An Introduction to the Ethics of Care

No person is an island. We all depend on the care of others to survive and thrive. This is an introduction to the ethics of care.

Jun 22, 2024By Joseph T F Roberts, PhD Political Philosophy

ethics care introduction

 

Without care, we wouldn’t make it past our first few hours of life. Without care, we would end our twilight years miserable and alone. Despite their obviousness, these insights have not always been given the attention they deserve in ethical theorizing. In this article, we explore the main claims of the ethics of care, paying particular attention to their critique of the primacy of autonomy and their re-valuing of relationships of dependence.

 

Two Modes of Moral Reasoning

Photo of Carol Gilligan, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Care ethics rose to prominence in the 1980s, thanks mainly to Carol Gilligan’s work in moral psychology. Gilligan’s empirical work investigated how people respond to real-life moral dilemmas. In her groundbreaking book In A Different Voice (1982), Gilligan showed two distinct forms of moral reasoning: one centered on principles and rules and another prioritizing relationships.

 

Generally associated with men, the first focused on generating categorical assertions about right and wrong. The second, more prominent among women, focused on analyzing the pressing obligations generated by conflicting responsibilities to different groups such as family members, friends, oneself, and distant others. This second form or style of moral reasoning later became known as the “ethics of care.”

 

Unlike liberal approaches to ethical and political theorizing, such as John Rawls’s, which tend to emphasize the value of autonomy and freedom, care ethics prioritizes relationships of dependence between individuals. Where liberal ethicists argue for duties of non-interference and the universal rights of rational agents, care ethicists argue that morality is primarily about caring for others as part of ongoing relationships.

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Although there are many versions of care ethics, and each care ethicist argues for their own idiosyncratic view of what morality requires, we focus on the four core characteristics they all share in this essay. These are i) skepticism about principles in moral reasoning, ii) the importance of ongoing relationships for ethical theorizing, iii) the value of caring attitudes, and iv) the importance of caring for others who depend on us.

 

Skepticism About Principles

Doctor’s Visit by Jan Steen, 1660, Source: State Hermitage Museum

 

 

Much of the business of ethics and political philosophy describes the principles of morality and just governance. Consequentialists such as J.S. Mill hold that we ought to act to ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Deontologists such as Immanuel Kant hold that we ought to act always in such a way as to treat others always as an end in themselves. Communists such as Karl Marx hold that we ought to reorganize society according to the principle “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”

 

Care ethicists, however, argue that all of these approaches are misguided. The reason is that principles are poor guides to how we ought to live. Far from clarifying our moral obligations and showing us the way to a more just and morally good world, principles obscure important features of our moral life, potentially leading us astray.

 

The reason is that, by their very nature, principles force us to abstract away from the concrete particularity of the situations that call for moral deliberation. They make us think about arguments when we should focus on what the person in front of us needs and respond sympathetically to those needs.

 

The Importance of Relationships 

Photo of John Rawls from 1971 Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Liberal political philosophy, especially contractualist versions such as that expounded in John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, tends to be based on the assumption that individuals are independent people who contract together to form a society. Against this view, care ethicists (like communitarians) argue that people are, in fact, deeply embedded in ongoing, non-voluntary, and deeply valuable relationships. We can’t simply pick and choose who to associate with. In many cases, that has already been decided for us.

 

These relationships, they argue, are paradigms for the rest of morality in that we should take the same attitudes towards distant strangers as we take towards our friends and relatives. Based on this view, moral behavior consists at least partly in promoting and respecting these relationships.

 

Importantly, however, this doesn’t apply to all relationships. Although families and friendships can be sources of great value, they can also be sites of abuse, neglect, and violence. When personal relationships go awry this way, they no longer deserve support. Only life-enhancing relationships have moral importance for care ethicists.

 

Caring Attitudes Matter 

My Grandparents, My Parents, and I, 1936 by Frida Kahlo Source: MoMA

 

 

At its most basic, care ethics focuses on exhorting people to care. But what does this mean? ‘To care’ can have multiple meanings. We can care about something (e.g., someone’s opinion, the football result) by being emotionally invested in it or worrying about it. We can take care of something (e.g., a book or a child) by ensuring the thing is protected and nothing bad happens.

