Philosophy Is Not a Luxury

This essay was published in the book Feminist Ethics, edited by Claudia Card. Please see this pdf. And this .doc. Download. Print. Discuss.

In seeking more information about the author (no connection to Ruth Bader Ginsburg), I found this.




Philosophy Is Not a Luxury




Western androcentric philosophy has positioned itself as a hallmark of civilization: It is conceived as culture, an enrichment of human life that has the opportunity to flourish only after basic survival needs are met. For women in an androcentric and misogynistic world, the option of embellishing a life in which basic survival already is assured has not been available. This is because our basic survival is not assured in the ways construed as preconditions for culture, civilization, philosophy, and-presumably-ethics.

Androcentric culture-including philosophy, we are told-arises within the context of a hierarchy of needs. Of these, the bodily needs come first: air, water, food, shelter, physical integrity. On the next level are needs for interaction with others: communication, cooperation, mutual assistance, reproduction. Without reasonable assurance of those in the first tier, questions about needs arising in the second tier are presumed to be moot. Societies in which virtually all efforts are directed toward meeting these first two tiers of basic needs commonly have been characterized as “primitive.” Further up in the hierarchy come things that are seen as enhancements but not fundamentally necessary, the things that constitute human flourishing, which typically has been contrasted with survival: happiness, intimacy, leisure, freedom, reflection, comfort, recreation. The pinnacle of flourishing is posited to be civilization: science, history, art, politics, literature, philosophy. The ordering of this hierarchy is roughly (I) individual bodily well-being, (2) community well-being, (3) psychological and spiritual well-being, and (4) intellectual and aesthetic well-being, each level depending on the attainment of those preceding it before it can emerge as a “need.”

The nature of oppression is such that no form of survival is assured to those who are oppressed. Indeed, total oppression occurs when those who are oppressed are dead; they do not survive on any level of the survival hierarchy, including the most basic level-that of individual bodily well-being. In other forms of less totalizing oppression, other levels of the hierarchy of survival are denied. What the various sorts of oppression have in common is that to some extent or another, each compromises some type of well-being, including individual bodily well-being, community well-being, psychological and spiritual well-being, and intellectual and aesthetic well-being. What it means for such well-being to be compromised is that there are coercive circumstances in which one or more types of well-being are “allowed,” insofar as they occur at all, contingent on the benevolence or convenience of oppressors.

Given the hierarchy of needs, it would seem to follow that those groups who are oppressed do not and cannot have civilization. Women are oppressed. We lack the basic conditions of cultural agency; often we lack even the basic conditions for individual survival. Thus it would follow that women are unable to reach the highest level of this hierarchy, to concern ourselves with the ideas and artifacts that constitute civilization-that is, science, history, art, politics, literature, philosophy, ethics.

Indeed, under this description of civilization we are especially unable to reach these higher levels of civilization qua women. That is, to whatever extent we manage to concern ourselves with the ideas and artifacts that constitute civilization, it is, at very least, because of our identification as “humans” rather than as women and thus as participants in the civilizations of man (sic ). On more sinister readings women are seen as co-opted, captured, enslaved by, or artifacts of, rather than participants in, such civilizations.’

Women, as many have pointed out, historically have been associated with the body, the lowest level of this hierarchy. More than one philosopher has noticed that the “mind/body” split actually is a gender split as well. That which is “of the mind”2 gets assigned to masculinity and thus to men, whereas that which is “of the body”3 gets assigned to femininity and thus to women. [see discussion questions at end]

It is interesting to note that, collectively, as women have worked to liberate ourselves by “developing” beyond “mere” bodily concerns, we became interested in community. The notion of women as the caretakers of community and its concerns is now similarly well entrenched in feminist as well as in non-feminist theory. Indeed, recent conceptions of ethics that have been associated with women or with feminism have been noticeably community-oriented in flavor, in part because researchers and theorists find that women “think” or “speak” in terms of community once we move beyond conceptions of ourselves as “mere” bodies. This is not surprising when we still see our project as that of struggling to climb the ladder of needs.

Theorists who want to move “beyond” questions about women and community often find themselves focusing on the next level of this hierarchy: psychological or emotional well-being, posited as a sort of mental life that sits atop an already-jelled structure of body and community. Out of this notion is born the so-called “postfeminist” gender scholarship, which erroneously assumes that women’s survival is already assured and which claims to concern itself with questions about women’s flourishing instead. One feature of this postfeminist view is that it is no longer desirable, necessary, or even acceptable to define women in terms of oppression. This is thought to contribute to the perpetuation of the oppression. While some theorists work at constructing “positive” accounts of what it means to be a woman on the one hand, postmodem theorists work at deconstructing concepts, notions, terms, and ideas that serve as anchors for meaning on the other. Essentialism seems to move to the foreground of the philosophical scenery, appearing now as a critically important philosophical mistake.

In this milieu, relatively comfortable white, middle-class academic women attend to this philosophical mistake with renewed passion, working to deconstruct the ontology of the social and political “worlds” in which we struggle, refocusing attention toward the role of identity in creating meaning. The result is a renewed attention toward personal happiness, intimacy, leisure, freedom, reflection, comfort, and recreation-the part of the hierarchy thought to encompass “flourishing” rather than “survival”-much to the disappointment of those women who feel unprivileged enough not to be able to concern our/themselves with this level of the hierarchy yet. Fights break out between and among those who ought to be allies. We align ourselves in more and more fragmented groups, accusing one another of unself-consciously enjoying too much of some privilege: white privilege, heterosexual privilege, academic privilege, middle-class privilege, ableist privilege, postrevolutionary privilege (“Well, when I was growing up [going to school, looking for a job, coming out, having children, being battered, writing a book, and so on], I didn’t have . . . .”) We even suspect each other of having (or granting) “marginalist” privilege, of attributing more credibility to those who can claim “many” and “severe” forms of oppression rather than “just a few minor ones.”

