Feminist ethics is concerned with how people can live together with others in healthy, productive ways and how we can build social or political structures to support this. As a way of thinking and acting that is fundamentally transformative and concerned with human good, feminism is itself normative. Its resistance to codification and preference for contextualization mean that its applications for communication and media are implied, rather than explicit; feminist philosophers, especially ethicists, rarely focus on media per se. Nonetheless, feminist ethics – derived from feminist insights and theories – is highly relevant to communication and media, as practices and as subjects of research.
Of central concern for feminists are media representations: news that demonizes subordinated populations or neglects vulnerable communities, sexually exploitative advertising, entertainment content that traffics in gross stereotyping, objectification, and symbolic annihilation. Besides issues of content, feminist approaches to ethical dilemmas in media may be derived from several strands of feminist work, each elaborated below. First is the issue of feminist ethics itself, a debate over whether women and men behave in fundamentally different ways, including with respect to ethical reasoning. Feminists’ concerns with methodology and researcher–subject relationships apply both to media and communication scholarship, and to media practice. Feminist activists’ complaints about workplace discrimination and their experimentation with organizational forms also provide accounts of ethics in media workplaces.
The Emergence And Development Of Feminist Ethics
Gilligan’s (1982) In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development was a ground-breaking study of women’s ways of analyzing and resolving ethical dilemmas. Gilligan accused then-prevailing notions about moral development – based upon abstract notions of rights, rules, and justice – of ignoring women’s distinctive ways of thinking. Interviews with women convinced Gilligan that women’s moral development emphasizes care, relationships, and responsibility. “[A] morality of responsibility and care begins with a self who is enmeshed in a network of relations to others, and whose moral deliberation aims to maintain these relations” (Kittay & Meyers 1987, 10).
Gilligan was criticized for essentializing sex and gender, falsely universalizing women, and ignoring the distorting impacts of a history of sex stereotyping and subordination (Steiner 1989). Some feminist ethicists remain unreceptive to ethics based on caring. Still, for the next two decades, feminist scholars openly challenged utilitarian, contract, neo-Kantian or rights-based theories.
While scholars seemed originally to assume that women’s ways of thinking were feminist, Gilligan (1995) eventually distinguished between a feminine ethic of care, emphasizing special obligations and interpersonal relationships, and a feminist ethic of care, which exposed the disconnections of feminine selflessness. Moreover, Gilligan now denies that care and justice are opposites; nor is one a better form than the other. The net effect of the emphasis on face-to-face and personal relationships was to mitigate the impersonality of justice and rights-based models, and challenge abstract, universalized and disembodied conceptions that inherently marginalized women as moral agents and excluded women’s experiences as a source of moral reflection.
Attempts To Revise The Ethic Of Care
Some feminists have tried to extend or amend the ethic of care. Given her concern that an ethic of empathy discourages self-reflection, and that caregivers may indulge in self-righteous anger or manipulation, Koehn (1998) emphasizes dialogue. She would carve out a space where receivers of care can contest the expectations of caregivers; her dialogic female ethics thus incorporates, she says, the principles of male ethics into the consultative ethos of female ethics. Others have integrated care and justice approaches, arguing that this integration raises political questions about who needs what kinds of care. Even Gilligan eventually conceded that all relationships, public and private, can be characterized in terms of equality and attachment; both inequality and detachment are morally questionable. Tronto insists that “care is not solely private or parochial; it can concern institutions, societies, even global levels of thinking” (1995, 145).
Conceiving caring in the neighborly sense as well as at the universal level, Denzin (1997) and Christians (2002) advocate “feminist communitarian ethics.” This takes the community as ontologically and morally prior to persons and presumes that values, moral commitments, and existential meanings are negotiated dialogically. Denzin and Christians see this as facilitating civic transformation and promoting universal solidarity. Communitarianism, they say, takes as fundamental the social nature of the self, the connection of personal dignity and communal well-being, as well as the importance of care, justice, and interpersonal respect.
