Gender, Altruism, and Family

GENDER, ALTRUISM, AND FAMILY (Harvard Divinity School, Fall 2005)

Many discussions in recent feminist theological, philosophical, and political ethics in recent years have spun off from Carol Gilligan’s famous identification of a masculine ethic of justice and a feminine ethic of care. While many feminist ethicists have applauded Gilligan’s affirmation of feminine virtues of attachment, relationship, and care, others have criticized the theory for its tendency to support a feminine ethic of love and altruism as self-sacrifice. This course will survey contemporary philosophical and theological understandings of love and altruism, along with sociobiological and evolutionary psychological material on these topics. We will also examine contemporary theological and sociological understandings of the roles of men and women, and mothers and fathers, in families of a variety of forms, for the light these shed on love, altruism, sacrifice, and mutuality in families today.

Related: “Fatherhood, Feminism, and Family Altruism,” in The Equal Regard Family and Its Friendly Critics, John Witte, Jr., M. Christian Green, and Amy Wheeler eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 69-94.


“This course was useful, because I want to study bioethics and this course helped provide a foundation in biological factors and social constructs.  Its subject matter was familiar enough to be relevant to the broader issues I am studying, but unfamiliar enough that I got to learn some new subject areas, especially gender studies.”

“As a theology student, it was exciting to bring new, mostly non-theological information into my existing framework of thought. As a woman it also required me to reflect on my own experience. Overall, quite a dynamic experience.”

“Useful, as I’m trying to navigate a course of study through many interests—helped me focus a bit.  Most of our topics interested me greatly as did our overarching themes—family, love, work, theology, gender, and their interrelation.  Thought-provoking.”

“It is unique in courses offered at HDS and relevant for those who are interested in both gender and ethics. The issues are so important and not discussed elsewhere. Green seeks not only to do feminist ethics, but to use multiple voices from multiple disciplines (theology, sociology, biology, etc.) She doesn’t ignore Christian scholars, but brings other voices to appropriately problematize the Christian perspectives. Definitely topics and material worth studying.”

“(1) Provocative (2) Related to my life and experience.”

“I found this course interesting , well-presented, and thought provoking.  Particularly for women students, the readings and discussion on women, motherhood, and the family gave us a lot to think about.”

“The readings have positively influenced my ability to critique many aspects of society and ministry. I like the ‘new critical’ eye I’ve formed in this class and will benefit from it in the rest of my classes.”

“Prof. Green offers interesting and unique courses.  This class has made me think a lot about my personal life and society in general. I would especially recommend it to men! Families/altruism aren’t just women’s issues!”