ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Between Public and Private Morality

The bane of our life is seen as arising from attachment. However, the ethic of care is the basis of attaining well-being of any society. It implies responsibility for oneself and for others - a kind of balance between the two. Care, responsibility and compassion have to be part of citizenship - values which women claim to have more of and which masculine discourse dismisses as non-rational.


Between Public and Private Morality

Maithreyi Krishnaraj

The bane of our life is seen as arising from attachment. However, the ethic of care is the basis of attaining wellbeing of any society. It implies responsibility for oneself and for others – a kind of balance between the two. Care, responsibility and compassion have to be part of citizenship – values which women claim to have more of and which masculine discourse dismisses as non-rational.

An earlier version of this article was presented at the department of philosophy, Mumbai University on November 29, 2007.

Maithreyi Krishnaraj ( has been researching issues relating to gender for many years and is currently adjunct faculty, department of sociology, University of Mumbai.

question that plagues any facet of gender relations in social life is: if women’s reproductive function makes their biology different from men, to what extent is it responsible for differences in social life? Many years ago, Ann Oakley wrote a book Sex, Gender and Society [Oakley 1972]. She explains how the basic ground plan of the human body is a female one, even if at conception the chromosomes may be XY rather than XX. The critical ingredient to the making of a male is the supply of the male hormone or androgen (testosterone) after the first few weeks of pregnancy. Until eight weeks old, every fetal brain looks female. Female is nature’s default gender setting. A huge testosterone surge beginning in the eighth week will change the unisex brain by killing off some cells in communication centres and growing new more cells in the sex and aggression centres. In a recent book on the female brain [Brizendine 2006], a medical doctor finds a distinction in the make up of the female brain. The female brain has more of those “circuits” that signify a predominance of affective qualities while the male brain is “deficient” in these, and hence, has a greater concentration of the logical, abstract thinking.

Reading of Biology

It is argued by other biologists that the Y chromosome is a “deviant” one. One need not apply any judgment on these propositions, but understand that there are some differences between male and female human beings in their physiology. Generally speaking, women tend to be more nurturing, more concerned with relationships while men tend to have leanings for more abstract thought. This need not lead one to conclude that biology is destiny. Nature has the strongest influence in launching sex-specific behaviour, but experience, practice and interaction with others modify neurons and brain wiring. Brain research has established that the hard wiring of the brain inherited from birth and conception is not a static entity, but undergoes change. Some of our ancient practices in yoga and meditation attempt to achieve precisely this effect.

The fact that women and men have different brain structures does not imply that women cannot be philosophers or philosophise. It only means that women may have a different perspective on philosophy. According to the reading of biology, both sexes have potential for both, but that the nurturing, caring, relational aspects get suppressed in the male with the secretion of androgens. Difference should not result in different valuation.

Individuals live by the meaning they give to their lives. The connection between the individual self and society is complex and cannot be read off straightaway. Individuals are shaped and shape the social institutions and culture which override whatever

april 26, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


be the biological base. From infancy, boys and girls become conscious of their body and biology. Distinct sexual identities are created by dress, language, symbols, myth, culture, the family, neighbourhood, community, schools and media. As a result, distinct perceptions, beliefs and values are built around each gender. So by the time women and men reach adulthood each has a gendered eye (I).

The meanings which each individual gives to her gender are profoundly influenced by the way they perceive and experience the ‘I’.

Achievement of Freedom

What feminists are concerned with is the way these differences led to inequality in social life. There are things that women share with men as part of being human and things they do not share. An important goal of human life is the achievement of freedom – freedom to be, freedom to become. In the present century, democratic and participatory governance is the model of political organisation which includes the concept of human rights and political rights. Human freedom has an intrinsic value as well as instrumental value. Some freedoms help one achieve other freedoms. The linkages between different kinds of freedoms are both empirical and causal according to Amartya Sen (1999). The instrumental freedoms, namely, those that help us achieve the freedom to “be” and “become”, to function in order to attain whatever one values, are economic opportunities, political freedoms, social facilities and protective security. What it means is individual freedom relies on social conditions that generate freedom. Sen gives importance to both process and opportunities

– greater freedom to do things one has reason to value is, firstly, important in itself for the person’s overall freedom, and secondly, important in fostering the person’s opportunity to have valuable outcomes. Social arrangements must facilitate individual freedom and individual freedom can be used to improve social arrangements. Here Sen comes up with the notion of capability and functioning. A person’s capability refers to the alternative combinations of “functionings” that are feasible for her to achieve.

