Que nous veulent les lois du juste et de l’injuste?† He is to be stripped naked of everything, save justice. ‡
I. Feminism, Communitarianism and the Critique of Justice.
1. 1982 saw the publication of Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice and Michael Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, each of which came to exert an extraordinary hold on political and social theory in the ensuing decades. Though they came out of different disciplines – Gilligan’s book, a critique of Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, is a work of developmental psychology, whilst Sandel’s, a communitarian critique of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice , is a work of political philosophy – both took aim at the same targets, namely at a certain a Kantian conception of the moral standpoint and a related notion of the moral self. Having these common targets enabled feminist theorists building on Gilligan’s work to form a formidable alliance with communitarian political philosophers, an alliance fortified by the assumption that Kantian moral theory and liberal political philosophy were consanguine.
2. Gilligan inherits this assumption from Kohlberg’s moral psychology. Kohlberg worked in the tradition of the genetic structuralism of Jean Piaget, whose work, The Moral Judgment of the Child , was significantly influenced by the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kohlberg was a professor at Harvard and a colleague of Rawls’s. Rawls had emphasised the Kantian and constructivist credentials of his theory of justice primarily in order to distinguish it from utilitarianism and varieties of moral realism. Kohlberg took this as grounds to interpret the theory of justice as fairness as a deontological ethics and a general theory of right conduct, à la Kant. Consequently Kohlberg was happy to rank Rawls’s theory of justice alongside Kant’s ethics and the Golden Rule at stage 6. According to Kohlberg a stage 6 morality, a principled morality of rights and duties, had to satisfy certain internal formal criteria of adequacy, universalizability, reversibility, prescriptivity, and primacy. Kohlberg argued that Rawls’s idea of choosing principles of justice behind a veil of ignorance in the original position satisfied these criteria better than welfarist, contractual and utilitarian theories which he located (to the consternation of their proponents) at Stage 5, better even than Kant’s categorical imperative, and that it was therefore cognitively and philosophically the most adequate form of moral reasoning. So whereas Rawls used the term ‘justice’ in a specific sense, captured in his two principles, and restricted their application in the first instance to the basic institutions of society, Kohlberg interpreted justice as fairness as a moral theory in the sense of general theory of right conduct. In my view this interpretation of Rawls is mistaken, for his notion of justice is not materially equivalent with the notion of morality or moral rightness. Still, Gilligan, and a numerous feminist theorists inspired by her work, followed Kohlberg in assuming that it is.
3. According to Gilligan the empirical evidence thrown up by Kohlberg’s experiments suggested that women were less likely to reach the higher stages of moral development (5 and 6), which Kohlberg called the “Postconventional, Autonomous or Principled Level”, and more likely to remain at the “Conventional Level”, clustering especially around stage 3 where Kohlberg situated approval seeking “good boy/nice girl” behaviour and conformity to social roles. Gilligan accepted this finding, but offered a different explanation. She began to notice that women had a recognisably different way of approaching moral problems to men; one that accentuated care, sensitivity to and responsibility for others rather than rights and duties; one that emphasised relationships and interconnections rather than separation and individuality. She noticed that when faced with moral dilemmas, women tended to seek different solutions to men, that they had a different order of priorities, that they were sensitive to different evidence and to features of situations often ignored by men. She put forward the thesis that in moral matters women had a “different voice” to men.
This hypothesis allowed Gilligan to radically revise Kohlberg’s conclusions. Instead of inferring that these women had failed to develop into fully mature moral beings, Gilligan inferred instead that there was something awry with Kohlberg’s scale of moral development. Rather than seeing them as immature, she argued that women have an “alternative conception of maturity”. Women’s’ apparent inadequacy was a function of Kohlberg’s definition of adequacy as the satisfaction of the formal criteria of universalisability and reversibility: in other respects, such as the awareness of the complexity and ambiguity of situations, and the relevance of personality, it is more refined, nuanced and in this respect more adequate. Kohlberg’s 6 stage theory of moral development was skewed in favour of certain ways of formal reasoning to which his male subjects were more inclined the females. So although Kohlberg’s Stage 6 – the (alleged) Kantian-Rawlsian conception of the moral standpoint – might have represented the highest stage of male development, it did not represent the highest stage of child development. Gilligan suggested that women an alternative conception of the moral standpoint, conceived not as a hierarchy of ever more general principles, but as an interconnected web of substantive reason-giving considerations, the force and relevance of which are context sensitive. Gilligan concludes by suggesting that her study of women’s’ experience and of what she calls the “ethic of care” has helped to expand “the concept of identity” to include “the experience of interconnection” and to enlarge “the moral domain” (at the post-conventional level – GF) to include the aspects of responsibility and care in relationships.
4. Gilligan’s In a Different Voice is a profound, original and suggestive study but its conclusions are unclear. Gilligan, it is well known, hovers between two different conclusions. At times she suggests that women and men have fundamentally different and incompatible ways of moral reasoning: in a later essay she explicitly argues that what she calls an “ethic of care” is “fundamentally incompatible” with an “ethic of justice”, a conclusion, incidentally, not supported by the slender basis of empirical evidence she presents in her study. At others, she argues that the ethic of care and the ethic of justice are complementary post-conventional moral outlooks and that the Kohlbergian model needs to be adjusted if it is to adequately account for women’s as well as men’s moral experiences. There is another crucial ambivalence in Gilligan’s work that is less well noted. Is she merely arguing that Kohlberg’s model of post-conventional morality is incorrect, because not sufficiently inclusive (e.g. of women’s voices, and the various phenomena to which they are sensitive) and that his moral phenomenology is therefore incomplete? Or is she making the deeper, normative criticism that moral agents who think only in terms of rights and duties (i.e. on her view most men) are somehow deficient? Is the upshot of her critique that there is something wrong with a Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, or is that there is something wrong with the actually existing moralities that Kohlberg ranks at Stage 6?
