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Why Feminists Should Oppose Feminist Virtue Ethics

Some feminists say women should forget old-fashioned ethical rules and focus on developing positive aspects of their characters. Not so, says Sarah Conly.

Feminism is naturally ethical and political in nature, in that feminists want change, want improvement, and want, specifically, the liberation of the individual from ways of thinking which confine and pervert human development. It is not surprising then, that many feminists have felt that we need a new approach to ethics, one which celebrates the distinctive individuality of persons and the complexity of the world in which we live. Traditional western moralists, it is thought, have rooted our moral worth exclusively in our rationality; they have held that our development as moral beings depends solely on our ability rationally to perceive universal and impartial rules of rightness, and then act on those rules. It is argued that these traditional theories, which, following convention, I will call ethics of duty, split people in two – conceptually speaking – into a rational self which is morally significant, and which is the same from person to person, and an emotional self which is distinctive and individual but irrelevant to your moral worth. We are thus alienated from ourselves, since the way we want to act is in fact more often governed by personal feelings and commitments than by reference to rules of action, and these are seen by traditional duty ethics as being without moral significance. For this reason, many feminists have revived and revitalized an approach to ethics which dwells on the development of a person’s whole character – emotions, commitments and sensitivities included. This approach, known as virtue ethics, goes right back to Aristotle. While historically virtue ethics have sometimes been unfeminist or anti-feminist, the method itself is seen by many feminists as a way of approaching moral living which is more psychologically healthy and more morally sensitive than that dominant tradition which emphasizes impersonal rules of action. I think, however, that the ethics of virtue, while fuelled by feminist insights and popularized by feminist writers, is in fact at odds with feminist goals. Traditional duty ethics are criticized for alienating us from ourselves by ignoring our personal orientation, since factors which seem relevant to us – I know this person who needs help, but not that one – are considered irrelevant. Unfortunately, I argue, even worse alienation from the self and the process of moral choice arises from trying to live in accordance with a virtue ethic.

Clearly, virtue ethics’ emphasis on the personal nature of the moral life has its appeal. The idea that we should be good people, not just do the right thing, is a nice one; it presents a picture of a world populated by people who are truly pleasant, rather than dutiful but nasty. The idea, too, that there are different ways of being good, not just one rule of right to be applied across the board, has intuitive appeal, given life’s complexity. And if our personal commitments should inform our moral choices, rather than interfering with them, then that appears to make it easier to reconcile our wish to be moral with our other concerns. The moral and the personal are integrated. To many, too, virtue ethics has seemed to provide a model for living which simply has better results, making others as well as the agent better off. The most well known contemporary feminist virtue ethic is the ethic of care, and it is clear that many feel that a care ethic results in better treatment of others than does a duty ethic which stresses, for example, the avoidance of conflict through action in accordance with rules. The virtue of caring does not ensure any particular outcome when a choice must be made about what to do, but it does ensure that the interests of all concerned will be considered, not just whose right has priority. The virtues involved seem to promise a more humane, benevolent world than does mere action according to duty.

The Dark Side of Virtue

Given all these merits, what is the problem with the ethics of virtue, and how can it fail to bring about the amelioration feminists seek? While the ethics of care has obviously been enormously influential, it has not been without detractors. While these authors generally reject what they see as the vicious objectivism of the ethics of duty, they express concern that the ethics of care encourages us to neglect ourselves for the sake of others. For women in particular, the ethics of care may endorse the stereotype of self-sacrifice which has led women to neglect their own lives in the service of others, or to feel guilty, (or perhaps worse, that they are not real women) if they do pay more attention to their own projects. While the development of character central to virtue ethics is a good thing, critics seem to think, developing the wrong virtues will lead to the subjection of the self to the demands of others rather than its flourishing.

This is a criticism specifically of the care ethic rather than of virtue ethics, generally, and while I think it’s on to something, I think that, because of its specificity, it misses the real problem. These criticisms aim at the content of this particular virtue ethic, but there is nothing really wrong with the particular virtues involved in caring – with nurturance, patience, and sympathy. It is, rather, taking the cultivation of virtue as foundational to morality which is oppressive, whatever the specific virtue proposed.

After all, what has virtue ethics been supposed to do? Whereas the traditional duty ethic has supposedly ignored emotions and commitments, virtue has endowed emotions and commitments with moral standing. This does not mean, however, that whatever you happen to want is what you then should do or be. A virtue ethic is an ethic, a schema for selfevaluation and self-improvement, and this is certainly true of feminist virtue ethics. What we have is a moral standard for what you should want – what you should be like, should care for, should be committed to. A virtue ethic supplies you with a model in respect of which you shape yourself. If we take character to be the bearer of value, character becomes the locus of evaluation. If character becomes the locus of evaluation, then it stands to reason that as ethical agents, who wish to be good people, we must examine not only our actions but our whole internal orientation – our emotions, our commitments, our attitudes towards others, our whole psychology. The realm of the moral, restricted to the realm of action by the traditional ethics of duty, has now widened.

