a unique focus. This paper explains what feminist naturalism can contribute to moral philosophy, both by critiquing moral concepts that
obscure or rationalize women’s subordination and by paying attention to real-life
practices of moral inquiry, including those used by women.
Keywords: ethical naturalism, moral epistemology, naturalized epistemology,
moral rationality, feminist ethics. Feminist moral philosophers writing in the late 1970s and early 1980s
often emphasized the radical character of the challenges posed by feminism to the Western ethical tradition. Insisting that feminist ethics was
concerned as much with issues of theory as of practice, they asserted that
it not only offered new answers to old philosophical questions but also
recast the questions themselves. These philosophers tended to attribute a
certain unity to feminist ethics, often portraying it as rejecting Kantian
rationalism and as promoting some version of the ethics of care. More
recent discussions of feminist ethics contrast with the earlier ones in that
they are more likely to emphasize controversy and diversity within feminism. They also tend to emphasize the continuities rather than the disparities between approaches to ethics that identify themselves as feminist and
those that refrain from doing so.
These sorts of shifts in emphasis commonly follow the introduction of
new theoretical models in any field. Such models are usually presented
initially as radical departures from existing orthodoxies, but as their
strengths and weaknesses emerge more clearly, they are often recognized
as sharing a number of assumptions with earlier positions. Later theorists
may be more willing than earlier ones to acknowledge the limitations of
new models and more open to drawing on the insights of old as well as
new approaches. In moral philosophy, the shift from asserting the radical
© Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 Meta Vol 31 no 5 9/11/00 7:57 am Page 453 ETHICS NATURALIZED 453 otherness of feminist ethics to seeing feminist philosophers as making a
diverse range of contributions to an ongoing tradition of ethical discussion
signals the increased maturity of feminist approaches and their wider
acceptance. At the dawn of the new millennium, feminist philosophers
have less need to shout in order to be heard or to close ranks in order to
My own approach to feminist ethics has always tended to the catholic.
I have consistently preferred to define it in terms that are broad rather than
narrow, weak rather than strong, inclusive rather than exclusive (e.g.,
Jaggar 1994). Despite this preference, the present article emphasizes the
unity of feminist ethics in at least one dimension, highlighting a feature
that I find characteristic, though not definitive, of it. This feature is its
naturalism, which in many ways parallels the naturalism that characterizes
much contemporary feminist work in epistemology and the philosophy of
What Is Feminist Moral Philosophy? Feminist philosophy in general is distinguished by its basic commitment to
uncovering and correcting whatever male biases may exist in mainstream
philosophical traditions. In moral philosophy, feminists seek out and challenge male bias within mainstream traditions of philosophical ethics,
investigating ways in which these may have participated in subordinating
women or in rationalizing their subordination. The thinnest and most
abstract characterization of Western feminist ethics is thus that it seeks to
overcome the overt and covert devaluation of women and whatever has
been associated culturally with the feminine in the ideals, concepts, and
theories of Western moral philosophy. A somewhat thicker or more
substantive idea of Western feminist ethics is offered by the following
schematic reconstruction of its trajectory over the past thirty years.
Diagnosing the Sources of Masculine Bias in Western Moral Philosophy The most obvious manifestation of Western moral philosophy’s masculine
bias may be its frequent failure to accord women’s interests equal weight
with men’s. One example is the view expressed by both ancient and
modern philosophers that women’s primary responsibility is to produce
children for their husbands and the state, while providing their husbands
with physical and emotional care. Feminist philosophers have noticed
The overwhelming popularity of naturalism among feminist epistemologists and
philosophers of science was evident at a conference entitled “Feminism and Naturalism,”
held at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., in September 1999. Margaret Walker is a
leader in pointing out the naturalistic aspects of feminist ethics. One example is her talk
“Seeing Power in Morality: A Proposal for Feminist Naturalism in Ethics,” the plenary
address at a conference on Feminist Ethics Revisited, held at the University of South Florida
in St. Petersburg in October 1999. © Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 Meta Vol 31 no 5 454 9/11/00 7:57 am Page 454 ALISON M. JAGGAR what Susan Okin calls “functionalist” treatments of women by, among
others, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel,
Nietzsche, and Rawls (Okin 1979, 1989; Clark and Lange 1979).
