Episode 42: Feminists on Human Nature and Moral Psychology

Discussing Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopian novel Herland (1915) and psychologist Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice (1983).

How does human nature, and specifically moral psychology, vary by sex? Charlotte Perkins Gilman claims that when philosophers have described human nature as violent and selfish, they have in mind solely male nature. Females, left to themselves in an isolated society, would be supremely peaceful, rational, and cooperative.

Carol Gilligan says accounts of "normal" moral development have not taken into account observations of women: instead of judging women my male standards and finding them wanting, she hypothesized a trajectory specific to women that acknowledged their emphasis on concrete care as opposed to abstract moral principles.

Featuring the return of Seth and guest podcaster Azzurra Crispino, whom you might recall from our Kant epistemology episode. We wanted this to be an introduction to feminist philosophy, and so talk a bit about exploitation and whether heterosexual sex is inherently oppressive, and other fun topics, but mostly it's just a discussion of two books. But they're good ones! Read more about the topic.

Buy Herland

End song: "Mother's Day" by Mark Linsenmayer (2007). Read about it.


  1. Jonathan says

    The last extract seemed to imply that men and women had complementary attributes. I agree.

    I have one gripe that the female on the show did not mention a single positive attribute of men and it seems the only exploited people are females. Maids and Housewives. Exploited is an overused word which is so inclusive as to be meaningless except to reveal the feelings of the user to certain situations. e.g you could say the high powered female lawyer was exploited by advertising to work so hard or far more likely in my view, the labourer in Herland with some assigned task for the greater good (not one mention of the shades of communism guys?)

    Competition and capitalism were mentioned as self evidently (male?) bad things which seems ironic for a podcast distributed over a web, using energy and countless clever inventions, including an iPad which are largely the result of both.

    • Glen says

      Old post I know but the fact that you refer to Azzurra Crispino as “the female” says a lot about you.

      Also, saying the internet was invented by men and capitalism misses the point. Maybe, if women actually had substantive rights or equal treatment, a women might have invented the internet or something like the ipad. The fact that men invent pretty much everything reflects the pressures of our society.

      And in any case you clearly don’t know the facts because the internet, along with computers generally, as well as rocketry, lasers, jet engines, and pretty much all of the amazing technology that provides the ground for modern technology were almost entirely subsidized by the state. Pentagon R&D is the source of virtually all major technological changes in the last 70 years. Big science is just too expensive for individual firms, even massive ones like Microsoft or Boeing to engage in. You need the Pentagon, DARPA, NASA, or CERN to make the major innovations, then firms make modifications and new products based off of them.

  2. Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

    Look, the point is that there is a whole community of writers immersed in this women’s studies project which seems weird to outsiders. We took a brief dip into it to try to get some of what the movement is about, and didn’t really have/take time to discuss much the substance of it.

    Unless you want to just dismiss it altogether (which it sounds like you do), then you’ve got to put on some armor and wade in and not get all offended as a male. I think our take on the Gilligan was ultimately comparable to the non-Christian take on Kierkegaard we exhibited back in that episode: is there anything cool to be gotten out of the reading even if you’re not signed up for the feminist project as a whole, e.g. even if you think that the differences she found are not a matter of fundamentally different sex natures that have to be accounted for? Without giving any kind of judgment on that overall project, I think there is.

  3. ironY says

    Feminism is more a psychological study than anything else, if anything else. The division of thought based on a personal identity derived or related to sex organs/reproduction is purely arbitrary. Like all the associations of self. There are many ‘studies’ which apparently support the division. They fundamentally assume the distinction, design the study and/or interpret the data in a way that supports the preconceived notion of sex differentiated thought.

    Feminism (like many, if not all political ideology), contrives absolute class based distinctions, using philosophy, sociology and ‘advocacy science’ to support, what is probably a flawed premise (sex differentiated thought).

    The class based distinction or classification is critical to political power. The division is the basis of political authority.