At times it looks as though, collectively, we must continually find or claim or create additional forms of oppression just for the purpose of interrupting the endless tug “beyond” strategies for survival toward strategies for flourishing (where “flourishing” is applicable only to those who’ve moved beyond “mere” survival). Many times it is true that we, or those around us, genuinely don’t appreciate or acknowledge the privilege we and/or they enjoy. Sadly, we find ourselves struggling for epistemic and moral authority-philosophical authority, as it were-through the destructive process of repeatedly “calling” one another on newly detected moral inconsistencies or unacknowledged epistemic privileges.

However, there is a problem here. By construing the philosophical enterprise as an artifact of culture that emerges only at the “highest” stage of civilization, and by construing civilization as that which occurs when the highest stages in a hierarchy of needs are attained, the very definition of the conditions under which philosophy occurs precludes the possibility of a prerevolutionary gynocentric philosophy. We wind up believing that we must choose from a smorgasbord of unsatisfactory choices.

Some attempts to create gynocentric philosophy give us moral theory for a utopian sort of postrevolutionary gynocentric world.” Other attempts offer what some feminist critics call “victimologies,” theories that describe us wholly in terms of our predictable responses to conditions of oppression.” Some supposedly gynocentric ontologies look suspiciously as though they embed dubious, quasi-biologistic assumptions about women (not to mention lesbians, feminism, the world, knowledge, truth, and so on].”The suggestion is afoot that theory is itself androcentric and that anthropology is the best we can do. 7 Many of us feel positioned precariously at the edge of some postmodern abyss where “construction crews” and “deconstruction crews” alternately build and tear town every imaginable conception of meaning. Such weirdness serves not only to divide us against one another. It also suggests that the fault lies with the conception of philosophy as part of “flourishing” as opposed to part of “survival.”


For women, survival is a fundamental issue. Until we put survival at the center of our philosophical thinking, we are constantly at risk of having our theory-creation process lose sight of how fundamental is survival, rendering our theory irrelevant to our survival.

Women must constantly concern ourselves with how to survive batterings, rapes, wars and other violence, racism, homophobia, depression, mother-blaming, poverty, hatred, isolation, silencing, rupturing of our communities, exhaustion, spiritual co-optation, conceptions of health that view us as diseased in ways that we are not and that do not address or even acknowledge our actual suffering, indoctrination in patriarchal thinking in the place of genuine education, demands on us to do more than our share of the work of the world, trivialization of our knowledge, and destruction of those things that are beautiful and that nourish our souls. None of these things is of our own doing. They are the results, and the evidence, of our oppression. In one way or another, we often find ourselves not knowing whether, or how, we will survive. When we do survive, we often suffer survivors’ guilt. No level of the posited survival hierarchy is assured: not our individual bodily well-being, or our community well-being, or our psychological well-being, or our intellectual or aesthetic well-being.

Yet we struggle to formulate conceptions of gynocentric morality under these conditions of oppression without questioning the androcentric conception of philosophy as a part of culture, where “culture” emerges only after survival is assured. We must conceive ethics-indeed, I suspect, all of philosophy-as a part of our survival. We have no choice. For so long as we don’t take that step, we are still doing androcentric philosophy with a “feminist twist.”

Of course there is a way in which survival seems as though it ought to be assured. There is something very disquieting about thinking of survival as eternally intertwined /with the summum bonum; it is seductively appealing to be able to hope to transcend the sort of life in which survival is constantly at issue. Nevertheless, history shows us repeatedly that survival cannot be taken for granted. It is an accomplishment “just” to survive. No woman is exempt, despite our apparent abilities to more-or-less “pass” or otherwise “make it” in a still mostly hostile patriarchal environment. That we are taught to see our mere survival as a personal failing of some kind is an insidious aspect of the very social and political arrangements that endanger our survival. We might otherwise see it as an accomplishment, as a piece of political action. Instead, we find ourselves thinking that we want or need to assure our survival first and that then we can embellish our lives with culture, philosophy, or civilization later. We see ourselves as still at the “lowest level” when we notice that we are still struggling to survive. Yet survival is neither an underachievement nor an embarrassment. It is an act of political resistance (not just a personal strategy] to survive, and it is another act of political resistance to refuse to see “mere” survival as failing. Both of these are important acts of political resistance.


Audre Lorde identifies the erotic as “a considered source of power and information within [women’s] lives” that “rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge.”8 The erotic, she claims, provides “the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person,” as well as “the open and fearless understanding of … [the] capacity for joy.” This is important because “the sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.” 9

This is a political claim, not a claim about hedonism or “rights” to pleasure. When Lorde asks the question, “Why would the erotic be a good thing?” she answers it quite differently from those who would claim the main benefit to be some sort of pleasure. She sees the erotic as an epistemic force that tempers the individualistic sense of self; it is the source of both power and information, which encourages resistance to atomism and unchecked individualism and which leads to understanding. 10 Thus the suppression of the erotic constitutes a primary interpersonal harm [see discussion questions at end]. Lorde further claims that this is one of the major social arrangements that has perpetuated the oppression of women.