Feminist philosophers have offered several diagnoses of Western moral
philosophy’s disregard for women’s interests. In the past, the moral priority assigned to men’s interests was often justified by philosophical denials
that women were as fully or perfectly human as men, and especially by
claims that they were less rational than men. Aristotle, Aquinas, Rousseau,
Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche all argued that women should serve and please
men, since their capacity for reason was different from and inferior to
men’s. Because the Western tradition has long regarded rationality as the
essential human characteristic, arguments that women’s reason was inferior to men’s may have been taken to imply that women were less morally
valuable than men, closer to animals and further from God. Certainly, such
claims provided a strong rationale for women’s political subordination,
since they entailed that women’s moral judgment was less reliable than
Explicit claims that women are inferior to men are not unknown today,
but they have become much less acceptable. The lesser regard for women’s
interests has also become less overt, but it has not yet disappeared from
Western moral philosophy. One reason for its continuation, ironically, may
be an “official” commitment to sex equality, which is often taken to require
a denial of differences between men and women. Contemporary moral
philosophy often conceptualizes humans on a level of abstraction so high
that many morally salient differences become invisible. These differences
include, though they are not limited to, gender differences.
As feminists use the term, “gender” refers to the varying norms of
masculinity and femininity that, in all known societies, regulate what
biological males and females, respectively, are expected or permitted to
do. Because gender norms situate men and women differently, assigning
them systematically different privileges and responsibilities, social practices and policies that are formally gender neutral may have results that in
practice favor one sex disproportionately over the other. Usually, the
favored sex is male and the disadvantaged sex is female. For instance,
women may well suffer more than men from war, even though men constitute most of the combatants. Women’s share of the suffering has increased
over the twentieth century, as injuries and deaths among civilians have
come to far outnumber injuries and deaths among combatants; moreover,
even women who are not injured or killed directly by war often are
displaced and become refugees. Even in times of so-called peace, women
suffer disproportionately from the allocation of tax money to military
expenditures rather than to social services and benefit least from job
opportunities in the military and related industries. Another example of
policies that are formally gender neutral but practically gender biased is
provided by the economic policies of “structural adjustment” imposed on
© Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 Meta Vol 31 no 5 9/11/00 7:57 am Page 455 ETHICS NATURALIZED 455 debtor countries by international lending institutions. These also have a
disproportionately adverse impact on women, because women’s socially
assigned responsibilities for childrearing make them especially reliant on
the state’s welfare functions.
Yet a third reason for the lack of concern for women’s interests shown
by the Western ethical tradition is that this tradition has often defined
issues with special salience for women as falling outside the domain of
morality proper. The Western tradition’s exclusion of these issues has been
linked with the ways in which it has distinguished between those human
activities properly regarded as public and those properly considered
private. Different philosophers have drawn the public/private distinction in
varying places and according to varying criteria, but the distinction has
always had gendered connotations. Often, women have been excluded in
law or in practice from the public realm and confined to the private, but
even when this has no longer been the case, the public realm has continued to be associated symbolically with the masculine, and the private with
the feminine. Leading liberal philosophers, such as John Rawls and Jürgen
Habermas, have argued that objective moral judgments are possible only
in the public domain, which they regard as regulated by principles of right,
specifically justice. The assignment to the private realm of many issues
that especially concern women has had the effect of relegating these issues
to the domain of personal or subjective morality, even though they have
extremely significant consequences for women’s lives. Such issues include
the domestic division of labor, media representations of gender, and
matters of self-presentation, including body image and fashion.
Adding Women (and Gender) and Stirring Several obvious remedies are implied by the above diagnoses of masculine
bias in Western ethics, and a number of feminist moral philosophers have
sought to apply them. For instance, feminists have responded to the traditional Western disparagement of women’s moral agency by arguing that
women are just as capable of moral rationality and autonomy as men. They
have insisted that so long as the social situations of men and women differ
systematically, gender is an indispensable category of moral analysis, and
they have expanded the domain of moral philosophy to include a range of
previously neglected topics. Inspired by the 1960s feminist slogan “the
personal is political,” they have criticized traditional ways of drawing the
public/private distinction, and they have argued that principles of justice
should be applied to arenas traditionally conceptualized as private, such as
Some feminists are satisfied that these philosophical moves are sufficient to eliminate the masculine bias of the Western ethical tradition, but
others contend that they leave the deepest forms of this bias untouched.
