While feminists and women’s historians like Linda Kerber criticized Carol Gilligan’s work methodologically for neglecting the historicity of her results and for ignoring the historical determinants of women’s difference which she had identified in moral theory, others argued that the kind of “difference” which Gilligan had described as being primarily, even if not exclusively, female was oppressive. Claudia Card and Catharine MacKinnon have voiced the view that the morality of “care and responsibility” is a version of Nietzschean slave morality.32 Card writes: “Study of Women’s values could profit from Nietzsche, whose writings on ethics speak directly to the consequences of domination and subordination for the development of character and ideals. Although his target was Christian ethics, his ideas are applicable to recently identified women’s values.”33 Following Nietzsche, Card pleads for a consideration “of the underside of women’s ethics.”34 For Nietzsche morality is a sublimation of the life drive of the stronger to dominate the weaker; the origins of morality are the internalized controls imposed upon the
strong by the weak such that the weak will not be damaged.35
MacKinnon does not go back to Nietzsche but to the Marxian theory of class struggle. Just as the “ruling ideas” are the ideas of the “ruling classes,” so too dominant moral conceptions are the result of a system of gender and class oppression of compulsory heterosexuality. Gilligan, in MacKinnon’s view, ultimately has done little else but raise to scientific status the “good girl” image which heterosexual culture has of women and whose purpose is to “domesticate” women by portraying them as “gentle, caring, and responsible.” She states:
On the other hand, what is infuriating about it (which is a very heavy thing to say about a book [In A Different Voice] which is so cool and graceful and gentle in its emotional touch), and this is a political infuriation, is that it neglects the explanatory level. She also has found the voice of the victim—yes, women are a victimized group. The articulation of the voice of the victim is crucial because laws about victimization are typically made by people with power, and come from the perspective with power…. But I am troubled by the possibility of women identifying with what is a positively valued feminine stereotype. It is the ‘feminine’.36
These feminist appropriations of Nietzschean and Marxian views reduce normative problems of justice and morality in complex societies to simple patterns of interest and power camouflaging. Both views are ultimately profoundly anti-political: for Nietzsche the ultimate vision is that of an aesthetic utopia of wisdom, in which a wise old sage, Zarathustra, reaches a state of autonomy beyond community. But if instead of parroting the master thinkers of the past, one would apply feminist methodology to Nietzsche’s final moral utopia, one would discover here once more a version of the autonomous, male ego—certainly now presented not as the stern Kantian legislator but as the artistic, poetic, multifaceted, but all-too-masculine hero— Zarathustra “who is lamb and lion” at once.37 This archaic ideal of the beautiful and wise male hero is hardly what the contemporary debate on women and moral theory should lead to.
Nietzsche’s reductionist treatment of morality in his early writings is coupled with the aesthetic utopia of a beautiful male in his later work who lives “beyond good and evil.” The reductionist Marxian theory of morality which views it as being a mere expression of the interests of the ruling classes is, in turn, inseparable from the utopia of a society of total reconciliation. Just as with the elimination of class conflict, all interpersonal conflict and conflict over scarce resources will also come to an end, so too with the elimination of the current regime of gender, or in MacKinnon’s language, with the end of the regime of “compulsory heterosexuality,” “gender difference” will cease to exist.38 The “rule of men over women” will be replaced by the “administration
over things.” In the case of MacKinnon then the utopia is not that of an archaic beautiful male but the image of a totally rationally ruled, self-transparent society of perfect power. If, on the other hand, one accepts that neither interpersonal conflict nor economic scarcity nor the sources of human vulnerability and need are likely to be wholly eliminated, even in a more just society, moral theory cannot be rejected as simply representing the ruling idea of heterosexual males. There will always be need to regulate the sources of human conflict and dispute, and to protect the commitments of a shared human existence. A statement like the following which proceeds from a series of dogmatic oppositions, as between morality and politics, liberalism, and radicalism, indicates very clearly that MacKinnon’s understanding of politics, as well as of morality, shares more with the authoritarian utopias of Leninist politics than it does with the tradition of critical Marxist theory: “In my opinion,” she writes, “to take the differences approach is to take a moral approach, whereas to criticize hierarchy is to take a political approach. To take a difference view is also to take a liberal view (although that view, of course, includes conservatism as well), and to take the view that we are dealing with a hierarchy is to take a radical approach. I also think that to make issues of gender turn on the so-called gender difference is, ultimately, to take a male perspective. I therefore call the differences approach masculinist. The position that gender is first a political hierarchy of power, is in my opinion, a feminist position.”39 The flip side of the denial of politics is an authoritarian politics which will put an end to all difference, controversy, conflict, and violence among humans.40
Claudia Card and Catharine MacKinnon would dispense with the ideal of autonomy and may be even of morality altogether. Postmodernist feminists, by contrast, strive to develop a “decentered” and “fractured” concept of the self in place of the “connected” or “relational” self which they find to be privileged in Gilligan’s work.
