The Ethics of Care

Virginia Held is one of several feminist philosophers who have elaborated an “ethics of care” as a promising alternative to traditional ethical theories such as deontology, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics. As she presents it, “the ethics of care stresses the moral force of the responsibility to respond to the needs of the dependent” (2006, 10). Care is understood as both a value and a practice. It values moral emotions such as “sympathy, empathy, sensitivity, and responsiveness,” and even “anger may be a component of the moral indignation that should be felt when people are treated unjustly or inhumanely.”

But the ethics of care does not rely on transient emotions alone to guide moral judgment and behavior, rather, it emphasizes that caring involves practices through which the caregiver responds to the claims of actual individuals with whom she shares an actual relationship. For Held, “care is a practice involving the work of care-giving and the standards by which the practices of care can be evaluated” (36). Traditional ethical theories tend to be individualistic, the ethics of care, like that ethics of responsibility, “sees persons as relational and interdependent, morally and epistemologically” (13); Held understands care primarily not in terms of emotions but as “caring relations” (36).

Thus, like the ethics of vulnerability, the care ethic is fundamental relational rather than individualistic. Individualism “obscures the innumerable ways persons and groups are interdependent in the modern world”, while the ethics of care is “hospitable to the relatedness of persons,” and it sees “our responsibilities as not freely entered into but presented to us by the accidents of our embeddedness in familial and social and historical contexts” (2006, 14).

There is little question that the ethics of care has a great deal to say about moral relationships in what is generally regarded as the private sphere of family and personal friends. The interesting theoretical question is whether this approach to ethics can also be used to understand moral relationships in the public sphere, that is, among individuals who are essentially strangers to one another and who may not have any kind of direct personal relationship.

Like some other theorists working in feminist ethics. I think that it can. Joan Tronto has argued that care should play a role not only in private, but also in public ethics, and that considerations of care and vulnerability are involved in assessments of moral responsibility in the social and political realms as well as in the private realm of the family (Tronto, 1993). Fiona Robinson has argued that care ethics is relevant to the global context:

We can use the ethics of care as the basis for rethinking the normative priorities of our societies and our world. Care must be seen not simply as a moral orientation, but as the basis for the political achievement of a good society, or, I would add, a morally decent world. By using the ethics of care as a starting point, we can fundamentally revise our understandings of the nature of our moral relations with others in the global context. ("The Limits of a Rights-based Approach to Global Ethics." In Tony Evans (Ed.). Human Rights Fifty Years On: A Reappraisal. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1998, p. 69.)

The ethics of care offers a distinct approach to ethical theory, one that complements an ethics of justice that emphasizes the concepts of fairness and rights, but does not reduce to it. In Held’s view an “adequate, comprehensive moral theory will have to include the insights of both the ethics of care and the ethics of justice, among other insights….Equitable caring is not necessarily better caring, it is fairer caring. And humane justice is not necessarily better justice, it is more caring justice” (16). Her suggestion for integrating the two ethics is to “keep these concepts conceptually distinct and to delineate the domains in which they should have priority.” This approach agrees with my own preference for moral pluralism in normative ethics, that is, for the idea that there are several distinct fundamental ethical principles that are needed in order to provide a descriptively and explanatorily adequate account of the moral realm.

In the realm of law, for instance, the notions of justice and rights have traditionally held priority, although considerations of care are also relevant, as I will later argue. In the realm of the family and among friends, priority has generally been given to considerations of care, though the basic requirements of justice surely should also be met -- this is obvious to anyone who, like me, has had more than one child. As Held says, "these are the clearest cases; others will contain moral combine moral urgencies. Universal human rights (including the social and economic ones as well as the political and civil) should certainly be respected, but promoting care across continents may be a more promising way to achieve this than mere rational recognition (2006, 17).

My own view is that certain fundamental features of the concept of universal human rights can be grounded in the ethics of care and the concept of social responsibility. Human rights, on my view, have been socially constructed in order to give concrete expression to the social responsibility to protect people against oppression. I will develop this argument in later sections, as a part of the cosmopolitan dimension of my global ethics. Held’s view and mine are not that far apart since I agree with her that “care is probably the most deeply fundamental value” (17), and also that “social relations of persons caring enough about one another to respect them as fellow members of a community are normatively prior to individuals being valued as holders of individual rights, or to citizenship in a liberal state, and the like” (102).

The social responsibility to care for the vulnerable and the oppressed is one ethical root of human rights. Rights, including human rights, are moral constructs which serve to focus social responsibilities on certain classes of beneficiaries and to ascribe responsibilities to protect them in various ways to certain classes of moral agents. The specification of the classes of beneficiaries and the bearers of the specific responsibilities to care for and protect them are socially negotiated and legitimated. So in order to understand how rights grow from responsibilities to protect the vulnerable, we must join the ethics of care and vulnerability to a discourse ethics of the kind developed by Jürgen Habermas.

As Held notes, this is kind of theoretical alliance is quite possible since “the ethics of care is hospitable to the methods of discourse ethics, though with an emphasis on actual dialogue that empowers its participants to express themselves rather than on discourse so ideal that actual differences of viewpoint fall away” (20). The historical and cultural embeddedness of this kind of discourse ethics presents a contrast to the idealized social bargaining of Rawls’ conception of the original position in which the parties negotiate behind a veil of ignorance that denies them knowledge of their particular stations and roles in society. Since concrete knowledge of one’s particular social relationships, and the actual distribution of powers and vulnerabilities is crucial to the vulnerability-care approach to ethics, this idealized decision-making procedure cannot explain how the specific rights and responsibilities which human moral agents have developed. As Held writes, “differences of actual power are inevitable in public as well as personal contexts, and we do well to recognize them rather than mask them behind liberal fictions of equality,” but when we focus on social relations, “we can come to see how to shape good caring relations so that differences in power will not be pernicious and so that the vulnerable are empowered” (56).

Rights functions as means for empowering those who are vulnerable to being oppressed; they provide a platform from which to advance moral and legal claims that society protect them from forces that would harm them or deny them secure access to goods and liberties necessary for a decent and dignified human existence. Human rights, in particular, function as a means of restraining the powerful from abusing the vulnerable, and for mobilizing social resources to protect the vulnerable against forces that would harm them. While human rights begin as moral responses to historically experienced forms of oppression, in order to become operational they must be developed into institutional mechanisms that function effectively to mobilize social resources to protect the vulnerable. The ethics of care, thus, forms one of the principal bases of the ethics of human rights.

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