The latter feminists observe, for instance, that an insistence on women’s
capacity to “think like men” may devalue forms of moral thinking
© Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 Meta Vol 31 no 5 456 9/11/00 7:57 am Page 456 ALISON M. JAGGAR culturally characterized as feminine. Similarly, a preoccupation with
justice in personal relationships may overlook the equal or greater importance of other moral values that have been associated symbolically with
the feminine, just as an emphasis on women’s rights may disregard dimensions of morality that cannot be comprehended in terms of rights.
Reclaiming the Culturally Feminine One way in which some feminists have sought to undermine the deeper
masculine biases that they perceive as infecting Western moral philosophy
has been by emphasizing the importance of aspects of morality traditionally deprecated as feminine. Much feminist work on the questions of moral
subjectivity and the supposed primacy of justice has highlighted these
aspects. For instance, rather than insisting on women’s capacity for autonomy, some feminists have charged that Kantian conceptions of autonomy
as an “inner citadel” are empirically misleading and morally undesirable;
they have proposed that the norm of the autonomous subject, who is
impartial in weighing the interests of each person, including himself,
should be replaced by the norm of the relational subject, who sees her own
interests as inseparable from those of others. Similarly, some feminists
have proposed that the preeminence assigned to the supposedly individualistic value of justice should be reassigned to more communal values such
as care, responsibility, interdependence, and trust. In the same vein, noting
that men’s power over women has often been rationalized by appeals to
such rights as privacy, freedom of expression, and cultural autonomy,
some feminists have rejected rights as expressive of an inherently adversarial approach to morality.
Not all feminist philosophers are in sympathy with attempts to reclaim
the culturally feminine in ethics. Such attempts have been valuable in
revealing some of the fundamental assumptions of much of Western ethics,
but they have inevitably also carried their own difficulties, many of which
have been noted by other feminists. Some feminists, for instance, have
questioned how the relational self can be autonomous. Others have
charged that the ethics of care is insufficiently suspicious of the classically
feminine moral failing of self-sacrifice or too open to invidious partiality.
Some have also questioned how care thinking can comprehend social
structures of privilege as well as individual behavior or address social,
even global, problems involving large numbers of people who could never
be known personally by any single agent. These sorts of difficulties have
motivated many feminist moral philosophers to seek ways of combining
the insights of both the “masculine” and “feminine” aspects of the Western tradition in ethics.
Reinterpreting Western Ethics Rather than completely jettisoning many central concepts of the Western
ethical tradition, some recent feminist work proposes drawing on women’s
© Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 Meta Vol 31 no 5 9/11/00 7:57 am Page 457 ETHICS NATURALIZED 457 gender-specific experiences and practices, as well as on the culturally
feminine, to develop new interpretations of these concepts. For instance,
some have suggested that autonomy no longer be construed as a natural
property possessed by all normal adults and that it be recognized instead
as a potential realizable only through certain kinds of upbringing and in
certain kinds of communities. Similarly, women’s experiences have been
used as a resource for identifying covert male biases lurking in existing
conceptions of human rights and have influenced feminist revisions of
those conceptions. For instance, women’s experiences of domestic abuse
have revealed that violations of rights frequently occur in the private rather
than the public sphere and may be perpetrated by nonstate rather than state
actors, even by family members. The continuation of women’s subordination, even in states whose constitutions are egalitarian, has demonstrated
that fully protecting the human rights of women (and children) requires
changing not only constitutions and laws but also economic systems and
cultural practices. We shall shortly see how women’s practices of morality
have been used as a resource for rethinking moral rationality.
Feminist Naturalism in Ethics The foregoing brief survey reveals that Western feminist ethics includes
considerable diversity. Within this diversity, however, a certain consistency of approach may be discerned. This consistency is expressed as a
distinctively feminist version of naturalism, rooted in feminists’ concern
about contingent inequalities of gender.
“Naturalism” has been used to mean many things in Western philosophy, some of them inconsistent with each other. Here I employ the term in
a sense similar to that which it has acquired in the contemporary tradition
of naturalized epistemology and philosophy of science stemming from the
work of T. S. Kuhn (1962) and W. V. O. Quine (1969). This tradition abandons the idea of a first philosophy that lays the foundations for other disciplines; instead, it regards epistemology and the philosophy of science as
continuous with empirical studies of scientific practice. Naturalism in this
sense denies the existence of a pure realm of reason, to be studied by methods that are distinctively philosophical. Instead, it advocates multidisciplinary approaches to understanding human knowledge, utilizing the findings
and methods of a range of disciplines with special reliance on the empirical sciences.
Naturalizing ethics requires that the development of ethical concepts,
ideals, and prescriptions should occur in collaboration with empirical
disciplines such as psychology, economics, and the social sciences.