Attractive as this is as a general proposition, feminists find it wanting in not taking cognisance of women’s differences in what they value. He also does not take into account power relations in society and power relations between men and women. What women value has lesser value in society. The caring and nurturing functions they are predominantly occupied with are undervalued and pushed to the “private sphere”, while the public sphere has the characteristics of rationality intelligence and independence. There are problems here for women. Are the qualities that define the public sphere inimical to their value set so that they cannot adapt to those? Would that mean they should be confined to the private sphere, the family, where intimacy, caring, nurturing, selflessness are important? Do they have to acquire the characteristics of the public sphere in order to join the men? Working for a great cause often means devaluing the life of those who sacrifice or are sacrificed for the sake of the big cause. We see today the consequences for all of us in terrorism spawned by this notion of a “great cause”.

Economic & Political Weekly

april 26, 2008

Is autonomy a male defined virtue? Women have wanted autonomy and appealed to philosophical theories to express this. They have struggled for equality with men and fought against their exclusion from theories put foreword by men and from institutions dominated by men. But they also have a profound ambivalence about the value of things they are excluded from. Early protagonists of women’s rights were working within the liberal, egalitarian approach, where they ignored the specific situation of women within the family, their lack of freedom within marriage and in sexual relations. They saw sex and gender as a mere accidental and contingent factor that had no bearing on becoming fully human. On the other hand, early suffragists in the US claimed the public space in order to bring to it the moral values of women.

Present feminist critique of values and concerns of the public world is based on the notion of a typical or distinctly female approach to ethical questions. However, in doing so (i) there is the danger of false universalism, an easy assumption in talking about men and women without regard to historical differences, class and ethnic differences (ii) female point of view may be idealised (iii) more damaging is that women by their claim to a special female experience as self-authenticating might get locked into it excluding male reality – as if “women’s point of view” is self-generated from female experience, excluding men and undistorted by the fact of women’s powerlessness in society.

Philosophy has mainly three groups of questions:

  • (1) Questions about human knowledge and human reason; How do we know what we know? What is the relation between the knower and the known? What is the relation between human reason and human desires?
  • (2) Questions about human nature; What is it that distinguishes us from other living beings? How can we distinguish true knowledge from false belief? What human potentialities are most desirable?
  • (3) How do we define the well-being of individuals and of society? Insofar as most philosophers have been male, is philosophy “male” in the sense of offering a male point of view only? Often this is not explicit.
  • Jean Grimshaw (1986) in her analysis of the work of Plato, Descartes, Hobbes and Rousseau finds polarisation of masculine and feminine and undervaluing what they see as feminine. Women are not “rational” and they exist to please others. What these authors fail to appreciate is the interactive nature of all human relationships in an over-stressing individual autonomy. Modern western psychoanalysis regards the condition for boys becoming men in society as “separation” from mothers/women who had nurtured them. This involves renouncing what are seen as womanly qualities. Sudhir Kakar, India’s well known psychoanalyst [Kakar 1978] sees the strong mother-son tie in India as inimical to the

    The Review of Women’s Studies is organised and structured by Maithreyi Krishnaraj, who is guest editor of the RWS and has been editing the review twice a year since 1986. We are grateful to Maithreyi Krishnaraj for her efforts over the years in the preparation of the RWS. –Ed.

