For Gilligan, women’s ethical development could thus be characterized as an ethics of care and responsibility for both others and oneself (the latter, at least, in the post-conventional stage), in contrast with (but not in opposition to) the ethics of principles, rules, and justice that characterized the ethical focus of many (but by no means all) men. Finally, Gilligan emphasized that these two patterns of ethical development, while clearly different, are not mutually exclusive. Rather, both patterns are essential – and, ideally, conjoined in a synthesis that holds both together.
Of course, there are any number of controversial and highly contested assumptions and claims at work here, as the subsequent development and debates regarding feminist ethics bring to the forefront. For example, does Gilligan’s schema run the risk of essentialism – of assuming or arguing that there is something (an “essence”) about being biologically female that strongly directs (or simply determines) that all women must follow the lines of ethical development it articulates? Feminists insist that such essentialism is disastrous as it reinforces gender stereotypes used throughout the history of patriarchy to justify women’s subordination to men. And Gilligan would deny that she is making such an essentialist assumption.
Despite these and related difficulties, however, Gilligan’s work inaugurated important new developments in ethical theory, beginning with greater respect for the positive role of emotions – specifically, care – as developed more extensively by Sara Ruddick explicitly in terms of an ethics of care. Another foundational figure, Nel Noddings, also highlighted the relational aspects of care ethics: “It is my committed practice of caring for others that sustains and enriches this ethical self”.
To be sure, one does not have to be a feminist to take up an ethics of care: early on in the modern West, David Hume famously argued that ethical reflection is fully reducible to emotions; but, for some of us, this goes too far, especially as it runs the risk of thereby reducing all ethical claims to purely relative ones.
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