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Why We Should Care about Care Ethics

Why we should care about “care ethics” Stephanie Collins

Care ethicists — who derive their moral theory from the 1980s work of Carol Gilligan, a psychologist who studied how women address real-life moral dilemmas — believe their approach can, indeed should, guide all of us in moral decision-making, regardless of our gender and the particular dilemmas we face. Through reflection on the lived reality of ethical decision-making, care ethicists are led to the following ideas: that responsibilities derive from relationships between particular people, rather than from abstract rules and principles; that decision-making should be sympathy-based rather than duty- or principle-based; that personal relationships have a value that is often overlooked by other theories; that at least some responsibilities aim at fulfilling the needs of vulnerable persons (including their need for empowerment), rather than the universal rights of rational agents; and that morality demands not just one-off acts, but also ongoing patterns of actions and attitudes.

Most importantly, care ethicists believe morality demands ongoing actions and attitudes of care, in addition to (or even in priority to) those of respect, non-interference, and tit-for-tat reciprocity — which care ethicists see as over-emphasised in other ethical theories. Importantly, however, care ethicists do not claim that other theories get nothing right: care ethics is not a theory of the whole of ethics or morality, but of important parts of it that have been inadequately appreciated by other theories.

So let me lay out what I deem to be the four distinguishing claims of care ethics, and why we need the resources and insights of care ethics now, more than ever.

Scepticism about moral principles

Care ethicists view principles as insufficient at best — and distortive, at worst — for proper ethical deliberation. We can think of principles as conditionals (“if, then” statements) with an imperative (“do this”) in the “then” slot. Principles include: “if you’ve made a promise, then keep it”; “if you can save someone’s life at low cost, then save their life”; “under all circumstances, don’t murder.” Care ethicists object that these generalise too much. The reasons you should keep a promise, or save someone’s life, or even refrain from murder, are always unique to particular circumstances. We can’t capture all those unique details in a general “if” or “under these circumstances” clause.

Care ethicists’ ideas here can be divided into two camps: those regarding deliberation, and those regarding justification. Deliberation refers to the procedures we use when making ethical decisions. Justification refers to the outside-the-mind reasons why someone should do this-or-that. For example, suppose I can easily save a toddler from drowning in a shallow pond. When it comes to deliberation, I might just think: “The toddler is drowning! Do something!” This is a sensible method of deliberation in the circumstances. But the method of providing a justification for my action will be quite different: my justification might refer to the value of human life, the fact that I would want someone to save me if they easily could, and so on. These abstract justifications don’t feature in the deliberation, and rightly so.

When care ethicists deride principles, sometimes they’re arguing that we shouldn’t use principles in deliberation. For example, in Selma Sevenhuijsen’s version of care ethics, “[m]oral deliberation is ... looking ... at an issue from different perspectives and taking conflicting moral reactions and moral idioms as sources of morally relevant knowledge.” At other times, care ethicists want to reject principles as justifications. Virginia Held gives the example of honouring one’s parents, suggesting that the reason why a child should honour their father is because their particular father is worth honouring, for reasons that can only be spelled out by describing the details of that relationship over the years, and that cannot be captured in a general “if” clause.

Care ethicists are surely correct that wholly principle-based deliberation is not always best. As Ornaith O’Dowd puts it: if a child is drowning in a river, then “sitting down by the riverbank to stroke one’s chin and ruminate on a particularly thought-provoking passage from [Immanuel Kant’s] the Metaphysics of Morals is hardly justifiable.” Not only that: if we went through life with principles always explicitly in mind, we would miss out on a lot of what’s valuable — human connection, sympathy and spontaneity, for example.

This would be irrelevant if there were no alternative to principle-based deliberation. But care ethics offers an alternative: sympathy. This involves appreciating someone else’s situation from their perspective, and being moved to help them because of what one sees from that perspective. This requires giving full attention to the person, while attempting to see the world as they see it from their perspective — not to see the world as you would see it, if you were in their situation. This allows you to know better what they need or want, why they need or want that thing, and how you might help them get it. It forces you to remove your self-interested goggles in approaching life. It is worth quoting Virginia Held at length on this:

Kant famously argued that benevolent or sympathetic feelings lack moral worth; only the intention to act in accord with the moral law required by reason is morally rather than merely instrumentally of value ... Such theories miss the moral importance of actual, caring relations. They miss the importance of the emotions for understanding what we ought to do, and for motivating our morally recommended actions. Without empathetic awareness, one may not be able to meet another’s needs in the way morality requires. Without feelings of concern, one may not take responsibility for responding to those in need. To the ethics of care, morality is less a matter of rational recognition and more a matter of taking responsibility for particular other persons in need.

