RENÉ C. HEAVLOW

Senior Honors Student

In fall 2006, I worked with ethics professor Ernie Alleva on a submission for the Elie Weisel Prize in Ethics in which I contemplated the limitations of ethical theories by analyzing my own experiences and moral dilemmas. In sorting through the many arguments, I had a scholarly epiphany: moral theories written for, by and about white men largely ignored the complications manifested by race and gender in the universal application of such theories.

While most scholars acknowledge that black women have been (and continue to be) the most severely disadvantaged constituency in American society, most work in ethics overlooks that these women are often the crafters, transmitters, and transformers of moral values within the black community. Another problem with classical moral theory is two of its assumptions: (1) that moral agency depends upon the freedom of an agent to act, and (2) that moral agents have viable options to act upon. My study of the cultural production by and about black women suggested that they inhabit an ethical perspective that goes beyond prevailing moral discourse.

I quickly realized that I would need to expand the framework of my research to incorporate the work done by African American and feminist philosophers, as well as works by those examining the intersection of race and gender. I also realized that the 3,000 to 4,000 word limit for the prize would also limit my inquiry and the landscape I was hoping to construct. The idea for a project combining my interest in black women's literature and ethics was born.

Why ethics through literature? Consider Sethe's predicament in Beloved and one can see how Toni Morrison elucidates many of the limitations of classical ethics in thinking about race and gender. Sethe is a runaway slave (lacks the freedom to act) who makes the decision to kill her children rather than allow them to be returned to the physical, mental, and emotional brutality of slavery (lacks a viable choice). Sethe made a choice, but also had no choice at all, an ethical complexity that many moral theories could not speak to appropriately.

I began the work for my thesis in a special studies last spring titled "At The Seam: Race + Gender + Ethics" with professor Kevin Quashie. This class helped me to clarify my ideas as well as create a working bibliography. Now I feel ready to write, to challenge traditional ethics through the lens of black feminism and the unique moral agency of black women. My goal is to present a new way of understanding the ethical implications of black women's experiences, to explore what it means to have to do the "right" thing, even when doing so is not one's right.

René is a senior major with a focus on literature and a minor in ethics