Saturday, April 21, 2007

Another Postmodernism Thought

Part One: Carol Gilligan and relational moralities

Sometimes similar thoughts will lie around in your brain unconnected until a single word tugs them together and shows them to be parallel. A young friend who attends Gordon College nearby gave a brief definition of postmodernism on her way to making a related point about generational differences. Yes, I really am fortunate enough to have a community (see the third post down) where such things are likely to come up cross-generationally. She used the word relational to describe the outlook of the rising, postmodernist generation. I don’t recall if she specifically related that to ethics and morality, but that was certainly included in the sense of her comment.

The penny dropped for me this morning, when it occurred to me that this is parallel to Carol Gilligan’s argument that women’s morality is more relational than rule-based. For those who like the formal philosophical phrases, that would be the ethics of care, of morality measured by the effect on one’s circle of connection, versus the ethics of deontology, or duty. Dr. Gilligan’s published work in the 80’s claimed that women were more likely to make moral evaluations based on how their networks were effected, rather than applying inflexible rules. That was raised as a feminist standard, and later attacked by other feminists as a betrayal. Her research has also been called into question, as it has not been replicated and she will not disclose her original data. I offer no opinion on either of those controversies.

I did notice long ago that it seemed rather an evasion, and speculated unfairly what inflexible rules she wished women to be freed from. It was unfair and unkind, but I felt less bad about that when I found I had been dead on in my speculation. I had wondered if abortion and premarital sex were the unacknowledged main issues here, and my later reading confirmed that these examples came up disproportionately in ethics of care discussions. That is not a comment here on the rightness or wrongness of either, just a complaint: I wish people would be more honest with themselves before they start formulating grand moral theories when single issues are their real concern.

The Gilligan theory I had rejected long ago. When quiet, respectable Alabamans didn’t want civil rights for black people in the 50’s and 60’s because it would be disruptive to their communities and way of life we didn’t call that a postmodern morality or ethics of care, we called it for what it was: self-serving rationalization. Some critics of the war in Iraq accuse George Bush and the war supporters of merely caring about our people over their people, discounting any supposed principle behind our actions as a mere evasion. They do not say this approvingly, noting that it is a more postmodern, ethics of care, feminine morality; they condemn it as an abomination. And if it were true that there were no other principles behind our actions, simply a preference for our people over theirs, it would be abominable. Huh. Go figure. When the tables are turned, the “advanced” morality is revealed for what it always was: evasion.

The language of relational morality and disdain for inflexible rules is not the language of women, or postmoderns, or people born after a certain date, or emergents. It is the language of any of us when we are trying to avoid the issue. I recommend in this context the biography of the deconstructionist Paul De Man.

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