 

In other words, care has both an attitudinal and a behavioral component. Let us focus on caring attitudes first, leaving caring behavior and actions for the last section. In a nutshell, to care about something is for it to matter to you, that is, to desire it, be emotionally invested in it, focus your attention on it, and consider it when deciding what to do.

 

Caring about something isn’t limited to people. We can care about things (e.g., your home), places (e.g., your hometown), states of affairs (e.g., poverty), and even periods in time (e.g., your future). Sometimes, caring about something involves wanting to promote it (e.g., I care about good music, so I want more of it). In other cases, caring about something involves wanting it to stop (e.g., I care about injustice, so I want to reduce it).

 

Out of all these senses in which we can care about something, care ethicists tend to focus on caring about people’s needs and interests. To care about people’s needs involves wanting to satisfy them. Simply having this attitude, care ethicists argue, is morally valuable.

 

But is this plausible? Surely, it would be good if you actually satisfy someone’s needs. But is simply wanting to satisfy a need good? Even if you don’t do it? Or, if you do it, does wanting to do it because you care add value to the action? Is it better than doing it for other reasons, for example, because it is your job?

 

The idea that simply having the attitude is valuable even if you don’t act on it isn’t necessarily as implausible as it sounds at first sight. Sure, it would be better if you did it. There would be two positive things happening: the attitude and the action. But that doesn’t negate that wanting to do something can be valuable independently.

 

Imagine a case in which you want to satisfy a need (e.g., feed the baby, comfort a friend in another city) but, for whatever reason, you are unable to do so (e.g., don’t have any food, can’t contact or see your friend in time). The wanting seems crucial to why you might be excused for not feeding the baby or comforting the friend. It marks you out as the right kind of person.

 

If having the right attitude can be positive in itself, it is relatively easy to see why doing the right thing for the right reason would add value. Imagine someone who cares for someone elderly out of love (e.g., say they are related) and another person who performs all the same actions but does it for money. It might seem appropriate to ask, but do they really care in the right way?

 

The Importance of Caring Actions 

Mother and Child by Janis-Rozentāls, 1904 Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Although caring attitudes are good in themselves, it is even better if they are followed with caring actions. Caring for something, unlike caring about something, always requires us to respond positively to the object of our care. We care when we try and do what we believe is best for the thing, even if we make a mistake and do not, in fact, do what is best. That isn’t to say that effects don’t matter. It is better to care to actually do the right thing than simply intend to.

 

Caring for is also harder because it requires more from the agent than simply caring about it. In the words of Stephanie Collins: “While we care about anything we are not indifferent to, caring for something requires intentional actions or omissions” (Collins, 2015, p. 19).

 

Unlike simply thinking about care, in many cases, caring actions will carry costs for the carer. For example, raising children sometimes requires people (generally mothers) to take (sometimes significant) amounts of time off work, which may have implications for future earnings and career progression.

 

Care ethicists take the gendered nature of caregiving practices seriously, generally arguing that care is work like all other work and should be compensated fairly and spread more equally between both men and women and between the family and wider society (e.g., through tax cuts, welfare benefits, free childcare, and education).

 

References: 

 

Collins, Stephanie. (2014) The Core of Care Ethics. Palgrave MacMillan, London.

 

Collins, Stephanie. (2017) ‘Care Ethics: The Four Key Claims’ in Morrow, David (Ed) Moral Reasoning: A Text and Reader on Ethics and Contemporary Moral Issues. Oxford University Press, New York.

 

Gilligan, Carol. (1982) In A Different Voice. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

 

Read More:

 

Engster, Daniel. (2015) Justice, Care, and the Welfare State. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

 

Held, Virginia. (2006) The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

 

Noddings, Nel. (2002) Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy. University of California Press, Los Angeles.

Author Image

By Joseph T F RobertsPhD Political PhilosophyI am currently a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Law and Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. Prior to this, I completed my Ph.D. in Political Theory at the University of Manchester, where I wrote a thesis on the moral permissibility of Body Modification Practices and, specifically, whether or not we have the right to pursue them without being interfered with by others. My current research focuses on the limits of consent, embodiment, and the regulation of recreational drugs.