My speciality area of ethics is reproductive technologies. What this means is that I spend much of my working life face-to-face with the suspicions that religious men, political leaders and journalists have about female morality.

At a meeting I attended, the capacity of women to make ethically defensible choices about using pre-natal screening tests was openly doubted. I was sent a copy of a pastoral letter signed by 7 male bishops supporting ongoing penal sanctions against women who have abortions on the grounds that they are guilty of a “grave moral disorder.” When an insurance giant offered cover to women for pregnancy complications or a child born with a birth defect, I was invited to reply to claims that older mothers had brought the problem on themselves by delaying childbirth.

And that was just this week.

Doubts about women’s moral agency date back to the Greeks. Plato argued that “women’s nature is inferior to that of men in capacity for virtue” and so more inclined to “secrecy and stealth.” More than 2000 years later, Freud argued that women’s psychosexual development meant that women “show less sense of justice than men.” In the late 1950s, a soon-to-be influential moral psychologist named Lawrence Kohlberg developed a six stage model of moral development that suggested it was no accident that the Gandi’s and Martin Luther King’s of the world were men. Women, because of an overemphasis on maintaining relationships, failed to progress to the highest stages of judgement where relationships were subordinated to rules and, ultimately, to universal principles of justice.

But here’s the problem. The empirical evidence not only fails to support the “men are more moral” thesis, but suggests the truth is the other way around. A recent study of the giving habits of Americans found that women not only make more charitable contributions than men, they are far less likely than men to give because they can earn a tax deduction. Or the findings of a study presented at a recent International Studies Association conference that the higher the percentage of women in legislatures, the more likely states were to use foreign aid, not military spending or conflict escalation, to achieve their aims. We also know that when it comes to education, women in the developing world are the target for intervention because, as Greg Mortenson, the American who has dedicated his life to building schools for girls in impoverished areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan puts it, “If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. If you educate a girl, you educate a community.” The same goes for development aid that focuses on women because, says the Equilibrium Fund, “improving conditions for women results in improved conditions for the entire family.”

Does this mean every woman is a saint, and more saintly than a man? Of course not, but what it does suggest is that if you had to pick winners, you’d pick a woman every time.

But raising the moral superiority of women is a double-edged sword. Author Julia Baird says that the “assumption…that women are cleaner, more ethical than men…has been their greatest burden.” The higher the pedestal, the harder the fall—just ask Carmen Lawrence and Cheryl Kernot.

So perhaps we can agree to this. Men can stop insulting women’s imagined moral failings, and women will agree to keep mum about men’s real ones.

Publication history

The Dubious Morality of Women  Sunday Sun-Herald