What is Feminist Ethics? – Hilde Lindemann

In this selection, Lindemann provides the reader with a small glimpse into the project of feminist ethics. She provides an overview of the important terminology, central questions, and methodological practices that figure prominently in the agenda of the feminist ethicist.

Lindemann begins with a discussion of what feminism is. She considers two kinds of definitions that are commonly given of the concept, and ultimately rejects both of them in favor of a third. First, she notes that many people take it that feminism is a “movement that aims to make women the social equals of men.” Lindemann thinks that this understanding of feminism is defective in a variety of ways. First, it treats men and women in abstraction, which is problematic. Secondly, the definition itself treats men as a standard by which women need to measure themselves. One attempt to avoid these difficulties is by attending directly to women. It is difficult, though, to explain exactly what it is that makes one a “woman.” Gender, after all, is not a biological property. If one explains being a woman simply in terms of being different in certain aspects from a man, then one has still grounded feminism by reference to men. If, on the other hand, one attempts to ground a feminist framework on the positive differences between men and women, then a separate problem arises: difference itself does nothing to explain the power-relation between the genders. And that, Lindemann, believes, is truly the heart of feminism. It is concerned primarily with the disproportionate power distribution between men and women.

Lindemann identifies that power distribution as gender. Gender, Lindemann argues, is primarily normative; it yields prescriptions for how one ought to behave, and it does so through a variety of channels. Importantly, gender operates simultaneously alongside other power-relations in order to yield what is a fairly complex final power distribution. Lindemann indentifies the feminist project as one that attempts to “understand, criticize, and correct how gender operates within our moral beliefs and practices.” The domain of the feminist ethicist, as Lindemann understands it, is the domain of power relations – both legitimate and illegitimate. In order to properly understand the domain, the feminist ethicist is firstly concerned with arriving at a proper description of how power differences are at work in our lives. Following this, she is able to make normative claims in light of the descriptive evidence.