Women’s Wisdom and Moral Philosophy

Some of the best female thinkers of the past century drew attention to the absence of some commonly found practices, beliefs, and values from the theories that were prevalent in academia, institutions and the culture writ large.

As philosophy aspires to a comprehensive take on the world, reflects contemporary culture and consciously tries to change it, the developments of the last century are worth looking at in greater detail.

Why? The competing intellectual frameworks that are used to understand morality mirror the array of perspectives that different groups in our own time bring to bear on the world.

Consequences and Principles

Modern moral philosophy has been dominated by two theoretical approaches that aim to understand – what morality is (meta-ethics), what standards we should apply to solve practical issues (normative ethics), and how this works itself out in specific cases (applied ethics).

Consequentialist theories claim that the moral value of an action depends upon how much good is generated as a result for the greatest number of people. Here, good is understood as some type of psychological pleasure, often referred to colloquially as happiness.

Deontological (or duty-based) ethics claim that morality consists in adhering to principles that are right/wrong or good/bad independent of the consequences they may sometimes engender. Having good intentions based on the right reasons Here, ensuring that one’s reasons are disinterested (not selfish, or the product of desire) makes an action the right thing to do.

Modern forms of this tend to be rooted in an idea that human beings have a kind of inherent dignity. Unlike explicitly theistic ethics, which long ago rooted dignity in the concept of imago dei (made in the image of God), this dignity is based on something like the capacity for autonomous decision-making.

These schools of thought have produced formulas and methods, the most famous of which are John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, and Immanuel Kant’s duty-based ethics.

Mill’s Utilitarianism

Mill has two principles that are meant to go together. One is the principle of utility, the other the principle of liberty.

The former is that actions are right insofar as they promote pleasure and not pain. The goal of ethics is to engage in actions that maximize this for as many people as possible, while abiding by some other rules that are conducive to the enterprise, even necessary for it.

The most important of which is the Principle of Liberty, which is that “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”. This establishes a sphere of freedom for the individual, within which they can operate. Harm has a somewhat vague definition, but it is principally physical injury or language that directly incites it.

Kant’s Deontology

Kant’s categorical imperative has a number of formulations, the most famous of which is the following: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law“.

An introduction to Kant’s system

He has a very impressive architectonic theory behind all of this. It hinges upon the insistence that morality be thought of along the lines of the then-emergent Newtonian science and the new mechanistic understanding of the universe as being governed by immutable laws, defined with mathematical precision. For Kant, autonomy became central, as only through it might a person understand and act in concert with the true, law-like regularity of the world.

For Kant, a good deal hinges upon motivations. The reasons for acting had to be right, so it was crucial that the will be influenced accordingly. He argued that if the will were determined by desires, then the action could not be free. After all, desires point people toward the contingent and ephemeral, and only reason can access the laws of nature – those of physics and morality alike. If the will acts in accordance with reason, then it is not being compelled.

Modern philosophy – exemplified by Kant and Mill – was enabled by the Cartesian revolution and its insistence that the focus of serious thinking be put on the relationship between the subject (person) and the objects known. The human person was now centre stage, beginning and end of knowledge, and that around which all seemed to turn.

The definition of narcissism? Some would argue yes. Indeed, the attempt to self-determine is seen as one of the defining characteristics of the modern person. The person is judge, jury, and executioner in the practice of evaluating the standards that they abide by. Nobody can tell you otherwise – you just do you.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know why I ever thought either of these views were attractive. Both are hyper-rational concoctions with a sterile anthropology at the core of them.

What a dreary business this moral philosophy is if it turns out that it requires the internalized application of some kind of formula.

And it is not just moral philosophy to which this kind of thinking is confined. You likely recognize it yourselves.

Homo-economicus – a personality we all find ourselves adopting from time to time lives and breathes utilitarian thinking. She is a pleasure seeking utility maximizer, identifying the most effective and efficient ways of bringing about the things she wants. In this frame of mind, everything is seen as an instrument to be utilized in the pursuit of something that is supposed to be the holder of value at the end of the tunnel. Under this mindset, the prize at the end of any chain of action is an experience with no contours to it. A flatness revealed by the refined terms often used to describe it – ‘awesome’, ‘fun’, ‘amazing’, ‘exciting’, or ‘excellent’.

Not to put down these terms by any means, but they clearly have common properties – they refer to psychological states of heightened pleasure that make no necessary reference to anything shared, or anything of worth that is not merely a state of mind.