I suggest that there is a conception of moral philosophy emerging from the writings of Audre Lorde and other lesbian feminist theorists that is based in the very acts of surviving rather than in culture. This is not accidental. That a philosophical system be based in the very acts of surviving is, I claim, one of the inevitable features of a gynocentric philosophical framework. This is also what links gynocentrism with a radical refusal of other forms of oppression: racism, class oppression, imperialism, heterosexism, species-chauvinism, even “man-hating,” for example. Rather than separating survival from “flourishing” or “culture” in order to position philosophy as part of either “flourishing” or “culture” (or both], philosophy is conceived as part of survival in a conceptualization in which all forms of well-being are taken to be part of survival. Audre Lorde is explicit about this when she writes that “For women-poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change.” 11

Survival, so positioned, is central to any conceptualization in which the summum bonum (ifthere is such a thing) is not taken to be something that transcends physically, psychologically, and socially embedded life but rather that is taken to be just exactly that. The sketch that emerges is that of an immanent rather than a transcendent philosophical theory, in which survival is not transcended but embraced.


In such an immanent philosophical theory, survival occupies a niche similar to that which is occupied by knowledge in androcentric philosophy. Because of this, it makes sense to claim that gynocentric philosophical theories are based in ethics rather than in epistemology. Survival is arguably a moral concept. It is surely not merely an epistemic one.

The gynocentric framework unfolding in the work of lesbian feminist theorists finds its roots in a fundamental assertion of the importance of nondomination rather than in a foundational assumption of the importance of distinguishing knowledge from nonknowledge. This nondomination, I claim, emerges from the centrality of survival. What remains yet to be shown, but which seems intuitively obvious, is that when survival is reconceived as not “that which is a precondition for the emergence of culture” but rather as “that which infuses every aspect of well-being,” it is going to turn out that any form of domination inhibits some sort of well-being and therefore is antithetical to survival in its fullest meaning. Thus a philosophical system in which survival is central necessarily will be one in which domination holds the position of an inconsistency.

Although the details of such a scheme remain yet to be fully articulated, the nature and position of the erotic within the androcentric and gynocentric frameworks give us a clue to understanding their different groundings. Audre Lorde’s sense of the erotic is a subjective, affective sense of yearning to join that which seems subjectively separate.  This, it is important to note, is not the much-maligned “urge to merge.” Ontologically, “merging” makes two things become one, and for eros to exist, there must continue to be more than one. For example, if my erotic enjoyment of you actually causes me to lose track of the fact that you and I are separate, then it is not really erotic enjoyment, at least not in Lorde’s lesbian feminist sense of erotic, but rather it is some other form of self-centered hedonism.

This sort of self-centered hedonism is what continually crops up in the position of the erotic in androcentric frameworks. But this is because androcentric frameworks ‘ define the erotic in terms of knowledge, where knowledge is conceived to be fundamentally a property or attribute of, or somehow attached only to, single, clearly individuated “knowers.” Thus within androcentric frameworks, the erotic turns out to be some kind of intentional state (as it were) that relates a single mind to some particular intentional object (the erotic object). This turns out to be a domination relation (or a quasidomination relation) because of the relation of mind to intentional object: They are not equals. The mind “targets” or “penetrates” the thing-to-be-known in ways that are not even plausibly symmetrical.

But there is no such claim about the erotic within the gynocentric framework; indeed, one of the things about the lesbian-feminist conception of the erotic is that it cannot be a property or attribute of a single thing held or perceived or encountered by another single thing (for example, a single mind). When the erotic, like everything else, is defined with respect to survival rather than with respect to knowledge, it emerges as the “glue” that brings seemingly separate things to a shared commonality. Indeed, the paradigmatic erotic connection within such a gynocentric framework is that of being as committed to your survival as I am to my own.

This is not the same as conflating your survival with mine (or vice versa), or conditioning your survival on mine (or vice versa), or being unable to distinguish your survival from mine. These conflations arise when the relation of the erotic to survival is defined in terms of knowledge, as occurs in the androcentric framework. Thus the erotic-rather than political necessity, coercion of some sort, contractual arrangements between negotiating parties, or the like becomes the primary source of moral community.


In survival-centered ethics, grand theory seems out of place. This is not to say that we want, or ought to want, to abandon theory. But the majority of our moral judgments are contextual, involving a pretty small group of folks, most of whom we already know: Should I call my friend or leave her alone? Should I picket with my union? Should I let my neighbor with repulsive politics use my extra parking space? Should I hassle my teenager about doing her homework? Should I go to the trouble to recycle this odd piece of plastic?

In androcentric ethical theories, as a member of “the” community of moral agents in good standing, I am presumed to be able to exercise my own judgment about most of these things without needing to consult all those who might be affected, and-for the most part whatever decisions I make will be accepted by others as being my business or my decision. Indeed, if I do not have the agency necessary to make or act on such decisions, then I am presumed not to be a member of “the” community of moral agents in good standing. Folks may disagree with my moral judgments on such issues but usually not on the basis that I’m not a qualified moral agent. They also don’t usually disagree with my judgments on the basis that I haven’t properly consulted a large enough moral community.

