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  • Moral Psychology: Feminist Ethics and Social Theory
  • Cheshire Calhoun (bio)
Moral Psychology: Feminist Ethics and Social Theory. Edited by Peggy Desautels and Margaret Urban Walker. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.

Peggy DesAutels's and Margaret Walker's Moral Psychology is one of the latest additions to Rowman and Littlefield's Feminist Construction Series and the second volume to come out of the Association for Feminist Ethics and Social Theory (FEAST). These twelve original essays are truly a feast. Refreshingly diverse, innovative, and insightful, they more than deliver on the editors' aim "to shape understandings of 'moral psychology' itself" (xiii).

Charles Mills's superb essay, "'Ideal Theory' as Ideology," although positioned toward the back of the book, provides the philosophical justification for constructing a volume like this. Mills takes mainstream moral and political theory to task for abstracting away from the structures and effects of oppression, for working with an idealized social ontology of raceless and genderless persons, and for relying on an idealized psychology that ignores the way that individuals' conception of their interests are distorted, their capacity for autonomy stunted, and their cognition of social phenomena mystified by oppression. "How in God's name," he asks, "could anybody think that this is the appropriate way to do ethics?" (168). One might ask a similar question of a moral psychology that abstracts away from the structures and effects of oppression in its accounts of the moral emotions and of the psychological supports of and impediments to moral agency. The contributors to Moral Psychology set out to do nonidealizing moral psychology.

One of the main tasks of a nonidealized moral psychology is to make clear how structures of oppression affect the possibilities for effective agency and problematize reactive attitudes toward others' and one's own agency. In her essay "Moral Mindfulness," Peggy DesAutels investigates the social and institutional impediments to carrying through on our moral commitments. James Lindemann Nelson suggests that what appears to be evidence of internalism about moral reasons stems from identification with one's moral culture, an identification [End Page 214] more accessible to some social groups than to others. Paul Benson examines the difficulties attached to responsibility attributions—and thus blame—for oppressive behavior, and asks what options other than blaming there might be for responding to nonculpable oppressive behavior. Jean Harvey argues that under conditions of oppression, some obligatory behavior—for example, members of dominant groups acting in solidarity with the oppressed—may be sufficiently costly that the reactive attitude of gratitude is in order. In two of the stellar essays in this volume, Robin Dillon and Rebecca Whisnant take up a reactive attitude that has been particularly difficult for women to maintain toward themselves: self-respect. Dillon focuses on the self-respecting desire to conduct one's life as befits a being of worth, even when the options for a self-respecting life are highly constrained. Whisnant focuses on what she calls "self-centering"—an attitude of respect for one's valuational capacities that make one unwilling to abandon one's own evaluative perspective and adopt another's as some ideals of romantic love have encouraged women to do.

A nonidealized moral psychology also asks how systems of oppression exploit the psychological vulnerabilities of the oppressed. Claudia Card argues for a remapping of our concept of torture to include such "ordinary" torture as aggravated rape and lynching, as well as some hate crimes, domestic abuse, and animal experimentation. Torture, both political and ordinary, subjects helpless victims to suffering that would break the normal human and causes long-term damage to one's capacities for self-respect, trust, and hope. Karen Jones and Sandra Bartky take up related themes. Jones argues that only by assuming that individuals have different levels of basal security—a type of security typically damaged by torture—can we explain why individuals who agree on their intellectual assessments of risk might nevertheless experience vastly different degrees of willingness to accept vulnerability and to trust. Bartky observes that intimidation relies on individuals' vulnerability to threats of harm. She argues that female victims of domestic abuse are doubly vulnerable to intimidation—once by an abuser in the home, and again by the...


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pp. 214-217
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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