    Development, Freedom and Welfare An International Conference to Celebrate Professor Amartya Sen’s 75th Birthday New Delhi, 19-20 December, 2008

    Organized by Cornell University & Institute for Human Development
    Call for Papers by Young Researchers

    The year 2008 marks Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen’s 75th birthday. Professor Sen has made deep and lasting contributions to the academic disciplines of economics, philosophy, and the social sciences more broadly. He has engaged in policy dialogue and public debate, advancing the cause of a human development focused policy agenda, and a tolerant and democratic polity. This ‘Argumentative Indian’ has always spoken up for the needs of the poorest segments of society, and for the openness and plurality of cultures.

    An International Conference in his honour is being organized during 19-20 December 2008 to celebrate the occasion. The conference is being organized by Cornell University and the Institute for Human Development. Professor Kaushik Basu and Professor Ravi Kanbur of Cornell University, and Professor Alakh N Sharma of the Institute for Human Development are the Conference Coordinators.

    The conference will be inaugurated by Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India. Many of the world’s

    leading economists and social scientists will be present at the celebration. A key component of this conference will be paper presentations by young researchers from around the world. Papers for presentation at the conference will be selected from submissions to this call for papers, by an international committee of assessors. The organizers invite submissions of papers by young researchers below the age of 40 years (preference will be given to younger researchers). A detailed abstract (about 1000 words) of the paper should be sent to the organizers at by 15 July 2008. However, the submission of full papers will be preferred. The selected candidates need to submit the full papers by 31 October 2008.

    For details and other information, please contact the Conference Secretariat at: The Institute for Human Development, NIDM Building, IIPA Campus, I.P. Estate, Mahatma Gandhi Marg, New Delhi - 110 002. Tel.: +91-11-23358166, 23321610; Fax: +91-11-23765410 Email: ; Website:



    Organized by:

    Institute for Human Development & Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi


    Papers are invited for a two-day seminar on the ‘Implementation and Impact of the NREGS’, being organized in the last week of July 2008 at New Delhi.

    The main issues for deliberation include:

  • Rights-based approach to development and the right to work;
  • public works programme vs cash transfers;
  • governance and institutions: transparency, accountability, and social audit;
  • impact assessment: income security, asset creation, seasonal migration, wage policy, and productivity;
  • and other related issues.
  • Abstracts, not exceeding 500 words, of the papers based on field-based research on any of the above themes should be submitted to by May 30, 2008.

    Important dates:

    Submission of abstracts: May 30, 2008. Selection of abstracts: June 15, 2008. Submission of complete papers: July 20, 2008.
    Contact :

    Dr. Ashok K Pankaj, Senior Fellow, Institute for Human Development NIDM Building, IIPA Campus, I.P. Estate, Mahatma Gandhi Marg, New Delhi - 110 002 Ph: 91-11-23358166, 23321610; Fax: 23765410 / Website: /

    april 26, 2008

    Economic & Political Weekly


    growth of an independent selfhood for males. The mother-in-law, daughter-in-law conflict in joint families, he attributes to the reluctance of mothers to let go of their sons.

    Importance of Care

    The tension among women is the conflict between autonomy and care for others which necessarily involves denial of one’s own interests. It is essential for human welfare that one both cares and is cared for. The feeling that there is no one to whom one’s welfare matters or that there is no one who matters to oneself is self-destructive situation. My flourishing cannot be independent of the flourishing of others. Human beings are dependent on each other in myriad ways, but it is not merely the instrumental dependence. All human needs and interests arise in the context of relationships with others. An abstract notion of individualism is unrealistic.

    While extolling the virtues of care one also must remember that when women take their responsibility to others as their primary concern, and the relationship with others as their major focus, they may end up having real problems conceptualising let alone realising their own rights and needs. It also can have an adverse effect on those who are cared for by making them overly dependent on another. One sees this everyday in family relationships.

    To cut the story short: care is important, but if in excess it can lead to obliterating the individual’s own growth. All scriptures advocate selflessness as the goal to one’s liberation. When a man renounces his family to go in search of liberation, does he not in a sense abandon his responsibility to others? I recall the beautiful Canadian film Samsara. A Buddhist monk from Tibet, initiated into monkhood from childhood, after attaining adulthood, after all the penance, meditation and the rigours of celibacy, asks himself what is it that he has foregone. He comes to the plains to seek answers and enters marriage, family and parenthood. After a while, he is restless and returns to his monastery. His wife says: “you need to go away to find answers. I find it by being here, in my responsibility to others, in caring for them.”