5. Gilligan’s work is in the first instance an internal criticism of Kohlberg’s model of moral development, and is probably best understood as such. Nonetheless, her views h
ave been thought to pose some tricky questions for normative ethics, more broadly.
1. Is care a genuinely moral concept?
2. Is the ethic of care a rival to an ethic of justice? Are they competing and incompatible conceptions of what morality is? Or is the ethic of care complementary to the ethic of justice?
3. Is care particularistic and personal (unlike justice) or impartial and universalisable (like justice)?
4. How do considerations of care relate to the kind of impartial and universalisable concerns that are often (not least, but not just by Kohlberg) taken to characterise morality. Which has priority, if any, justice or care?
“Vieles wäre/Zu sagen davon” as Hölderlin once wrote, and indeed these questions have been thoroughly discussed, if not settled, in the literature. Rather than add to that debate I wish to raise a prior question, namely what notions of justice and care are being counterposed in such debates? For the very idea that the relation between justice and care is the salient one, on which moral theory should focus its attention, makes sense only on the questionable assumption (see 2. above) that the notion of justice is materially equivalent with that of morality/moral rightness. If so, it cannot be Rawls’s notion of justice – the one tailored in the first instance to the basic structure of society – that is in play, but another notion, found in Kohlberg and Gilligan and elsewhere, namely ‘justice’ construed as a general moral theory of right conduct.
The relevant concept of care also needs careful handling. The question of whether care is directed to oneself, or to another person, is central to the issues of whether it is a genuinely moral concept, and of how it relates to impartial notions such as ‘justice’ and ‘right/wrong’. Morality and justice in the Kantian and Rawlsian liberal traditions are usually construed as other-regarding, and it is often assumed that caring is an exclusively other–regarding activity. This can be taken as evidence that care is a bona fide moral notion. However, the activity of caring can equally be self-regarding. There is nothing essentially altruistic about care. Indeed, care of the self, as much as care of others, has since ancient times been considered a peculiarly feminine activity.
Second, the verb ‘to care’, in English, can be used with two different prepositions which have two quite distinct senses: to care for and to care about. In the first sense, caring for somebody can (and nowadays usually does) mean actively looking after them, tending to their needs. Women have traditionally been assigned the role of primary carer to their children in this sense of care. In the second sense, caring about somebody means valuing them, appreciating them and taking them into consideration. If I care about someone, their fate matters to me.
These two points open up four different notions of caring: a) caring for oneself; b) caring for others; c) caring about oneself; d) caring about others. The answers to the various questions set out in 5. above will obviously differ greatly depending on which of the four notions is in play. Take the question of whether care (let us only consider the other-regarding senses of care) is a universal notion. It is physically impossible that one person care for every other, and hence that everyone care for everyone else. It is not impossible, though it would be by no means easy, for one person to care about everyone else, and hence for everyone to care about everyone else. Nor is it impossible that each person should care equally about everyone else, as impartialist moralities such as Kantianism and the saner versions of utilitarianism demand. So the first notion of care is not universalisable, while the second is. If we assume that morality requires impartiality and that impartiality requires universalisability then we should say that while the latter cannot be a genuinely moral notion the former can.
6. Gilligan’s criticisms of Kohlberg emerged more or less simultaneously with Sandel’s critique of Rawls’ liberalism. Sandel claimed that Rawls’s liberalism was founded on, and hence consanguine with, Kant’s “deontological ethic”, and infers from this that arguments aimed at Rawls’s “deontological liberalism” can do double service as argument against Kant’s moral theory and vice versa. According to Sandel, although Rawls replaces Kant’s untenable two worlds metaphysics – the doctrine of transcendental idealism and the idea of noumenal agency – with the device of the original position and the veil of ignorance (plus some assumptions from rational choice theory) he ends up with a conception of the self not dissimilar to Kant’s, which suffers from not dissimilar defects. Sandel attacked two of Rawls’s allegedly Kantian doctrines in particular: first, the priority of the right over the good, or the primacy of justice; and second, the priority of the self over its ends.
Rawls’s stipulation that principles of justice be chosen under a veil of ignorance is supposed to model conditions of fairness and equality by eliminating any individual or group-specific information by which they can calculate their own advantage and tailor their distributive principles accordingly. According to Sandel, this device has three deleterious effects: first, it deprives the choosers of any individuating features and generic differences. Second, it reduces all participants to one and the same abstract rational person, and hence it cannot tell us anything interesting about how a plurality of human beings can found a political association. Third, and worst of all, the single self behind the veil of ignorance is “incapable of constitutive attachments” and devoid of “constitutive ends”. Sandel (bizarrely) calls this self “unencumbered” and objects that it is “wholly without character, without moral depth”.
Sandel’s criticisms were enormously influential. One legacy of his influence is that the phrase he uses to describe his target “the unencumbered self” is still part of the lingua franca of political philosophy, even though it makes little sense in ordinary English. But although Sandel’s critique proved to be persuasive, this was not because its point was clear. I shall not venture onto these well-trodden mudflats here. I want only to draw attention to a tension in Sandel’s critique of Rawls that mirrors the ambivalence we noted in Gilligan’s critique of Kohlberg. On the one hand Sandel’s claim seems to be that the picture of the “unencumbered self” contained in the original position is false, and that the concomitant liberal picture of society as a “procedural republic”, i.e. as an aggregate of lone, rational, unencumbered selves who value choice above all things, is also false. On the other hand Sandel argues that the Rawlsian liberal picture of both self and society is true, more is the pity. Here he makes the normative claim that, due in part to the nefarious influence of liberal ideas and political theories, self and society have become what liberalism says they are. Liberalism (among other things) has led to the emergence of an atomised society of self-interested rational choosers with no orientation to the common good, and is to this extent responsible for the atrophy of political association and for the increase in feelings of alienation and disempowerment among citizens. Like the analogous claim in Gilligan’s work (see 4.) these two claims, directed respectively at the theory, and the object of the theory, are at odds with one another.