But when someone does call into question the size and scope of the moral community affected by, or owed accountability for, my decision or act, it turns out to be a devastating sort of challenge. This is because in andocentric theories, it is exactly in calling into question the size and scope of the moral community to which I owe accountability for my decision to act that the key to claiming a sufficient stake to complain about my moral decisions lies. A common way to claim a moral right to influence a decision or act is to claim to be a relevant member of the moral community affected by, or owed accountability for that decision or act.  For example, anti-abortion proponents claim the right to influence a woman’s decision about the fetus in her uterus by contending that the morally relevant community is larger than just the woman and her doctor: They claim that the rest of the world has a stake in whether the fetus is born or not and that the fetus has a stake in it as well. Thus they seek to expand the relevant moral community to include themselves and the fetus, and this is what purports to give them a right to participate in the decision. Indeed, this claim is not wholly false-thus its appeal. The rest of the world does have some stake in how populous a world we inhabit and with which particular people or potential people we share our talents or skills, troubles, toils, joys, and resources. The argument is similar to that which claims that the rest of the world has a stake in whether or not I commit suicide. Or wear a seatbelt. To move a question from the realm of “personal choice” to the realm of “accountable moral choice,” androcentric philosophy argues that the decision is political or has a political impact on a broader moral community.

For feminist philosophers who have come to believe that the personal is political, this renders communitarian sorts of moral theories simultaneously and paradoxically appealing and problematic, for “moral community” is, among other things, conceived as those to whom we hold ourselves to be accountable. We come to wonder what decisions if any are truly “personal”; indeed, every decision becomes political by virtue of its being connected (through ourselves and our connections) to some moral community greater than ourselves. [see discussion questions below] A paradigm example of this is radical lesbian separatists’ challenge to all women to rethink heterosexuality; the challenge itself is to the notion that with whom I sleep is not a “personal” as opposed to a “political” choice. That is, I am responsible and accountable to a larger community than just myself and my partners for the decisions I make about with whom I am sexually involved, and the scope of my accountability is greater than just a question of to whom I might transmit any germs I may carry.

This sort of move is particularly compelling to those of us trying to conceive a gynocentric ethics without first divesting ourselves of the notion of philosophy as transcendence of survival issues. The reason it is so compelling is that it rightfully challenges the idea that community survival has been “taken care of” already.

Survival of lesbian or gynocentric communities is not assured. In the hierarchy of needs, I would not yet be in a position to move “beyond” survival issues unless I were willing to abandon my responsibilities or accountability to those lesbian or gynocentric communities whose survival is not yet assured. This sets up a dichotomy between evincing disloyalty to my still-oppressed sisters or joining them in their moral community. But this dichotomy is only apparent, because it results from the ways in which relatively gynocentric moral community has been conceived by feminists still within a hierarchy of survival and needs relations.


The dichotomy becomes more salient when we ask what constitutes moral courage under conditions in which the personal is political. The type of moral courage on which I want to focus is the courage to dissent. The line between moral courage and moral irresponsibility is blurred by the positioning of ethics as the transcendence of survival issues.

For those who have come to believe that the personal is political, it is easier to make moral judgments that are in accord with one’s moral community than to dissent. Androcentric individualistic moral theories provide an easy outlet for dissent: Many moral judgments can be chalked up to the “personal” and taken out from under the scrutiny of the moral community. Indeed, a final and sufficient reason for a moral judgment might well be, “I just did what I had to: I was true to my own conscience.” If a liberal individualist with similar-minded friends constituting her moral community decides to leave or join or start a church, love a man or a woman or both or neither, gestate or abort or prevent or use donor sperm to induce a pregnancy, work for a university or teach on street comers, marry or divorce or remain single or lesbian, join the army or join the demonstration, smoke marijuana or abstain, vote Republican or Democrat or Communist or Peace and Freedom or not vote at all-these conveniently can be written off as “personal” decisions, ones in which her moral community has considerably less stake than she. This is because among liberal individualists, it is understood that she had to transcend issues of community survival in order to get to be a bona fide moral agent in the first place. If her survival or her moral community’s survival actually is at stake, then she “regresses” back to survival issues. To the extent to which this is so, she is not yet “civilized.” The preconditions for moral agency haven’t been met. Thus she is not a moral agent accountable to a moral community for those decisions. She is accountable only to herself, perhaps including her own sense of personal integrity, “and” (as it were) her individual survival “instincts.”

But under conditions in which the personal is political, liberal individualism falters. Any decision, by virtue of being political, is fair game for being held accountable by and to my moral community. It is also fair game for becoming grounds for my exclusion from a moral community. This is where the conditions differ markedly from those of liberal individualism.

This milieu, for example, is illustrated by the positions of some separatists. What under liberal individualism is counted as “guilt by association” (a bad thing to be avoided) becomes valued as the legitimate concept of attending to access (to one’s energy, ideas, and so on). For example, the black separatist moral community does not want me as a member if I am not a black separatist, no matter how sympathetic I might be. It objects to shoring me up with its information, ideas, energy, enthusiasm, care, concern, and attention just so that I can be replenished enough to survive as a white person under conditions of white racism.

As we rethink the ontology of persons and of communities, moral courage takes on new dimensions. For example, in the lesbian feminist reading of “the personal is political,” membership in one’s moral community turns out always to be at issue. This often has been experienced and expressed as pressure on members of such communities to behave in ways that are “politically correct.” The pressure to be “politically correct” is especially strong for those who construe moral decision-making in this connected, contextual, particular way. [see discussion questions at end] For if one is expelled or shunned by one’s moral community, what context is there in which to make moral judgments? I risk genuine “demoralization” when my moral judgments differ enough from those of my moral community for me to be excommunicated, for if I am expelled from my moral community, some piece of my moral agency itself is at stake.

