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Ethics and Feminism Articles

Sue McLean asked:

What do we mean by ethics?

The word ethics comes from a Greek source meaning custom or habit. Ethical philosophy involves the study of right and wrong. Sometimes people use the word morality instead of ethics. Both morality and ethics are about finding out how we ought to live. Ethics is a major branch of philosophy. (The other branches being: epistemology or knowledge, metaphysics or the essential nature of things and logic or reason.

Approaches to Ethics

There are four possible ways of approaching ethics.

Descriptive ethics: involves the description of how things are or the customs of a society.

Normative ethics: is about making moral decisions or deciding what is right and what is wrong. There are two main ways of doing this, namely by intentions or moral rules relating to duty (deontological ethics) or by outcome (teleological).

Meta-ethics; this approach analyses the nature of ethics. It includes both realism and antirealism. Realism is the view that moral values can be discovered, possibly by using intuition. Antirealism is the view that morality is determined by people’s thoughts and feelings

Applied ethics: this is how ethical values may be used in specific circumstances. So for example, the study of abortion would involve an individual applying moral theory to the situation of abortion. In order to do this they may draw on both normative values those of meta-ethics.

Normative Ethics In More Detail

Teleological Theory

Teleological theory is also known as consequentialism and involves outcomes. One example of teleological theory is utilitarianism. According to this theory one should do what creates the most happiness for the greatest number of people. However utilitarians are divided about what happiness is. Some claim that happiness is simply pleasure but others claim it is about minimising pain. Two major exponents of utilitarianism are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

Jeremy Bentham produced the felicific calculus, or hedonic calculus. For Bentham one could calculate the actual amount of pleasure over pain using a sort of mathematical method. The calculus involves taking into account factors such as: intensity, duration and certainty of pleasure.

John Stuart Mill divided pleasure into higher and lower order, claiming cultural, spiritual and intellectual pleasures to be higher order in nature.

Some utilitarians claim that lawmakers ought to apply the happiness principle to formulate general rules for society. These utilitarians are called rule utilitarians. On the other hand, act utilitarians claim that one should apply the happiness principle to each act and so determine the morality of each individual situation.

Not surprisingly there are several criticisms of utilitarianism. One of the main criticisms is the conflict between the greatest number and the greatest happiness. For instance, what if I can create a lot of happiness for one person or a little happiness for lots of people? What should I do? Another problem is to do with how we define happiness because if it is merely pleasure then this is purely hedonistic and somehow this seems wrong. For instance, it may be pleasurable to spend my whole day playing computer games instead of doing my philosophy homework but this does not make playing games the right thing to do.

Deontological Theory

Deontological theory, on the other hand, maintains that we should act out of good intentions, namely duty.

Kant’s theory is perhaps the best known deontological theory. Kant argued that we should do duty for duty’s sake (categorical imperative). This applies regardless of outcome or emotions and that is why it is categorical. (Whereas the hypothetical imperative states: ‘Do X to achieve Y’.)

For Kant our actions must pass the universability test, which means one should ask what would happen if everyone acted in that way. This does not make Kant’s theory consequentialist because he was not concerned with consequences but rather whether any irrationality or contradiction would be produced should everyone act in a certain way.

Kant also said that we should act as though everyone were a member of the kingdom of ends, meaning that we should treat everyone as if they have their own ends or purposes. This contrasts with a very modern and capitalist view that we treat others for our own ends. One of the most positive aspects of Kant’s philosophy is his theme of respect for others, which has been the basis of human rights legislation.

One criticism of Kant’s theory is that he does not explain why we should do duty for duty’s sake.

Meta-ethics in More Depth

Meta means ‘after or beyond’ so this branch of ethics usually goes above or beyond that of normative theory. Examples of meta-ethical theory include: relativism, intuitionism, emotivism and prescriptivism.

Meta-ethical questions include:

What do we mean by good or bad?

How do we make moral judgements?

Are some things always good or bad?

One key issue is to do with whether moral judgements can be objective (realism) or subjective (antirealism). In other words, whether moral judgements are based on the emotions and perceptions of individuals (antirealism) or whether they can be known in some objective way. Another way of stating this is by questioning whether some things are always good independently of any will or view.


Antirealism holds that there is no objective good but that something may be deemed good by individuals. To give an example, if I believe as relativists do, that morality is judged from the perspective of time, place or situation then I am an antirealist. For relativists what is deemed right at one time may not be right at another because there are no objective standards. Thus divorce was once viewed as wrong in Britain but today many people do not judge it as immoral. For relativists this shift in values illustrates the view that nothing is always right or wrong.

Another form of antirealism is the view that ethical statements are neither true nor false. Both emotivism and prescriptivism hold this position. Emotivism holds that morality is about an emotional response so that I may be kind to a kitten because I have an feelings of sympathy towards it. Whereas prescriptivism holds that moral statements imply a prescription or rather imply an action. Therefore the statement ‘it is wrong to commit adultery’ implies ‘you should not commit adultery’.


On the other hand, I may believe that there are objective moral standards or things which are always right or wrong independent of any arbitrary opinion. For instance, I may believe that marriage is for life and judge as unimportant the fact that attitudes have changed to marriage. According to this view divorce may still be wrong even if the consensus of opinion changes so that just because the majority think something is right, it does not follow that it is so.