    Feminism is essentially a tertiary label of the marxism brand. It has utopian foundations, which indicates both a discord with existing conditions and possibly a deep disconnect from reality. l would go so far as to say, that no matter what the prevailing conditions are at any instant, things are exactly as they are. Inherently perfect. Of course, the psyche or ego or self or person or whatever that program is called, must have its way. It wants what it wants. From there arises what should be, which is a projection of wanting. Wanting comes from not accepting.

    To this extent, l would say that these types of thought are psychological. Or self imposed. How one begins to rationally, objectively and consistently measure, model and interpret such personal scripts is anyone’s guess. Its likely impossible to do as there is no method to the ego madness. Its a problem of You-Am-I-Am-You.

    Psyche is seperation.

  4. Toby Dorn says

    Are we done with the gender/identity philosophy stuff now? Please?

    If you guys take suggestions it would be good to get back to Metaphysics, Logic or that potential Whitehead episode that was suggested.

  5. Kevin Grizzard says

    “We took a brief dip into it to try to get some of what the movement is about, and didn’t really have/take time to discuss much the substance of it.”

    I haven’t listened yet but this is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been looking for. I’m on an email list that advertised a feminist reading group, but “cis men” – a term I had to look up – were not welcome. At first I was peeved and indignant but as you say “you’ve got to put on some armor and wade in and not get all offended as a male.” It makes sense that they want the group to be a safe place for any woman not to feel inhibited by men’s presence. But I did find it unfortunate that there was no suggestion of an alternative for men who were even interested in maybe not being oppressive phallocentrists.

  6. Kevin Grizzard says

    Also re: “even if you think that the differences she found are not a matter of fundamentally different sex natures that have to be accounted for” – I’m speaking out of turn not having listened yet but I’m curious if this implies she is pointing to a biological basis for the sociological differences we see in male/female roles/skills/etc., because I just read a book called “Living Dolls,” which was very concerned with biology and/or evolutionary psychology being used to prematurely justify existing stereotypes and thus a sort of fatalism. Oh, well, guess I’ll have to listen to find out 😛

  7. Manolito Gallegos says

    Since you guys asked in the episode, I want to state that this episode was quite excellent (It did not at all seem unfairly weighed against men either in my opinion) and that I’d really enjoy another episode on feminist philosophy – particularly as a “follower” of Schopenhauer, I find the mixture of parallels and dissonances between his philosophy and feminism to be quite fascinating (in both ethics and metaphysics).

    By the way, I’m a Bachelor student of philosophy in Germany, and this podcast has been tremendously useful in getting a first look into topics that I was unfamiliar with and could then research on my own more effectively – so thanks for your work in doing these!

  8. Phil C. Betamann says

    Just some memories this triggers..
    Years ago I used to casually read a blog called “Bitch Ph.D.” (along with “I Blame the Patriarchy” which is still around and recommended,btw) and articles, liberal websites with feminist articles and so on.
    Looking at this long, complex history with its 3 whole “waves” and the various thinkers and wildly contradictory strands of thought that are all called feminist I eventually said, “Damn, feminism just amounts to bitching about how it sucks to be a woman”.
    Hah yes I know, pretty vacuous and unfair.
    And reading one day the played-out slogan some woman dropped in a discussion forum, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people” I replied that feminism is boring.
    Anyway one day the brilliant woman that started “Bitch Ph.D.” said the blog was coming to an end because she is at a much happier place in her life and she was over the personal emotional/psychological issues in her life that motivated her to blog. Fine, but the blog was largely a political blog and was used to champion feminist perspectives. Never mind all that then. No more need to bitch.
    “I Blame the Patriarchy” comes from a lesbian woman in Austin, TX that enjoys good food, taking nature pictures and delivering the most cleverly snarky screeds on our woman hating society you can lay your jaundiced eyes upon. She says she isn’t a hater. And neither are Christians that “don’t hate the lesbian sinner, only the sin”, if you buy that.