I say “some piece of” my moral agency is at stake because most of us are simultaneously members of a number of moral communities. One rarely loses one’s membership in all of one’s moral communities at once. For example, my household might be one moral community; my five or ten closest friends might be another; my religion might be another; my AA group another; my union, neighborhood, town, or indeed my country might be others. When I am expelled from one moral community, I am rarely expelled from all moral communities of which I am a member. (Even if I am deported, my friends are still my friends. They may even try to help me return.)

But many times those moral communities serve different functions in my life; they serve to facilitate different kinds of, or just different, moral judgments. Perhaps I joined my AA group because my friends and my office coworkers did not or could not provide a moral community in which I could be satisfied with my moral judgments and actions surrounding alcohol. If my AA group expels me and I now have to look toward my family, my friends, and my office coworkers (and “the world”) for a particular context in which to make judgments about drinking, I may make different decisions than I would if I were still in AA. The pressure to avoid rejection, expulsion, or excommunication from one’s moral communities is high. Groups such as AA use this as a compelling force; I may not remain in AA if I continue to drink and encourage others in the group to get sauced with me. So in virtue of wanting to remain part of that moral community, I abstain. The pressure of the community “helps” me to do that.

This sort of pressure occurs in other moral communities surrounding other issues as well and is the phenomenon reported as pressure to be “politically correct.” For example, it is difficult to be both a deeply concerned member of a feminist moral community and a believer in fetuses’ rights to be born. One is strongly urged to change one’s views capture the force of it-to say that it takes moral courage to resist doing or not doing something that is “politically correct” just because that is so under such circumstances. Furthermore, obviously not all such resistance is appropriately seen as moral courage.

It could hardly be called “moral courage,” for example, except by stretching the definition beyond recognition, for a fourteen-year-old to become hooked on cocaine despite the disapproval of her moral community. On the other hand, one might want to say that many other sorts of instances of refusing to be bullied by pressure from one’s moral community are indeed acts of moral courage. Under conditions of contextualized moral decision-making though, in which the personal is the political and the moral community is the context, those very acts of moral courage may jeopardize membership in one’s moral community, thus putting one’s moral agency at stake when one disagrees with that community. When “moral agency” means, at least in part, maintaining and attending to one’s embeddedness in a moral community, then acts of both moral courage and moral irresponsibility are equally alienating; indeed, in some ways the two begin to look quite indistinguishable. Both are instances of ignoring community context.

This scheme embraces a conservatism and a pressure toward maintaining the status quo while at the same time encouraging the splintering and factionalization of moral communities. For when I dissent in a way that risks my membership in my moral community, one thing that helps me decide if I am being morally irresponsible or morally courageous is whether I can find or create a new moral community in which to find context. If I am in solidarity with only myself, my moral community is so small that I may be forced to change my views, for I cannot create enough of a moral context to function in a community of only one. On the other hand, if others join me in my dissent, we may form a new moral community. Under this description, politics becomes not the creation and shaping of ideas and beliefs through interaction but the creation and shaping of moral communities themselves. 15


To avoid the problem of continually having the shape of moral communities to be at stake rather than the moral issues for which community provides the context, consensus-making has been an important part of feminist (and other relatively communitarian) theories of contextualized moral agency and judgment. Dissent is problematic within a context in which consensus is constitutive. In theory, when members of the community aren’t in agreement they remain in dialogue with one another until consensus is reached. There is a commitment all the way around to remain in open communication on the points of disagreement until agreement is reached through nonadversarial interaction. Most folks agree that this sometimes may take a very long time. But that’s acceptable; process is as important as product.

This may be true and even workable in some situations. But in situations in which disagreement is too fundamental, the dissentient risks excommunication rather than simply an added time commitment to reach consensus. What she risks is alienation, not being late for dinner. Separatist theories have made this point explicit. Zionist separatists, for example, do not welcome non-Zionists into Zionist moral communities and indeed tend to excommunicate folks who become non-Zionists, What comes to be at issue, then, is who a “Zionist” might be, and, in fact, separatist moral communities spend much time debating such things: Who is a real feminist? A real lesbian? A real Jewish Zionist? My merely calling myself a feminist does not make it so; I need to be in agreement with certain principles if the rest of the feminist community is to agree that I am a feminist. This is the old problem of “who counts” in a moral community. It is not a new but rather a very old question the question of what, minimally, one must have in common with others in a moral community in order to be a full participant.” 16

The problem is not unique to feminist attempts to conceive moral community. Vigorous dissent in moral communities posited by androcentric theory also has the possibility of putting membership at stake. If one dissents too vigorously in a moral community in which “rationality” is the basis for membership, for example, one eventually risks being labeled “irrational,” in which case one’s membership expires. But that is different because it is not for one’s views that one loses membership in one’s moral community but rather for one’s capacities (or perceived capacities). If one can follow the rules for reasoning and communication, then one can stay and continue the dialogue no matter how divergent one’s views are from those that prevail.