Applying The Ethic Of Care To Research
Among other implications for communication and media research, caring as an ethical way of knowing requires researchers to be highly self-reflective about their ethical and scientific obligations, especially to subjects, so they do not objectify or “otherize” those being studied. Researchers must be self-conscious in deciding whose problems are important (those of vulnerable communities), what to research (with potential for transformative impact), and how and when to share it (among subjects themselves, as the research proceeds). Feminist ethics insists that researchers be humble, acknowledge their partiality, and not claim to have “the” knowledge; researchers are held accountable for their methods and their effects.
Feminist scholars, especially Sandra Harding (1993; 2004), challenge andocentric science not merely as bad but as unethical, given that its ideological practices and procedures conceal how power works, rather than revealing it. Feminist standpoint theory is thus also highly relevant, with its emphasis on consistent attention to how knowledge is always socially situated. Standpoint researchers start with the lives of marginalized peoples. Dominant classes do not need to understand those they dominate, and therefore do not understand them. However, since marginalized people are compelled to understand their oppressors, careful listening to them enables researchers to foreground and then incorporate bias into their method. Such knowledge-seeking concedes that inquiry and representation are inevitably partial and perspectival; reflexivity discloses partiality. Again, standpoint theorists’ claim that strong reflexivity produces “strong objectivity” is not uncontested; it may ignore how women’s lives are themselves socially constructed.
Denzin (1997), a prominent scholar of qualitative research methods, especially in communication, says that ethnographically, feminist communitarian ethics requires giving participants a voice in research design (a position long advocated by feminist scholars), and building collaborative, reciprocal, friendly, trusting relations with subjects. Rejecting positivism’s ethical principles (beneficence, anonymity, and justice, its norms are grounded in community: research serves the community and reflects a community’s multiple voices so that participants can act to transform their social world. This also echoes critiques of empiricist epistemology, with its (misguided) view of agents of knowledge as culturally and historically disembodied individuals and of knowledge as homogeneous, unitary, and consistent.
Feminist Ethics Of Media Professionals
Foundational literature in feminism describes care almost entirely in the context of private and/or personal relationships. This would seem by definition to exclude application of a care ethics to professional relationships, or at least the kind of abstract relationships that media professionals have with audiences. Articulating a practicable ethic of care for journalism requires at a minimum extending the world of moral considerability beyond the family to include caring for strangers and communities. Ethical schemas that work only for women, or only in the private or intimate domain, will not suffice.
Nevertheless, caring can be reconstructed. A politicized and “socialized” caring applies to journalism practice, as well as public relations, photojournalism, and other media work. Again, as with epistemology, the ethic of care has implications, including decisions about what to report on (important problems, with potential for having impact) and making journalism accessible to those most disenfranchised; and about the proper relationship of reporter to subjects (not “othering” interviewees). Feminist theorizing also implies something about the need for reporters to be humble, to acknowledge their privilege, and not claim to have complete knowledge about others. Media ought to serve the community, represent many voices (again especially of the marginalized), and critique power. Denzin calls for a (feminist) “communitarian journalism that treats communication and newsmaking as value-laden activities and as forms of social narrative rooted in the community” (1997, 157). He applauds public journalism and asks ethnographers to function as public journalists.
Given the ongoing concern about objectivity in journalism, the concept of “strong objectivity” has important, albeit subversive, applications. Standpoint epistemology requires journalists to rethink their craft “from the position of marginalized Others, thus uncovering unconscious ethnocentric, sexist, racist, and heterosexist biases that distort news production” (Durham 1998, 132). At the very least, this means journalists using those without power or privilege as sources and acknowledging their own position.
Relevant here is Fraser’s discourse ethics, emphasizing a contextual, collective dimension in order to advocate the standpoint of the collective concrete other. For Fraser, norms of collective solidarities as expressed in shared but non-universal social practices should govern interactions. She insists that people need enough collective control over the means of interpretation sufficient to enable them to participate in moral and political deliberation; “that is, to speak and be heard, to tell one’s own life-story, to press one’s claims and point of view in one’s own voice” (1986, 428). This requires journalists to abandon formalist, rights-based ethics privileging neutrality and to engage in self-reflection, deliberation, and informed debate. Not all intimate relationships and contexts are moral. Not all political “causes” are equally progressive. Thus, journalists must both evaluate and help audiences evaluate claims about suffering and policies to ameliorate suffering.