However, the Western tradition in ethics has generally tended to eschew
naturalism in this sense and has even been hostile to it. Most of the dominant voices in Western ethics have sought to transcend the changing world
of the senses and the contingencies of historical situations by pursuing
© Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 Meta Vol 31 no 5 458 9/11/00 7:57 am Page 458 ALISON M. JAGGAR timeless and universal moral truths through practices of moral reason that
also have been conceptualized as timeless and universal. Feminist ethics,
by contrast, is inhospitable to such idealized portrayals of moral philosophy. Feminist observations of persistent male biases in Western ethics
render quite implausible the conception of moral philosophy as an eternal
conversation among minds whose greatness raises them far above the prejudices of their particular times and places. Instead, these observations
encourage a naturalistic view of philosophy as a culturally specific set of
texts and practices produced by individuals inhabiting particular social
locations and laden with historically particular preoccupations and preconceptions. Since most of these individuals have been relatively privileged
men in male-dominant societies, feminists consider that it is only common
sense to subject their texts and practices to careful scrutiny.
Feminist moral philosophers have investigated how the canon of moral
philosophy has been established, whose interests and authority it has
promoted, inadvertently or otherwise, and especially how it may have
discredited women and the feminine. They have explored the implications,
including the “non-logical implications” (Calhoun 1988), of Western
moral philosophy’s central concepts, ideals, and assumptions for the lives
of women and men, especially less privileged women and men. In other
words, they have examined the mainstream tradition of Western ethics
through the naturalistic lens of gender. This lens is ground on the data
provided by such sciences as biology, medicine, sociology, economics,
psychology, and development studies, and its proper use requires the
simultaneous employment of additional lenses, such as those of class, race,
and nationality. Feminist philosophers have utilized the data provided by
empirical disciplines with some caution, since many regard contemporary
science as a cultural product that itself is infected by male bias. However,
feminism’s defining concern with gender inequality has encouraged feminist philosophers to approach moral philosophy using methods that are
naturalized in the sense of being openly multidisciplinary and informed by
empirical knowledge, rather than rationalist or idealist in the sense of
purporting to appeal to reason alone.
The naturalistic element of feminist naturalism is expressed in its
concern for empirical adequacy in general, but its feminist aspect lies in
the special focus of that concern. Because of its resistance to the devaluation of women and the feminine, feminist naturalism seeks moral understandings that reveal rather than obscure empirical inequalities related to
gender. This concern tends to make feminist philosophers distrustful of
approaches to ethics that are exclusively rationalist. For instance, few
feminists reach their conclusions about abortion solely by deducing them
from abstract or general analyses of concepts such as those of a human
being or a right to life; instead, feminists are likely also to take into
account the life prospects available for women and children in societies in
which women are the primary parents, in which few social supports for
© Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 Meta Vol 31 no 5 9/11/00 7:57 am Page 459 ETHICS NATURALIZED 459 parents are provided, and in which women’s pay is much less than men’s
(Jaggar 1997). Similarly, in considering whether or not voluntary euthanasia should be legalized, feminists are unlikely to rely exclusively on
abstract analyses of patient autonomy; they are likely to consider also the
pressures to which elderly women may be subjected if voluntary euthanasia is legalized in a social context where health care costs are enormous
and where women are viewed as the natural providers, rather than the
recipients, of nursing and personal care.
The naturalistic character of feminist ethics does not mean that it rejects
all idealization; after all, every theoretical enterprise engages in some form
of idealization insofar as it relies on abstract conceptual models. As we
have seen, feminist ethics is concerned primarily with eschewing idealizations of a particular kind, namely, those that obscure or rationalize
gendered inequalities. For instance, many feminist philosophers have criticized simplistic and indeed romanticized conceptions of family and
community that gloss over such characteristics of real families and
communities as the perennial conflicts of interest and inequalities of power
among their members (Okin 1989; Phelan 1996; Tessman 1995; Young
1990). Until moral concepts such as these are interpreted in ways which
are less idealized and more naturalistic, moral philosophy will conceal and
so rationalize important aspects of women’s subordination.
Moral Epistemology Naturalized – and Made Feminist Feminist work on moral rationality illustrates how moral epistemology
may be simultaneously feminist and naturalized.2 Feminist critiques of
traditional conceptions of moral rationality are often thought to have originated in the work of Carol Gilligan, a psychologist rather than a philosopher, and feminist conceptions of moral reason are still sometimes equated
with the ethic of care that Gilligan believed she had uncovered. Although
both of these beliefs are mistaken, Gilligan’s work certainly encouraged
the development of feminist naturalism in moral epistemology.