7. This ambiguity aside. Gilligan’s critique of Kohlberg and Sandel’s critique of Rawls are congruent in two further respects. First, they take aim at the same target, the alleged Rawlsian-Kantian conception of the moral standpoint and its attendant doctrines: the privileging of questions of right and justice over questions of the good; the overemphasis on autonomy and separation, and the
occlusion of the self’s constitutive relations to others. Second, they make the same questionable assumption, namely that Rawls’s conception of justice as fairness is a moral theory in the sense of a general theory of right conduct.
These congruities encouraged the misapprehension that criticisms of a theory of moral development, which may have implications for normative ethical theory, can serve without further ado as the central plank of a critique of both actually existing morality and social and political institutions. The temptation to which many writers in at the time succumbed was to think that Gilligan’s critique of Kohlberg and the communitarian critique of Rawls added up to a feminist critical theory of society.
II. The Feminist Criticism of Moral Theory
8. Let us focus on the feminist critique of morality. There are two different criticisms inspired by Gilligan and Sandel that are levelled both at the conception of the self as the subject of rights and duties, and at the moral standpoint. The first of these is that the moral self is formal, abstract and neutral, and as such devoid of any substantive characteristics and qualities and a fortiori of gender. (A parallel criticism is levelled at the moral standpoint.) The second is that the moral self is a male self masquerading as neutral and universal. (Again there is a parallel criticism of the moral standpoint.) Both criticisms can be found in the literature, but it cannot be that both are correct, for the moral self/the moral standpoint cannot be male and gender-neutral.
9. The first line of criticism is the weaker and more defensible of the two. It contains three related claims: (a) that the moral self is conceived as a merely formal and abstract person, the holder of certain rights and the subject of certain duties; (b) that the moral standpoint is defined by formal criteria of universalizability, reversibility of perspective; (c) that the moral domain is, as a result, narrowly construed, i.e. that it is restricted to matters of justice, understood as a domain constituted by the rights and duties belonging to the person, and that it excludes questions of the good. Morality so conceived, it is argued, cannot accommodate the kind of moral experiences that, Gilligan maintains, are characteristic of women; it is blind to the importance of considerations of care and responsibility for others. This leads to a “privatisation”, “personalisation” and a “devaluation” of women’s moral experiences. Note that this criticism presupposes, rather than shows, that care, responsibility for others and their attendant emotions and affections, etc. are in fact central moral concerns, and that their exclusion from the moral standpoint and omission from Kohlberg’s higher stages is a distortion of the moral phenomena.
These criticisms form part of a dispute within the theory of moral development, and more broadly within moral theory, a dispute about the scope of morality, the phenomenology of the moral, and the moral relevance of certain values that women appear to cherish more highly than men. But those who level the criticism often give the impression that the stakes are much higher, and that the target is the moral, social and political reality of modern liberal-democracy. So we must ask how claims (a), (b) and (c) get a purchase on the exclusions that matter, i.e. not those that matter only to moral theorists and moral psychologists e.g., the scoring of the care ethic at Kohlberg’s Stage 3 or the restriction of the moral domain to questions of ‘justice’, but that matter to most actual women and therefore to feminist social critics, i.e., the whole gamut of social and historical exclusions, unfair discriminations, injustices, and inequalities that women have suffered. The connection between (a), (b) and (c) and the exclusions that matter, the concrete social and political implications of the former for women’s emancipation, is by no means obvious.
10. One such connection is implied by the conclusion that the features of Stage 6 moralities that feminism criticises in (a), (b) and (c) lead to the “privatization” or “personalisation” of women’s experience. This has been taken to mean that the historical injustices towards and discriminations against women that have been concealed by the gender-system cannot be recognised as such from the standpoint of ‘justice’ or morality, because they are considered as domestic or internal family matters. Rawls rebuts this objection to justice as fairness, by pointing out that gender oppression and the exclusions that matter can be revealed and criticised by his principles of justice. A similar counter-claim could be entered on behalf of Kant’s ethics: surely much of the sexism, oppression and unfair discrimination to which women have been subject is immoral judged from the standpoint of morality too. The failure of this objection to hit its target highlights the difficulty: there is no royal road to the feminist criticism of society from feminist objections to morality (or rather moral theory) inspired by Gilligan and communitarianism.
Another alleged connection is that moral theory is, among other things, responsible for (perhaps because it is held to be constitutive of) the faults of present society, namely the lack of moral substance, the fragile nature of social order, the state of widespread anomie and alienation. Sandel assumes as much (see 6. above) as does MacIntyre in some moods; and Benhabib, though she rejects their communitarian ‘solutions’, endorses this diagnosis of the problem. It is a tempting thought. After all if the social and political problems mentioned above are partly or – less plausibly – entirely caused by our having an incorrect moral theory/conception of the moral standpoint, then perhaps they can be mended by our having a correct one. In one fell swoop the feminist criticism of moral theory becomes a critical theory of society, its concrete social and political implications are manifest.
The trouble with this view is that it vastly overestimates the influence of moral theory and theorists. If moral theory has any formative effect on moral practices, then it is a diffuse and to all intents and purposes negligible one. So, one moral theorist’s criticism of another’s moral theory makes little difference to actually existing morality or moral psychology, let alone to social and political reality. The influence, insofar as there is one, is surely the other way around, moral theory is based, among other things, on sound moral phenomenology, on description and analysis of moral attitudes, intuitions, practices, and concepts.