    One consistent thing with feminism is the desire for increased political, social and cultural power of women and overcoming traditional roles for women. Obvious. But they are confused as hell about what that means to themselves and each other. When they say feminism is about the empowerment of men too (since patriarchy hurts us so much too..) and we’re supposed to feel it is as much about our liberation I wonder why they call themselves feminists and not humanists.
    I’ll look that up but doubt I’ll be on board with ideologues that consistently put men down and have it so much easier. Ex. Women are discouraged to succeed and be #1 said your guest?
    I graduated high school in the mid ’90s and our valedictorian was a “woman of color” with parents from India and she was looked upon with great admiration by the students and was a star to the school administration. But that’ one personal example. We want studies and statistics right? Aren’t girls kicking boy’s asses in about every subject now? Or at least making huge progress like in science and math, where there used to be a gap?
    I’m a working class dude and sometimes I wish I could stay at home with the kids while a woman works her ass off. But I don’t think most women are for that kind of change.
    Anyway, I think an evolutionary psychology episode would be good to do and how it compares and contrasts with the social sciences, ‘pomo’ gurus like Foucault and gender feminists, etc. I’m actually not an advocate of evolutionary psychology or nature being more important than nurture, I’m just confused as you can see.

  9. shane says

    Sorry, i know this is an old post now, but i only just listened to this one today, so….

    Excellent podcast. Can not recommend it enough. Several points that were made here have been added to my list of points to bring up in the couple of lectures I will be giving on feminism and ethics. Absolutely stellar intro to the topic and i look forward to more!

    Thank you thank you thank you.

  10. Nick Burbidge says


    I only came across PEL a couple of months ago, and only just listened to the Feminism episode. I had not heard of Gilligan and I’m now thinking of buying her book.

    I thought it was a great general introduction to the subject. Introduction is the key word here though – let’s have some more. As Seth said, the avenues that open up as to what Feminism is etc become increasingly more complex.

    By the way, Herland was mentioned as a Utopia. Do you know the Faber Book of Utopias edited by John Carey? It features a section from Herland.

    Many thanks,


    • Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

      Thanks Nick, glad you are on board! The Gilligan book is great, probably worth a check out from your library rather than a buy as you aren’t like to keep going back to it. Make sure to find the newer version with the updated foreword.

      I am unaware of the Faber book, but with The Republic and Herland in close proximity, my interest in the subject of Utopias was definitely aroused. It be worth a survey to see if any Utopias actually acknowledge the value of emotion and don’t advocate eugenics…:)

  11. saskia says

    I really enjoyed this podcast. I realize we’re just dipping our toes, but you guys all did a great job and the two books were a particularly good selection. I realize you did it a couple of months ago (I’m only just now catching up) but I’ve been recommending it to everyone. I hope you do another podcast to continue where you left off in your exploration!

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Thanks. We do plan on some Simone de Beauvoir, which will connect this with existentialism, and perhaps our upcoming one on race will have some overlap.

      If you’ve got any recommendations in this area, I’d be happy to hear them.

  12. swallerstein says

    One of the best discussions I’ve read so far.

    It’s difficult for males to talk about feminism without falling into either political correctness or on the other hand, macho locker room cynicism, but you people manage the subject maturely and intelligently.

    What also makes it difficult to talk about feminism seriously is that there are fewer guidelines than there are for talking about, say, epistemology or Plato: with feminism, you’re on your own.

    I would certainly appreciate another discussion on the subject of feminism. Simone de Beauvoir, whom you mention above, seems like a great starting point.

  13. Amanda says

    It’s been less than a year since the initial podcast, but perhaps we are ready for a follow-up. (I am, but I may be alone in this.)

    “Herland” and “In a Different Voice” were bold choices. “Herland” in particular is classified into the sci-fi, feminist genres and yes, literary fiction at large.

    Genres, themselves, provide an interesting provisional lesson in how we relate to knowledge. I have to credit Junot Díaz with this thought experiment: if you are a genre-practitioner of comic books, do you see yourself winning a Pulitzer?

    Thanks for including some biographical information on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I think it’s safe to say that she was well versed in loneliness, isolation, marginalized living.