They can and do also refer to these things, but the context in which they are commonly expressed suggests a frame of mind characteristic of a lifestyle built on consequentialist thinking. It is one in which psychological states are thought of as the great good, and the goal is to maximize them. The person with great self-worth is someone who maximizes their positive psychological states of mind through the accumulation of experiences that indicate this. This signifies that the person has become a master self-determiner, and thus a successful modern person.

It is harder to see a clear influence of Kantian deontology, but it shows up most clearly in how we think about the value of our own actions individually, and the whole of a person’s life to which they belong. We tend to think something along the lines of: ‘if it has been the result of an autonomous choice, then it must be good, since, autonomous choice is what defines the inherent dignity of a person’.

Here, we have the same problem of judge, jury, and executioner, or legislative, judicial, and executive branch all wrapped up into one subjective navel-gazing consciousness, beholden to no other, insulated in a silo of self-understanding, appreciation and determination.

The good is whatever I say that it is, because I have declared it to be so. You can convince yourself and others that your life is made up of actions that you have made self-consciously, and deliberately, according to this principle of sincere and earnest belief in yourself, and that the actions that you take are good. What more is there to ask?

Lest I start to sound too much like Screwtape, let’s hear what much wiser women have said on the matter of modern moral philosophy.

Coming back down to Reality

A great many female philosophers found these ways of seeing things, and a good many other trends in intellectual and public life to be rather incomplete to say the least.

Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillippa Foot, Iris Murdoch and Mary Midgley were all rough contemporaries on the British scene at Oxford and Cambridge during the mid-20th century.

Midgley on a favourite subject – the concept of the self

G.E.M. Anscombe entered the world of British philosophy during an exciting time, when the eccentric Ludwig Wittgenstein was beginning to overturn some of the assumptions of the logical positivists. They held to the verification principle – only statements verifiable through direct observation or logical proof are meaningful.

She learned a more nuanced understanding of language, logic and observation from Wittgenstein, and applied a unique combination of analytical rigour and reflective thinking about broader questions with wit and wisdom.

Working within what to outsiders may seem like the narrow confines of language-obsessed analytic philosophy, her most well-known achievement was to show that the intention to act is not required in order to act intentionally. This is something that is often assumed as being necessary for elaborating a causal account of agency based on conscious belief.

Anscombe showed that this need not be the case. We can reveal a person’s intentions for action by finding her capacity to give reasons for having acted in such and such a way. In doing so, it is clear that only some of the results of the action are subject to evaluation, and not some unintended side effects. This helps for clarifying issues pertaining to the relationship between motivation and action.

The usefulness of such a distinction is in curbing the tendency among arch-rationalists to demonstrate that people are really incapable of acting intentionally because they do not actually think about them. The other charge is that it is always some other hidden motivation – pick your favourite psychoanalytic, or psychological approach; desire, instrumental purposes, genes, you name it.

They are fond of saying something like ‘since it can never be shown that a person has had even half of the prerequisite conscious thoughts required for the formulation of a plan, then they could not have acted freely, or even intentionally’.

Her clever arguments show that this is all a bit of verbal gymnastics that gets around some simple solutions that we all know intuitively. She notes that the above claim has the hold that it does because it refuses to be precise about the way in which we use terms. From the confines of a mind in the grips of strict, no-nonsense thinking about causes and their effects, and ‘quantifiable’ entities, it does seem like we have a simple thing in mind when we think about action and agency.

Clearly, if it is the case that we don’t in fact have such a simple framework for making decisions and for attributing agency to a person, then at the very least you can’t knock the idea down with such ease.

Anscombe deployed her analytical toolkit in similar fashion to bring those all-encompassing theory-seeking men of Oxford and Cambridge down to earth – to the real world where theory and practice exist in a common sense harmony for most of the time.

Her contemporary Philippa Foot swam in some of the same circles. Much of her writing was consciously engaged with ‘Ethical Naturalism’. Views under this umbrella assumed that the moral judgments undergirding our beliefs are essentially private appraisals that have no discernible rational content. They are simply ‘pro’ and ‘con’ attitudes about an object of thought, rooted, of course, in some sort of subjective understanding. A ‘pro’ judgment must ultimately refer to a desirable emotional state – the judgment is of the type -is this good for me? or does it make me feel good, prideful, vindicated, etc.?

Foot showed that it is plain that this is not what moral judgments are about because our feelings change as the facts of the matter do.

