What Do Women Want in a Moral Theory?

1 January 2017

“What Do Women Want in a Moral Theory? ” Throughout history, there have been traditional assumptions about male and female gender roles and stereotypes. Men are rational and women are emotional. “Men should be decisive and courageous, women should be submissive and meek; men should pursue amorous conquests, women should be faithful and chaste; men should be warriors, and women nurturers; men should lead, women should quietly follow”(Baier). For New Zealand born Annette Baier, in What Do Women Want in a Moral Theory? she argues that women and men are fundamentally different in outlook. Baier is a scholar of Hume and a moral philosopher for whom trust is the key to fundamental moral notions.

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According to Baier, morality should not be governed by rules and codes, but by trust. From a feminist perspective, she writes about the idea of trust and distrust particularly between the genders. She claims that women operate in a different system of ethics than men. Women see things in terms of trust and cooperation and in a bilateral approach, ‘ethics of love. In contrast, men generally evaluate things in terms of outcomes and actions taken; a unilateral approach, an obligation. Baier claims that obligation is the primary preoccupation of male moral philosophers.

The history of moral philosophy, having been written by men, does not account for this gender difference. However, a problem with the concept of obligation is, they fail to explain obligations to morally educate new members of the moral community. Baier gives us an example about war orphans who grow up without any love, later have no sense of obligation (for truth-telling or promise keeping).

Who has failed in their obligation here? This brings us to the “bad parent case,” which basically states that a parent believes that he/she would not make a good parent due to lack of success while instilling moral values in their children. An obligation-based moral theory will have to explain the response to the bad parent case in terms of obligation. The bad parent could have two options of obligations: 1. ) Sterilization for the man and 2. ) Abortion for the woman; which both seem completely irrational.

The point being, “they escape this conclusion only by avoiding the issue of what is to ensure that new members of the moral community do get the loving care they need to become morally competent persons”(Baier). So what alternative can we use to bridge the gap between obligation-based and caring-based theories? Baier points out, “that the men’s theories of obligation need supplementation, to have much chance of integrity and coherence, and that the women’s hypothetical theories will want to cover obligation as well as love, then what concept brings them together? ” Baier’s reply is the concept of appropriate trust.

Trusting requires that we can, 1) be vulnerable to others (vulnerable to betrayal in particular); 2) think well of others, at least in certain domains; and 3) be optimistic that they are, or at least will be, competent in certain respects. This bridges the gap because trust is required for all loving relationships and for loyalty. Trust also can explain obligations in that, “to recognize a set of obligations is to trust some group of persons to instill them, to demand that they be met, possible to levy sanctions if they are not, and this is to trust persons with very significant coercive power over others” (Baier).

Trusting one another can be a gamble, so “Why would one take such a risk? ” (Baier). “Our confidence may be, and quite often is, misplaced. That is what we risk when we trust. If the best reason to take such a risk is the expected gain in security which comes from a climate of trust, then in trusting we are always giving up security to get greater security, exposing our throats so that others become accustomed to not biting” (Baier). Throughout her writings, Baier does not argue that one gender is superior to the other, but that the feminist viewpoint should be included in ethical discussions.

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