Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Sophie De Grouchy and Feminist Ethics

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Sophie De Grouchy and Feminist Ethics

Article excerpt

Chapter 5

Half a century ago the historian Louis Gottschalk distinguished between posthumous reputation and historical or philosophical influence.1 No one can claim that Sophie de Grouchy influenced modern feminist ethics in any way since no historical connection is apparent, and indeed, as pointed out in the introduction, until recently de Grouchy has been invisible for all intents and purposes. However, I wish to establish de Grouchy's posthumous reputation as a feminist ethicist. In this chapter I point out several common denominators linking de Grouchy with feminist ethics today. In using the term feminist ethics, I am referring to two major themes: one is the concern with the status of women in society and the other is applying women's experiences to moral theory, which results in the ethics of care. Both themes are found in the Letters.2

In a recent article Virginia Held provides a historical account of the emergence of feminist ethics out of the feminist movement in the late 1960s in the United States, which she notes was a revolutionary social movement. More specifically, Held locates the beginning of inquiry into the ethics of care in Sara Ruddick's article, "Maternal Thinking," published in 1980.3 Shortly after, Carol Gilligan's book, In a Different Voice (1982), generated a significant and in-depth discussion concerning the ethics of care. Contemporary feminist ethics, then, emerged not so long ago out of both a revolutionary movement and empirical research in psychology pointing to a distinctive feminine voice. De Grouchy lived and wrote over two hundred years earlier, yet shares similar feminist ideas and revolutionary circumstances.

Comparing de Grouchy and trends in feminist ethics today further illuminates the originality of her thought and the relevance of the Letters to the twenty-first century, particularly as her ideas apply to current social issues and philosophical debates. Since the literature in feminist ethics is vast and growing it is not possible to treat all feminist philosophers who share a common point with de Grouchy. However, it is possible and it turns out to be fruitful to examine the most outstanding common denominators.

Caring and the Origin of Morality

We saw that de Grouchy addresses the causes of morality as a criticism of Smith for omitting an important part of human morality. In contemporary ethics of care, attention to the origin of morality is part of the criticism of rationalism and contractarianism in ethics for similar reasons. In order to explain the primary human moral tendency, de Grouchy and contemporary feminists look at the way and the context in which morality arises. Contemporary feminists identify care as the context and capacity in which morality first develops, and in de Grouchy's version it is sympathy. Both argue that human infants show love and affection and are capable of sympathy and could not survive without it. Infants cannot yet think, and rationality is a much later development; rationality thus is added to and complements the emotions.

Recall that de Grouchy traces moral development to early experiences with our caretakers, and she claims that sympathy arises from memory of these experiences when triggered by seeing another person suffer or prosper. Being cared for and remembering having been cared for lies at the foundation of Nel Noddings' moral theory as well. Noddings opens her 1984 work, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics & Moral Education, with the following claim: "Human caring and the memory of caring and being cared for, which I shall argue form the foundation of ethical response, have not received attention except as outcomes of ethical behavior."4

For Noddings, omitting the element of caring leaves us with a principled approach to morality that is too remote and abstract and that compromises our moral potential. Noddings argues that morality does not begin with principles, but with caring. …

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