Does that mean we should deliberate with absolutely no regard for principles? Can’t we have both principles and sympathy in our deliberation? Indeed, there are at least three reasons why care ethicists can should, and sometimes do preserve a role for principles in deliberation.

First, principles are compatible with sympathy. Moral philosophers of all stripes give a role to sympathy in deliberation, alongside principles. Most obviously, virtue ethics give sympathy a central deliberative role, though the theory also includes principles or “virtue-rules”. Virtue ethics is the mainstream theory most similar to care ethics — some even see care ethics as a species of virtues ethics. Likewise, sophisticated consequentialists claim that deliberators should go back-and-forth, as circumstances allow, between an “indirect” sympathy-based deliberation and principle-based deliberation. Care ethicists themselves have argued that Kantian ethics is consistent with a sympathetic approach to moral practice.

Second, principles are informative. Sometimes, the results of sympathy are unclear or indeterminate: sympathy pulls you towards this person, and towards that person, with seemingly equal strength — which one should you help? In such situations, conscientious carers need general principles to determine whose interests come first. Often, these decisions are made by likening the current situation to previous ones. This likening can occur only by referring to general features that the situations share. Recognising these general features, and reacting to them consistently, brings order to our judgments; as Virginia Held puts it, “To argue that no two cases are ever alike is to invite moral chaos.” Third, principles sometimes rightly overrule sympathy. Consider parents engaging in “tough love”, policymakers who must prioritise after funding cuts, or nurses deciding how to divide their time amongst patients. Here, principles serve to constrain the effects of sympathy. Sympathy is intentionally put to one side, in order to do what it best overall. This is in part because engaging in sympathy — considering another’s situation from her point of view — sometimes blinds us to other morally relevant features of the situation. So we should endorse sympathy in deliberation, but not to the complete exclusion principles. That is the most that care ethicists can credibly claim — but they are right to claim that much.

This raises the question, then, as to whether there are rich principles of justification that ring true to care ethics? I think there are. Just take, for example, Eva Feder Kittay’s “principle of social responsibility for care”: “To each according to his or her need for care, from each according to his or her capacity for care, and such support from social institutions as to make available resources and opportunities to those providing care, so that all will be adequately attended in relations that are sustaining.” Or Daniel Engster’s “principle of subsidiarity”: “we should shift the actual delivery of care whenever possible to the most local and personal levels. We should care for others whenever possible by enabling them to care for themselves.” Or even my own “dependency principle”: when an important interest is unfulfilled, and you’re capable of fulfilling that interest, and fulfilling the interest will be not too costly, then you have a responsibility to fulfil the interest. * A key care ethical insight, then, is that sympathy and direct attention to concrete particulars are important in deliberation. Principles should also have some role in deliberation, and care ethicists can preserve a place for principles in justification. We thus arrive at: The first claim of care ethics: Deliberation should include sympathy and direct attendance to concrete particulars.

The importance of personal relationships

Care ethicists greatly value personal relationships — that is, relationships that are not formally contracted, that depend on a shared history (and/or predicted future) between the participants, and that are valued non-instrumentally by the participants. In personal relationships, participants tend to take one another’s interests as their own: it is good for me when something good happens to my relative. Examples of such relationships include parents and children, siblings, friends, and spouses. Care ethicists make three claims about personal relationships:

  • Personal relationships are paradigms for the rest of morality; we should take the same kind of attitude — sympathetic, compassionate — to everyone that we naturally take to personal relatives (even if not the same extent).

  • Some of the most morally valuable actions and attitudes are those that value, preserve, or promote personal relationships.

  • Some of the responsibilities that we have to all persons are weightier when had to personal relatives.