A virtue ethic is thus more intrusive than a duty ethic. Duty ethics simply ask for certain actions. Granted, a certain mental attitude is necessary for identifying an act (promisekeeping must be intentional, not accidental) but whether you have kept your promise hating every moment of it or with a willing leap of joy, you have equally done your duty. On a virtue ethic, it is our most personal aspirations, loves, and hates which should measure up to the standard of the moral model. There is no non-moral realm to which you may retreat, your duty done. Given the nature of virtue, this intrusion is more or less constant. The development of a virtue is a matter of habituation, not just an occasional exercise, and so the occasions upon which moral selfscrutiny is appropriate are many. It is not just occasional actions we need to review – did I give enough money to my political candidate? Should I have told my friend the truth about her new love interest? It is our ongoing orientation – am I truly generous, or do I just do what convention dictates? Am I nice, or just unwilling to make waves? Even if one of the virtues you want to pursue is tranquil acceptance of the self, introspection is appropriate – am I too concerned about my own character? Or insufficiently critical? The cultivation of virtue is a moral task from which there is no respite.

Is this increased evaluation bad? Yes, in two ways. First, the practice of evaluation itself may be alienating. Subjecting yourself to scrutiny about what you should want can alienate you from what you do want, in a way which makes you lose spontaneity, enjoyment, and self knowledge. It is not clear to us whether this is what we do want or what we think we should want; whether this is what we are or what we think we should be. Agency is undercut rather than strengthened. Second, unless we are very lucky, such evaluations will often find us wanting.

One result of self-scrutiny may be to show you don’t have a virtue. You do the beneficent thing, but without feelings of sympathy or good will – you are dragged by the sense that you have to, not by fellow-feeling. As the ethics of virtue is construed, you here lack a requisite virtue. Granted, you may demonstrate the virtue of conscientiousness, but you aren’t a benevolent person, and if that is a virtue you admire, then you must find yourself lacking, despite the fact that you did finally do what a benevolent person would have done.

If, on the other hand, you do have all the virtues you think a good person should have, your problems may only be beginning. Conflicts between virtues can lead us into fragmentation and guilt, and such conflicts are likely in all but the most narrowly focused life. Virtues lend themselves to conflict in a way duties do not. Duties are conditional. An action is only a duty where no other duty takes precedence. For example, while we may commonly say that we have a duty to keep promises, and a duty to help those in need, even the conscientious promise-keeper doesn’t have a moral conflict when a promise to meet a friend for lunch must be broken to help the accident victim lying in the road. This is because in duty ethics we are familiar with a kind of priority system which typically yields just one thing which, in a given concrete situation, it is really our duty to do. Virtues, however, cannot be conditional, because, as they include emotional orientations, they are based on a habituation which you cannot develop conditionally. One doesn’t have the virtue of compassion only when that is the all-things-considered correct virtue to act on, for example; one is prompted by it whenever others suffer. In a case where the promptings of two virtues conflict, I will be moved to act by both. And when I act, in this case of conflict, I will fail in light of one virtue even if I succeed in light of the other. Conflicts between desires are bad enough, but conflicts between desires one thinks one should, morally, act on are even worse.

Consider Maggie and Tom Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss. George Eliot might almost have written her book as a text on ethics. Tom and Maggie are siblings who exhibit opposing moral orientations. Tom is the kind of person who gives duty a bad name. He is extremely conscientious, and works hard to repay the debts his father has incurred; to take care of his mother; to do a superlative job for the employers who have given him a chance to better himself. But he’s extremely unpleasant: narrow in his judgment of others, self-righteous, and, most of the time, angry at those who don’t show the same attention to duty, including his sister Maggie. Maggie, on the other hand, is virtuous: she is loving, honest, sensitive, loyal and courageous. She does not think primarily in terms of what her duty is, and when she does, her decision to do her duty is often overridden by contrary, and more humane feeling. Maggie is likable, and while we are sympathetic to Tom and the tribulations which have driven him to such rigidity, he’s not someone we want to spend time with.

At the same time, though, Maggie’s virtues lead her to misery, and break the hearts of those to whom she is nearest. Maggie is always loyal to Tom, and his regard is dearest to her, but she still acts contrary to the dictates of loyalty in her kindness to the unfortunate Philip Wakem, whom Tom regards as an enemy of the family. This causes Tom to despise her, which to her is unbearable. She loves and admires her cousin Lucy, who has always helped Maggie and been kind to her, but her love for Lucy’s fiance Stephen causes her to break Lucy’s heart. After a searching examination of her responsibility towards Lucy, having (inadvertently) run away with Stephen, she courageously renounces him, regardless of the harm this does to her own reputation and the fact that this causes immense pain to her and crushes Stephen. In the end, what Maggie feels most of all is guilt and confusion, at having loyally, courageously, and lovingly hurt all those around her. She feels, rightly, that she has transgressed all her most heartfelt commitments, each time while acting out of a commitment which, in itself, would seem to make her a good person. In the end she is led by her great courage to try and save her brother Tom from a flood and, apparently because George Eliot sees no happy outcome possible for her, drowns. (Tom drowns, too, so it is not clear that Eliot sees the ethics of duty as triumphing.)