One’s membership in feminist moral communities is determined not by what one knows or by what capacities one has but by what moral judgments one shares. This is one feature that makes dissent particularly problematic, for what one dissents about within a moral community is, in fact, moral judgments. If moral communities were merely monolithic single-issue political organizations, this might not be too bad (that is, I could just leave the pro-X community when my views change and join the anti-X community or even the no opinion- about-X community; no peripheral loss here, because the only thing at issue in the context of such a community is X),but they are not. For example, it might be difficult to articulate the constellation of moral principles and judgments and support that I share with my family of origin, a typical moral community. But my dissent about, for example, acceptable choices of “lifestyle” could easily cause my family to disown me. If this happens, I lose not only my family’s conversation, debate, and general moral community surrounding matters of lifestyle; I also lose those things with respect to patriotism, religion, money, sex, promise-keeping, work, friendship, and a whole host of other moral axes, many of which are probably pretty central to my survival.


In feminist conceptions of morality, it seems we have various moral communities to which we are responsible for our judgments and actions. The acknowledgment of this is already a step away from most androcentric moral theories, which postulate “the” universal moral community. Conceptions of moral theory as part of civilization invoke at this point concerns about relativism. The same insights from which pluralistic notions of civilization or “culture” or moral community emerge also yield worries about moral relativism. The problem experienced by those actually trying to live this way, though, is not that of relativism between distinctly different moral communities but that some of one’s own moral communities overlap and-ereating moral dilemma-eonflict.

For example, if “the world” is the relevant moral community, then many would agree that Karl Marx did the right thing in devoting his life to his work. The world and many folks in it are certainly better off for having his writings in it. But three of his children died of poverty related conditions, and his wife quite literally went crazy. To what family? Both? What happened when those conflicted? He was unable to be true to both communities at once. Did Marx make the right choice? Would we think that he had made the right choice had his talents been less, had his work not been read, had he remained another obscure, unemployed writer whose family suffered tremendously from the poverty brought on by his stubbornness? Should he have chosen between the workers of the world and his family, forgoing membership in one moral community so that he could be part of the other? If so, how should he have chosen?

One possible description of moral conflict is that which occurs when overlapping moral communities require incompatible moral principles or judgments for sustaining one’s membership or solidarity.

One might think this situation to be the mark of inconsistency or hypocrisy in one’s life, but it is not so simple. There are so many possible scenarios in which this might occur; I rather believe it IS the norm. Indeed, this sort of situation seems to be constitutive of moral dilemma in contextualized moral decision-making. It is the parallel of moral dilemma brought on by “conflicting rules” in rule-based moral systems. The difference, though, is that the dilemma of conflicting rules is thought to be resolvable, at least theoretically. This is a problem of inconsistency; if the rules are just evaluated and revised carefully enough, with particular attention toward eliminating inconsistency, then eventually there will be a system of rules that has no conflicts. 17

But what possible parallel solution could there be for the problem of overlapping and conflicting moral communities? The analogy with the expectation of consistency in rule-based systems IS the utopian hope for a single moral community in context-based systems. But how can there be a single moral community when one’s moral community is based in actual particular connections and interactions with others? We do not have such actual particular connections and interactions with all others. To whatever extent connections with all others exist, they are largely abstract, not particular.


The question of whether a single moral community can actually exist is too important to leave unaddressed. It is a strength of gynocentric moral theory that we consider such “practical” problems right along with “theoretical” problems. We have made no progress if we still imagine “the” moral community and don’t address the fact that there could be no single moral community in a contextual conception of ethics.” 18 Much of our moral anguish arises out of our conflicting senses of responsibility and accountability to multiple moral communities. We do not worry about the theoretical problems associated with relativism. We worry about de-moralization. We worry about staying sane or getting sane. We worry about survival.

But this, I would like to suggest, is a clue to how we might proceed, not an occasion for pessimism. These worries need not be considered pre-philosophical. This approach takes our moral anguish to be full-fledged philosophy. It provokes and energizes work on at least such philosophical themes as the erotic, knowledge, community, courage, dissent, conflict, and alienation-and this philosophical work can emerge from the actual experiences of our everyday lives.

For feminists, philosophy is not a luxury.


My thanks to Terry Winant, without whose friendship and collegial support this essay would not have been written. She posed just exactly the right philosophical questions at the right times, commented on numerous prior draft s without ever making me feel embarrassed, and prevented me from littering this paper with sentences as long and unwieldy as this one. Thanks also to Claudia Card, Elise Springer, Naomi Scheman, and members of the summer 1990 feminist reading group at Wesleyan University, and a grateful nod in the direction of Audre Lorde for the title.

1.This, for example, was the argument made by Susan Griffin in Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (New York : Harper and Row, 1978).

2. That is, “culture”: religion, intellectual life, problem-solving, inquiry.

3. That is, “survival”: birth, death, food, cleanliness.

4. For example, Sarah Lucia Hoagland, Lesbian Ethics: Toward New Value (Palo Alto, Calif. : Institute of Lesbian Studies, 1988).

5. For example, Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politic s of Peace (Boston : Beacon, 1989); and Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1982).

6. For example, ecofeminist theories about what women are “really” like outside of patriarchy. See Judith Plant, ed., Healing t e Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1989); and Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Arenstein, eds., Re-Weaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990).

7. For example, Joyce Trebilcot, “Dyke Methods,” Hypatia 3, no. 2 (Summer 1988): 1-13.

8. Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in Lorde, Sister/ Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Trumansburg, N.Y.: Crossing Press, 1984), 53. First presented at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Mount Holyoke College, August 25, 1978. Also published as a pamphlet by Out & Out Books (available from Crossing Press).