11. The second line of criticism is that the moral self and the moral standpoint only appear universal and gender-neutral, but are really reflections of an inherently male ideal. This argument, which insofar as it goes is consistent with Gilligan’s conclusions, can, and usually is, extended by the claim that morality is therefore patriarchal and sexist. This extension to the criticism looks like a variant of Marx’s thesis in the German Ideology that the “ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” This Marxian criticism has some prima facie plausibility. For example, one might think that the beliefs, attitudes and values that characterise women’s moral self-identity somehow reflect the material, socio-economic conditions (and also the cultural and symbolic conditions) under which they are formed. Consider the case of the women whose moral development according to Kohlberg is arrested at stage 3, the stage characterised by interpersonal relationships of “mutual affection, gratitude, and concern for one another’s approval”. It can be argued that this moral self-understanding is shaped by the actual experiences of the women Kohlberg studied. On this view, the very traits that traditionally define women’s goodness, and that according to Kohlberg are manifested in approval-seeking b
ehaviour and helpfulness to others, i.e., family values and domestic virtues, are themselves merely ideological reflections of a patriarchal social organisation in which women are tied to home and family.
12. Catherine Mackinnon takes this extended (Marxist) line of criticism. She maintains that care (along with justice and morality tout court) is an expression of the dominant patriarchal ideology which contributes to women’s economic and social oppression. This, of course, is to turn the argument against Gilligan. Recall that Gilligan’s considered view is that the ethics of care is a complement to the ethics of justice and that the caring and nurturing values are bona fide moral concerns that have been devalued and excluded from the moral domain because they have been traditionally associated with women.
There are good reasons why few feminist social critics have taken this line. First, Marx’s dominant ideology thesis is notoriously problematic, no less so for feminism than for Marxism. One of the well-known difficulties facing it, is to explain why the theory is not itself just another expression of the dominant ideology. Why, we might also ask, is the feminist critique of morality not just another expression of the dominant patriarchal ideology, along with the ethic of care and the ethic of justice? Second, the argument leads to the conclusion that women’s emancipation means emancipation from morality, which in turn means that feminism cannot criticise women’s oppression and the inherent inequalities of patriarchal society as unjust and immoral. But this argument paints feminism into a corner, normatively speaking. For women’s subordination to men, the fact that they have been subject to unfair discrimination, and have had to bear an unfair burden of domestic labour etc., are unjust and are morally wrong, and should be able to be criticised as such. Moreover, as Joanne Meehan points out, tarring morality itself with the brush of patriarchy is of no practical help to women activists and members of women’s emancipation movements the world over who are struggling to make themselves heard and need all the moral support they can get.
III. Discourse Ethics and the Feminist Critique of Morality
13. Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action , a collection of essays in which Habermas outlines his programme of discourse ethics first appeared in English when the communitarian-feminist critique of morality had already gained widespread adherence. Discourse ethics is a deontological, universalist theory of morality, that is broadly speaking Kantian moral theories, and explicitly draws on (and extends) Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. The programme of discourse ethics sets out to elucidate and to justify the moral standpoint, which is supposed to be captured by the moral principle (U): A norm is valid only if
[a]ll affected can accept the consequences and the side effects the general observance of a controversial norm can be anticipated to have for the satisfaction of the interests of each individual.
As we have noted, any moral theory that attempts to capture the moral standpoint in a single principle will inevitably have a narrow conception of the moral domain. Habermas initially denied the point, but soon realised that he had to concede it. However, he continued to reject the criticism that this was a theoretical flaw arising from the fact that the moral principle (U) contains a severe condition that consequently few candidate norms meet. His settled position was, and is, that modern morality has shrunk to a hard core of universally valid norms (and a procedure principle for determining them) and the fact that there are few valid norms is a result of actual social and cultural change that his theory correctly models.
Habermas insists that this central core concerns questions of ‘justice’. This sounds like Rawls, but is not. Recall that for Habermas matters of justice are those that can be satisfactorily and appropriately settled by appeal to valid moral norms, i.e. norms that are amenable to consensus because they demonstrably embody “universalisable interests”. So for Habermas the term ‘justice’ is materially equivalent to the term ‘morality/moral rightness’, whereas for Rawls it is not. The similarity in terminology conceals a crucial difference in their respective theories, and has confused and misled a whole roster of commentators and critics and not least Rawls and Habermas themselves.
14. The programme of discourse ethics is, then, a universalist deontological moral theory, but of a peculiar kind. Most of its peculiarities reflect the fact that the programme forms part of a comprehensive theory of society. It differs in several respects from most other normative ethical theories including all the other moral theories that Kohlberg situates at the post-conventional level. For example, the basic questions of normative ethics are: What should one do and why? How should one live? Most moral theories – think for example of Kant’s ethics, Scanlon’s contractualism or utilitarianism – are designed to be put to work answering these first-order moral questions. Discourse ethics, by contrast, does not even purport to answer them. To see why this is, we have to know a little about what Habermas thinks morality is, and what he thinks discourse ethics is.
