I was reading the other day about the feminist response to liberal individualism in ethics, critiquing such related theories as Kantian deontology and utilitarianism. These moral theories begin with the premise that humans are independent, individual, rational, and self-sufficient. Ethics of care theorists and feminists criticize this enlightenment theme as contrary to the reality, that humans are also interdependent, relational, and emotional from the time they are born to the day they die. Emotion in the ethics of care does not necessarily have to be irrational as one may think of the roguish passions of hedonism, but reflective as in the cultivated emotions of empathy and responsiveness to needs. I’m not sure I buy into the ethics of care, but the critique has merely made me rethink the original enlightenment premise, perhaps in a more broader sense than its application to ethics.
My first prerogative is to examine the historical context. Liberal individualism was responding to a time period when political involvement was being either radically (French/American revolution) or gradually (British parliament) transitioned from the rule of a few (the nobility and monarchy) to the rule of the masses. Yes, women and slaves were excluded in most cases but for the sake of argument, a considerably larger amount of people were participating in public policy. Kant was merely looking for a fundamental moral principle to keep the masses morally accountable for the atrocities committed in the French Revolution, when they had done away with religion, which had previously been the primary source of moral guidance. In other words, how do we uphold the rights of each and every man, not just assuming he (or she) is another face in the crowd or a minority when it comes to collective decisions (aka the tyranny of the masses)? It would seem that the liberals were facing a graver threat to humanity itself and women would have been part of that underprivileged, minority group, which liberals wanted to protect from the masses through freedom of expression. Kant wanted to protect each human on a universal scale and not leave inalienable rights to be guaranteed by political entities such as states, a point that Hannah Arendt would examine in the World War II scenario in terms of stateless people (i.e. the Jews who were not recognized as German citizens with rights under Hitler). (Arendt is a genius, by the way).
I do realize the feminist critique is responding to the paternalistic attitudes in utilitarianism and the categorical imperative of Kant, the seeming detachment of moral theory from the reality of human interdependency. Also, Kant believed women were irrational, which would enrage many of my sex. But if the early liberals did not defend the rights of the individual nor encourage him (or her) to think for oneself, the feminists would not be self-aware nor capable of their emancipation without such freedom and dignity accorded to their persons as ends, not means. In fact, John Stuart Mill was a liberal who wrote a stirring piece on “The Subjugation of Women”, detailing the injustice done to women in the private sphere. I concede that reflective emotional response should be part of ethical theory, but we cannot discount the rational deliberation of the private individual, as it often is reflected into the public sphere. We must realize there must be a fundamental objectivity in core apriori moral principles upon which we can shape by experience our moral attitudes.