Feminist Ethics And The Workplace
Feminist scholars are also divided on how best to organize work. But relevant to workplace structures in media organizations and other communication organizations is feminists’ critique of the distorting and distorted polarity between public arenas as the legitimate site of work (and masculinity) and a private arena devalued for its association with emotional, domestic, and reproductive processes (and women). Feminists have experimented with horizontal and collective forms of organization and organizing that are flexible and rotating and that grant agency rather than objectifying people. Notably feminist work or organization practices may fail to merge personal and emotional dimensions with rational, political, and professional dimensions. Indeed, the aspirationalist aspect of feminist ethics, and feminism’s openness to contradiction, or at least to provisional, experimental processes, explain failures to achieve ethical purity. Ashcraft (2000) studied a feminist organization whose principles of “ethical communication” mandated members to disclose emotions and “name” conflict. However, this produced tensions. For example, in the name of empowerment and ethics, the system subjected interpersonal relationships to scrutiny and, ironically, preserved boundaries.
Nevertheless, presumably feminist ethical principles (caring, protecting those disenfranchised, understanding people as situationally embedded, and resisting sexism) imply active opposition to workplace sexism, including unfair wage scales, sexual harassment, and undermining active parenting. Creating double binds for women (that is, defining professionalism as acting like men but then judging women’s behaviors as unsuitable because they seem like men’s behaviors) is thus unethical.
Finally, an open question remains as to whether feminist ethics must always rely on ideas about gender or sex differences. Feminism as a political theory takes women seriously. Feminism as a movement hopes to transform social and political relationships to eliminate patriarchal distortion. Nonetheless, as a social construct, albeit a consistently powerful one, gender is assumed to be interstructured with sexual orientation, class, race, ethnicity, and religion. Feminism’s ethical and epistemological principles need not always privilege women. Ultimately, a feminist ethic will take seriously values (community) and responsibilities (caring) long associated with women, without insisting that all women are always oppressed and pressed into economically, socially, and culturally dependent roles. The history of male bias in ethics does not require feminist ethics to reify women’s experience.
- Ashcraft, K. L. (2000). Empowering “professional” relationships: Organizational communication meets feminist practice. Management Communication Quarterly, 13(4), 347–392.
- Christians, C. G. (2002). Norman Denzin’s feminist communitarian ethics. Studies in Symbolic Interaction, 25, 167–177.
- Denzin, N. K. (1997). Interpretive ethnography: Ethnographic practices for the 21st century. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Durham, M. G. (1998). On the relevance of standpoint epistemology to the practice of journalism: The case for “strong objectivity.” Communication Theory, 8(2), 117–140.
- Fraser, N. (1986). Toward a discourse ethic of solidarity. Praxis International, 5(4), 425 – 429.
- Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Gilligan, C. (1995). Hearing the difference: Theorizing connection. Hypatia, 10(2), 120 –127.
- Harding, S. (1993). Rethinking standpoint epistemology: What is “strong objectivity”? In L. Alcoff & E. Potter (eds.), Feminist epistemologies. New York: Routledge, pp. 49 – 82.
- Harding, S. (ed.) (2004). The feminist standpoint theory reader: Intellectual and political controversies. New York: Routledge.
- Kittay, E. F., & Meyers, D. T. (eds.) (1987). Women and moral theory. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Koehn, D. (1998). Rethinking feminist ethics: Care, trust and empathy. New York: Routledge.
- Steiner, L. (1989). Feminist theorizing and communication ethics. Communication, 12(3), 157–173.
- Tronto, J. C. (1995). Care as a basis for radical political judgments. Hypatia, 10(2), 141–149.