Lesbian Ethics

September 15, 2011

A branch of ethics that cultivates the development of individual moral agency and integrity, lesbian ethics distinguishes itself from the focus on social control of traditional ethics. The centerpiece of the theoretical framework is that lesbians are oppressed in all societies. It also acknowledges that lesbians are agents of oppression, because sanctioned moral choices in societies uphold patriarchal oppression and are constrained by it. Lesbian ethics argues that in order to resist oppression, lesbians must create new value that supports thinking, which undermines its credibility.

Traditional ethical thought is bankrupt for lesbians because its function is social organization and control rather than individual integrity and agency. The dominance and subordination values around which traditional ethics revolve are antagonistic. Consequently, individual moral ability and agency is undercut rather than advanced. Taken together, traditional ethics legitimizes women’s oppression by redefining it as social organization.

Within a traditional paradigm, woman derives its meaning from its relationship to man—the one who dominates—and as long as this context prevails, domination of women by men will seem natural and desirable. Consequently, patriarchal society formally denies lesbian existence because its very connotation implies a woman who thrives outside the sphere of male dominance. Instead, a lesbian is discounted as a confused heterosexual woman who is passing through a phase, a heterosexual woman who cannot get a man, a man in a heterosexual woman’s body, or a man-hater. In patriarchal conceptualization, the notion of a woman loving another woman is impossible, or at the very least a man-hating monstrosity. Thus, the source of concern about lesbians is that they represent the potential for a reality in which male dominance does not exist, where women appropriate men’s access to women. It destabilizes the foundation on which society is constructed. Indeed, lesbian reality renders men insignificant. Lesbian existence therefore carries the potential to effect a transformation of consciousness—the promise for autonomous female agency.

Lesbian ethics criticizes traditional ethical paradigms as fostering an illusion that all problems can be solved by an appeal to rules and principles. It notes that ethical principles are not applied in an egalitarian context, but rather in a reality of asymmetrical power. The ethical virtues that are lauded in society are therefore framed as master/slave virtues. Lesbian ethics argues that a majority of what passes for ethics in societies is not founded in the integrity and moral capability of an individual, but rather the extent to which individuals participate in the structural hierarchy of a social group or organization by adhering to its rules. Traditional paradigms mandate principles or rules of obligation to those occupying upper levels of hierarchical frameworks and corresponding rules of responsibility for those occupying lower positions, typically for their own good. Therefore, traditional ethics functions to promote social organization and control at the expense of individual integrity and agency.

A fundamental premise of lesbian ethics is that the driving force behind dominance and subordination is the institution of heterosexuality, and that women’s oppression will remain a reality as long as social interactions are governed by its suffocating paradigm. Thus, rather than prove false a patriarchal structure that revolves around socially enforced dominance and subordination, lesbian ethics seeks to work outside the existing framework, to pursue a transformation of consciousness that strips the meaning from existing values, those which make oppression credible and acceptable, and renders them nonsensical.

Much of lesbian ethics focuses on language as a tool of oppression. For example, woman is more than a mere descriptive category, because imbedded within this concept are perceptions of normal female behavior and what qualifies as a woman. In other words, there is value attached to woman, value that is organized around a patriarchal dominance and subordination modality. However, if the values of oppression cease to be normalized—if they are no longer affirmed without question and cease to be integrated into lesbian lives— then lesbians will end the tyranny of patriarchal rule and their interactions will be less apt to result in destruction.

Often erroneously characterized as founded on a utopian philosophical framework, lesbian ethics is anything but that. The fact that lesbians live and interact within the current oppressive patriarchal schema accents the need for creating new value. Contrasting the escapism of utopian paradigms, lesbian ethics is a framework for action. It emphasizes that through examining and questioning the foundation of patriarchal oppression and how it permeates every aspect of social interaction, one discovers that it is possible to engender individual moral agency and integrity that exists outside of it. Lesbian ethics therefore seeks to generate ways in which lesbians can weave a different locus of value, one where lesbian choices, actions, and reactions lead away from the path of oppression, and one where lesbians become an energy field capable of resisting oppression.

SEE ALSO: Femininity, Feminism, Gender, Gender role, Homosexuality, Lesbian, Masculinity, Queer

Suggested Reading

  • Allen, J. (1990). Lesbian philosophies and cultures. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Hoagland, S. L. (1989). Lesbian ethics: Toward new value. Palo Alto, CA: Institute of Lesbian Studies.
  • Mohin, L. (1995). An intimacy of equals: Lesbian feminist ethics. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.


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