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To what extent, if any, do feminist ethics improve upon traditional ethical theories?

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To what extent, if any, do feminist ethics improve upon traditional ethical theories? Virginia Woolf wrote about medicine 'it would seem is not sexless; she is a man, a father, and infected too'(Woolf 1938).1 This in many ways sums a feminist approach, both to medicine, and to the wider spheres of life. A central view of feminism is that women are oppressed. The male-domination of society has left women 'systematically subordinated' by 'a system which is so familiar, so entrenched in our habits... that it is possible not to notice them at all'.2 Sherwin draws together the oppression of women with that of other groups, providing a broad interpretation of feminism as being a challenge to the domination of women, alongside other subjugated groups; the 'goal of feminism is to pursue the changes necessary to accomplish [change in society]'3 The questioned posed asks if the input of feminist ideas into medicine has improved on traditional ethical theories. A conclusion cannot be drawn without an understanding of some of the issues and theories within 'feminist ethics' and this is where this paper will start. Areas of overlap and argument can be can be identified, both between proponents of feminist ethics itself and between feminist ethics and traditional theories. These will be discussed before drawing together a conclusion as to the impact of feminist ethical ideas on the practice of 'medical ethics'. Feminist arguments in moral thinking are not a recent phenomenon; as long ago as the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft commented on a link between the perceived feminine virtues of docility and gentleness and the subjugation of the female sex.4 This was in response to the notions espoused by the notable intellectuals of the time(many of whom praised these same feminine virtues): that


within different moral domains.16 Feminist ethics can be characterised as aiming to direct ethical debate and action towards a model encompassing the 'different voices' of female experience. It challenges ideas of moral autonomy and guidance by the strict application of rules or principles, be they of Utilitarian or Deontological origin. Feminist ethics argues for the importance of context and narrative in deciding about the ethical dilemmas facing individuals, factors that Gilligan identified as being especially salient to women. It recognises that people are partial to those with whom they have a relationship whilst allowing for the fact that in some situations it is not always possible to act on that partiality. Real-life ethical dilemmas do not always fit neatly into the principles of rule-based philosophical theories and the context of a 'dilemma' can provide certain clues to their resolution. Proponents of feminist ethics such as those identified in the 'ethics of care' accept that understanding some degree of context is required in the application of traditional ethics. However, for example in Kantian theory, this is only to the extent that it allows the subsequent application of a principle that will be generalisable to all other similar circumstances. Thus the rules on truth-telling and maintaining a confidentiality will be consistent, once a maxim has been identified.17 In Utilitarian terms, the balancing of utilities for all those involved or affected by a set of circumstances, although context specific, do not allow for the fact that the relationships between the individuals involved will vary. No extra 'weight' or utility is given in respect of those partial relationships and so the resolution of a 'dilemma' can only be distorted.18 General criticisms of traditional theories as applied to medical ethics, from a feminist perspective focus around the negation of, or inadequate emphasis on, contexual relationships.


relational view of moral agents'.28 Baier views the best model of a moral community as one which is based on co-operation between men and women, justice and care. Gilligan asks for a 'marriage' of established principles and articulations of female insights. It is women who are likely to drive this synergy of moral thinking as they are aware of the need for communication and exchange. Feminism challenges the focus on autonomy, impartiality and the universality of principles without adequate regard to attachments and context. Partiality to others is not morally bad and is a feature of human society so that the traditional indifference to the special needs of others is incompatible with ethical action. The 'care' perspective is especially pertinent to health care contexts where the application of general rules cannot provide guidance in all contexts. However, society cannot function without some rules and the combination of approaches to ethical debate in medicine is likely to produce the most benefit. Cook argues that women's concerns can be addressed through appeal to the four principles.29 Importantly, they allow feminists to advance their theories in the language of philosophical debate; perhaps this is the way towards Gilligan's 'marriage' of ethical theories. She states that moral maturity involves the ability to use perspectives of both justice and care. Green emphasises that feminists cannot disregard reason and justice, and traditional theories cannot afford to ignore feminist orientations. Feminist ethics do improve upon traditional foundations but not to the extent that they can replace them. The future of feminist ethics appears to be closely tied to principle-based theories and the perceptions of Baier's 'moral world' will be enhanced by the incorporation of such theories; the whole is likely to be greater than the sum of the two parts.

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