Female Ethics and Moral Imagination

Female Ethics and Moral Imagination (May 27, 2005 The Netherlands/ Blerina Berberi)

This research focuses on the distinction between moral reasoning and female ethics, where the latter is discussed as being related to moral imagination theory, which with its distinguishable perspective on humanity brings forward benefits for the individual and society that are much greater compared to what the principles of moral reasoning have tried (or failed) to establish.

The idea that women think differently from man has been the explanatory factor for the subordination of women to men. Like Aristotle (384-322 BC), who said that women are not as rational as men, also Kant (1724- 1804) wrote that women “lack civil personality” and should not be involved in public life (Rachels, 2003, p.160). Kant’s theory on the Categorical Imperative holds that our moral obligations, duties, are different from the hypothetical “oughts” that are based on desires, and are based on reason. And moreover, the categorical “oughts” are derived from a principle that every rational being must accept and all humans should be bound to moral reasons in all times. But in the same time Kant denies any strong rational faculty to women, which according to Kant is vital in dealing with civil matters. Furthermore in Retributivism, Kant states that “paying back” is better than manipulating personalities (Rachels, 2003, p. 136). So is Kant paying back to women what they deserve by denying certain reasoning capacities to them? How come women deserve such a position? Kant’s theory also implies that women’s inability to be involved in civil matters is subordinated by men’s power of reasoning. The discussion in the following pages evolves around the idea of whether being involved in civil matters and lacking the ability of (men’s) reasoning, is really a bad thing for moral theory. There is also some analysis to advantages of female ethics in related to moral imagination,

The idea of female ethics, or of ethics with a ‘feminine’ nature began in the 18th century. At that time the industrialization of societies, led to an attention in the role of females in the society where woman so far was considered as holding virtues that were subordinate to the “private’ sphere of domestic life” (Grimshaw, 1991, p. 491).  Moreover, Rousseau said that “characteristics which would be faults in men are virtues in women”(Grimshaw, 1991, p. 491). His idea is related to the simplicity of rural life that counteracts with “evil manners” of the city. However, Mary Wollstencraft (1759- 1797), who is considered to be the herald of feminist movement, made an attack on subordination created by social attribute which denied to women the educational and other rights needed for equality of status. She talked about “tyranny of men” and calls for a change in social attitudes. But she also acknowledges some differences and says that women should be educated not so much for their own sakes but enough to fit and be elevated companions to their husbands. Moreover, her wish was for a society where “distinctions of sex are confounded”, thus ignored (Cottingham, 1996, p.433). Wollstencraft tried to make a relationship between the public sphere, and Kant’s “civil” one, and stated that the “…public virtue is an aggregate of the private” (Cottingham, 1996, 437). She claimed that if parents do not have friendship, which is based on the level of knowledge of both parents, the future generation would not be educated properly. So it is necessary to educate women, which would become “companions of man” by progressing in knowledge and virtue. At the present the situation has changed and the participation and involvement of women in education is not anymore a concern, at least in most Western countries. According to Rachels, in the 60s- 70s that the men are rational and women emotional was dismissed. What remains crucial is relationship between public virtue, which is attributed to men’s reason, and private virtue attributed to women’s virtues.

Yet some still see a distinction between female’s morality and the men’s one. Galligan states that women moral orientation is caring for others, which is a care in a personal level that is not concerned for humanity in general (Rachels, 2003, p.161). He also states that women’s are sensitive to needs of others and that leads to a different voice. Thus, how different is the ethics of care from the male approach?

The “male way of thinking” appeals to impersonal principles while “female way of thinking” is taking care of others in a personal way (Rachels, 2003, p. 164). This seems somehow really far-fetched for women who have acquired knowledge and progressed their morality. However, Nel Noddings states that the basic notions of ethics of care are “ intuition and feeling rather than principle” (Rachels, 2003, p.170). In 1990 Virginia Held advocated that maybe caring, empathy, and feelings for others should be central to moral theory instead of the abstract rules of reason (Rachels, 2003, p.164).