If at first you feel that angry at someone for having forgotten an important event, your anger might quickly fade if you learned that you in fact had the date wrong, or that they had been misinformed, or were in an accident.

This doesn’t prove the converse – that moral judgments are rooted in facts about right and wrong, good and bad. The most obvious explanation is that these pieces of information are plainly relevant facts that play key roles in the rational assessment of the ethical contents of various circumstances. Moral judgments are not simply pro/con attitudes taken on the subject in question, but are deeply responsive to the facts of the matter.

Iris Murdoch discusses the relationship between Philosophy and Literature.

Iris Murdoch was the most famous outside of academic and intellectual circles for her literature, which earned her a great reputation and a number of prestigious awards. Her chief contribution in the domain of moral philosophy was to counter the dominant views of her contemporaries who insisted that the ‘inner life’ was completely irrelevant to moral questions.

A person who struggles with himself over his failure to break a certain habit, to chastise himself at repeated failures, engage in some positive self-talk to encourage renewed attempts is someone whose inner life is instrumental in a change in behaviour and of character in the long run. It is unthinkable to imagine a serious development that an individual undergoes that does not include reference to the inner life in some way or another.

We can plainly see that she and others have not won the battle. Though behaviourism has had better days as a theory, the practice of categorizing people and their ‘illnesses’ according to observable symptoms and prescribing treatments that are plainly in denial of the role of conscious thinking is an approach in full swing. It is perhaps the default assumption of many in the popular culture.

Virginia Held and Carol Gilligan were two prominent figures who separately developed the ‘Ethics of care’. On their view, much theorizing about ethics leaves out the role of care in the development of a person’s life, and its continued centrality in cultivating and maintaining relationships, built as they are on relations of reciprocal support.

Gilligan studied under Lawrence Kohlberg, a developmental psychologist who created a theory of moral development with distinctly Kantian overtones. Gilligan argued that Kohlberg’s studies were based on masculine thinking about morality and that women viewed moral situations rather differently.

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development was taken up by Jürgen Habermas to give credence to the view that morality could be fully explained in rational terms, without appealing to the emotions.

Though the specifics of her research and claims are contested and rejected by many, the general point is I think obviously true – men and women understand and weigh the primary concerns in a moral situation very differently.

For example, she pointed out that men liked to appeal to a rule, or principle when evaluating a situation and determining the course of action to be taken as a remedy. Women were much more likely to see the situation as a genuine dilemma, and were concerned to give weight to the experiences of all the parties involved, and the web of extended relationships that were affected by the issue.

Martha Nussbaum has worn many hats, first renewing interest in Aristotle by giving a well-reasoned account for the place of human vulnerability in an understanding of philosophy, developing a nuanced theory of the emotions, and a novel approach in political philosophy along with Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen.

Martha Nussbaum discusses her book
on Political theory and Development – Creating Capabilities

Many political philosophies start with concern for the avoidance of perennial problems like war and injustice, and seek to safeguard values such as freedom, order and peace. Their ‘Capabilities Approach’ shifts the focus to a normative conception of human flourishing that she and Sen think is sufficiently thin so as to be universal and apply to all cultures. They seek to enumerate those minimal preconditions that must be in place in order for someone to be able to pursue a good life.

A Common Theme

What is clearly a common theme among many female philosophers is an attention to detail – to the relationships that comprise every person’s life, the specific acts of kindness, care and generosity that are formative of character, and above all, to the complexity of all moral phenomena. This last point is perhaps the most important. Whereas quintessentially masculine ethics have been preoccupied with theoretical abstraction, formal logic, and rules and principles, the ethical traditions associated with the feminine have started from the assumption that every moral situation is a concrete one that seems by its very nature to preclude a simple formulaic application of a rule or procedure in order to resolve it.

This essential point seems to have never seeped its way far enough into the culture, in spite of a strong tradition of thought that has roots in Aristotle and Plato, was developed and Christianized by Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo, and – though you wouldn’t know it by talking with an economist – formed the basis of Adam Smith’s theory of ‘moral sentiments’. The latter undergirds the philosophy of political economy that has shaped the modern world as we know it.

After many years of back and forth, some neglected principles and ways of thinking have worked their way into more institutions and walks of life, which is undeniably a good thing.

There is a fundamental tension between the abstract and rule-based approach and the personal, particularized understanding of the complexities of every situation that cannot be easily resolved; nor should it.

I think it is important to recognize that they both clearly have a place. We will always be negotiating the balance between them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s