Jane Flax and Iris Young, inspired by postmodernist critiques of the “iden – titary self,” have challenged the “relational” self. The western philosophical tradition, they argue, has always prized identity over difference, unity over multiplicity, permanence over change. The subject of western philosophical discourse is constituted at the price of repressing difference, excluding otherness and denigrating heterogeneity. From Plato to Descartes to Kant the self is the unitary, identical substratum; reason reigns over the passions, the I reigns over the will; otherness must be suppressed.
Young argues that the view of the empathetic, connected self presupposes a state “in which persons will cease to be opaque, other, not understood, and instead become fused, mutually sympathetic, understanding one another as they understand themselves. Such an ideal of shared subjectivity, or the transparence of subjects to one another; denies difference in the sense of the basic asymmetry of subjects.”41 Not only is intersubjective transparency presupposed: but equally objectionable is the fiction of the subject as the unified center of desire; but “because the subject is not a unity, it cannot be present to itself, know itself. I do not always know what I mean, need, want, desire because these do not arise from some ego origin…. Consequently, any individual subject is a play of differences that cannot be comprehended… the subject is [a] heterogeneous presence.”42 Young concludes that the Cartesian/Kantian concept of the unitary self, as well as the feminist theory of the relational self, perpetrate a “metaphysics of presence” and a “logic of identity.”
Young’s position is that Gilligan’s view of the self, far from challenging traditional views of autonomy and selfhood in the western philosophical tradition, continues their fundamental assumptions in presupposing that subjects can truly understand one another and that the individual is a coherent subject of desire. But Young’s claim that mutual care and responsibility must presuppose a “transparency” of understanding is exaggerated. Such a perfect understanding or meeting of minds would perhaps be a fair criticism of the Kantian view of noumenal selves, but neither my concept of the “concrete other,” which Young also criticizes, nor Arendt’s view of the “enlarged mentality” must presuppose that there is ever a state of perfect understanding. Young is not heeding the distinction between “consensus” and “reaching understanding” introduced above. Admittedly, rationalistic theories of the Enlightenment and in particular Rousseau’s theory of democracy were based on the illusion that a perfect consensus was possible; but a dialogic model of ethics defended envisages a continuous process of conversation in which understanding and misunderstanding, agreement as well as disagreement are intertwined and always at work. The very commitment to conversation as the means through which the enlarged mentality is to be attained suggests the infinite revisability and indeterminacy of meaning.
The objection that the self, viewed as a unified center of desire, is a fiction again overstates the issue. Young seems to celebrate heterogeneity, opacity, and difference at the cost of belittling the importance of a coherent core of individual identity. Not all difference is empowering; not all heterogeneity can be celebrated; not all opacity leads to a sense of self-flourishing. We do not have to think of “coherent identities” along the lines of the sameness of physical objects. We can think of coherence as a narrative unity. What makes a story can be the point of view of the one who tells it, the point of view of the one who listens to it, or some interaction between the meaning conveyed and the meaning received. Personal identity is no different. As Arendt has emphasized, from the time of our birth we are immersed in “a web of narratives,” of which we are both the author and the object. The self is both the teller of tales and that about whom tales are told. The individual with a coherent sense of self-identity is the one who succeeds in integrating these tales and perspectives into a meaningful life history. When the story of a life can only be told from the perspective of the others, then the self is a victim and sufferer who has lost control over her existence. When the story of a life can only be told from the standpoint of the individual, then such a self is a narcissist and a loner who may have attained autonomy without solidarity. A coherent sense of self is attained with the successful integration of autonomy and solidarity, or with the right mix of justice and care. Justice and autonomy alone cannot sustain and nourish that web of narratives in which human beings’ sense of selfhood unfolds; but solidarity and care alone cannot raise the self to the level not only of being the subject but also the author of a coherent life-story.