As is now well known, Gilligan (1982) claimed that her female subjects
tended to speak in a moral voice different from that used by most male
subjects, whose moral thinking had been taken as normative in much
previous moral psychology. Gilligan believed that she had identified two
distinct moral perspectives: the justice perspective, which men supposedly
preferred and which was canonized in Western moral philosophy, and the
care perspective, which women supposedly preferred but which Western
moral psychology and philosophy branded as less rational. Many readers
took Gilligan’s work as providing a clear empirical sense in which the
form of reasoning taken as normative in moral psychology and philosophy
was male biased insofar as it represented only the thinking of male
2 For a fuller discussion of this theme, see Margaret Walker (forthcoming). © Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 Meta Vol 31 no 5 460 9/11/00 7:57 am Page 460 ALISON M. JAGGAR subjects. In fact, Gilligan’s achievement was as much interpretive and
evaluative as empirical, even though she appealed to the words of real
women and girls. She heard her female subjects saying much the same
things that mainstream psychologists had heard them saying, but she interpreted and valued their words differently. Some of Gilligan’s own empirical claims were questionable on a number of grounds: her interpretations
of her subjects’ statements were contestable and she derived very general
conclusions about women from a sample that was highly unrepresentative.
Equally dubious was her assignment of the so-called justice voice to men
generally; some later investigators found that many men as well as
women employed care thinking, especially lower-class men and men of
Even though many of her own empirical claims were suspect, Gilligan’s
work was enormously influential in encouraging feminists to naturalize
their approaches to moral epistemology. It accomplished this partly by
stimulating philosophical debates in which it became customary to appeal
to empirical claims in psychology, thus undermining the idea that moral
rationality could be discovered or defined by reason alone. In Gilligan’s
wake, a number of feminist philosophers were inspired to develop alternative conceptions of moral rationality based on what they took to be the
moral thinking of real women (Held 1993; Hoagland 1988; Noddings
1984; Ruddick 1989). Some feminist moral philosophers today are investigating cognitive studies – though with more suspicion about the field’s
treatment of gender than nonfeminists characteristically display (Rooney
1995 and forthcoming).
We have already seen that feminist moral philosophy regularly criticizes mainstream interpretations of moral concepts on the grounds that
they are empirically inadequate in ways that obscure or rationalize
women’s subordination. Feminist naturalist criticisms of dominant
conceptions of moral rationality are likewise characterized by contentions
that these conceptions are empirically inadequate in ways that discredit
women’s capacity for moral reasoning. This characteristically feminist
form of naturalized moral epistemology is evident in feminist challenges
to the traditional Western opposition between reason and emotion. Feminists certainly are not the only philosophers who now argue that emotions
are integral to good moral thinking, but feminist approaches are distinguished by their interest in the ways in which the reason/emotion
dichotomy is symbolically gendered – as well as associated symbolically
with racial and class divisions. Their work is not only naturalistic in pointing to emotional elements in empirical practices of moral reasoning; it is
also feminist because it looks at the political implications of contingently
Hence Lawrence Blum (1982) argued that justice ethics expressed a juridical-administrative perspective that indeed was masculine but which reflected the concerns, not of all
men, but specifically of men in the professional and administrative classes. © Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 Meta Vol 31 no 5 9/11/00 7:57 am Page 461 ETHICS NATURALIZED 461 gendered cultural symbol systems and investigates the political functions
that moral rationalism has fulfilled when it has discredited the moral
competence of social groups stigmatized as more emotional. In the West,
these have notably included the “lower” races and classes and, of course,
women (Spelman 1989; Jaggar 1989; Meyers 1997).
Similar patterns of argument appear in feminist critiques of many Western conceptions of moral agency and autonomy. These too are both naturalist in challenging the empirical adequacy of mainstream conceptions
and feminist in exploring their political implications for women. For
instance, Kathryn Pyne Addelson argues that twentieth-century moral
philosophy’s insistence that moral subjects should choose a rational lifeplan idealizes the capacities and “individualist planning ethics” of middleor upper-class people in capitalist societies. Addelson notes that such
people are predominantly though not exclusively white (Addelson 1994).
