Hypatia 15.1 (2000) 189-192
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Rethinking Feminist Ethics *
Rethinking Feminist Ethics. By Daryl Koehn. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Rethinking Feminist Ethics by Daryl Koehn is a thought-provoking entry into the field of feminist ethics. Koehn summarizes caring, empathy, and trust ethics, critiques them, and then offers one of her own--dialogical ethics. Caring, empathy, and trust ethics are each given a chapter. Koehn draws from several works (by Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings, and Rita Manning, most notably) for her discussion of caring ethics. The ethic of empathy relies on Diana Meyer's work, and the chapter on trust is based on Annette Baier's and Trudy Govier's work. The summaries are, for the most part, fair and accurate, although the one on trust is a bit short.
Koehn's presentation of dialogical ethics is interesting. She takes Socrates' and Crito's conversation in the Crito to be exemplary of her position. What makes this dialogue such a paradigm? First, both Socrates and Crito are interested in finding good reasons for their positions. Koehn believes she can derive four principles from the discussion: (P1) some reasons are better than others; (P2) no one acts unjustly; (P3) they must agree to abide by the laws or have a legitimate means to escape the discussion; and (P4) each participant in the discussion must decide whether the first three principles apply in her individual case. The virtue of these four principles resides in their "critical dialogical value," according to Koehn. While traditional normative ethical theories have foundational principles where further inquiry is stopped, Koehn's principles encourage one to continually challenge whatever principles are generated, even Koehn's four. The major advantage to dialogical ethics is that it is more action-guiding than caring, empathy, and trust ethics. It demands that all parties affected by a proposed action engage in a conversation in which the action with the best justification will be adopted as long as that action does no harm. Koehn's presentation of her ethic is clear and interesting. Her bibliography is excellent in the area of feminist ethics, less so (but still good) in the more general areas of ethics. [End Page 189]
Summaries are by definition reductions of the original pieces and necessarily lose subtleties and nuance. While I think the summaries of the three ethics are quite good, they aren't all-inclusive, as we find out in Koehn's critiques of each. Many of Koehn's concerns are legitimate and have been advanced by others, which Koehn readily acknowledges. What I think she fails to do is recognize that the ethic under attack can often respond to her concerns. For example, she criticizes caring ethics for not having rules, so it is not sufficiently action-guiding. But Noddings carefully separates inviolable, foundational "rules" from the more flexible "guidelines." Noddings's point is that neither rules nor guidelines should become more important than the actual people the rules are meant to help. Koehn presents two cases intended to show caring ethics' weaknesses. In both cases, I think caring ethicists could handle the problems.
Time and again, Koehn overstates her criticisms, probably in an attempt to distance her ethic from the other three; yet in the end she sees her ethic as a complement and not an alternative to feminist ethics. There are many places where Noddings, Meyers, or Baier could respond to Koehn's criticisms, but Koehn never considers possible responses to her criticisms--a curious omission for one who advocates dialogue.
Another concern: Why doesn't Koehn address any of the work in discourse ethics in relation to her dialogical ethics? Discourse ethics is not considered "feminist," but Koehn does cite Seyla Benhabib, whose book, Situating the Self, explicitly deals with Jürgen Habermas's discourse theory. Benhabib is a feminist, and her book is an attempt to revamp discourse ethics into a more feminist-friendly theory. Some recognition of the similarity between dialogical and discourse ethics could have been made.
Koehn takes some time to present reasons for privileging reasoning. "All female...