While common sense accords with these claims, care ethicists do not think that the three claims of relationship importance apply to all personal relationships. Many relationships are abusive or disrespectful to participants, despite having the general characteristics of personal relationships mentioned above — simply consider abusive spousal relationships. So we need to specify the relationships to which the three claims apply.

One option is to say that the claims of relationship importance apply to those personal relationships that are valued by their participants. However, participants are not always good judges of whether personal relationships are worthy of emulation, preservation and special attention. Taking this option would mask the power dynamics that limit some people’s abilities to properly assess their relationships’ value — most notably children and, in many societies, women. Relationships so strongly inform our values, and do this in such a slow and creeping way, that it seems impossible to trust our own judgments of their value. Often, we’re too enmeshed in them to judge.

A second option suggests that the social community — its norms, expectations and so on — could mark out the valuable relationships. But this gives too much power to norms and tradition, and not enough to marginalised voices, such as those of women and subordinated cultural groups. And if marginalised voices are given input, then we may be left with disagreement within the social community about which relationships are valuable. We would be left in a stalemate.

We can begin to resolve this by noting an assumption here: that relationships are sources of moral importance. This is suspect. More plausibly, relationships — like food, shelter and security — are valuable in virtue of how they affect persons. The relationship is not the thing for the sake of which we should take the claims of relationship importance to be true. Rather, we should take them to be true for the sake of the people in relationships. I would propose, then, that the claims of relationship importance apply to all and only those personal relationships that have “value to” their participants.

Your information is being handled in accordance with the ABC Privacy Collection Statement.Why adopt this view of the relevant relationships? A powerful reason relates to the scope of care ethics. Contemporary care ethicists deny that their theory applies only to personal relationships. They instead emphasise that the responsibilities of care ethics are global: we have them to those at a great distance from us. This has resulted in a tension within care ethics: on the one hand, personal relationships are still seen as important in the three ways noted above; on the other hand, non-personal relationships are recognised as sources of imperatives to care.

How can care ethicists account for the latter imperatives? They can do it by saying that the importance of any relationship — personal or non-personal — is determined by that relationship’s value to the individuals in that relationship. When our relationships to distant others have high value to us and to them, these non-personal relationships are moral paradigms, are worthy of preservation and give rise to weighty obligations. The first two claims of relationship importance — that the relationship is a paradigm and ought to be preserved — are true to the extent that the relationship is of value to participants. For the last kind of relationship importance — that the relationship is a source of morally weighty duties — the story is more complicated. Here we want to say that a relationship that has negative value to its participants — such as an exploitative relationship — might give rise to weighty duties. Care ethicists do not disagree with this. But these are not duties of care ethics. Recall that care ethics is not a theory of the whole of morality. Morality includes duties that arise out of harming others, out of receiving benefits, out of making promises and contracts, and so on. It also includes duties not to interfere with others. These are all important duties, but they are not duties of care ethics. Neither are the duties that arise out of non-valuable relationships.

That said, the exaltation of “relationships that are valuable to participants” gets us a wider range of duties than might first meet the eye. Because the claims of relationship importance properly apply not just to relationships that already have value to participants, but also to relationships that would have value to participants, if the relationship were formed. If we could create a relationship that would have value to participants, then care ethics says we have moral reasons to form — which is to say, to promote — that kind of relationship.

Obviously, these reasons need to be balanced against moral reasons of all other kinds, including reasons to care for oneself. And, as I’ve already indicated, personal relationships aren’t the only kind of relationships that are relevant here. If we could form a “relationship” with an impoverished person that involved us contributing to institutional arrangements that benefited that person, and if that relationship would have value to them and/or us, then we have moral reason to form that relationship. This is part of promoting valuable relationships.

The suggestion, then, is that the importance of any relationship — actual or potential — is determined by that relationship’s value to the participants. The special role of personal relationships within care ethics is explained by personal relationships’ high value to participants. But these are not the only relationships we should emulate, promote and respond to. This interpretation allows us to exclude abusive personal relationships from being valuable, and, perhaps most importantly, to make sense of how we can globalise and institutionalise the demands of care ethics: we have moral reason to create all sorts of valuable relationships, even over long distances or mediated by institutions. * Care ethicists generally agree that personal relationships are moral paradigms that ought to be preserved and that generate weighty responsibilities. This brings us to: The second claim of care ethics: To the extent that they have value to individuals in the relationship, relationships ought to be treated as moral paradigms, valued, preserved or promoted, and acknowledged as giving rise to weighty duties.

