From Morality to Politics and Back Again: Feminist International Ethics and the Civil-Society Argument

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Feminist ethics is a branch of moral philosophy. Its concerns range across meta-ethics (the question of how feminist moral principles and values may be grounded or legitimated), moral theory (the articulation of substantive feminist moral principles and values), and applied ethics (the application of feminist moral principles and values to specific areas of practice such as health, education, reproduction, war, and so forth). (1) Yet although it is a branch of moral philosophy, there is a sense in which feminist ethics has always unsettled and subverted the morality/politics binary that helps to define the business of modern moral philosophy in the Western academy.

According to this mainstream thinking (reflected also in much commonsense usage) morality may ground, orient, or be applied as a corrective to politics, but nevertheless a clear line is (must be) drawn between them. (2) Morality is defined as being about values and principles that transcend the particularities of any specific human life, whereas politics is about the struggles and negotiations through which those particularities are constructed, sustained, challenged, and managed. The subversion of this binary takes different forms in different strands of feminist ethics. But one common thread that runs through all feminist ethics is the argument that the moral theories, religious and philosophical, that have dominated thinking about morality from ancient times to modernity in the West are fundamentally political in one key sense. All of them purport to be the revelation of God or outcome of reason (or both), but all of them turn out, in whole or in part, to be about the reflection and maintenance of relations of power in which women are systematically oppressed, excluded, and silenced.

However, feminist ethicists differ in the extent to which they interpret the latter as a problem in principle or in application and in the extent to which they turn the same skeptical eye upon their own moral discourse. (3) As a result of this, ongoing debates within feminist ethics have been less to do with the substantive accounts of justice and the good on offer and more to do with the question of whether feminist claims about justice and the good have any authoritative foundation or can achieve universal reach across different women in different times and places.

For feminist critics of moral universalism, feminist ethics risks assimilating and/or silencing different women, thus reproducing the same oppressive politics as the patriarchal mainstream in which morality operates as a mask for power. For feminist universalists, their critics risk reducing morality to politics in the sense of making all moral claims contingent on specificities of power and culture and thereby losing the possibility of making the moral critique of women's oppression that is needed to underpin feminism as a political project.

Within the context of feminism as a transnational movement, which reaches across barriers of state and culture, the question of authoritative foundation and universal reach for the claims of feminist ethics is particularly salient. For example, most feminist ethics in the Western tradition has tended to focus either on abstract meta-ethical issues or on the application of feminist insights to issues that particularly affect women within Western liberal states. (4) Even where specifically international contexts or issues are in question (e.g., global distributive justice, human rights, and war) there has been a tendency to take an ethical position worked out in relation to the context of a Western liberal state and apply it to the international domain. (5) This tendency has increasingly become subject to challenge by non-Western feminists, who argue for the irrelevance or inapplicability of the concerns of Western feminist ethics to the lives and experiences of women in nonliberal states and/or non-Judeo-Christian cultures. (6)

In this article, my concern is with a response to the feminist dilemma between moral universalism and moral pluralism--a response that appears to offer a particularly promising route forward for a feminist ethics that is specifically concerned with international, transnational, or global political contexts and issues. …