In this research conversation, Jahnavi Misra discusses the “ethics of care” as it applies to literary fiction. The “ethics of care” was a feminist claim that women tackle ethical issues through principles of compassion and feeling rather than masculine rationalism. However, Jahnavi argues that the “ethics of care” can be applied to many underprivileged groups, not just women, and in turn to many modern writers, both male and female, who deal with various ethical issues. Her thesis is available to download from Durham University Library’s eTheses service.
Your research is about the “ethics of care”. What is the ethics of care?
The ethics of care is an ethical concept first put forward by Carol Gilligan in her book, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, published in 1982. Her argument was written in response to a dominant theory that men are best-placed to make ethical decisions because they apply cool-headed rationality. Women were judged inferior as ethical interpreters, because they were overly emotional.
For example, the theories of Lawrence Kohlberg considered women to be too emotional and involved in personal relationships to be able to achieve the requisite levels of objectivity to morally gauge ethically demanding situations. Against these theories, Gilligan argued for an ethical code that privileges relationships of involvement and care over abstract principles that divided ethical behaviour into strict categories of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. She argued that women who felt the need to prioritise such relationships are not deficient in their ethical sensibility but function according to a different but most certainly fully viable value system. This is what is known as the “ethics of care.”
It is my contention in this thesis that her ideas are still crucially important. And as ethical theory comes to recognise the important role of affect in moral and ethical judgment, her ideas can be revisited in relation to the contemporary preoccupation with these issues about knowing and judging.
How does the “ethics of care” relate specifically to gender?
The ethical theorists of the seventies took a neo-Kantian stance and argued that detachment and objectivity made for the most ethical response to a particular situation. This objectivity, they argued, could only be achieved by men as, according to them, women were too emotionally involved in relationships to be truly ethical.
Gilligan’s ethics of care argues that women are not ethically inferior but that their different (emotional) response to situations called for a different ethical system directed towards women. Gender, accordingly, was very important to Gilligan’s theory. However, because of this reason the ethics of care can also be charged with presenting men and women as fundamentally different, since Gilligan argues that women have an alternative ethical perspective to men. I have tried to show that the ethics of care helps understand not only the responses of women but all those who are sidelined within a given system, including men. I refer to all marginal sections (men or women) of various societies as ‘feminine’, whereas those who are privileged in a given stucture are termed ‘masculine’.
All the unprivileged groups in fact function through a different value system from those who fall in line with the masculine mainstream.
What is it that makes the novel a particularly good vehicle to deal with ethical questions?
Fiction, unlike philosophical discourse or literary theory, presents an area where abstract concepts attain a depth which only imagination and feeling – a combination of thought and emotion – can provide; the novelistic genre affords a kind of three dimensional quality to ideas and concepts. In offering a picture through words of life as it is, or might be lived, novels can be seen as thought experiments, viewing a world through a particular set of ideas or theoretical concepts.
In addition, the artificiality of fictional scenarios provides the reader with enough distance to be able to examine ideas within novels from a perspective external to that world. Novels therefore offer an experience of immersion in and distance from a fictional world, which might produce an ironic effect or the strengthening of a particular perspective as it is examined in relation to others. This three-dimensional effect of the novelistic genre entails that every idea that is presented is to some extent, challenged and problematised by a contrary and competing or obliquely related view point. As a result, even an idea that a narrative appears to endorse at one moment may be challenged by another perspective within that narrative.
“Fiction engenders a need, not only for the examination of preconceived notions and beliefs, but also for self-introspection.”
Also, because fiction is of course a contrived artifice where the reader remains ultimately outside, it is opened up to challenges posed from outside of the narrative, by each individual reader. The process of reading fiction, therefore, is an intense and constantly challenging one, which in distancing the reader from her moorings, encourages her to examine her own assumptions. Fiction engenders a need, not only for the examination of preconceived notions and beliefs, but also for self-introspection.
It is for these reasons that I consider novels to be the best place to test the validity of an argument, because they bring into the picture an element of spontaneous feeling and response, as opposed to over-rationalised preconceptions.
There has been a lot of debate recently about whether we are now in a post-feminist era, or whether women continue to struggle within a male-dominated society. Many of the novels you are studying are very recent, so where do they stand on this? What do they suggest are the issues still facing women today?
In my thesis I deal less with the male/female conflict and more with the meaning of and the issues related to masculinity and femininity.
“The novels I examine present a conflict between what are seen historically as masculine and feminine standpoints with respect to the world”
I do believe that the woman question has continuing relevance of course, but in my thesis I am looking to understand the feminine/marginal response as concerning not only women but various sections of different societies. The novels I examine in my thesis present a conflict between what I term and what are seen historically as masculine and feminine standpoints with respect to the world. Although these responses are not biological, the feminine sensibility, according to this interpretation, is governed by affect and is more accepting, as opposed to the more unyielding and ‘rational’ masculine temperament. Gilligan’s ethics of care corresponds directly with this view, the only difference being that where Gilligan theorised on the distinction between the ethical stances of men and women – which can be viewed as an essentialist perspective – I propose that the categories of masculine and feminine be redefined to include the socio-politically advantaged and the socio-politically disadvantaged instead.
The novels I analyse endorse the latter interpretation in that these narratives do not draw a distinction between men and women so much as a distinction between those that are privileged within a particular social system, possessing a strong sense of identity, with a “rational” and calculating approach to people and ideas, and those that are not privileged and have a more fluid and relational sense of themselves and those around them. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for example presents a clear divide between the privileged and the unprivileged.
Gilligan’s theory is situated in the early 1980s when feminists were still debating the idea of the difference between men and women– the idea that women and men have developed through generations a particular way of responding to situations. Feminist criticism at this time celebrated the sphere of affect as an exclusively female domain. However, in the postmodern era this binary opposition between man/woman as constituting rational/emotional was revealed to be limiting, and even regressive in its clubbing of various kinds of women of different cultures, ethnicities, classes, sexuality and so on, under the unitary idea of ‘woman’. It is interesting, then, that the contemporary writers that I examine still deal with responses that fit the binary positions of overly rational/calculating and the more emotional/ ‘irrational’. The reason for this, to my mind, is that these are very real responses that do typify particular mind sets that are born out of specific locations in societies.
Is there a difference between the way contemporary female and male novelists depict gender issues?
I examined two novels by male writers – Rushdie and Ishiguro – in the middle of my thesis. I was curious to see whether male writers respond differently to these issues. What I discovered in my analysis was that male writers also created the mainstream in very masculinist terms, whereas those sidelined by various structures in the novels responded through values that have historically been thought of as feminine.
However, I did find that male writers have a more complicated reaction to what I call feminine attitudes. Whereas in fiction by women these feminine attitudes were largely celebrated, in fiction by men, these attitudes are sometimes shown to be as problematic as masculine attitudes. This was enriching for my thesis as it helped me to understand some issues better and to complicate my own argument.