Is this an extreme case? Well, it is not so extreme as to be unbelievable; our ability to relate to Maggie is what gives the book its place in literature, and we relate to her because her character, while more vibrant than most, is one we understand based on our own experience, and her conflict, her inability to steer a consistent course through these conflicting calls, is one we know. Obviously, not everyone who is as large-souled and full of humanity and sensitivity as Maggie comes to a bad end. For one thing, most of us are lucky, and our commitments and motivations do not conflict in ways that are this destructive. But for most of us, there will be some conflict, and if we have no external standard by which to guide our actions we will feel torn and find ourselves wanting in some respect of character. For many of us, steeped in duty as we are, such conflict is relieved by reference to some sort of external rule of action, so that we may say, “Whatever I feel, here’s what the rule of right action says I should do.” So, torn between my love of and commitment to my children and my commitment to my own development I may say, “I owe my children this much, and no more; birthday parties, but not every ball game.” Maggie would have been better off if she could have said, “yes, I love my brother, but at this point he’s asking for too much and it’s beyond what I owe him.” So perhaps we can limit the harms of virtue by limiting the scope of virtue, but this is no argument for virtue ethics.


Some will say, however, that if the ethics of virtue leads one to unhappiness, that is not an argument against taking character as the foundation for ethics but simply reflects the nature of moral life. It’s hard, it’s complicated, and living virtuously in a difficult world will naturally cause the thoughtful person to second-guess herself. Sensitivity to conflicting demands will sometimes produce pain, but that is a small price to pay for the honest awareness which is part of the truly virtuous life.

This is a reasonable reply. It does not, however, address the problem which the ethics of virtue presents. The problem is not that living virtuously may make one unhappy, a price one might be willing to pay, but that it promotes a condition in which the very goal we want to achieve, a unified and integrated character, becomes impossible. The crucial criticism of the ethics of duty, after all, was not just that doing your duty might sometimes make you unhappy – no one truly interested in living the moral life would consider this sufficient grounds for rejection. Rather, the criticism was that in bifurcating the person into the morally valuable rational self and the morally insignificant affective self the theory promoted a view of the self which really rendered cohesive agency impossible. Similarly, then, for the ethics of virtue; while we might accept unhappiness as the price you pay for being good, what we have here is an unacceptable fragmentation into incoherent parts, each pulling in a different direction, with no mediating principle. When we say the agent is conflicted, we don’t just mean she doesn’t feel good, any more than saying that the dutiful agent is alienated means she just doesn’t feel like doing the right thing. We mean that focused orientation, essential to moral choice, is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to achieve and sustain. Insofar as the ethics of virtue has been promoted to provide a picture of agency which we can use as a realistic moral model, it fails.

Back to Duty?

What then do we do? If virtue theory leaves us alienated and conflicted, how should we approach trying to live morally? Are we stuck with a duty ethic which lets us off the hook in one way, by being less intrusive into our affective lives, but which does this by ignoring our affective selves and denying them value? Are we left with a theory which insists on the rigid application of rules without regard for personal circumstance, giving rise to unsatisfying solutions?

Certainly some proponents of duty ethics have ignored the centrality of emotional orientation to everyday life, and have valued only a rational, rule-giving self which few of us recognize in ourselves. And, some, in the joy of finding certainty in moral judgment, have confused contextualism with ambiguity, and have tried to avoid it. None of these flaws are essential to duty ethics, however. The feminist revision of agency, which argues that the personal, emotional, nonuniversal aspects of the person are valuable, is a genuine challenge to Kantian duty systems, where impersonal rationality is indeed what gives value to agents and their choices. Still, this revised and realistic notion of what people are like and what is valuable about them fits within the core notion of a duty ethic, which says basically that some acts are right, and some are wrong, and we should behave accordingly. We may see that the development of attachments is essential to both healthy and moral living, but guide that development with reference to the kinds of action we’re trying to produce. We may focus on virtue to help us do what is right, but in other, personal, internal areas let ourselves off the hook. Feminist literature has been successful in illustrating that the focus of our lives is on the personal and the particular rather than on the universal and abstract, and, importantly, has been persuasive in arguing that this is not a flaw. A new and improved duty ethic can accommodate this insight; it is within the scope of duty ethics to say that the demands made on humans should be ones they can meet.

© Sarah Conly 2001

Sarah Conly teaches philosophy at Colby College, in Maine. Her hobbies are karate and sea-kayaking.

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