Let’s take Kant. If we would always act in family and with friends according to “ought to” as rational beings, than parents would be just doing their duty and not loving their kids. The ethics of care than is more suitable and “duties” are not fundamental, and it suggests that personal relationships are prior and according to Rachels that is a sound moral conception (Rachels, 2003, p. 169). And how is this possible that women have a different morality? According to Rachels,  “ethic of care can be just psychological conditioning that girls receive” (Rachels, 2003, p. 166). Nevertheless that is also related to some religious aspects, that even though have been said to be neglected by reason are prominent in moral theory. Furthermore, the roots of morality are strongly held in the Judeo-Christian tradition. According to Donagan, the universal laws in the ethics of the Western world is mainly which emphasize reason specify what is morally permissible and absolutely forbidden. According to the religious perspective humans are half animal and half rational. By bodily nature men are brute animals and by virtue we are rational. It is said in Genesis 1:26-27 that God created both man and women in his own image. So humanity being created as (half-) rational by God, means that “our reason can ‘participate’ or take part in divine reason’” (Johnson, 1993, p.20). This dichotomy came “down to earth” and men and women were seen different which in religious perspective, either because God created Adam first or because Eve ate the forbidden fruit of knowledge that descended Adam and Eve from Paradise. This entails that if we want an absolute moral theory we should remove this dichotomy, which is religiously inherited even those theories of moral reasoning. In Kant’s theory, as Johnson discusses, there is the main break with rational ethics with God. According to Johnson, Kant “…replaces divine reason with a universal reason, but he preserves the absolute and transcendent character of reason” (Johnson, p.25). So we are free rational creatures not subordinated by God, but not all of us, since Kant excludes the possibility of reason to women.

Johnson states that in the traditional rationalist theory: “Law induces or restrains, by virtue of the force of reason. We are moral insofar as we bring our willpower under the constraints of such universal law, and thereby exert force and control over our bodily actions” (Johnson, 1993, p. 29). By referring to God and to divine law and reason, then human reason through its participation in the divine one can get access to the fundamental principles or moral laws binding us all. Central to this is that reason is practical so it means that it guides our actions of will. If we accept that women do not exercise the power of reason equally as men, then we are left just with the Ethics of Care. To summon up, the Ethics of Care attributed to females holds that women are sensitive to the needs of others and care in a personal level (Galligan), intuition and feelings are vital to it (Noddings), and finally caring, empathy and feelings for the others, in the ethics of care, should be central to moral theory and replace the abstract rules of reason (Held). A new Moral Imagination theory has been introduced and it emphasizes the role of empathy.

Empathetic imagination has become very important to moral theory since it is an “imaginative empathetic projection into the experience of other people” (Johnson, 1993, p. 199). Here we see the shift from the not-personal universal reason of Kant, to the empathy of others which female ethics focuses on. Some philosophers have referred to subjective moral theory but in female ethics the involvement in empathy is not merely imagination, but deals with the feelings and needs of the others in a more personal level. Hume in his moral theory referred to sympathy and fellow feeling but yet did not refer to empathy as in empathetic imagination, which is concerned with imagining ourselves in different situations and conditions in different times. Johnson state that our attitude toward humanity should change and we should approach it “others worlds” “… not just by rational calculations, but also in imagination, feeling, and expression” (Johnson, 1993, p.200). He states that those people who are morally sensitive can live out through experiential imagination “the reality of others with whom they are interacting, or whom their actions might affect” (Johnson, 1993, p. 200). This approach, whose factor of empathy is crucial, is related to female ethics, but it does not mean that empathy is possible only for females. What female theory offered to moral theory is the new approach to humanity, and as Johnson states Moral Imagination, like the female ethics, “…undermines absolutist pretensions and supplies us with a range of possible meanings and directions that we might have previously overlooked” (Johnson, 1993, p.200). Therefore it opens a wide realm of diversity in our thinking and which makes possible to us to solve problems or accomplish our goal. Going a few steps further form female ethics, the role of imagination is very important and in Moral Law of morality, where the imaginative activity is neglected, rules “…get whatever meaning they have only from our interpretation of them, and all interpretation is irreducibly imaginative in character” (Johnson, 1993, p.31).

