Context

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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.

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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, including those who believed the only safe love was that of a human being for God, Baier settles down with Hume, whose biological approach seems to her both realistic and sensible. Although the love of one human being for another is always risky, in part because it involves power games, one can at least reduce the level of danger by eliminating theological and patriarchal notions from one’s idea of what love should be.

In her fourth essay, “Hume, the Women’s Moral Theorist?,” Baier argues that Hume often saw the world as a woman would see it, rather than from the viewpoint of a man. She then proceeds to compare German philosopher Immanuel Kant and Hume on five different issues, pointing out that in every instance, Kant adhered to what Gilligan identified as the male perspective, while Hume did just the opposite. Baier’s “Hume, the Reflective Women’s Epistemologist?” also deals with Hume, but most of the essay is devoted to an analysis of Hume’s ideas on epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, rather than to comparisons of his views with those of other philosophers. Although Baier admits that Hume shares some of the prejudices of his age, such as the idea that women restrain and refine the more energetic gender, she offers evidence to show that he opposed all tyranny, including that inherent in a patriarchal society.

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. After pointing out that what are called in the title “Violent Demonstrations” will not themselves bring about the changes the demonstrator desires but will merely publicize the cause, Baier proceeds to consider the motivations of terrorists and to suggest moral responses to what are evidently immoral, if often understandable, actions. She concludes by urging the study not only of what makes individuals violent but also of how they can be reared to be gentle.

“Claims, Rights, Responsibilities” and “How Can Individuals Share Responsibility?” are both incisive discussions of important philosophical concepts. In the first of these essays, Baier illustrates how human beings claim rights but also compromise concerning their claims, often trading one right for another. She also explains the relationships among the concept of rights, the development of language skills, and the increasing awareness of oneself as an individual. However, she also points out that without a sense of responsibility, the assertion of rights will never produce a civilized society. Baier begins the second essay by tracing the conflict between individualism, or libertarianism, and communitarianism, a conflict linked inevitably with the matter of responsibility and with the question of the status of women. As long as women were considered the responsibility of men, for example, they could never make their own decisions, and as long as women’s responsibilities within the home and within society were assigned by the patriarchs who ruled both, women were little more than servants. Nothing changed until women finally claimed their rights and took the responsibility for revising the male and female roles in the family and in society. Asserting that many of our ideas are derived from Kant’s form of individualism, which is actually elitist, sexist, and patriarchal, the author ends her essay with a call to Americans to reject Kant and become true philosophical revolutionaries. In “Moralism and Cruelty: Reflections on Hume and Kant,” Baier compares the statements of the two philosophers on such matters as crime and punishment, guilt, and shame. Rather than espousing the rigid moralism of Kant, she encourages her readers to become Humeans, holding that the worst vice is cruelty and that gentle mockery is often the best way to remedy wrongs.

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.

Bibliography

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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 raised by Baier’s critics.

Held, Virginia, ed. Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics. New York: Westview Press, 1995. Eleven essays on feminist issues fill this volume. Baier’s “The Need for More than Justice” gains a new significance when read along with related works, some of which disagree sharply with her point of view. A helpful index directs readers to specific references to Baier in essays by other writers. The editor’s brief but pithy introduction is a good starting point for the study of the ethical theory controversy among women philosophers.

Tong, Rosemarie. Feminine and Feminist Ethics. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1993. A lucid, well-organized volume. After four chapters on the historical and theoretical background to feminist ethics, the author discusses the major writers in the field, explaining each writer’s theories and outlining their opponents’ arguments. In the chapter “Feminist Approaches to Ethics,” the author presents the ideas of Alison Jaggar, Sheila Mullett, and Susan Sherwin before turning to Baier and her concept of appropriate trust. Objections to the theories advanced by these writers are then summarized. Includes index.

Walker, Margaret Urban. Moral Understandings: A Feminist Study in Ethics. New York: Routledge, 1998. Finds traditional, maternal approaches to ethics very different from those of feminists or lesbians. There are many references to Baier, and a passage from Moral Prejudices is used as the epigraph to one chapter. Five of Baier’s books are listed in the bibliography. Perceptive and readable. Has a full index.

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