Modern Engendering: Critical Feminist Readings in Modern Western Philosophy

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A Feminist Use for Hume's Moral Ontology

Sarah A. Bishop Merrill

In this essay, I do two things: in Part I), I clarify what kind of ontological foundations a moral philosophy that is acceptable to feminists should have; 1 and in Part II) I show that David Hume's concept and treatment of personhood provide such foundations.


Part I. Women and Ontology

In the common language of ancient Greece, and still today, ontology means the 'Logos', logic, or study, and the 'way', of 'Ontos' or being. Ontology is the theory and use of systematic assumptions about who or what exists, "has" being, and thus "who counts" or "matters" in a given universe, community, practice, or discussion. At the bottom of things in the history of oppression is an ontological error: human beings have often failed to include those "others" who are different from themselves. 2 So the ontologies supporting what were thought to be universal moral claims are not universal, but rather apply only to those who "count" or whose specific existence was referred to, experienced, or assumed.

Ontologies expressed in language and other social practices are always based on and limited by the experience and imagination of peoples and cultures in particular social and historical contexts. As such they usually are more exclusive than inclusive. And so an acceptable, accurate, and valid moral ontology used in the language of any universal ethical claims must often come under questioning by its users concerning who counts or is included in the moral universe spanned by ethics, just as people in the seventeenth century were urged by the questions of the Papal Bull of 1627 to consider the people called Native Americans as having souls like white people and thus counting among those who deserve respect, have rights, dignity, responsibilities, and can be "saved" for all eternity. "People"

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