Building on Addelson’s work, Margaret Walker observes that not only
liberal philosophers but also such prominent critics of liberalism as
Bernard Williams (1981) and Charles Taylor (1989) assert that concern
with the shape of one’s life “as a whole” is the mark of a morally rational
individual. Walker dubs this model of rational moral agency the ideal of
the “career self.” Attaining it, she notes, requires not only a kind of reflective self-monitoring that is a characteristically modern ideal, but also the
availability of material and social life chances that in fact are open only to
a relatively privileged few. Thus, Walker writes, “[T]he autonomous
person is clearly a dominant identity, an idealized picture of an exemplary
person in a certain kind of society, a norm that no one fulfills all along for
the long haul, and many never come close to fulfilling at all” (1998, 151).
As Walker has observed, Western moral philosophy has tended to
conceptualize moral rationality in highly idealized terms that are far
removed from daily life and thought. It has invoked ideals of rationality,
universality, impersonality, detachment, dispassion, neutrality, and transcendence, and it has aspired to evaluate actions and practices from a
postulated “moral point of view” often explicated metaphorically in terms
such as a god’s-eye view, the perspective of an ideal observer or an
archangel, an Archimedean point, or a view from nowhere. In order to
attain this moral point of view, Western philosophers have recommended
intellectual strategies such as envisioning the Form of the Good, appealing
to divine commands or natural laws, invoking the categorical imperative
or ineffable intuitions, inquiring into the logic of moral language, thinking
like an archangel or behind a veil of ignorance, and discoursing in ideal
speech situations (Walker 1999).
Many of these recommendations have required that moral agents put
themselves in the places of others or reverse perspectives with them, and
several feminists have challenged such prescriptions on the grounds that
they not only misrepresent empirical processes of moral thinking but are
also epistemically incoherent, mystifying, and indeed authoritarian (Jaggar
© Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 Meta Vol 31 no 5 462 9/11/00 7:57 am Page 462 ALISON M. JAGGAR 2000). Any method of moral reasoning that requires moral agents to think
from others’ perspectives is impossible in principle, because individuals’
perceptions, values, and modes of reasoning, their understanding of their
own and others’ needs and interests, even their constructions of moral situations, vary both individually and systematically according to their particular social experiences and locations. Although such thought experiments
may have rough-and-ready heuristic value, they cannot enable anyone, not
even a philosopher, to attain a universal moral standpoint that entirely transcends the particularities of his or her socially located perspective. Pretensions to think from all perspectives are no more than disingenuous
rhetorical devices that philosophers utilize to claim unwarranted false
authority for their own opinions.
The dominant ideal of moral rationality as transcending all empirical
points of view stands in stark opposition to naturalized approaches that
regard moral philosophy as a situated discourse. Because the traditional
ideal refuses to acknowledge that individuals’ moral understandings are
influenced by their varying social identities and positions, it denies the
philosophical relevance of investigations into the ways in which the
central concepts, ideals, and methods of the Western ethical tradition have
been affected by the gender, ethnic, and economic status of its most prominent interpreters. Margaret Walker observes that, from “the” moral point of
view, the fact that Western philosophical ethics has until just recently been
almost entirely a product of some men’s – and almost no women’s – thinking is a matter of only historical, not philosophical, interest (Walker 1998).
In contemporary moral epistemology, the ideal of point-of-viewlessness
discourages exploring ways in which dominant conceptions of moral rationality and justification are shaped by the social identities of philosophers
who find it natural to speak of “rationality wars” and “the gladiator theory
of truth.” By discrediting such explorations, Walker notes, this ideal insulates itself from any critical examination of its own social origins or functions. It denies that any philosophical significance attaches to the fact that
relatively few persons have ever been sanctioned to define moral knowledge and so conceals the fact that Western ethics has functioned as a practice of authority that has often rationalized masculine privilege.
By taking an approach to moral epistemology that is simultaneously
feminist and naturalist, contemporary feminists have revealed that traditional Western conceptions of the moral point of view are problematic in
several respects. They have charged that its purportedly universal standpoint
in fact reflects a culturally specific juridical-administrative perspective that
many regard as distinctively modern, Western, bourgeois, and masculine.
They have shown that its supposedly universal principles have been biased
systematically against women and members of other subordinated groups.
They have argued that its pretensions to transcendence have been used to
deflect criticism, to discredit alternative perspectives and ways of thinking,
and to rationalize professional philosophers’ claims to moral authority.
© Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 Meta Vol 31 no 5 9/11/00 7:57 am Page 463 ETHICS NATURALIZED 463 Feminist moral epistemology is more than simply a set of negative
critiques. Despite persistent misrepresentations of feminism as antirational, the naturalistic challenges that feminists have posed to ethical rationalism do not constitute a rejection of moral reason; instead, they seek
rather to reinterpret moral reason in light of empirical investigation into the
practices of real moral agents, including women. As naturalists, feminists
have typically begun from the empirical recognition that the insights of
moral agents are always conditioned by their particular social experiences
and locations. Because all agents are limited and fallible, feminists generally conceptualize moral rationality as a process that is collaborative rather
than individual and its conclusions as partial, situated, and provisional
rather than universal or absolute (Jaggar 2000).
Many of the alternative models of moral rationality proffered by feminists assert the necessity of empirical conversation. This idea certainly is
not exclusively feminist, but feminist work on this topic is distinguished
by its rejection of highly idealized models of discourse and its determination to inquire into the empirical conditions of real discourses. Feminist
moral philosophers thus explore conspicuously nonideal speech situations
marked inevitably by misunderstanding, uncertainty, unreason, and
inequality, recognizing explicitly that dialogues do not occur in some timeless domain but instead are historical events that have real-life precursors
and consequences. My own current work looks at grassroots feminist
discussions of empirical moral dialogue in an effort to identify norms of
discursive practice that may increase the reliability of dialogues whose
participants inevitably differ in knowledge, culture, and power (Jaggar
forthcoming). Like much other contemporary feminist work, it links
improved moral objectivity with increased openness, awareness of power,
Justifying Feminist Naturalism in Ethics Characterizing contemporary feminist ethics as naturalistic should not be
misunderstood as claiming that the meanings of moral concepts can be
analyzed without remainder in observational terms; it asserts only that
moral philosophy must be continuous with empirical studies of moral
practice. Nor should it be taken as implying an ontological commitment to
natural kinds, especially in the social world; on the contrary, indeed, feminist philosophers regularly challenge “essentialist” assumptions that categories such as those of man and woman identify types of beings that exist
independently of specific conceptualizations. Because most feminist moral
philosophers reject essentialism, they also tend to reject moral realism,
interpreted in the objectivist sense of postulating a determinate and mindindependent moral reality.4 However, feminists’ rejection of realism in this
4 A notable exception is Campbell 1998. © Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 Meta Vol 31 no 5 464 9/11/00 7:57 am Page 464 ALISON M. JAGGAR objectivist sense does not entail their acceptance of moral relativism,
which would be incompatible with feminism’s defining commitment to
opposing male dominance; instead, feminists often accept some sort of
“internal realism,” in which moral truth is conceived as not only discovered but also constructed. Finally, feminists’ naturalistic interest in
women’s moral lives and thought does not reduce feminist moral epistemology simply to describing what actual women do or how they think, any
more than naturalized philosophy of science is limited simply to describing what actual scientists do or how they think. Feminist moral philosophers recognize that women make mistakes, just like scientists – and even
women scientists! Therefore, just as naturalized philosophy of science
evaluates which practices of inquiry constitute good scientific method, so
naturalized moral philosophy engages in normative assessment of
women’s empirical practices of morality. Feminist moral epistemology
should not be equated with feminine moral epistemology.
In assuming that attention to real-life practices of moral inquiry is indispensable to determining which practices best enable the production of reliable moral claims, we have seen that feminist moral epistemology is
naturalized in the same sense as epistemology that is neither moral nor
feminist: that is to say, it investigates the methodological norms explicit or
implicit in our best practices of inquiry, in this case, moral inquiry. Like all
those who employ naturalized approaches, practitioners of feminist moral
naturalism must know who “we” are and must have at least some idea of
what are “our” best practices of inquiry. Mainstream practitioners of naturalized epistemology and the philosophy of science have not doubted that
they speak for Western culture, perhaps even for all of humanity, and they
have often taken it for granted that humanity’s best knowledge practices are
embodied in Western science, which one philosopher has called a “shining
example” of knowledge. Contemporary feminists have learned to be more
modest in their use of “we,” and they see no self-evident answer to the
question of what are “our” best practices of moral inquiry. Specifically, as
critics of much conventional morality, feminists cannot assume that the best
available practices of moral inquiry are identical with those that are socially
dominant. Some Western feminist philosophers may have assumed in the
past that “we” referred to “all women” and that “our” best practices of
moral inquiry were those defined culturally as “feminine,” but women and
the culturally feminine are so diverse that this assumption is clearly untenable. Simple consistency requires feminists engaged in naturalized moral
epistemology to assume that their best practices of moral inquiry are, or at
least include, those that characterize feminist moral thinking.