9. Ibid., 56.

10. This sort of understanding appears to be what Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule refer to as “connected Knowing,” in Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind, ed. Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (New York: Basic Books, 1986). Belenky et al. found that “connecte knowers seek to understand people’s ideas in the other people’s terms rather than in their own terms” and that these connected knowers “were attached to the objects they sought to understand: they cared about them” (124).

11. Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” in Sister/Outsider, 37.

12. For example, the United States claimed (finally) that it needed to become involved in World War II by contending that the morally relevant community was “the world.” But before it became involved, it justified its noninvolvement by contending that the relevant moral community was “Europe.” Similarly, this is how the world gets to claim that individual (minor) Nazis “shouldn’t have done that.” The claim is that their relevant moral community was not merely their elected government and its official decisions and policies.

13. Note that these are two conclusions of the sort that have gained favor recently as political sentiments favoring liberal individualism have lost ground to conservative, paternalistic attitudes. Note too that although radical lesbian feminist moral, political, and epistemic theories also oppose liberal individualism, it is vastly different from conservative, paternalistic opposition to liberal individualism. Unfortunately, on too many occasions these two very differing perspectives have tried to foster political coalitions (for example, the antipornography movements) by blurring this distinction- not, in my view, a good strategy for the long run.

14. However, there certainly is a way of construing drug experimentation by teenagers under these conditions as inexperienced attempts to experiment with moral courage in the form of resistance. After all, fourteen-year-oIds are not exactly experienced moral agents; they are still learning, indeed just beginning to experiment, with the concept of moral agency itself.

15. I first proposed this idea in a paper (unpublished) I wrote in 1985 entitled “Art and Morality: A Feminist Perspective.” In that paper, I argued that art (by defining or identifying moral communities) served the parallel function to that of law, except that law functions within rule-based moral systems and art functions within non-rule-based moral systems.

16. John Stuart Mill tried to solve this problem with respect to utilitarianism in a way that relied on ethics’ being based in culture. This is where gynocentric ethics departs from utilitarianism. Mill claimed that one only became a full participant in the moral community by being educated which, of course, presumes a culture. Survival is not subject to the problems of cultural relativism in the same way that knowledge or education is.

17. This is the somewhat naive hope behind some conceptions of what a codified legal system can provide.

18. This, for example, is one of the serious shortcomings of Sarah Hoagland ‘s Lesbian Ethics. Despite her brilliant and creative efforts to develop a new moral sensibility, she steadfastly refuses to address the question of multiple moral communities. In her world, the lesbian moral community is “the” moral community.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS (please refer to numbers when responding)

  1. Are you convinced that philosophy is NOT a luxury? Why or why not?
  2. Is female separatism a survival-based gynocentric philosophy? What other aspects of survival does separatism account for? What does it miss?
  3. More than one philosopher has noticed that the “mind/body” split actually is a gender split as well. That which is “of the mind”2 gets assigned to masculinity and thus to men, whereas that which is “of the body”3 gets assigned to femininity and thus to women. Is this true? What do you think about it? And how can we resist such gendered categorizations?
  4. Thus the suppression of the erotic constitutes a primary interpersonal harm.” Do you agree? Is such a belief contrary to the commitment of feminist spinsters?
  5. Can the EROTIC be re-framed as central to our philosophy? If so, what should it look like? Is sex required?
  6. We come to wonder what decisions if any are truly “personal”; indeed, every decision becomes political by virtue of its being connected (through ourselves and our connections) to some moral community greater than ourselves. A-HA! The private vs. public distinction! (see redmegaera’s analysis here) If you leave it to UP, I’m gonna use aesthetic femininity as an example of a decision that has very different implications on the public versus private spheres of moral community!
  7. Relatedly, the pressure to be politically correct: do you feel it? About what? Have you changed your views or remained silent for fear of the community’s wrath? About what?
  8. MODERATION RULES: does this resonate with anyone? Should this or something like it be part of the commenting guidelines for FRG?

In theory, when members of the community aren’t in agreement they remain in dialogue with one another until consensus is reached. There is a commitment all the way around to remain in open communication on the points of disagreement until agreement is reached through nonadversarial interaction. Most folks agree that this sometimes may take a very long time. But that’s acceptable; process is as important as product.



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8 responses to “Philosophy Is Not a Luxury

  1. Undercover Punk

    It is the parallel of moral dilemma brought on by “conflicting rules” in rule-based moral systems. The difference, though, is that the dilemma of conflicting rules is thought to be resolvable, at least theoretically. This is a problem of inconsistency; if the rules are just evaluated and revised carefully enough, with particular attention toward eliminating inconsistency, then eventually there will be a system of rules that has no conflicts.

    Hey, is that why I’m feeling ethically paradoxical? But I like rules! They make everything so much easier, don’t they?

  2. SheilaG

    Rules are fine. I’ve never had a problem with them as long as lesbian feminists are inventing them 🙂
    2. Separatism as a survival strategy— some thoughts/ the separation of mind and body, with mind assigned to men and body assigned to women- both assignments, naturally, made by men.

    Ok, let’s jump in here. I agree that philosophy is a necessity, because it will cause an ordinary life to become extraordinary.

    I don’t really relate to words like “survival” because I don’t feel this. I live in the U.S., I am well compensated in my career, so I am very far from survival in any way shape or form.

    Separatism to me is about women coming together to flourish without male interruption. Since I consider males to be primitive boors, I don’t see the point of wasting good women’s energy on them.

