Feminist Ethics and "Privilege"

By Saunders, Martha J. | Resources for Feminist Research, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Feminist Ethics and "Privilege"


Saunders, Martha J., Resources for Feminist Research


Religious Studies

University of Toronto

Toronto, Ontario

This article explores the conditions of class privilege, such as economic security and personal confidence, protection from violence, cultural dominance, and general assumptions of entitlement. These create a wide range of attitudes that reinforce and reproduce privileged positionings. Reviewing the work of feminist ethicists such as Marilyn Legge and Sharon Welch, the author explores the ramifications and responsibilities inherent in what she calls "the epistemological perspective of the privileged."

Cet article explore les conditions qui affectent le privilege lie a la classe sociale, telles: la securite economique et la confiance en soi, la protection face a la violence, la dominance culturelle, et les pris-pour-acquis concernant ce a quoi on croit avoir droit. Ceux-ci creent un eventail d'attitudes qui renforcent et reproduisent les positions du privilege. En examinant le travail de femmes telles que Marilyn Legge et Sharon Welch, l'auteure explore les ramifications et les responsabilites se rattachant a ce qu'elle appelle "la perspective epistemologique des personnes favorisees."

How can relatively advantaged people become committed to working for social justice, for the liberation of the oppressed, and how can this commitment be expressed and carried out in ways that do not ultimately reinforce and maintain oppressions? These are central methodological questions for the academic ethicist, for, I would argue, there is a moral imperative to promote justice not only through the content of ethics, but also through its methodologies. Whether "privilege" derives from maleness, whiteness, class position, sexuality, age, or any combination of privileged locations, it is problematic for advantaged people to work for the transformation of the social structures that protect their privileges. Feminists who enjoy white privilege, class privilege, and heterosexual privilege, among others, have been challenged on this repeatedly by women of colour, working class women, and lesbians. Within both academic feminism and feminist activist movements and organizations, the meanings of white privilege, class privilege, heterosexual privilege, are being confronted by those women who have taken these social locations and their advantages for granted in their lives. The experiences of feminists have shown that the desire to right wrongs and injustices is never enough; and that working out concrete political strategies to effect an ethical vision of a just society is a very complex project in which socially advantaged people are ambiguously situated.

It is hard for those of us who live in a liberal democratic society, believe in its values, and enjoy its benefits, to recognize that all sorts of acceptable and legitimate practices, social structures and institutions, actively promote the advantages of some members of society at the expense of others. It is hard to see the concrete ways in which taken-for-granted patterns of discourse and behaviour can be experienced as silencing or oppressing some people or groups. Those who are privileged to benefit from the protection of "individual rights" do not want to recognize the ways in which the system from which they benefit denies well-being to others unjustly. The feminist ethicist is committed to social transformations that will alter oppressive relations of power and privilege. But liberation ethics are often engaged in without examination of the ways in which the endeavour is complicated by what I will call "the epistemological perspective of the privileged." (1)

A Feminist Methodology for Ethics

A fundamental methodological problem in contemporary feminism has been the question of "who are `women'?" (2) When "we" are talking about "women's experience," which women are "we" talking about? Who is this "we" that speaks and for whom? In the 1970s, white feminists were content with breaking the hegemony of the "universal = male" perspective by interjecting a "women's" perspective that itself was then universalized. …

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