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As Annette Baier explains in the preface to Moral Prejudices: Essays on Ethics, she borrowed the title for her collection from an essay by David Hume called “Of Moral Prejudices,” in which he questions the traditional assumption that men are meant to be independent and women dependent on men. The title seemed appropriate, she continues, because she appreciates Hume’s willingness to attack stereotypes and because she not only studies moral prejudices but also recognizes them in herself, for example, her very real anger about the way women have been treated over the centuries. However, Baier knows that no society can be based on rage and confrontation. Philosophical inquiry, she believes, should look for ways to reconcile the genders, without making either of them subservient to the other. In the preface, Baier explains that because the fourteen essays in this volume were written for various audiences and on several different topics, which in some cases were assigned, the book should not be read as if it were a single entity, advancing a coherent philosophical system, even though there are stylistic similarities in the essays as well as thematic links.

Male and Female Perspectives

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Baier begins her collection by asking, “What Do Women Want in a Moral Theory?” Although she admits that as yet there are too few women philosophers for anyone to answer the question by perusing their works, she does agree with psychologist Carol Gilligan that there is a basic difference between the way men look at the world and the way women see it. Men emphasize obligation, while women emphasize relationships, caring, nurturing, and love. The author then advances the idea for which she is best known, that a moral theory whose central concept is trust could bring together men and women in a way that the prevailing men’s theories have never done.

In her second essay, Baier considers “The Need for More than Justice.” She begins by pointing out that it is African Americans and women who have most challenged the prevailing male assumption that justice is the most important of the virtues. Having learned to distrust “justice” as too often a justification for oppression, those who have been oppressed and those who can empathize with them stress humanitarianism, or what Gilligan calls “care,” as the principle on which ethics should be based.

The epigraph to “Unsafe Loves” quotes Hume on the two ultimate values in this world, love and friendship. The questions Baier considers in this essay are, first, how to define love, and, second, whether it is a good idea to love someone. After summarizing the ideas of several philosophers,...

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Trust, Violence, and Rights

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The next four essays all explore the issue of trust. “Trust and Antitrust” presents various examples in order to develop an adequate definition. Trust, Baier concludes, means making another the custodian of something one cares about. She discusses trust as it operates between adults and as it applies in child rearing. She also deplores the male obsession with contracts, which she thinks are both unreliable and essentially immoral. It is preferable, she argues, to depend on one’s own judgment.

In “Trust and Its Vulnerabilities,” Baier presents some specific examples of situations in which trust was betrayed, either by another individual or by an institution. She concludes that it is almost impossible to make a set of rules that guide one in determining whom to trust and whom to distrust, whom to offer another chance, even how to react after a breach of trust becomes evident. “Sustaining Trust” begins by pointing out the degree to which all people are vulnerable and goes on to suggest how to differentiate between trust that has no real basis and trust that is based on good judgment. Finally, in “Trusting People,” Baier offers support for her belief that trust should be considered the primary virtue and that therefore every effort should be made to bolster the trustworthiness of individuals and of institutions.

The tenth essay in Moral Prejudices concerns a very different issue, violence, and specifically terrorism....

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Women Philosophers

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In the final essay in Moral Prejudices, entitled “Ethics in Many Different Voices,” Baier returns to the subject her Oxford mentors had emphasized so many years before. Now, she reports, there are many more women’s voices in philosophy. The plural is important, for, as she points out, women philosophers do not speak with a single voice. Indeed, they differ as markedly, both in manner and in matter, as men do. One issue that concerns the author is the professional risk women encounter when they specialize in feminist philosophy or even are candid about their feminist interests; another is that of timing, because the very years when young academicians need to concentrate all their energy on obtaining tenure are those when women are most likely to be bearing and rearing children. If the academic world altered its invidious practice of measuring a scholar’s worth by the quantity of published works rather than on their quality, this problem could be solved.

From these practical matters, Baier moves to a personal testimony on the impact one woman philosopher had on her own thought. If anyone knew about evil and forgiveness, Baier comments, it was the German-born Jewish writer and activist Hannah Arendt. The author admires Arendt not only for her accomplishments but also for the breadth of her vision. The book concludes by urging contemporary women ethicists not to limit themselves but to listen to all the voices, old and new, male and female; perhaps even to become a bit androgynous; and certainly to appreciate the beauty of diversity.


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Additional Reading

Code, Lorraine. What Can She Know?: Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991. Much of the third chapter of this volume is devoted to an interpretation of Baier’s concept of “second personhood” and to a comparison of her view to the ideas advanced by philosophers Caroline Whitbeck and Sara Ruddick. A good summary of Baier’s position on this important issue.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. A landmark study of gender differences from a psychologist’s point of view, suggesting that while men see justice as the foundation of morality, women base their ethical judgments on sympathy, or caring. One of the major influences on Baier and other feminist philosophers.

Gowans, Christopher W. “After Kant: Ventures in Morality Without Respect for Persons.” Social Theory and Practice 22 (Spring, 1996): 105-129. In this critical discussion of works by Baier and Michael Philips, the author defends Immanuel Kant and argues for the concept of autonomy, which Baier rejected. According to the author, in Moral Prejudices, Baier not only fails to do justice to Kant, but her feminist reading of Hume also is open to question. This thoughtful essay is a useful summary of the main points...

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