Habermas follows G. H. Mead in maintaining that the first order function of morality is to settle conflicts of interest in the lifeworld. Agents in modern societies aim to resolve such conflicts in discourses, which, Habermas maintains, arise whenever communication stalls and fails to yield a viable shared basis of action. Moral discourse is the medium in which agents conduct ongoing repairs the social fabric of the lifeworld. It is a kind of second order, reflective activity. It does not solve action conflicts directly, but aims to establish or renew the validity of moral norms, which then settle back into the lifeworld, the everyday sphere of action and speech. Discourse ethics is the theory which reconstructs the implicit rules of moral discourse, and which offers a (theoretical) justification of the moral standpoint. It is clear from this outline that discourse ethics is primarily a theoretical undertaking not a moral one. Discourse ethics is a kind of moral theory. As such it operates on a different level to the moral discourse and moral action about which it theorises: it does not tell moral agents which moral norms are valid, nor help them determine what they ought to do and why. These tasks are (allegedly) left entirely up to participants in actual moral discourse and to agents in the lifeworld.
Discourse ethics differs from other normative moral theories in another significant respect too. Moral discourse requires the participation of at least two people: it is intersubjective or dialogical. Habermas distinguishes it from moral theories such as Kant’s and from Golden Rules, which are monological in that they presuppose that each person reasoning alone can find out what morality requires. According to Kant moral agents must subject the maxim of their will to the test of universalisation in order to see whether it can be a moral law. The Golden Rule requires agents to ask whether or not, if they were the patient rather than the agent, they would like the action under question to be done to them, in order to determine whether it is permissible. Moral discourse, by contrast, aims to secure intersubjective agreement. It requires “a ‘real’ process of argumentation” to take place, and real discourses need more than one participant.
15. Discourse ethics initially enjoyed a fairly friendly reception from feminist philosophers, which is rather surprising given that it was a broadly Kantian, deontological, universalist moral theory that drew heavily upon Kohlberg. There are several reasons why this was so. First, discourse ethics appealed to a number of feminist social critics p
recisely because it was not a free-standing normative moral theory but part of a comprehensive critical social theory. Second, many feminist social critics stopped short of rejecting universalist moral theory outright, and set out, like Gilligan herself, only to modify it. The emphasis that Habermas laid on dialogue and intersubjectivity looked like the right kind of modification. If the basic defect of Stage 6 moralities was, according to Gilligan, that they are deaf to women’s’ distinctive moral voice, discourse ethics with its emphasis on the inclusion of others in discourse appeared to remedy this. It also avoided some of the communitarian objections to Rawls’s theory of justice, such as the objection that the selves who choose the principles of justice are “unencumbered” or to use Benhabib’s phrase “disembodied and disembedded”. By contrast participants in discourse were supposed to be real people involved in the actual practice of moral argumentation. Another objection to Rawls was that the persons behind the veil of ignorance are not a genuine plurality, since they have only generic identity as idealized rational choosers, and lack any feature by which they might be individuated and distinguished from one another. Discourse ethics appeared to avoid this objection too, since moral discourse inherently involves a plurality of participants.
16. That said, Habermas’s emphasis on the dialogical nature of discourse – his insistence that discourse is actual rather than hypothetical, and collective not individual – tended to conceal the very high degree of idealization it involved. The discipline of moral discourse, as Habermas conceives it, namely as a form of reasoned argument between interlocutors, involves ideal role taking. What ideal role taking involves can be gauged from principle (U). Who are the people who make up the “all” and the “each” to which principle (U) refers; what is the constituency of the moral community? Habermas’s answer is that it comprises not just all the participants in moral discourse, but all affected by the norm under consideration as participants in discourse. The number of participants in an actual discourse may, indeed usually will be, relatively small. The number of people affected by the general observance of a valid moral will be much vastly greater. The number of people potentially affected by the general implementation of a valid moral norm, together with its consequences and side-effects, now and in the foreseeable future will be greater still. This third constituency makes up the ‘moral community’ and indicates the true scope of a norm that aspires to universal validity in Habermas’s sense.
So how does a small number of actual participants in a discourse tell whether a norm can be welcomed by everyone in the moral community and is thus universally valid? How, in other words, are participants in an actual discourse to attain a ‘rationally motivated agreement’? Habermas’s answer is: by engaging in moral discourse and prosecuting it correctly. According to Habermas, the idealizing presuppositions of moral argumentation require each participant in discourse to exchange perspective with every other member of the moral community in order to see whether a candidate norm can be welcomed by all.
The discursive procedure, in fact, reflects the very operations Kohlberg postulates for moral judgements at the post-conventional level: complete reversibility of the perspectives from which participants produce their arguments; universality, understood as the inclusion of all concerned; and the reciprocity of equal recognition of the claims of each participant by all others.
Moral discourse in conformity with principle (U) demands that each person exchange perspective with every other member of the moral community.
To the objection that this degree of idealization and demandingness makes rationally motivated agreement in discourse virtually impossible, Habermas responds that (U) requires only counterfactual acceptability to all. The trouble is that this defence diminishes the supposed advantage of dialogical over monological theory, namely that it reconstructs the discursive agreement of actual participants rather than of hypothetical agents, and that it is a collective not an individual act. Even though Habermas purports simply to reconstruct the idealising features of discourse, and the very demanding principle (U), that he claims to find implicit our actual moral practices, rather than to invent, as he thinks Rawls does, “the basic norms of a well-ordered society on the drafting table” there is a high price to be paid: the moral community is populated largely with hypothetical others on whose behalf ‘advocatory’ discourses are carried out by actual participants in discourse. If this does not blur the distinction between monological and dialogical moral theories distinction entirely, it dramatically reduces the difference between them.
