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Virginia Held

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Feminist Moral Inquiry: The Role of Experience

Virginia Held ?City University of New York ?Ð'

When I first read Science and the Theory of Value many years ago, I was surprised and pleased to discover how much closer my own developing views were to Peter Caws' than to most of the other work in ethics I was reading.Ð' I shared what I took to be his views that:

1) Science and ethics are different but analogous. ?2) Both can make progress. Thus we should not accept comparisons suggesting that while science marches forward piling up knowledge, ethics can only offer the venting of feelings, or reportage on attitudes whether justified or not. ?3) Both science and ethics are based on experience. ?4) Ethics is distinctively normative, it is not itself science.

I shared these views then (if I have interpreted his views correctly) and still do. But I have found it amazingly difficult in the years since to convey these positions on ethics clearly and to argue for them convincingly.

When I argue that ethics is based on experience, listeners conclude that I am an ethical naturalist who thinks ethics and science are both empirical.Ð' But I am definitely not an ethical naturalist, since I think ethics is distinctively normative not descriptive.Ð' It addresses questions about what we ought to do and be, not what is in fact the case, though the latter findings are certainly relevant to our moral evaluations.Ð' But as I argue the non-naturalist case, listeners then do not see how ethics can be connected to experience, and they conclude I must be an intuitionist or rationalist about ethics.Ð' But I would not describe myself this way.

As I see it, experience is not just the sensory perception of the empiricists.Ð' It includes moral experience. And then moral theory can in a meaningful way be tested against such experience, and can be built upon it.

Moral experience is the experience of consciously choosing to act, or to refrain from acting, on grounds by which we are trying conscientiously to be guided. Moral experience is the experience of accepting or rejecting moral positions for what we take to be good moral reasons or well-founded moral intuitions or on the basis of what we take to be justifiable moral feelings.Ð' Moral experience is the experience of approving or disapproving of actions or states of affairs of which we are aware and of evaluating the feelings we have and the relationships we are in.

Moral experience, as I understand it, includes the sort of judgment we arrive at independently of moral theory.Ð' It includes the sort of choices we make about how to act, arrived at independently of general moral judgments to which we think we are committed.Ð' Sometimes we already have moral theories or general judgments recommending how we ought to act, and we act in accordance with them and judge that we acted rightly.Ð' Or, if we fail to act in accordance with them, we judge that we acted wrongly, out of weakness of will perhaps, but we maintain our belief in the theory or judgment.Ð' At other times, we choose to act because that particular act seems right to us regardless of any moral theory or abstract generality, and sometimes we continue to suppose the particular act was morally justified. This may then require us to revise our moral beliefs because the act we judge right conflicts with what a theory we previously thought satisfactory would recommend.Ð' Ð' Rather than suppose the act must be wrong because the theory said it would be, we might justifiably retain the judgment arrived at in the moral experience of acting, and we might revise or reject the theory.Ð' And if this is part of a sincerely pursued process of trying to develop a coherent network of moral beliefs by which to be guided, it need not be thought of as rationalization, but rather as part of an appropriate internal dialogue aiming to continually improve one's moral understanding. And of course the dialogue should not just be internal, but part of a shared and ongoing discourse with others, who can bring their often very different experience to enhance the process.

The extent of the independence experience can have from theory should be understood in relative terms.Ð' Yes, empirical observations are theory-laden, and yes, moral experience will be colored by the moral theory we already favor. But just as empirical findings can be relatively independent from a hypothesis being tested, so can moral experience and practice bring us up short and make us reexamine our moral assumptions.

Moral inquiry, then, is not just theory based on thought.Ð' Ð' It is practice, felt about, acted in, lived with, and reflected on.

An example might be the way we work out our views on assisted suicide.Ð' Some of us might start out thinking it is wrong in all cases because in principle people should never intentionally contribute to the death of others when neither they, their family, their nation nor the like is threatened. But then they might experience (directly or vicariously, through the experience of a close friend or relative, or through a movie or novel perhaps) the extreme pain and hopelessness of a terminally ill person. And they might conclude that, when there is virtually not chance of the pain abating, prolonging life against the will of the ill person is unjustified.Ð' Persons changing their views on a moral issue like this might easily be moved not only by new empirical findings, but also by new moral experience, and thus by new evaluations of the relevant factors and their relative importance.

When I first developed my own views on how moral inquiry should be conducted, I did not think of these matters in feminist terms.Ð' I had barely heard of feminism, nor had I read anything written from a feminist point of view.Ð' This was before there was anything like feminist philosophy. But in retrospect I could see how well the insights offered by feminists could be meshed with the views I was developing. I found my views on moral experience entirely compatible with and strengthened by a feminist view of experience.

Experience is a central category of feminist thought. It is not the constricted experience of mere empirical observation, as various giants in the history of modern philosophy and as analytic philosophy tend to construe it.Ð' Feminist experience is the experience with which art, literature and science deal. It is the lived experience of feeling as well as thought, of acting as well as receiving impressions, and of connectedness to other persons as well as self. Time and time again, feminist



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