    I notice that separatism among women is rampant. I can easily find it all over the place, and now that we have a fully stabilized class of women enterpreneurs and business people, we unite for inspiration and support. This is a completely different strategy than women who insist on battling it out with the men.

    Then there is political separatism, and this involves women’s evolving political and strategic philosophy, again interrupted by men.

    Since women are a worldwide majority, this strategy or philosophy could become incredibly powerful, and it requires a change in consciousness on the part of women. It’s why men hate it and attack it so much. It’s why they are trying to erase separatist philosophy in queer studies departments etc.

    Men see the power of it a lot faster than most women, and therein lies the irony. Ok, let’s go for it! 🙂

  3. SheilaG

    Mind and body, I’ll follow up on soon. Hope you’re all getting ready for that powerful woman centered season known as Halloween!

  4. Undercover Punk

    I have more to say, but for the moment, the reason I think of separatism as “survival” is because it acknowledges the short-comings of the current system and, instead of trying to fix them directly, it proposes a solution that serves our more immediate need to minimize pain by turning away from male ignorance and supremacy. For example, if I thought that gender equality could be effectuated by some proper teachings, I’d be out there speaking the gospel of love to men and holding their hands as I led them towards the Light of Full Humanity for women. Instead, by practicing separatism, I’m doing what I have to do to survive and thrive *emotionally.* I think that women’s “survival” under many patriarchal regimes was strictly physical; yet that is not the most important kind of survival.

  5. SheilaG

    Thanks for clarifying your idea of survival and separatism being an aspect of that Undercover. I guess to me “survival” is one of those terms radical feminists throw around, and it comes across sometimes as being overly dramatic or not taking women’s abilities seriously enough. This is not what I get from you UP, however.

    Now if I believed men to be sincere, and really wanting to change the status quo, yes, of course I would try to teach them something. The thing is, I’ve watched them within a feminist context and critique now since 1972, and I see no desire on their part to do anything but waste women’s time.

    Therefore, I want women’s nation or women’s agency to finally speak this truth, and then go on from there. It is the desire for separatism or at least the awareness that men have had separatism for centuries, but women haven’t tried it that often to consciously advance women’s place in the world.

    Men really have nothing to do with this, except to act as road blocks to the progress of women. Now I know this might be a hard thing for straight women to really get, even though they create separatism everywhere they go, but it is a tradition within lesbian feminism that is very powerful and uplifting.

    I don’t see separatism as survival emotionally, I see it as incredible inspiration and intellectual uplift. It’s not difficult for me to deal with men in their spaces. I’m aggressive, very strong, and they tend to be more afraid of me, actually. That’s easy.

    But what I find hard is watching women suffer, or women stuck, or women be unwilling to really unite for their own benefit, even in the smallest of things. I find it hard to see women in constant struggles, when such glory could be ours.

    So I see separatism as going toward the light of women, and that it is about our enlightenment, it’s not really about men at all. I may be in the minority here, but then again, I find doom and gloom feminism not at all what attracted me to this way of life to begin with.

    To me, feminism and women’s worlds were about advancement in every sense of the term. Again, this is largely a minority opinion on a lot of feminist sites, and seems to actually annoy a lot of women out there. Nevertheless, it is my lived experience, so I thought it would be philosophically of value to say this now and then.

    • Undercover Punk

      I totally agree with you Sheila! I think it’s sort of along the lines of what we were articulating for FCM last week: the difference between separatism (to get away from men) and lesbian separatism (which BOTH gets away from men AND fosters positivity and love between women). I definitely want to be focused on the positive here. I want to discuss the theories we can implement IRL to build closer bonds between women.

      So, Sheila G, what do you think about the erotic, as mentioned by Audre Lorde? You and I are both relationship lovers, and I believe that incorporating physical closeness reinforces emotional bonds. I can’t imagine not seeking to develop the most intimate union possible with my partner! At the same time, in my friendships, I’m a touchy person; not in a sexual way, but if my friend is sad I’ll snuggle with her and pet her head (or something). I think it makes our friendship closer (safety, comfort, trust, attention) and I think we could also call that erotic (or shouldn’t we?). Either way, I think it helps to build closeness. I think we should talk about fostering it amongst lesbians!

  6. SheilaG

    Audre Lorde’s use of the word “erotic” I think of as a noble effort. I’m not sure what I think of this actually.

    I do know that I can feel very close to women, a kind of deep spiritual/emotional connection that just doesn’t exist with men. This might be because men shut out this kind of intimacy, and are such sex obsessed and penis focused being that they aren’t capable of that kind of closeness. They don’t even trust each other!

    That said, I do think we have to foster a lot of love in all lesbian contexts. Straight women are great lovers (not in the sexual sense) but in an emotional sense. Lesbians, I think, struggle with this. I’m kind of a heart on my sleave type of woman, so the coldness or meanness that is often characteristic of lesbians IRL, can be a bit much for me.

    Separatism can be claimed for the good I think, what it is women gain from separatism, so that they focus their time and energy on women, rather than wasting the love resource on men, who don’t get it anyway. Hope this helps.

  7. I think the whole Maslow hierarchy was a somewhat male-identified model anyway. Anyone who has ever cared for other human beings, especially children (e.g. mothers) knows that we need far more than food, water, clothing, shelter. Research has clearly shown that children die–“fail to thrive”–when their “basic” needs are met, but they are deprived of the love and nurturance of a primary caretaker. The same could be observed in adults placed in solitary confinement. Even if they are provided with adequate “basic” needs, they tend to become psychologically unhinged.

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