Ethical Theories and Issues Through New Lenses

Notes on Traditional Ethical Theories
and Ethical Issues Articles
Using the Ideas of Riane Eisler and George Lakoff

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

Revised: April 9, 2010

How are ethical theories related to Eisler's and Lakoff's Concepts?

I am referring to the Domination and Partnership patterns in Eisler's work and the Strict Father and Nurturant Parent models of the family in Lakoff's work.

I. Noddings

We can state quite simply that Noddings is inspired by the experience of caring that is most prominent in what Lakoff calls the Nurturant Parent model of the family. (Her thinking also corresponds to what Eisler calls Partnership relations.) Unlike Lakoff and Eisler, Noddings (at least in the article in Boss 2010) does not have much to say about public policy, since she seems to think that caring is possible only between people who directly interact with one another, as mothers with children, or teachers with young students. (One might criticize her for not appreciating how the care perspective or NP perspective can be projected onto relations within larger communities.)

II. Bentham Utilitarianism

Bentham's utilitarianism is an invention of the late 18th century. He was British and at the time he wrote British capitalism was in full swing. Financial accounting is important for capitalism, because businesses aim to maximize their profits, which means they want to maximize the difference between total expenses and total income.

Bentham's time was also one in which modern science was rapidly progressing. There was a lot of study of cause-effect relationships. This is relevant to morality because human actions, which can be evaluated morally, have consequences. Bentham's "scientific" approach was to evaluate actions by carefully studying their consequences. (Since we have to act before we know their consequences, we have to try to predict their consequences based on past experience.)

Utilitarianism is an intelligent blend between nurturant parent thinking, the nation as family metaphor, and moral accounting metaphors. NP thinking creates a concern with the total good of the family, which involves the good of each of its members. NP also understands goodness as something experienced as good. From moral accounting ideas Bentham gets the metaphorical interpretation of well-being as money. He calls quantifiable well-being "utility." He knows well-being isn't literally money, but he thinks of it as the type of thing that can be summed up.

What sort of well-being do we experience and quantify? Bentham chooses pleasure as the appropriate measure of well-being. He defines well-being in terms of pleasure. The good is pleasure: This makes him what moral philosophers call an ethical hedonist. (This is another sign of NP thinking in the background of Bentham's thought; SF thinkers are for the most part hostile to pleasure, regarding it as the gateway to sin. NP thinkers have a place for it in their system of values.)

From moral accounting Bentham gets what Lakoff has identified as Rule 1: Do good and not harm. But since the same action can cause both, we must ask how we can take both of them into account. By regarding evil, or pain, as negative pleasure. So, the basic principle of utilitarianism is this: we should do the most net good possible. The net good is what you get when you subtract total pain caused by an action or policy from the total pleasure caused by the same action or policy.

When reasoning about the law (one of Bentham's chief interests), he implicitly makes use of the nation as family metaphor. Maximizing the net good of the national family is the goal. It is also possible to engage in utilitarian reasoning reason by inquiring about the likely results for the entire human family (or at least everyone, whether a part of one's country or not, likely to be affected by one or more of a set of policy or decision options) when the consequences go beyond the one's fellow citizens. According to just war theory, a nation is supposed to weigh the consequences for everyone affected in deciding whether to go to war or continuing to prosecute a war.

Every choice is among action (or policy) options. Every option produces its own net good (=net pleasure). Bentham's utilitarianism tells us to chose the option that produces the greatest net good.

III. Locke's political theory.

Locke's philosophy is closely related to the Strict Father model. Like later libertarianism Locke's political philosophy is dependent upon SF values. This involves worry about external evil, a government that overreaches and taxes citizens, i.e., Strict Fathers, excessively. Locke takes the standpoint of a strict father who sees other strict fathers as brothers in the national family. He respects their rights as strict fathers not to be interfered with, as long as they respect each other's (and his) rights. Women are obviously present (attached to individual SF's as wives) but are not mentioned. They are largely invisible.

IIIB. Ayn Rand's political theory

Rand is hostile to what she calls "altruism" and a defender of what she calls egotism or selfishness. She seems to misuse these words. What she is actually defending is what moral philosophers call self-love or egoism, that is, being motivated by what is in one's own interest.

But her egoism is restrained by a conception of individual rights, quite similar to Locke's. She is willing to respect other person's rights to life, liberty, and possessions. These rights are understood negatively, i.e., as rights not to be interfered with by other persons. So a right to life is a right not to be killed or assaulted (as long as one respects similar rights of others). A right to possessions is a right to possessions one has acquired in the proper way, e.g., making it oneself from materials already owned by oneself or getting it by free exchange from someone who has a right to it already.