    In the face of these facts, she sought liberation from unnecessary constraints to her freedom and her full development. This resulted in work in different literary genres (sci-fi, Gothic, black humor) and across academic disciplines (creative writing, sociology).

    At the time of the podcast’s initial publishing, much had been discussed on other blog sites and message boards – in very vague terms – about the absence of gender parity in the field academic philosophy. I know very little. But I submit to you that philosophers are concerned about constraints to freedom and to effective communication. It follows that the intellectual viewpoints of women are relevant for further discourse in this field.

    If there is a follow up, perhaps you could touch on gender fluidity. And Habermas.

    Thank you for this blog.

  14. Frank Callo says

    At around 0:30, the question of “wanting what someone else has” arises. I think that there is a general theme in this novel, and in much of feminist theory. that wholism is to be preferred over reductionism. In the spirit of this, I would say that feelings of jealousy, envy and so forth arise from the fact that certain aptitudes and attributes of personhood are more highly prized by the culture than others. A reductionist culture such as our own, one that wants to answer questions like “what’s the bottom line” or “How can we achieve X” will focus on those questions to the exclusion of others. Once some determination is made about the answer to such questions, the society will be most supportive of aptitudes and attributes that seem to make one more likely to achieve the bottom line.

    The wildcrafting of forest trees in Herland is a good example of a wholistic paradigm. The people wanted to maximize food production but in such a way that the ecosystem is left intact. The assumption is that the background from which the food arises is as important as the end product. Contrast that with the modern industrial food system and we see that a bigger, cheaper, chicken, for example, is the preferred outcome and no background considerations are brought into account. This leads directly to exploitation of the chicken, the genetic integrity of the feed supply, the environment, the labor and the public health.

    One way to look at the difference I am trying to highlight is that, in general, “patriarchy” emphasizes the achievement of specific, usually abstract goals. I mean abstract here in the sense that the desired result is “abstracted” from the welter of irrelevant “noise” (in this sense the whole “scientific method” could be seen, and often IS seen as a product of patriarchy).

    Notice that the goals in reductionism are “individuated”-we are looking for a specific “good” rather than GOOD in general (a whole other discussion but important to the topic). Wholism looks for the thriving of the entire system which ties into Gilman’s emphasis on concern for “the future”.

    So, if we believe that society has an equal need fof good mothers, good tree climbers and good geneticists than one will not, at least in theory, be more prestigious than another. If, on the other hand, society is ONLY interested in good geneticists, it will grand prestige to those who show an aptitude in that direction. With prestige comes all sorts of social perks (more money, more praise, etc). It is, I submit, not the aptitudes and attributes of others that fuel jealousy and envy, but rather, the perks granted to those who possess such aptitudes and attributes. It comes to approval, acceptance and love.

    As gregarious primates, we have a deep genetic mandate for acceptance and status as these assure security. I think Gilman implies that A more wholistic (hyper contextualized) view of the world (such as what Giligan seems to find in her female subjects) would reduce the occurrence of jealousy and envy by democratizing status through the recognition that it takes a lot of different kinds to make a society function.

  15. Charlie says

    Thank you for pointing out that what is considered “normal” can be extremely messed up and oppressive.

  16. Kevin says

    I listen to these podcasts far after they have been posted and I’m not going to look at every comment so I don’t make a duplicate comment. So don’t reply saying “someone has already said that” because I don’t care. My two cents is this. Men and women are inherently different physically, but contrary to the book I don’t think they are psychologically. In a society evolved by only females the EXACT same problems of competition and selfishness would occur. I don’t know how you could argue otherwise.


  1. […] Episode 42: Feminists on Human Nature and Moral Psychology. Discussing Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopian novel Herland (1915) and psychologist Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice (1983). How does human nature, and specifically moral psychology, vary by sex? Carol Gilligan says accounts of “normal” moral development have not taken into account observations of women: instead of judging women my male standards and finding them wanting, she hypothesized a trajectory specific to women that acknowledged their emphasis on concrete care as opposed to abstract moral principles. […]

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