    I leave it to you to react to this.

    There is this whole philosophy: where the bane of our life is seen as arising from “attachment”. I personally feel it depends on how that affects others. If it is so narrow that it excludes many it is restrictive. The larger one’s sympathies are the more expanded our own individual lives become. The ethic of care is in my mind the basis of attaining well-being of any society. Would we then have one lakh street children in Bombay? The ethic of care implies also responsibility for oneself and for others – a kind of balance between the two.

    Women and Citizenship

    Coming to political philosophy, women have problems with the notion of citizenship. Democratic citizenship as a social and political construct is expected to open up spaces and arenas of freedoms – of conflict, unpredictability, intimacy and the right to be different. At the same time, it also poses limits. Citizenship, in fact, defines the limits of state power and where the private sphere of free individuals begins. However, it is primarily a jural construct and it has contradictory tendencies of universalism and particularism. What is the place of women in this? Are women accommodated as subject and as subject making citizens? Feminists argue that if abstract universalism implies a normative homogeneity and the suppression of particularity and difference, it cannot be the basis for female emancipatory politics. There is a problem in rejecting abstract universalism altogether argue Nira Yuval-Davis and Pnina Werber (2005). Theories of abstract universalism are not intrinsically exclusive of women. Yet, the rationality of the lawmakers, masculine or otherwise, is itself a social construction. Women being confined to the private and seen as “non-rational” is not derived from any philosophy, but patriarchal assumptions. In response to this hegemonic discourse of being seen as non-rational and different, feminists began to stress their superior maternal qualities of caring, responsibility and compassion as key constituents of citizenship. They imagine a new form of citizenship which will encompass feminine virtues of care.

    Particularities can only flourish in the context of shared, broad based universalist democratic and socialist economic equality. The difficulty is how to recognise particularities without making it perpetual, closed and unchanging. To grapple with these contradictions feminists propose a middle ground – of differentiated universalism. The feminist slogan of the personal is political implies that any issue can become the subject of public debate. In India, reform of family relations and regressive practices that were earlier defended on the notion of tradition were addressed by bringing them into the open public sphere. Today domestic violence is a matter of public action. Women’s activism has been made possible because despite its gendered history, the language of citizenship has provided women a valuable tool in their fight for human democratic, civil and social rights. The public private divide is a fluid one determined historically and contextually. Women have to fight for space in the public sphere as well as fight particular interests disguised as universalist. Collective identities, overstressing their difference on the other hand, could violate some essential universal values of a truly democratic society like communities denying women freedom in several aspects.

    To conclude: If the ultimate aim of well-being is to be “free” to choose what one values, this choice cannot be against what violates some norms of universal values. It has to be set within that framework. On the other hand, there should be no imposition of assumed universal values. Care, responsibility and compassion has to be part of citizenship – values which women claimed to have more of and which masculine discourse dismissed as non-rational.

    References Grimshaw, Jean (1986): Feminist Philosophers: Oxford University Press, Delhi/New York.

    Brizendine, Louann (2006): The Female Brain, Broad-Women’s Perpectives on Philosophical Traditions, Oakely, Anne (1972): Sex, Gender and Society, Templeway Books, New York. Wheatsheaf Books, Sussex, UK. ton and Smith, London, (1985) Reprint.

    Davis, Nira-Yuval and Pnina Werber (eds) (2005): Women, Kakar, Sudhir (1978): The Inner World: A Psycho-Sen, Amartya ( 1999): Development as Freedom, Alfred Citizenship and Difference, Zubaan, New Delhi. analytical Study of Childhood and Society in India, A Knof Inc, New York.

    Economic & Political Weekly april 26, 2008


    Dear Reader,

    To continue reading, become a subscriber.

    Explore our attractive subscription offers.

    Click here

    Back to Top