17. Viewed in this light discourse ethics, even though designed to overcome the perceived pitfalls of Kant, Rawls and Kohlberg, looks as if it might be susceptible to the three main criticisms that feminist social critics levelled at them. [See 9 (a), (b) and (c) above.] Criticism (a) of the abstractness of the moral self seems to apply, not to the actual participants in discourse, but to the hypothetical members of the moral community. Criticism (b) applies because Habermas has a narrow conception of the moral domain. Finally criticism (c) also applies. For Habermas claims that discourse in conformity with principle (U) is supposed to eliminate all “concrete value orientations” and “cultural value contents” as “non-generalisable”, with the result that the moral domain is narrowed down to all and only those issues that can be regulated in the light of norms that demonstrably embody universalisable interest, or, as he says, issues of ‘justice.’ Accordingly, Habermas draws a “razor-sharp” distinction between issues of ‘justice’ and the good life (though again he maintains this distinction is imposed on participants by the practice of moral discourse itself, and not due to his reconstruction of it.
IV. Benhabib’s Critique of Discourse Ethics and its Implications for a Feminist Critical Social Theory.
18. Despite the differences between discourse ethics and the other Stage 6 moral theories, it was not long before feminist criticisms aimed originally at the latter were turned against the former too. Benhabib’s work is crucial here. Her critique of moral theory (she makes all three of the criticisms we have looked at) began its life directed at Kohlberg and Rawls, but was later retooled and redirected against Habermas. These criticisms have been hugely influential, are still widely endorsed, and have set the terms of reference for much subsequent debate. It is worth a closer look at them to see whether, and if so how, she succeeds in redirecting the feminist critique of moral theory at discourse ethics, and whether, and if so how, she succeeds in making these criticisms relevant to feminist social criticism and critical social theory.
19. As one can see from the title of her now classic article, ‘The Generalized and the Concrete Other: The Kohlberg-Gilligan Controversy and Feminist Theory’, the lynchpin of Benhabib’s criticism is the distinction between the generalized and the concrete other. More fully, the distinction she wants to draws is one between the standpoint of the generalized other and the standpoint of the concrete other. Let us leave aside the idea of a standpoint – we shall return to it presently – and focus on the notions of the generalized other and of the concrete other, and on the distinction between them.
These are by no means straightforward. As the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once presciently warned his students: “To begin with one has to know what an other means”. Benhabib is talking about other people, not other ‘others’ s
uch as animals or things. The distinction between the generalised and the concrete other is a distinction between two different conceptions of the other person, and is compounded of three different layers.
The first layer is the distinction between general and particular others. A concrete other is a particular person who is not oneself, considered as a single and unique individual person. A general other is a person who is not oneself, considered only insofar as they have certain things in common with everyone else.
The second layer is the distinction between abstract and concrete others. Philosophically speaking ‘abstract’ means disengaged, taken out of its immediate surroundings, dispersed, separate, but it can also refer to something’s being derived by a mental process. ‘Concrete’ literally means grown together, cohesive, compounded; figuratively it means definite and actual. A concrete other is determinate and existing individual person. By opposing ‘generalized’ to ‘concrete’ Benhabib switches around the relata of the two distinctions general/particular and abstract/concrete, suggesting that generalized others are abstract, and concrete others particular.
The third layer has to do with process and state: the first term of the distinction, but not the second, has suffix ‘ize’ which has the grammatical function of making a noun or adjective into a verb. The past participle of the verb ‘to generalize’ is used as an adjective meaning ‘has been made general’ or ‘has become general as a result of a process’. A ‘generalized other’ is a conception of another person that is reached through a process of generalisation (and abstraction), a process that makes salient those features someone has in common with all other people, and that abstracts from those features peculiar to them. Now, generalisation need not be understood as mental act; it can also be construed as a real social and historical process. Philosophers such as Hegel, Marx and Weber, have argued that the inhabitants of modern mass-societies are formed by various processes of rationalization and thereby become general and abstract selves. This means roughly that they cannot but think of themselves and others in general ways and relate to all other people according to general rules and notions.
20. The phrase “the generalized other” itself was first introduced by G. H. Mead to denote a complex socially mediated perspective whereby “the social process of community enters as a determining factor into the individual’s thinking” such that “adopting the attitude of the generalized other means adopting “the attitude of the whole community.” This is the standpoint adopted by what he called a “larger self which can be identified with the interests of others”. For Mead, understanding this self’s relation to others is the key to grasping the social function of morality. Habermas’s discourse ethics was heavily influenced by Mead’s social theory. Fortunately we need not go into this here, since Benhabib does not use the notion of the “generalized other” in Mead’s sense. Rather she uses the term to denote moral agents at Kohlberg’s Stage 6, the occupants of the moral standpoint as characterised by the criteria of reversibility, universalisability and their conceptions of other persons. By contrast, “the concrete other” denotes the other person considered as a unique “individual with a concrete history, identity and affective-emotional constitution.” Benhabib claims that “in contemporary moral theory these two conceptions are viewed as incompatible, even as antagonistic”…; she wants to claim, on the contrary, that they “lie along a continuum”.
21. What should we make of the claim that contemporary moral theory holds that two different conceptions of the person (a generalized and a particular conception) and the two standpoints from which these conceptions are respectively reached (“the standpoint of the generalised other” and “the standpoint of the concrete other”) are incompatible and even antagonistic? As a comment on contemporary moral theory I find this claim obscure, but insofar as I understand it, I think it false; for the simple reason that there is no such thing as the standpoint of the concrete other. Let me explain what I mean.
When philosophers talk of ‘the standpoint of morality’ or ‘the standpoint of the generalized other’ they do not just mean a viewpoint. The notion of a ‘standpoint’ refers to a particular place one occupies or position one adopts in order to do something, in particular to get a good view of something. It can also mean the point from which one determines the relations of other things or from which one measures distance. The moral standpoint is the idea of a place one occupies in order to survey the moral domain and to see it aright.