The need for caring attitudes

Unsurprisingly, care ethics calls upon agents to care. Care is multi-faceted. We can care about something — pay attention to it, emotionally invest in it, worry about it. We can care for something — tend to it, nurture it, help it thrive. We can take care around something — make sure it isn’t disrupted, ensure it is left to go on without our interference. We care through directing our thoughts, through one-on-one interactions, through coordinated action with others, by supporting other carers and by contributing to institutions that care. Care can last a minute or go on for decades. It occurs on a multitude of levels, from the individual to the global.

Let me divide care into two basic kinds: caring attitudes and caring actions. Some care ethicists run these together, but I want to put it that they each have value of their own. Let me deal with attitudes first.

What are caring attitudes? In brief, to “care about” something is for it to matter to you — and for your emotions, desires, decisions and attention to be influenced by how you believe things are going with it. The possible objects of caring attitudes are numerous: we can care about someone, something, some place, or some time. We can care about types: we might care about a type of thing (“interests”), or a type of person (“individuals with interests”). We might care about a type of event (“volcanic eruptions”), a type of state of affairs (“poverty”), or a type of property (“being ill”). Or we might just care about something particular — a particular individual with interests, a particular volcanic eruption, a particular illness of a particular person, or similar. These kinds of caring attitudes are everywhere, and are easy to hold. But care ethics calls upon agents to have only those caring attitudes that are morally valuable. Which caring attitudes are these? Plausibly, caring attitudes are like relationships: valuable in proportion to their value to persons. That value might lie in the attitude’s being instrumental to a person’s wellbeing, being partly constitutive of their wellbeing, or simply being a valuable attitude to them or for them, independently of their wellbeing. Thus caring attitudes have only extrinsic value — they are valuable in virtue of their relation to something else — but this doesn’t mean that it only has instrumental value — that it is valued only as a means to some further end. Rather, caring attitudes might be non-instrumentally (but extrinsically) valued as manifestations of love, kindness, forgiveness or so on — where these goods are intrinsically valuable to persons.

Care ethicists, though, are particularly concerned with caring attitudes that fulfil persons’ needs. Needs are the most basic or vital constituents of, or means to, a minimally decent life. Should we restrict morally valuable instances of caring attitudes to those that fulfil needs? I suggest not. There may be a stronger, or more urgent, moral imperative to fulfil needs than other interests. But this does not exclude imperatives to fulfil less basic, urgent, or important interests. It is just that these imperatives will be of a weaker strength. * The attitude of care comes in many forms. Care ethics calls for those forms that have moral value, which, I suggest, are those that are positively oriented towards interests. We now have: The third claim of care ethics: Agents should have caring attitudes — that is, attitudes that: (1) have as their object something that has interests, or something that might affect something that has interests; and that (2) are a positive response to those interests; and that (3) lead the agent’s affects, desires, decisions, attention or so on to be influenced by how the agent believes things are going with the interest-bearer.

The centrality of caring actions

In addition to having attitudes, we care by performing, practicing or giving care. I will use the phrases “caring for” (as opposed to “about”), “giving care” and “taking care of” synonymously, to refer to actions of care. This includes actions that intend to leave alone, or not disturb, the thing we care for.

Caring actions differ from caring attitudes in a number of ways. First, the range of possible objects is smaller. One does not care for a type of event (volcanic eruptions, human rights abuses, scientific discoveries), or a type of state of affairs (poverty), or a property (having AIDS). We might care for (as well care about) those who are affected by volcanic eruptions (or human rights abuses, scientific discoveries, having AIDS), but then we are not caring for these things themselves.

Specifically, caring actions are intended in the manner, “trying to do what I believe is good for this thing.” For caring, I suggest, it is all in the intentions. To care for someone is to do what you believe is in the interests of that thing — even if that thing, in fact, lacks interests, or even if you are incorrect about their interests. (Importantly, this is what it takes for an action to be care as opposed to non-care, not what it takes for an action to be good care as opposed to bad care.)

