I am currently doing a course about writing from a philosophical perspective on social ethics, and it is beginning by the usual, and frankly overdone, introduction to different ethical theories. There is consequentialism (used essentially synonymously with utilitarianism, which has a few brands that are mentioned), deontology (of which nobody but Kant is mentioned), virtue ethics (of which it seems Aristotle is apparently the only expert, despite giants in 20th century ethics being virtue ethicists) and the occasional mention of other theories – sometimes it is pragmatic ethics, this time it was feminist ethics.
Now, when feminist ethics was introduced, I found it bizarre because it was more of a critique, instead of a form of ethics in itself. It seemed essentially an aporia, a negative philosophy, attacking traditional ethical theories and replacing them (when they actually got that far) with a brand of situational ethics that seemed to either subtly re-introduce essentially the same values, or otherwise was so unspecific that it did not give any practical guidance. The feminist ethicists challenge the older theories as being products of patriarchy, enshrining male-dominated values into theories - which is all well and good, but what next? The tutor said that they rejected absolutes, but like most rejection of absolutes, I suspect what that means is that there is some absolute that is meant to trump the others.
Sitting later on in the day in a talk where I was challenged to not view things solely from within the context of my own mix of cultures (it was in the context of missions), I was reminded of that critique. Originally I had discarded it for the most part - sexist as the major thinkers behind these ethical theories might be, their arguments required no assumption of male superiority, for the most part, and in fact, results we consider should have been condemned can largely be ironed out now. Sure, Aristotle tried to argue that slavery could be moral, and yet it has not been missed by later minds reading Aristotle's ethics that the justification for slavery sits uneasy with his philosophy, suggesting that Aristotle was perhaps trying to argue himself out of the position that seemed to be demanded by his system. No doubt Kant would be considered sexist by today's standards, but his arguments concern things related to men and women: freedom, self-determination and autonomy, rationality, etc. And so on with other philosophers in these ethical traditions.
No, it was not the feminist critique itself that was convincing, as a feminist critique, but as a reminder of how our rationality is shaped by culture, and particularly so in the case of ethics. Let me consider utilitarianism, the system I know the best of the three (which is not that well regardless): it makes no sexist assumptions, and in fact, it was the utilitarians that originally alerted the world to another form of unjustified discrimination, that of speciesism (the favouring of one species over another without justification). It seems to require no assumptions which are not common-sensical, no unjustified discrimination...and yet it arose when and where it did for the most obvious of reasons. Britain was the standard of empiricism in the world, and utilitarianism is, at its root, simply the empiricist approach to ethics.
A similar story can be told about Kantian ethics and its backdrop in rationalist Germany. Kant's theory of deontological ethics is a masterpiece in rationalist ethics (even if I do think he makes a mis-step, pointed out by Bernard Williams). The point that becomes increasingly clear is not that culture informs, perhaps even dictates, our values – that point has been made over and over again, and is said better by MacIntyre than by the feminist ethicists – but that our cultural backdrop effectively dictates what one considers a rational approach to ethics. In short, before we worry about cultural subjectivity in virtues, we must be concerned with being objective in the case of epistemology. In short, epistemology is prior to ethics, and epistemology is not any less bound to particular traditions, particular cultures and particular people.
What does it mean for me to say that I think utilitarianism, generalized as I explained elsewhere, provides a coherent theoretical framework for ethical deliberation? Perhaps it means nothing more than that I am a sort of empiricist (generalized, again, as Lonergan has done). It is not in the slightest bit surprising, once I think about it, that my system of ethics depends explicitly and implicitly on foundations given by my epistemology.
The first question that arises is whether or not this is a problem. Certainly, living in a cultural context and studying in an academic context tightly linked to the analytical and empiricist traditions, I have epistemological views that seem foundational to my ethical views – but this is only a problem if there is some invalid step between epistemology and ethics, some sort of know-do gap that I am unaware of. Hence, whilst it is certainly the case that there is links between the two fields, it appears that it only implies that to be correct in epistemology means to be well-guided to pursue ethics.
Maybe this is only an issue for persons like myself, but there is another issue that arises: coherence. Suppose I know that ethical proposition E is true. If my epistemological theory implies an ethical theory that dictates that E is not the case, then I have evidence that my epistemological theory is flawed. For most people, epistemology to ethics is a one way street, but as a Christian reliabilist, I consider myself justified in knowing ethical propositions, in a sense, before elaborating an epistemological theory. Or in other words, whilst most people have no conceivable way of knowing E, and so no way of using E to falsify their theory, I do.
These questions, and various others, lead me to think that I should hold my tongue for the most part on ethical issues until I explore ways of getting around or accounting for the subjectivity inherent in developing an ethical theory as a particular person, in a particular cultural setting, at a particular time and place. Alasdair MacIntyre's work is probably the best place to start.