22. The idea of the moral standpoint is a complex one. It does (or need not) not imply that the moral domain is a uniform terrain. It does, by contrast, imply that the moral is a bounded terrain, distinct from the non-moral. So defenders of the idea are committed to the further thesis that there is philosophically defensible way of correctly distinguishing (perhaps not sharply) the moral from the non-moral. Among the numerous philosophers who defend such a view, some, such as Kant, Scanlon and Habermas for example, argue furthermore that the moral standpoint can be captured by a single criterion or principle. Therefore, as we have already noted, these philosophers hold the moral domain to be both narrow and uniform. The mere idea of the moral standpoint, however, does not require this; it is compatible with a broad and non-uniform conception of the moral domain. One might accept that the moral standpoint cannot be demarcated by a single principle, and that moral domain is broad and variform, as Benhabib often insists, and not narrow and uniform, as Habermas claims. Yet it is still the case that there is only one moral standpoint, one place from which the moral domain can be viewed aright. Although different people may occupy the moral standpoint, they will converge on a single view (albeit a view of a broad and variform moral domain). That there is only one moral standpoint, and one moral point of view, is essential to the idea of a moral standpoint. The moral point of view, the point of view one takes up when one occupies the moral standpoint, is not one perspective or viewpoint among others. It is not relative to any particular context, or framework.
23. Now what has just been said of the moral standpoint applies also to what Benhabib calls “the standpoint of the generalized other”, whereas it does not apply to the “standpoint of the concrete other”. In fact, the notion of “the standpoint of the concrete other” makes no sense, if the meaning of ‘standpoint’ is the same as in the concept of the ‘standpoint of morality’ or the ‘standpoint of the generalized other’. By ‘the standpoint of the concrete other’ Benhabib means only the viewpoint of the other (particular) person, and there are as many of these viewpoints as there are other people. The viewpoint of a concrete other will be particular to them, relative to the context or framework of his or her embedded, particular, determinate, unique life. But if this is correct, the whole idea that there are two rival and competing standpoints is mistaken, and there is no question of an incompatibility or antagonism between two standpoints.
24. So how do we understand Benhabib’s allegation that Habermas limits “procedures of universalizability to the standpoint of the generalized other” and thereby makes the concrete other vanish from discourse? If we drop the talk of standpoints here, as I think we should, Benhabib’s criticism is that in adopting the moral standpoint (in a discourse that conforms to U) moral agents cannot but disregard the viewpoint of concrete other people. I believe, however that
a proper understanding of the ideal role taking imposed by discourse, shows that this cannot be right. The moral point of view is in no way incompatible with and opposed to the point of view of concrete particular (other) persons or agents. According to Habermas, each participant in discourse, in following the rules of argumentation, accedes to the viewpoint of every other actual participant in discourse, and beyond that to the viewpoint of every member of the moral community (see 14. above). On one reading, discourse requires that each person must put herself into the position of every other person possibly affected by the norm seriatim, in order to test whether it can be welcomed by all of them. These are actual persons, they are concrete others in Benhabib’s terms, and are not made to vanish from discourse. Phenomenologically speaking, this may not be a very good description of moral reasoning. Human beings are not computers. We cut corners by making imaginative leaps to cases where someone’s interest might not be satisfied, but rather thwarted, by general compliance with the norm in question, to cases where – to use Scanlon’s phrase – someone has good reason to reject the norm in question. Still, when we do this, we do so concretely, filling in the relevant details and particularities of these cases as we proceed; otherwise could not understand the situation of others, and it would be useless, if not impossible, to switch perspectives with them.
25. So, whilst it is true that (U) requires each participant in discourse to switch perspective with every other concrete individual other person qua member of the moral community, these others are not, and must not be, conceived as the generic, abstract, “disembodied and disembedded” individuals as Benhabib claims. In which case, it is not true that moral discourse (at least as Habermas understands it) makes the concrete other vanish, or blinds agents to the viewpoint of the concrete other. Participants in discourse have to adopt the (myriad) points of view of every other concrete person in order to ascertain whether their values and interests are generalizable or not. And contra Benhabib even the hypothetical others whose viewpoints we take up, and whose interests we must determine in the course of advocatory discourses, are in fact concrete, particular others. Her attempt to redirect Sandel’s criticism of the ‘unencumbered self’ (criticism a) in sections 9 and 17 above) at Habermas’s discourse ethics fails. Indeed her argument is not so much a criticism of Habermas’s conception of moral discourse as a proper explication of it.
Understood in this way, as explication rather than criticism, it helps bring to light a tension between Habermas’s talk of a ‘moral standpoint’, which he inherits from Kohlberg and Kant, and his insistence that discourse is a dialogical, intersubjective process, involving a plurality of moral agents. The idea of a moral standpoint is the idea of a point of view that can be taken up by every single person. This need not be thought of as a collective process, and it is easier not to think of it this way. The idea common to Kant and Rawls and Kohlberg is that each person takes up the moral point of view, and when all goes well, they come to or converge on a single view. ‘Standpoint’ talk is more indicative of the monological approaches to moral theory of Kant, Kohlberg and Rawls, from which Habermas wants to depart, than it is of the dialogical approach he wants to endorse. Habermas denies that a single person can have access to the moral standpoint; the aim of moral discourse is to arrive at what he calls “an ideally extended we-perspective” which is nicer way of putting his idea.
26. We have seen that there is no distinction between the standpoint of the concrete other and the standpoint of the generalized other, that it is not true that discourse ethics makes concrete others vanish from discourse, and that therefore Benhabib’s version of criticism (a) fails to apply. Criticism (b) namely that Habermas defines morality too narrowly fares better, but is in need of clarification. It can be understood either as the criticism that any theory which attempts to capture the moral standpoint in a single principle defines the moral domain too narrowly, or as a specific criticism directed at Habermas principle (U). Benhabib makes both these claims.