The intention is not a very strict condition. The carer need not consciously entertain their intention as “doing what I believe is in the recipient’s interests” and they need not have a full-blown concept of interests. They just need an implicit belief that the action is good for the recipient in some way. As a result, I will use the following definition of caring action: an action is caring if and only if it is performed under the (perhaps tacit) intention of fulfilling (or going some way to fulfilling) interest(s) that the agent perceives some perceived moral person (the recipient) to have.

In defining caring action, I only made reference to the intentions and beliefs of the caregiver. These things enhance moral value. But the effects matter greatly. Indeed, some effects matter more than others. This point is frequently made by care ethicists, who focus on persons’ needs. While care might be directed at fulfilling any interest — however trivial — care will have value if it fulfils a more vital, important, or compelling interest (a need). By allowing that care is more valuable if it fulfils interests — and even more valuable if it fulfils the most important interests -- we are able to avoid the “paternalism objection” to care ethics. This is the objection that care ethicists endorse actions that patronise, belittle, or otherwise undermine the autonomy of the care recipient, by fulfilling interests that are trivial or not the ones the care recipient wants fulfilled. For morally valuable caring actions, it is not enough that the action is intended to fulfil important interests: to be valuable, the care must actually fulfil important interests. In many cases, these will be the interests the recipient themselves endorses — including empowerment, autonomy, independence (insofar as this is ever possible), and so on. * Caring actions are actions performed with intentions to fulfil interests. These actions are morally valuable in proportion to the strength of the intention and the goodness of the effects. Hence:

The fourth claim of care ethics: Agents should perform actions that are performed under the intention of fulfilling (or going some way to fulfilling) interest(s) that the agent perceives some moral person (the recipient) to have; the strength of this “should” is determined by the moral value of action, which is a function of the strength of the intention, the likelihood that the action will fulfil the interest, and the extent to which the interest is appropriately described as a “need”.

Why care ethics matters

These four claims are merely the normative claims of care ethics. Many care ethicists make descriptive claims that support their overall outlooks. For example, many care ethicists endorse a relational view of autonomy, according to which autonomous plans, projects and purposes are inseparable from, and hugely influenced by, those around us. Many care ethicists emphasise that the world of ethics is constituted by complex webs of relationships between fragile, embodied human beings. With the four key normative claims now on the table, it is easy to see how they might arise out of a deep appreciation of these descriptive claims.

Although moral theorists who do not call themselves care ethicists may endorse the four claims, the claims are unlikely to be the central or most important parts of non-care ethical theories. Non-care ethicists are unlikely to be interested in intricately analysing actions of care in particular, or in vindicating sympathetic modes of deliberation in particular, as a central part of their theoretical edifice. It is the combination of these claims, and their status as the most important normative aspects of the theory, which makes care ethics distinctive.

Care ethics provides a valuable moral perspective in our current moment. We are accustomed to dealing in what care ethicists call justice ethics. Justice ethics focuses on the rights of individuals to pursue their own narrow self-interest. As we have seen over the course of a global pandemic, each individual’s pursuit of their own narrow self-interest has led to fear, hoarding, and suspicion of our fellow humans. Care ethics invite us to take a different approach.

By engaging with others sympathetically and in light of their unique particularity, we may gain a new perspective on why it is that others are reacting as they are. Care ethics advises us to meet others where they are, in their particularity. Principles prescribing any one “right” way to react (emotionally and psychologically) to crises like a pandemic are sure to overgeneralise — just as care ethics’ first principle warns.

Care ethics, finally, advises us to consider each relation in which we stand to other people, and assess those relationships’ worth for all involved. This includes market relations (“do I really need this extra package of toilet paper, in light of what others in this supermarket need?”) and community relations (“how can I best help my neighbours through this?”). What’s more, care ethics encourages us to treat our society — and even our world — just like how we treat our family: viewing life as a challenge that we are all facing together, with the need for solidarity and cooperation.

Stephanie Collins is Associate Professor in the Dianoia Institute of Philosophy at Australian Catholic University. She is the author of The Core of Care Ethics and Group Duties: Their Existence and Their Implications for Individuals. You can hear her discuss care ethics with David Rutledge on The Philosopher’s Zone.

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