Social Philosophy

  Although an Early Modernist by training, I found myself in the eighties increasingly drawn into contemporary social issues in a way which forced me to think out broader issues in social and political philosophy. A number of different factors fed into this new interest. I arrived at College of St. Benedict in 1984 having recently been converted to being pro-life. Carol Gilligan’s book In a Different Voice had just come out, and sparked all sorts of seminars and discussions on campus. The environmental movement and Pax Christi were also quite active. I was very much drawn to Gilligan’s work, but puzzled about how she could be pro-choice, given her understanding of the “feminine voice.” “Abortion and the ‘Feminine Voice’” emerged out of my wrestling with these issues. In a Postscript to that article written in 1993, I traced the evolution of Carol Gilligan's and Nel Noddings thought about abortion in their later works. I argued that they truncated the notion of care badly, betraying their own earlier understandings of the "feminine voice." Already in this essay, I begin to trace the connection between the feminine voice and a communitarian social philosophy -- something which my later work comes to emphasize more. (See Postscript to "Abortion and the 'Feminine Voice'" 1993. The Gutting of the Ethics of Care by Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings). Since retirement, I have continued my work on in this area, writing the article on The Ethics of Care, for the New Catholic Encyclopedia.

  A second issue in social philosophy I found myself drawn into writing about was affirmative action. At a school where my husband taught, he encountered an odd case of affirmative action. A highly published man with a good teaching record was passed over for a tenure track job in favor of a woman just out of grad school, with one article forthcoming. An older woman (also an inside candidate) was also passed over, although she had published a book. Strangest of all, she was told she didn’t count as a woman because she was a Canadian. This led me to begin reflecting about affirmative action for women. Surely older women who are more likely to have suffered from discrimination are not compensated or made whole by hiring a young woman who has probably suffered very little discrimination. I wrote and published a short piece about this which attracted notice, opened up opportunities for more writing on the topic, and eventually led to a book on affirmative action in faculty appointments (Diversity and Community in the Academy: Affirmative Action in Faculty Appointments, An Inequity in Affirmative Action).

  My work on affirmative action led me to reflect more about political philosophy. I began to think about what a just society would look like and to puzzle over the peculiar way in which race, sex and ethnicity have become intertwined in American cultural politics. We need to disentangle these. For example, the problems faced by women and by black people are different and require different remedies – a fact obscured by the easy slide from talking about “racism” to “sexism.” (Linking Race and Sex). I also became increasingly dissatisfied with the sort of liberal individualism that views life as a race in which each individual competes for wealth, income and power. All too often this social philosophy is simply taken for granted by both defenders and opponents of affirmative action. Instead, I was attracted to a more Communitarian understanding of society, which appeared to fit well with what Gilligan described as the “feminine voice.”

  In my next teaching position at Stonehill College, I found myself again gravitating toward controversial contemporary issues. In order to give students room to think out their own positions on such issues in spite of the heavy ideological pressures they were under, I put together courses on environmental philosophy and one on gender issues. After I had taught a class on Philosophy of Sex and Gender for several years, my husband Phil Devine and I decided to put together an anthology on such issues that would try to bring opposing positions into dialogue. The result was Sex and Gender: A Spectrum of Views (Wadsworth/Thompson, 2003), in which we reprinted a number of essays by leading scholars pertaining to male/female differences, sexuality, reproduction, marriage and family, sexual politics, and the way gender concepts structure the way we think about the Supreme Being – specifically the controversy over whether we ought to call God “Father.”

  My most recent publication, co-authored with Phil Devine, is a Communitarian defense of the pro-life position on abortion.(see Abortion; Three Perspectives) This gave us an opportunity to go beyond abstractions and draw on some of the resources of Communitarian social theory to deal with a concrete issue. In this way, we believe we were able to broaden, deepen, and strengthen the pro-life case, which is most commonly presented in a way which focuses almost exclusively on individual rights, and in particular on the right of the fetus to live.