Ethics, Gender, and Climate Change

Sandra Johanson, Green River Community College


Over the past three decades, issues and questions relating to sex and gender have greatly impacted the field of ethics in philosophy. Many philosophers recognize that how men and women are socialized and what is valued in Western culture both play roles in discussions about the nature of goodness, what constitutes the right thing to do, and what is the best process of moral decision-making. These philosophers see that women's experiences and perspectives offer key insights that are different than those emphasized in traditional philosophy. Many argue that Western philosophy takes privileged masculine ideas to represent human goodness, virtue, and ethical decision-making, valuing distanced or objective reasons and autonomy over female-associated traits such as emotional complexity and interdependence. These philosophers set out to scrutinize dominant ethical theories and methods in ethics to uncover biases that have resulted from centuries of masculine privilege and domination.

Learning Goals

This assignment tackles several "big ideas" in philosophy. It asks students to think carefully and critically about their own ethical perspectives. It also asks them to take on the task of integrating a "care" perspective in ethics with the "justice" perspective, especially as applied to the issues of climate change. Finally it asks students to formulate both verbally and in writing their ideas and arguments about these issues.

Context for Use

The purpose of the assignment is twofold: first, to expose students to what is sometimes called a "feminist" or "care" perspective in ethics. I prefer to think of this perspective as simply an alternate perspective from what is clearly the mainstream perspective in ethics, what I call the "justice" perspective in ethics. The second purpose of the assignment is for students to apply these abstract ideas in ethics to the very real and complex issues relating to climate change in environmental ethics. The experience of applying these ideas to these issues will not only illuminate the complexity of the environmental issues, but also the complexity of synthesizing and applying ethical theories to concrete problems.

This assignment takes place during two-and-a-half-weeks of a 200-level Gender and Philosophy class.

Description and Teaching Materials

Preliminaries/Set Up:

Prior to this assignment in the class, the class will have spent several weeks on introductory topics. I find that students need some exposure to the concepts of sex and gender in general, and I like to link these discussions with philosophical discussions about identity. During this section, I particularly like to have students read the introductory chapter from Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex.

The Assignment Itself:

Week One:

This assignment begins with several reading assignments. To set a context for the ethics of care, students will read at least one philosophical article outlining an ethical framework from the justice perspective. One of the justice perspective. One of the best representations of this perspective is John Rawl's A theory of Justice. Excerpts from this book are easily accessible. Once students have read this excerpt, at least one class session (50) minutes will be spent outlining and discussing Rawl's argument. Class discussion will be based on student responses to assigned Study Guide/Discussion Questions (see Attachment C). At least one other class session will be spent critiquing Rawl's argument.

My philosophy of teaching is that students learn best when they discover arguments/ideas for themselves, so my role here is to prompt and prod them to discover problems with Rawls's views. I will wrap up this discussion of Rawls by placing his ethical theories in a feminist context, suggesting that advocating for a nameless, faceless, initially value-free basis for ethics demonstrates a masculine perspective.

Subsequent to these discussions on the justice perspective in ethics, students will read essays by Carol Gilligan and Virginia Held, both of whom advocate for an ethical framework from the care perspective. During these several days, I will facilitate discussion based on these readings, and students will also discuss the key points of the readings in small groups. Students will prepare short responses to Study Guide/Discussion Questions as a basis for these discussions. We will particularly discuss how both the justice and care perspective can be applied to current social problems such as poverty and unemployment. (Held discusses these applications in her essays.)

Week Two:

Week two begins with a short film version of the play "Jury of Her Peers" by Susan Glaspell. After watching this film (30 minutes), we will discuss where and how in the film the justice perspective is exemplified and where and how the care perspective is exemplified. Students will prepare short responses to Study Guide/Discussion Questions as a basis for these discussions. Using these discussions as well as class discussion from Week One as a foundation, we will as a group come up with parameters and criteria for defining both ethical frameworks.

For the last two class sessions of this week, students will read one or two philosophical articles in "ecofeminist" or feminist bioethical points of view. Excerpts from Hilde Lindeman's "Feminist Bioethics" and Karen Warren's "The Power and Promise of Ecological Feminism" are appropriate here. Students will prepare short responses to Study Guide/Discussion Questions as a basis for this discussion. Class discussion of this article will lead into a short introduction to the current issues of climate change.

Week Three:

Over the weekend between weeks two and three, students will be assigned to research the issue of climate change, with particular focus on what solutions people, groups, and countries have offered to resolve the key issues. They will then be asked to focus on one issue that captures their interest, looking particularly at how the solution to that issue is characterized in terms of the ethical perspectives we have discussed in class. Following this research, they will write a short, 2-3 pages, paper (See Attachment B) in which they:

    • Describe the issue
    • Describe the proffered solution
    • Characterize the solution in terms of the ethical perspective it exemplifies. In this part of their paper, they must quote directly from one of the essays we have read in class and provide analytical interpretation for that quote (See Attachment A for a description of Analytic Interpretation.)
    • Critically analyze the proffered solution. Does it leave out important considerations? Can it be broadened to integrate both ethical perspectives?
On the first two days of week three, students will share their research and analysis with the class. For this discussion, we will sit together in a circle or rectangle, and I will facilitate a cohesive and hopefully stimulating discussion.

Attachment A: Analytic Interpretation (Microsoft Word 31kB Nov7 11)
Attachment B: Short Papers- Description and Expectations (Microsoft Word 37kB Nov7 11)
Attachment C: General Requirements for Study Guide/Discussion Questions (Microsoft Word 26kB Nov7 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Psychologist Carol Gilligan is widely regarded as a front-runner in this movement through her 1982 book In A Different Voice. In this book, she is critical of Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral development which depicts independent thought in relation to universal principles as the highest level of moral development.


  • During these two and a half weeks, students will write short responses to five sets of Study Guide/Discussion Questions. These short responses are assessed according to clear criteria given to students at the beginning of the quarter. (See Attachment C).
  • The short paper is assessed according to clear criteria. Students are given a general description of short paper requirements and expectations at the beginning of the quarter (See Attachment B), and then are given a description and specific set of requirements for this paper (as outlined above).

References and Resources

  • Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice
  • Gilligan, Carol, In A Different Voice
  • Held, Virginia, "Taking Care: Care as Practice and Value"
  • Glaspell, Susan, "A Jury of her Peers" (VCR, produced, directed, edited by Sally Heckel)
  • Lindeman, Hilde, "Feminist Bioethics"
  • Warren, Karen J., "The Power and Promise of Ecological Feminism"
For the issues relating to climate change, students will independently access online and print resources for their research