Doing Ethics from the Margins
Over the last two decades, a number of ethicists and theologians who are people of color have articulated a critique of the dominant culture's ethical systems, including Kant's ethics, utilitarian ethics, and virtue ethics. (These frameworks are explored in Workshops 2, 3, and 4 of this program). These scholars articulate ethical frameworks grounded in the perspective of marginalized people, a perspective that celebrates resistance, identity, and vibrant survival in the face of social, political, and economic marginalization. There are several common characteristics to the ethical frameworks they describe, including:
- Ethics are communal and not individual, public and not private. They are grounded in the lived experience and day-to-day realities of survival and resistance of those who are oppressed.
- Values, principles, and religious texts and sources can as easily be used to oppress as they can to liberate, and interpretations of those values, principles, texts, and sources must speak to the experiences of people on the margins. What is most important is whether or not a particular reading or understanding supports the survival and vibrancy of oppressed people or leads to actions that enhance their quality of life.
- Ethical behavior enhances survival, quality of life, and capacity to experience being fully human and valued. Ethical behavior redeems the exploited and marginalized, overturning invisibility and namelessness while inviting joy and celebration of humanity and identity.
- Ethical behavior resists systems of oppression and develops the capacities of marginalized people to challenge the power structures of the dominant culture.
Katie Cannon, educator, author, first black woman ordained by the Presbyterian Church (1950-)
Katie Cannon's ethics begin with affirmation of the resourcefulness and survival of black women in the United States through centuries of a slave system in which women were exploited to work in the fields; to raise white women's children; to serve the sexual needs of white men through rape; and to carry and birth children, valuable commodities in slave-based capitalist economic system. She lifts up the value of folk tales, family stories, spirituals, and Christian faith supported by liberating readings of Biblical texts as sources of inspiration and instruction for survival—of self, of children and family, of dignity, of identity, and of the right to name oneself and redeem personal value in a hostile world. Cannon, who grew up in North Carolina at a time of legalized apartheid, notes that "the cherished ethical ideas predicated upon the existence of freedom and a wide range of choices proved null and void in situations of oppression" and goes on to explore the many ways in which legacy of exploitation based on race, gender, and economic circumstances continues to this day. The ethical framework she embraces is "black womanist ethics," using the term "womanist" earlier defined by writer Alice Walker as a black feminist or feminist of color who is outrageous, audacious, courageous, willful, responsible and serious. (Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mother's Gardens. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1983) Cannon's black womanist ethics affirm female moral agency under oppressive systems. Cannon writes:
Blacks may use action guides which have never been considered within the scope of traditional codes of faithful living. Racism, gender discrimination and economic exploitation, as inherited, age-long complexes, require the Black community to create and cultivate values and virtues in their own terms so that they can prevail against the odds with moral integrity. . . . In the Black community, the aggregate of qualities which determine desirable ethical values regarding the uprightness of character and soundness of moral conduct must always take into account the circumstances, the paradoxes, and the dilemmas that constrict Blacks to the lowest range of self-determination.
To demonstrate womanist ethical values, including survival of self and affirmation of dignity and quality of life, Cannon looks to the black women's literary tradition, and especially to the stories and novels written and collected by Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), the first trained African American woman anthropologist, whose was part of the 20th-century Harlem Renaissance. Cannon's ethical framework looks to the cultural inheritance passed down from generation to generation of African American women:
The Black woman's collection of moral counsel is implicitly passed on and received from one generation of Black women to the next. Black females are taught what is to be endured and how to endure the harsh, cruel, inhumane exigencies of life.
A well-respected and beloved educator, Cannon has taught black womanist ethics to students of many races and genders. Using challenging questions and observations, she invites students to unpack their personal, family, and community stories, noting gaps and dissonances, then guides them to see both systems of oppression and stories of resistance and hope at work in their own lives and histories. Becoming aware of and naming the ways in which both oppression and resistance have affected their own lives, histories, and communities enables students to develop the practice of making behavioral choices that affirm identity, vitality, and fullness of life while resisting systems that thwart and deny that which is life-enhancing for all.
Miguel De La Torre, educator, author, ordained Baptist minister (1958- )
Miguel De La Torre's personal story begins with his family's migration from Cuba to the United States when he was an infant, an indirect result of the United States government's involvement in Cuba on behalf of corporate interests. De La Torre's ethical framework is grounded in the broader community story of Latina/os in the United States, a story not only of exploitation, theft, oppression, and marginalization, but also of family, faith, organizing, triumph, and survival. He begins his examination of Latina/o oppression with the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-1848), when the United States, riding the dominant cultural theme of "Manifest Destiny," declared war on the newly independent (1821) Mexico. By the time the war was over, the United States had taken a large part of Mexico, from Texas to California, and most of the seaports and natural resources that had previously belonged to Mexico. De La Torre is strongly critical of European American ethical systems which ignore both the U.S. theft and exploitation of resources from Central and South America and the current economic exploitation and oppression of Latina/o people, both those who choose to immigrate and those who do not:
The view of the ethical landscape from the pedestal of privilege is radically different than from the depths of disenfranchisement. . . . By its very nature, Eurocentric ethical theory maintains that universal moral norms can be achieved independent of place, time, or people group. Such ethical norms created by Euroamerican ethicists are accepted as both universal and objective, and thus applicable to the Latino/a milieu. To speak from any Eurocentric perspective is to speak about and for all of humanity, including Hispanics. . . . Nevertheless, marginalized communities of color have long recognized that no ethical perspective is value-free.
Drawing on Christian liberation theology and the idea that all ethics is grounded in the lived experience of the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised, De La Torre states:
Latinos know how to live and survive in both the center and periphery of society, unlike those privileged by the prevailing social structures, which generally fail to understand the marginalized experience.
He points out that Latina/o ethics is concerned not with the betterment of the individual, but with "the sustainability of the Hispanic community and the quality of life it leads." Ethical choices are grounded not in abstract theory or universal values, but in practical choices that lead to the betterment of the community:
To do ethics from the Latino/a margins is to attempt to work out truth and theory through reflection and action in solidarity with la communidad. In this sense, praxis is not guided by theory. Ethics done en conjunto is not deductive, that is, beginning with some universal truth and determining the appropriate response based on that truth. Hispanics tend to be suspicious of such universal claims, which have a history of justifying Latina/o oppression.
In De La Torre's framework, ethical behavior is found in resistance to and disruption of oppressive systems that destroy, demean, and dehumanize people and communities. Like Cannon, he points to folklore about resisters, disrupters, and tricksters who oppose oppressive systems.
While focused on the Latina/o community, De La Torre calls on people of the dominant culture to learn U.S. history and current U.S. economic and immigration policies with regard to the peoples of Central and South America. He challenges privileged people to engage in conversation with people marginalized by those policies. He further calls on U.S. people of faith to rethink the language of hospitality in reference to immigrants from countries south of the United States, saying:
Hospitality means, I own the house and out of the goodness of my heart, I am letting you be here. But it's not an issue of hospitality—it's about restitution. The lens of restitution would allow us to claim our ethical calling dealing with the immigration situation. . . . All of our wealth is connected to the impoverishment of the two-thirds world. We are all economically privileged—how do we do restitution?
[Editor's note: De La Torre uses the term "two-thirds world" in lieu of the common term "third world, to highlight the fact that the countries typically designated as "third world" nations actually make up two thirds of the world's geography. Legacies of colonialism and empire have helped make people in these nations the world's most economically disenfranchised.]