Polyphonic sound, bifocal vision

Moral Prejudices:
February 17, 1995

Although the title of the opening chapter of this collection asks "What do women want in a moral theory?", the answers given concern what any person of humanity and moral wisdom would wish for: a moral theory that does justice to the insights of both men's and women's moral intuitions.

At the close of the book, Annette Baier tells us that "Ethics is a polyphonic art form, in which the echoes of the old voices contribute to the quality of sound of the new voices". And throughout the work, she shows herself true to her call for feminists "to be feminist in a large and generously appropriative sense", finding philosophical nourishment wherever it is to be had. Her aim, she says, is to fertilise and to prepare ground for the next generation of women philosophers. But when the collection is considered as a whole, she can also be said to have come a fair way in producing at least the seeds of moral theory, even if her work does not fit into a traditional model of systematic, analytical theory building.

Her view of morality is a practically based one that also includes the role of theory. Influenced by the work of Carol Gilligan on different styles of moral thinking, she seeks a bifocal moral vision that incorporates both notions of care and of justice. Whether or not these notions are linked to female and male perspectives respectively, they form alternative approaches to morality which Baier teaches us to see not as rivals but as companions. She develops the notion of "appropriate trust" in several of the essays as a way of marrying love (a more female concern) and obligation (a more male concern).

None the less there are some quarrels to be had and one of Baier's main themes is her dispute with much of mainstream philosophical thought that takes the justice perspective as primary. In particular, she disagrees with too great an emphasis, found within broadly liberal traditions, on contractualism, which plays out its moral dramas among equal and relatively isolated individuals who can choose whether or not to interact. Part of her argument with the mainstream involves this often unarticulated picture of the relationships between people: recurrent themes concern relationships between those unequal in power, cooperation and isolation, and relationships that are not chosen. She is also concerned to articulate the biological and social reality within which we must work out our morality; such realism she sees as a distinctively typical contribution of female philosophers.

A further central fault in mainstream moral theory concerns what it omits, and here is one of Baier's most interesting and important messages. A society that knows only of justice and contract and nothing of love and partnership is not only bleak and impoverished, but it does not know how to transmit real moral concern to the next generation. A moral theory that does not cheat must speak of its own inception, and of how morality is perpetuated, that is the reproduction of morality. Baier links this to her recurrent theme of birth and parenting, and thus unchosen relations between unequals.

Her method is one which, she says, is not straightforwardly argumentative, but that draws on experience and autobiography. Departing from the game of argument is one crime likely to incense analytical philosophers, and indeed much of Baier's work is discursive and anecdotal, even rambling in parts. But not only is a fair helping of analytical argument present, the looseness is deceptive: although some parts of essays may seem lacking in structure and rigour, together the collection goes a fair way towards providing a coherent and broad picture of what moral theory requires. The style is often like that of a good story-teller whose points only later strike us with some force.

Baier's approach makes creative use of the work of past philosophers. Hume appears most often and is the best loved, despite his misogynist remarks. Kant, portrayed as stark, unloving and ultimately cruel, in contrast gets a thorough drubbing. Baier shows quite convincingly that Hume was much in sympathy with feminist ethics - as so often, what we thought was new has been thought before.

Does this book deserve its title, and do we find here more than moral prejudices? There are sometimes claims introduced without sufficient explanation, places where those of analytical bent would want more argument. Some of what Baier says about the dangers of love and safe sex, for instance, strikes me as weird. But often what seem like insufficiently argued prejudices in one essay are treated at greater length in another essay. Moreover, Baier's views are exposed, examined and related to other thinkers both past and present. Prejudice that offers itself up to examination, correction and comparison cannot really be seen as prejudice. Despite the book's shortcomings, both mainstream and feminist philosophy could be fruitfully fertilised by many of Baier's thoughts.

Paula Boddington is a lecturer in philosophy, the Australian National University.

Moral Prejudices:: Essays on Ethics

Author - Annette C. Baier
ISBN - 0 674 58715 4
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £33.95
Pages - 353pp

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