The procedure of using existing feminist practices to identify good
feminist methods may appear question begging, self-serving, and viciously
circular, but there is no alternative to it. As Quine observed long ago, there
is no place outside the physical world where we can stand to assess our
knowledge of that world; nor is there any place outside the moral world
© Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 Meta Vol 31 no 5 9/11/00 7:57 am Page 465 ETHICS NATURALIZED 465 where we can stand to assess our moral thinking. All naturalized epistemology is forced to operate within a circle of what its practitioners take to
be their best methods and conclusions, continuously reevaluating each in
the light of the others. We are always in the position of Neurath’s mariners,
forced to rebuild our boats while still afloat. The feminist naturalist circle
would be vicious or question begging only if it were assumed that all feminist work was good work or if contestible elements within the circle were
held immune to revision. Feminists are certainly unwilling to concede that
the subordination of women may ever be morally justified, and this core
claim has a status something like that of an analytic statement in the feminist “web of belief.” Apart from this minimal moral conviction, however,
feminism’s views about the processes, methods, and conclusions of good
moral thinking are sufficiently varied, contested, and negotiable that each
can provide a useful check on the others.
Feminist naturalized moral epistemology regards the methodological
guidelines designed to maximize moral rationality as contingent rather
than necessary, acceptable only after being tested in the real world. But to
which tests should those guidelines be subjected? Quine thought that
methodological precepts should be accepted if they were useful in producing reliable knowledge, but such an instrumental test is insufficiently stringent for feminism. Pragmatic usefulness in enabling the production of
reliable moral claims is certainly a necessary condition for accepting
norms of moral reasoning, but a distinctively feminist naturalism requires
in addition that methodological precepts accord with feminist moral principles. Indeed, this requirement is not limited to feminist conceptions of
moral rationality; it should also constrain feminist norms of scientific
Making explicit the implicit naturalism of feminist ethics helps to reveal
the parallels and continuities between conceptions of reason and objectivity in feminist moral philosophy and feminist philosophy of science,
respectively. However, because both feminist ethics and feminist philosophy of science are undertaken in the context of a philosophical tradition
that has often asserted the value-neutrality of science and the autonomy of
morality, each enterprise requires a different emphasis. Whereas feminist
philosophers of science frequently find it necessary to insist that practices
of scientific investigation are more reliable if they are explicit about the
values embedded in them, feminist moral philosophers find it necessary to
emphasize that moral reasoning cannot be morally adequate if it is not
The naturalism of feminist ethics has often been flawed in practice.
Feminist moral philosophers have often overgeneralized or speculated
about women, men, and philosophy. We have projected our own fears or
aspirations onto them, caricatured or romanticized them – though I like to
think that we have also done our best to correct these faults when they have
been pointed out. In making such mistakes, feminists have erred in exactly
© Metaphilosophy LLC and Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2000 Meta Vol 31 no 5 9/11/00 7:57 am 466 Page 466 ALISON M. JAGGAR the same ways as the mainstream moral philosophers whom we have criticized for making faulty and biased generalizations about men, women,
and philosophy. Philosophers seem particularly susceptible to such failures: those who are better acquainted than I am with the philosophy of
science literature have told me that in practice much self-styled naturalized
philosophy of science is also often more programmatic than empirical.
Although such errors are inevitable, the strength of feminist naturalism is
that it provides a method for identifying and correcting them. We have
seen that a naturalized approach to moral epistemology requires Western
ethics to abandon its traditional aspirations to taking a god’s-eye view,
adopting the perspective of an ideal observer or an archangel, thinking
from an Archimedean point, or constructing a view from nowhere. When
moral epistemology is feminist as well as naturalist, however, it ironically
enables Western ethics to come closer than ever before to achieving this
ancient aspiration, because it shows why the socially constituted moral
perspectives of many more, and more diverse, moral agents must be
included within moral philosophy.
Department of Philosophy
University of Colorado at Boulder
Campus Box 232
Boulder, CO 80309-0232
Acknowledgments An earlier version of this paper, with the title “Feminism and Moral Philosophy,” appeared in the American Philosophical Association Newsletter on
Feminism and Philosophy, 99/2 (spring 2000), 186–90.
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