The first claim, though plausible, needs an argument that does not assume the point at issue, namely that the moral domain is broad and variform. For example, it might be argue that if the moral domain is as narrow as Habermas claims, and there are so few valid moral norms, then it is hard to see how morality can still have the central social co-ordinating function Habermas assigns to it. That said, however plausible the claim that Habermas conceives the moral domain and the moral standpoint too narrowly, Benhabib is not in a good position to make it, for she too allows that morality has a central core of universal and impartial principles, and arguably even allows that this central core can be captured by a single principle. Indeed own position here is rather unclear. On the one hand she argues “against Habermas that obligations and relations care are genuinely moral ones belonging to the centre and not to the margins of morality.” On the other hand she denies that care is universalisable and maintains that it is always particularistic and personal (1992: 181). For this reason she allows that considerations of care can by trumped by impartial and universalisable moral considerations. So she defends the notion that morality has a “centre” and the centre comprises principles of ‘right’ which are universalisable and impartial, and impose constraints on which conceptions of the good, and which considerations of care are permissible. These look to be inconsistent, for if impartial and universal moral principles can ‘trump’ and indeed ‘constrain’ conceptions of the good and considerations of care, love and friendship etc., the latter do not enjoy equal priority and equal centrality.
Perhaps there is a way of reconciling these two claims. Generally Benhabib uses the term ‘morality’ and ‘the moral standpoint’ in a broad sense. Habermas, by contrast, uses the terms in a narrow sense, which is restricted to the central core of impartial moral norms. So, some of the disagreement between Benhabib and Habermas is merely linguistic. Benhabib’s first claim might simply be that care and the good belong to morality in the broad sense, and as such enjoy priority and centrality in respect of all non-moral values (where morality is broadly construed). Habermas need not deny this, and need not deny Benhabib’s claims that discourse ethics’ “exclusive focus on relations of justice must be altered” and “that relations of justice do not exhaust the moral domain even if they occupy a central position within it” so long as morality in the broad sense is in question. It is just that he would put it slightly differently, namely that discourse ethics has to say something about (what he calls) morality, and about (what he calls) ethics. In which case it seems that Benhabib’s only real dispute with Habermas is about what the moral principle is. She is sceptical about principle (U), and maintains that principle (D) and the rules of discourse provide the universal core of morality.
26. Benhabib also criticizes discourse ethics for being counterintuitive. She has in mind a puzzle arising from the discrepancy between the importance, stringency and priority of morality, and the actual value to moral agents of the interests it protects. For example, I have a moral (and a legal) right to the book in front of me, because I own it, a right which imposes obligations on others, even though I do not value the book highly and others do. They are not entitled to steal it. Morally speaking my right to the book has more weight than can be explained by its actual value to me. According to Haber
mas, moral rights and duties serve universalizable interests, and morality (justice) has priority over ethics (good). Benhabib points out that ethical values such as love and friendship touch people more deeply and matter to people more than morality. She infers from this that discourse ethics contradicts “the phenomenology of moral experience”.
Here again, though, Benhabib and Habermas seem to agree on the facts of moral experience, namely that in spite of the high value we attach to friendship and love, properly socialised moral agents do not steal or lie or kill even for their friends and loved ones, for she admits that when ethical values conflict with universal moral principles the former are trumped by the latter. The difficulty is to explain the apparent discrepancy between the importance of moral ‘rights’, and the value to the agent of the benefits they bring. Habermas has a fairly elaborate explanation for this, an explanation that has to do with the co-ordinating function of morality and the benefit to social co-operation of norms that protect generalisable interests. This explanation rests on facts about modern, post-conventional society, the role of communication and discourse, and about the socialisation of modern moral agents.
27. Finally, Benhabib maintains that Habermas draws the distinction between justice and the good, morality and ethics, too sharply. This is her chief criticism – criticism (c) and it is a good one. She is not the only one to make this point, but was among the first to make it. For example, McCarthy points out that Habermas needs to say something more about the relation between ethical and other values and moral norms, since he claims both that valid norms protect universalizable interests, and that interests are needs that are interpreted in the light of values. However, his strict distinction between morality and ethics prevents him from doing just this.
28. It seems that of the three major criticisms that feminists have aimed at moral theory only criticisms (b) and (c) apply. Habermas’s conception of the moral domain is indeed narrow, and his distinction between justice and the good, or morality and ethics, strict. However, more needs to be said, than Benhabib does, about why the former is too narrow, and the latter is too strict. I have suggested ways in which these criticisms can be sustained. Notice though, that Benhabib’s dispute with Habermas here, indeed her whole critique of discourse ethics, remains firmly within the domain of moral theory; they are criticisms of one moral theory by another. But as we noted earlier there is a social and political animus behind Benhabib’s critique of discourse ethics, and more widely behind the feminist criticism of moral theory, and it is far from clear what implications, if any, feminist criticisms of moral theory have for a feminist critique of actually existing morality, let alone what implications the feminist critique of morality has for a critical theory of society. Rather than filling this lacuna in feminist theory (see 9. above), Benhabib’s critique of discourse ethics simply reproduces it. How would smudging Habermas’s distinction between ‘justice’ and the good, or broadening the conception of the moral standpoint, help the struggle for women’s emancipation; how would it bring to light hitherto concealed forms of the oppression of women? Since we cannot assume that the exclusion of women – the exclusions that matter i.e., exclusion from high office, from government, from boards of directors, and not least from the upper echelons of universities – and the persisting oppression and domination of women in all walks of life, rest on an allegedly untenable distinction within moral theory, we should also not presume that collapsing that distinction would bring about or contribute to bringing about their inclusion, or their emancipation from oppression.
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