Intutionism is one example of realism. Intuitionists argue that we know how to respond in a given situation because we have an intuitive understanding of goodness. We have this understanding because goodness is objective.

It is important to realise that realism is not the same as absolutism. Absolutism is a form of antirealism. Absolutism holds that some things are absolutely wrong in all situations but that they are absolutely wrong as the result of some will such as God’s or that of the monarch. For instance, in divine command theory something is deemed wrong because God says it is wrong. However this makes morality subject to God’s will. If something is subject to a will (even God’s) th
en it is not objective. Objective standards hold that some things are always right or wrong independent of any arbitrary will.


In conclusion, there are four approaches to ethics, namely: descriptive, normative, meta-ethics and applied ethics. The last of these four has not been discussed at any length in this paper. However it is important to realise that applied ethics involves the application of normative and meta-ethical theory particular situations such as: abortions, genetics, environment, animal rights etc. Normative theory is about moral judgements and includes both deontological and teleological theories. Meta-ethics is about analysing the nature of ethics and includes both realist and antirealist views.


Benn, P., Ethics, Routledge, 1998

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/e/ethics.htm

Norman, R., The Moral Philosophers, Clarendon Press, 1985

Raeper, W. and Smith, L., A Beginner’s Guide to Ideas, Lion, 1991

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/metaethics/

Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethics

An Overview Of Feminism For A Level Students

Feminism often gets a bad press. Feminists are sometimes presented as a homogenous group where the radical is viewed as the norm. This is not the case. There are many different types of feminists. This page gives you an overview of some of these groups.

From a sociological viewpoint most feminism (with the possible exception of postmodern feminism) can be viewed as a macro theory because it gives a view of society as a whole.


This is not so easy to answer as it might at first appear because there are so many different types of feminists. Feminist groups argue against patriarchy, subordination, oppression and androcentrism but what do they mean by these terms? Each group may have different ways of using the terminology. Taking a very generalised view, patriarchy is about structuring society according to male domination whereas androcentrism is a male dominated way of viewing the world. However what consititutes structuring the world according to male domination is a matter for debate.


Liberal Feminism

Liberal feminists may speak about justice in gender issues. There are two main ways they understand this. Firstly, a classical liberalist may argue that we should remove discriminatory laws to allow equality of opportunity. Whereas a welfare liberalist may argue in favour of so called ‘positive discrimination’. According to the welfare view, society ought to compensate women for centuries of discrimination by treating women more favourably than men.

Radical Feminism

This form of feminism is still evolving and can take many forms but it nevertheless holds that the oppression of women is the most fundamental oppression in that it is: rooted in history, the deepest form of oppression, the cause of the most suffering and the conceptual model for understanding all other forms of oppression (Alison Jagger and Paula Rothenberg as explained by Rosemary Tong, p. 71)

One issue frequently under discussion by radical feminists is reproduction. Feminists such as Firestone argue that reproduction forms a class distinction between men and women. Firestone advocates a biological revolution where the ultimate goal is an androgenous society. Other radical feminists such as Adrienne Rich argue that reproduction is empowering for women.

Marxist Feminism

A key theme in Marxism is the alienation of the proletariat or workers. Marxist feminists generally see women as a class and argue that women are, like the proletariat, alienated in society. Marxist feminists are divided regarding how this imbalance may be rectified. For instance, Engels argued that men retain power because of their access to work. His view was, broadly speaking, that inequalities would reduce once women access work. Modern Marxist feminists often view the traditional roles adopted by women (mother and wife) as unproductive in that being a wife and/or mother is about the production of people (care for others), rather than the production of money or goods. Some Marxist feminists therefore advocate paying women for adopting a mother-wife role. Others advocate women working outside of the home. The main problem with the latter being that far from freeing women, this often results in women getting caught up in the capitalist system, juggling the demands of work and family.

Psychoanalytic Feminism

Again this is a very broad category, with several feminists criticising Freud for his failure to challenge the patriarchal institutions of his time. For instance, Firestone claimed that Freud ought to have found ways to free women and children from the tyrrany of the father. However Alfred Adler argued that patriarchy drives women literally to madness as neuroses become ways for women protest against their oppression (Tong, p. 147).

Postmodern Feminism

Postmodernism rejects the idea that there is one singular true view of the world and in this way it may be seen to be a micro theory. Postmodern feminists may argue that no-one, including other women, may speak for all women. Each woman should have the opportunity to become herself, whatever that may be. Postmodern feminists include diverse theories such as those of: Helen Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva.

Sexual Difference Feminism: Luce Irigaray

Sexual difference feminism (SDF) differs from the difference feminism that Haralambos introduces. The latter holds that different groups of women are exploited to different levels. SDF is about how men and women are different and as such ought not to be treated the same. Perhaps the best known exponent of SDF is Luce Irigaray. One of her arguments focuses on the plurality of women as opposed to the singularity of men. For Irigaray one problem for women is that our views of the world are not so valued as those of men.


Haralambos, M., and Holborn, M., SOCIOLOGY THEMES AND PERSPECTIVES, Collins, 2000

Irigaray, L., AN ETHICS OF SEXUAL DIFFERENCE, Athlone Press, 1984

Jagger, A.M., FEMINIST POLITICS AND HUMAN NATURE, Rowman and Allanheld, 1983

Tong, R., FEMINIST THOUGHT, Westview, 1989

Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminist_theory