Virginia Held was born on 28 October 1929 in Mendham, New Jersey. She received her BA from Barnard College in 1950 and attended the University of Strasbourg and the University of Paris before beginning her “first career” as a reporter. Held was on the staff of the Reporter from 1954 to 1965 and made contributions to such publications as the New Leader, the Public Interest, and the Nation. Her first book was a reporter’s account of contemporary attitudes toward morality. In 1968 Held received her PhD in philosophy from Columbia University. She was a professor of philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York from 1969 until retiring in 2001, and also was on the faculty of the Graduate School of the City University of New York after 1977. Held was President of the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division in 2001–2002.
Held’s work in moral, political, and social philosophy has its roots in and is always inextricably linked to a commitment to achieving moral clarity about actual decision-making contexts. Throughout her career, Held has defended the usefulness of theory for practice and the objectivity of moral judgment. She has argued that moral theory is more like scientific theory than is typically acknowledged but has resisted ethical naturalism. She has argued that just as scientific theories must withstand the tests of observational experience, so must moral theories withstand the “tests” of moral experience. This claim is a challenge to such methods as John Rawls’s reflective equilibrium, in which the theorist looks back and forth between theoretical claims and particular judgments about hypothetical decision-making contexts.
Moral philosophy has long been substantially immersed in a debate between consequentialist and deontological moral theorists, both sides assuming that a single moral theory should be adequate for all moral questions. Held has argued for a “division of moral labor,” in which independent moral inquiry proceeds in distinct moral realms – the political, the legal, the economic, the familial. She has also argued that in all realms of moral inquiry, attention to the perspectives of women is called for to redress its historical absence.
Held has joined other feminist philosophers in rejecting the dominant contractual model of society defended by such heirs to the tradition of Locke, Hobbes, and Kant as John Rawls and the rational choice theorists, because it presupposes that persons are essentially independent and motivated predominantly by rational self-interest. Held points out that persons are actually typically dependent on others and typically they are significantly engaged in relationships with others. Having rejected the traditional conception of “economic man” as a model for an array of social relations, Held has explored alternative models, most extensively, the relationship between a “mothering person” and a child.
A mothering person, for Held, is a woman or a man who has primary responsibility for the care and development of a child. Rejecting the traditional idea that mothering is essentially a “natural,” and so less fully human, activity, Held describes it as the very human activity of creating new persons – persons who will speak a language, share a culture, and engage in morally significant activity, thought, and feeling. The moral duties involved in being a mother or a child are not exhausted by negative duties to “leave others alone.” On this model, theory begins not with uninvolved individuals who must be brought together in society but with very involved individuals. A morality based on this model would be “the morality of being responsive to the needs of actual, particular others in relations with us” (“Non-contractual Society: A Feminist View,” 1987, p. 133). A political theory based on this model would acknowledge that contractual thinking, while possibly appropriate to some domains, is insufficient to establish the mutual concern, trust, and cooperativeness necessary to hold a society together. Held came to believe that while the concept of justice is not dispensable in moral and political theory, the concept of care is more widely applicable and conceptually prior.
The idea that moral thinking is always the thinking of individuals who are related to others in morally significant ways is central to Held’s work. Held has argued that moral responsibility may be borne by corporations, nations, and ethnic groups, as well as by “collectivities” defined strictly in terms of the relation in which their members stand to particular events or opportunities for action. She has also argued that a satisfactory account of the moral person requires attention to the individual’s social location – to her social relationships and to the nature of the social roles she occupies.
According to Held, cultural structures and norms are as much in need of philosophical attention and moral scrutiny as political or legal structures and norms. Recognizing the social power of the mass media and the way commercial interests guide and limit the issues and images presented within them has led Held to call for greater economic independence in the production and distribution of cultural products.
Held has played a substantial role in a number of contemporary philosophical debates, arguing, for instance, that in addition to political and civil rights, individuals in a sufficiently prosperous society have social and economic rights to “a decent life, adequate self-development, and equal liberty” (1984, p. 184); that the public good is a concept with significant content and that at least some decisions concerning a society’s economic activities should be guided by an interest in it; that terrorism may be justified in circumstances of profound injustice, when it would be reasonable to believe that rejecting available uses of violence would allow the continuation of serious human rights violations for longer than it would be reasonable to ask the victims of those violations to wait for relief. Held has argued that it is the responsibility of those with power to strengthen or create alternative means of addressing injustice.