With Rand and contemporary libertarianism we come upon what Lakoff calls the Strict Parent model. The SP model differs from the SF model in the way it interprets the metaphor of Moral Order. In the SF version, adult males have a right or God-given authority to dominate adult females in their family; in the SP model this ranking is absent. In the libertarian view, a Strict Mother can be a Strict parent just as successfully as a Strict Father (but should not be indulged ("coddled") if she fails to live up to SP standards). When SP values are projected onto the national scale, we get policies supporting equal standing of women and men before the law. Men should not have the legal power to control women's sexuality. But libertarians are just as opposed to welfare rights as SF conservatives.

(Still, check out the sex scenes in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, and ask yourself whether these don't slip into the pure Dominator model.)

IV. Ruth Groenhout's liberal feminism

Liberal feminism is closely related to the NP model, in spite of verbal similarities (the emphasis on rights) with Locke's view. The Nation as Family metaphor plays a big part in the background of liberal feminist thinking. The attempt to formulate moral issues in terms of rights rather than caring or nurturance is a concession to the rights discourse prevailing in modern society. But if rights include not only rights not to be killed, enslaved, or stolen from but also rights to a living wage, education, health care, and security in old age, then they can express (approximately, anyway) a sense that we all belong to a single national family and we have obligations to look out for our "siblings."

V. Catherine MacKinnon

MacKinnon's call for the regulation of pornography seems to be in general agreement with Riane Eisler about the pervasive influence of the Dominator Mentality. MacKinnon sees what she calls pornography as the key mechanism whereby gender is "constructed" along Male-Dominator/Female-Dominated lines. Whereas Eisler thinks that there are "pockets" of partnership here and there in present society, MacKinnon's picture of a nearly totalitarian pornographic society leaves little room for this. But M's proposed ordinance actually leaves (some) room for portrayals of mutually respectful erotic relationships between men and women. She is not trying to ban, or penalize people for producing, erotica.

VI. Nadine Strossen

As a leader of the American Civil Liberties Union, Strossen is a clear advocate of freedom of speech, even when we disagree with the speech and find it offensive and insulting. Her position is close to that of liberal feminism, and as such it has an unconscious basis in the NP model and in the possibility of democratic partnership within the national family. She seems to be unconvinced by arguments like MacKinnon's that pornography, in the sense of portrayals of intimate violence, is so tightly linked causally to actual violence as to justify regulating it as a cause of harm to women.

She is also concerned that it may be impossible to prevent the use of laws designed to reign in the production and sale of pornography (as MacKinnon understands it) to legally restrict other forms of sexual expression. She is concerned that erotica and sexual realism (including educational materials regarding sexuality and reproduction) may be targeted as well as speech of feminists themselves protesting and organizing against sexist institutions.

VII. Margaret Battin on Euthanasia

Battin is thinking of the terminal, suffering patient metaphorically in terms of a nurturant parent family model or the doctor-society-patient relationships in terms of partnership. Each party is deserving of respect, which translates into respect for their wishes as long as they are not irrational. Hence the Autonomy Principle. No party should have to suffer unduly. Hence the Mercy Principle. Respect for other members of society implies that resources of no value to the patient may be diverted to reduce pain for people who can benefit from them. Hence the relevance of the Justice Principle, which has mainly to do with the fairness of distribution of scarce resources.

It is noteworthy that Battin admits a better case can often be made for Physician Assisted Suicide than Voluntary Active Euthanasia, two practices that are distinct but call for similar (not identical) moral reasoning.

VIII. Wolf's Feminist Critique of Physician Assisted Suicide.

On the face of it, Wolf's article is also coming from the Partnership or anti-Domination perspective. Her point seems to be that given the way dominator relationships pervade society and shape women's self-conception, they are likely to "voluntarily" request Physician Assisted Suicide where greater respect for the value of their lives (as would be advocated by the Partnership perspective) would actually counsel against that.

IX. Gay-Williams Against Euthanasia

Gay-Williams' argument that euthanasia is against nature reflects Catholic teaching, going back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas. Nature is a reference to the natural moral law, which derives from God, the creator of Nature. Ultimately, the moral picture is closer to the Strict Father (or Domination) picture than to the Nurturant Parent picture. Gay-Williams' view implies that we should stay alive, if possible, no matter how much we are suffering because that is the right thing to do. Pain has no, or very little, moral weight in such a view; but enduring pain so as to "do the right thing" (i.e., follow "nature") "builds character," which is given a lot of moral weight.

If we look at nature carefully, we observe many cases in which animals seem to violate what Williams' thinks is the natural desire to continue living, such as the Norwegian lemmings' famous "mass suicide" or the male preying mantis that has sex even though it usually happens afterwards that the female eats him. In general, the natural law moral tradition recognizes, indeed insists upon, the distinction between human beings and nonhuman creatures. Moreover, humans normally do have a natural desire to continue living. But this does not imply that they always do, or that normal behavior should dictate what is done or permitted in unusual circumstances.

