Discourse Ethics and Feminist Dilemmas of Difference
Since its beginnings, feminist theory has been involved in what Christine Di Stefano has called “dilemmas of difference.”1 Liberal feminists have stressed the equality of men and women and, hence, the unimportance of differences based on gender. But liberal feminists have also assumed that women hold certain interests in common. For this reason, they have presumed both the difference between men and women as political subjects and the importance of a separate feminist political practice. To this extent, as Deborah L. Rhode points out, “liberal feminism assumes the very sense of shared identity it seeks in large measure to transcend.”2
Other theorists no longer attempt to transcend this shared identity, but instead stress both the importance of differences based on gender and the “false universalism” at the base of traditional moral, social, and political theories. The claim made by “relational feminists” such as Carol Gilligan, and by postmodern feminists such as Linda Nicholson and Nancy Fraser, is that these theories simply generalize the concerns and interests of men. They cannot be corrected either by merely expanding the conception of a human being to include women or by removing the most egregiously demeaning of their references to women’s moral and intellectual capacities. Rather, proper attention to women’s concrete lives and to the moral and intellectual capacities they actually have necessarily leads to radically different moral theories, conceptions of social relations, and political ideals. Thus, Gilligan points to an ethics of care that is based on women’s particular form of socialization and
emphasizes the maintenance of interpersonal connections rather than simply the protection of individual rights.3 Fraser questions traditional divisions between public and private domains because of the way these seem to be entwined in women’s lives4 and others point to a new form of community in which work, welfare, and political contexts are radically restructured to allow for the incorporation of caretaking values.5
But these “difference feminists” seem to have it no easier than liberal feminists. In the first place, if the stress on difference is meant to point up women’s nurturing capacities and orientation to maintaining relationships then, whether these are meant to be biologically or socially induced, this emphasis seems to lead to just those restrictions on employment and opportunity that allowed for the original exclusion of women from public life.6 The dilemma of difference here is that the sense of shared identity that difference feminism seeks to defend seems to be precisely that which traditional sexism has enforced.
In the second place, the emphasis by difference feminists on the way in which traditional theories falsely generalize the concerns and interests of men seems to apply to their own accounts of women’s gender difference. Feminists have themselves questioned whether the theories of socialization and women’s psychology on which they have relied simply generalize the experiences of a certain group of American and European, white, middle-class women. Does the object-relations psychology, for example, on which Gilligan and others depend simply extrapolate from a peculiarly modern and Western form of the family? Do distinctions between public and private spheres or between different sorts of labor simply over-generalize historical circumstances such as women’s greater responsibility for child care and the devaluation of the domestic sphere?7
The logic that difference feminism pursues seems to be one of self-destruction. If we begin by emphasizing women’s gender difference, we must also recognize differences between different groups of women, between rich and poor, European and non-European, heterosexual and lesbian. But once we recognize these differences, we are led to still further differences between rich European women and poor European women or between middle-class American women and middle-class Argentinean women and so on. Fraser and Nicholson point out that many feminists have given up on the project of “grand social theory”8 in favor of particular investigations into varieties of social identity, forms of sexism, and the different permutations that relations between gender, race, class, ethnicity, and age can take. But these investigations do not resolve the dilemma that arises here. For if gender difference is no longer considered fundamental, can there be any identity to the category of woman so that women as a group can form the locus of feminist interests and political practice? If there are only rich and poor women, European and non-European women, and if these groups themselves break down into smaller groups depending on race, class, ethnicity, and age, what happens to a specifically feminist or women’s perspective? Does the logic difference feminism takes up not lead, in the end, to the critique of all theory, including feminist theory, as the imposition of a false universalism on social experiences that are radically individual?
In this paper I want to assess the dilemmas of difference I have sketched by way of an examination of Jurgen Habermas’s discourse ethics. This theory is of interest here, I think, for two reasons. First, it tries to resolve at least some differences within a universal and rationally motivated consensus. Second, it tries to separate this sort of normative consensus from evaluative and interpretive dichotomies that arise from gender differences or differences in race, class, and ethnicity. But, if feminism can not transcend gender difference nor emphasize it without losing both the subject of its theory and the motor of its practice, the question we raise with regard to a discourse ethics is whether it takes difference seriously enough. Can evaluative and interpretive differences be separated from normative ones and, if not, how can we think of a normative theory, that, as feminism does, tries to acknowledge difference without undermining the possibility of political and ethical theory itself? I shall first sketch those aspects of Habermas’s discourse ethics that are relevant to my concerns and then consider the extent to which the problems it raises might suggest a solution to feminist dilemmas of difference.