The Moral Law folk theory holds that “every aspect of morality is imaginative”(Johnson, 1993, p.13). Johnson more clearly advocates that fundamental moral concepts, understanding of situations and reasoning of situations are imaginatively structured and based on metaphors. Moreover, moral imagination doesn’t dictate the right thing to do, as the Moral Law theories tried and failed to since they “never gave the right thing to do either” (Johnson, 1993, p.187). This statement is doubtful because what this moral reasoning might have shown as the right thing was to prove its own failure and opened the new field of moral inquiry through imagination. In moral imagination, metaphors are crucial since they are not arbitrary or unmotivated. Metaphors produce us to the moral modesty about personal moral claims and recognition of the diversity of morally possible ways of living, thus moral knowledge. As it is mentioned below, the benefits or the consequences of moral imagination are similar to those of female ethics.

In conclusion, female ethics, with a focus on empathy, might have led to, after the failure of the cold reason, to moral imagination. Moral imagination theory is with the focus on the “experience of the others on more personal level”.  Female ethics, like moral imagination, disregards reason for the sake of a better relationship between humans and as Rachels puts it: “To be loving, loyal, and dependable is to be a certain kind of person, and neither as a parent nor as a friend is it the kind of person who impartially “does his duty” (Rachels, 2003, p.171). One of the benefits of female ethics and moral imagination is the exploration of possibilities for “human flourishing” (Johnson, p.31).

In 1979, Bronfenbrenner after some researches concluded that: “No society can long sustain itself unless its members have learned the sensitives, motives, and skills involved in assisting and caring for other human beings” (Berman, 1998, p.1). Once again, the female ethics, ethics of care, is seen as vital to our society. In addition, according to Berman, studies have shown that young college students are less involved in politics, community activities, in influence social values, etc. This is alarming because “our democratic culture and social wellbeing depend on the renewing energy of young people who have the sensitivities and vision to help create a better world. Indeed, the very fabric of our national community depends on the degree to which we care about and treat each other with respect and civility” (Berman, 1998, p.1). Regarding education it is better to teach students not with rigid and strict regulations but as Berman states: “The most productive instructional strategy for developing social responsibility, therefore, is to teach young people skills in empathy”(Berman, 1998, p.1). Berman also states that by being empathetic we are more concerned about the community. Grimshaw also acknowledges the frutifulness of female ethics, which is also related to moral imagination, and states:

“…in a world in which the activities and concerns which have traditionally been regarded as primarily female were given equal value and status, moral and social priorities would be very different from those of the world in which we live now” (Grimshaw, 1991, p. 499).

I conclude that if we all, not only females from which the female ethics sprung from, exercise empathy, which is possible for everyone to do, then we would see the world as a big family and the principles of female ethics, thus virtues of female character, would make it possible to consider every one of us a member of the same community in which caring about each other is vital to our living. My remaining question would be: Do our contemporary leaders, especially in politics, exercise empathy?


– Berman, S. H. (1998) The bridge to civility: Empathy, Ethics and Service, American Association of School of Administrators. Retrieved from:


– Cottingham J. (1996) Western Philosophy: An Anthology, Blackwell Publishers.

– Johnson M. (1993) Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics, The University Chicago Press.

– Rachels, J. (2003) The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 4th edition, New York: McGraw- Hill

– Grimshaw, J. (1991), The idea of a female ethic in “A Companion to Ethics”, edited by Singer, P. Basil Blackwell.