X. The Death Penalty.

Generally, as you might expect, the proponents of the death penalty operate out of the Domination perspective, or from the Perspective of the Strict Father Family Moral Model. Failure to abide by the Strict Rules of the Authority figure merit strict punishment. The death penalty is the clearest case of such strictness. This, of course, is the Domination pattern or Strict Father Model applied at the level of the state or national community. Less violent responses to crime tend to be favored by the Partnership Perspective or Nurturant Parent Model (also as applied to the state or national level).

XI. Abortion.

The Strict Father and Domination Perspective inform most of the anti-abortion positions, in spite of the fact that the discussion of abortion today tends to be conducted in terms of rights. The antiabortion or no-choice position defends fetal rights to be kept alive by the mother until term.

Unwanted pregnancies are generally understood by SF or Dominator thinkers as coming from a rebellious woman who does not keep her sexuality within the boundaries of the Strict Father family, under the control of the Male Dominator. This applies to the young woman who is still living at home with her parents but has pre-marital sex or the woman who is married but has an extramarital affair and wants an abortion "to cover it up." Of course, these cases do not exhaust the scenarios in which an abortion might be desired, but they are the cases that SF and Dominator thinkers immediately call to mind.

The Liberal position, whether viability, birth, or the emergence of self-awareness is the criterion, is generally motivated by the Partnership perspective, which assumes gender equality as an ideal. Women should have a full range of choices like men; otherwise, they cannot be partners, only dominated subjects. Their sexuality should be under their own control. But that need not mean anything goes. If a woman has pledged fidelity to a man and vice versa, the partners ought to respect those pledges, as long as the opposite number does his or her part. However, judgment ought to be sensitive to the situation. Emphasis on a woman's right to choose is meant to protect her freedom in cases where her "partner" has become too controlling.

XII. Drugs.

Laws against drugs and the mindset of the "War Against Drugs" are clear expressions of the SF or dominator mentality. The more things that are prohibited, the more occasion one has to punish, which always has a tinge of the violent attached to it. The filling of prisons with those who break rules is exactly what you would expect from the Dominator Approach. It's noteworthy that some of the "laws against drugs" are laws the breaking of which may only cause harm to the individual breaking them.

Partnership thinkers support apprehending and preventing people from violating the basic rights of others. So they would agree that it is OK to deprive people of their freedom who put the lives of others at risk (say, by driving under the influence), but would question if this is the case regarding the recreational use of some drugs.

XIII. War.

The Dominator Perspective tends to follow Political Realism, according to which a nation should put its national interest first in international affairs. Every nation ruled by the dominator perspective tries to do that. This leads to a sort of collective egoism on the part of each state. It entails that there are no moral rules that take precedence over national interest.

The Just War Theory can be understood as an attempt to moderate national collective egoisms by having the states aspire to treat each other as equals, as potential partners observing international law. In effect, however, the partnership is between ruling elites of states, and it is at best an ideal. JWT implies that it is just to go to war against states that do not observe the respect for other states required by international law.

A more vigorous partnership position is reflected in Pacifism and in the Feminist critique of the arms race as an expression of Dominator culture.

XIV. Torture

The prohibition of torture under international law before September 2001 corresponded to the Just War Theory, in particular, jus in bello. It also corresponded to a strong set of protections built into human rights principles. These derive from a general commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, which derives from the national and global application of the Partnership or Nurturant Parent Moral Model.

The disappearance or relaxation of the ban on torture in the practice of the U.S. government (and its allies) after September 2001 corresponds to the resurgence of Dominator mentality and SF thinking. According to these perspectives, the world is an extremely dangerous place and violence is an option even against potential (not yet actual) "evildoers."

XV. Gender Relations and the Environment

Karen Warren's article, "The Power and the Promise of Ecological Feminism, Revisited," anthologized in chapter 12 of Judith Boss's Analyzing Moral Issues (2010) is probably the clearest case of a trained philosopher who thinks very much along the same lines as Riane Eisler. The article was first published in 1990, three years after Eisler published The Chalice and the Blade (1987), where Eisler introduced the distinction between Domination and Partnership relationships. Eisler's 1987 book focused on the distinction between the Goddess-centered cultures of "Old Europe" and the male dominated, militaristic societies that overran and supplanted them in Eastern Europe and much of Asia. Dr. Warren does not address these historical issues but is primarily concerned to expose the conceptual framework that pervades societies organized around the concept of Domination.

Like Eisler, Warren understands the parallelism between hierarchical gender relationships within the family and hierarchical or dominator relationships within the larger society. Like Eisler, Warren understands the parallelism between the patterns of gender relationships and the way in which humanity's relationship to nonhuman nature is conceptualized. Like Eisler, Warren understands the importance of metaphysical or moral evaluation (superior/inferior vs. equal worth) in reasoning about these issues. Warren describes a common "logic of domination" which structures our (dominator) thinking concerning such male-female, elite-masses, humanity-nature relationships. And, finally, like Eisler (but with less elaboration), Warren articulates the possibility of non-dominationist relationships which she hints at in the last part of the essay while discussing the difference between loving perception and arrogant perception.