Ethics of Care

Carol Gilligan (1936 – ) is considered the founder of the Ethics of Care philosophical movement. Much of the foundations of this movement were published in her book, In a Different Voice (1982).

In the 1960s Gilligan realized that men (in contrast to people) were the measure of humanity, with autonomy and rationality as the markers of maturity. To explore this, and its implications, she undertook three empirical studies: college student study about moral development, the abortion decision study looking at conflict, and the rights and responsibilities study which examined concepts of self and morality in men and women of different ages.

Analysis and reflection on these studies resulted in Gilligan developing a framework for the Ethics of Care, where, “the different voice I describe is characterized not by gender but theme. Its association with women is an empirical observation, and is primarily through women’s voices that I trace its development.”

The Ethics of Care is proposed as an alternative to Lawrence Kohlberg’s (1927 – 1987) hierarchal and patriarchal approach to ethics, where he claims that girls (and thus women), did not in general develop their moral abilities to the highest levels. Gilligan explained gendered differences in moral reasoning as cultural constructions, and not in essentialist terms. Kohlberg provided detailed responses to Gilligan in Essays on Moral Development: Vol.II. The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages (1984). Kohlberg has been extremely influential, including some of the content in John Rawls’ (1921 – 2002) A Theory of Justice (1972).

Gilligan contended that women approach ethical problems differently, by focusing on responsibilities and relationships while men focus on rights and rules.

In 2011, Gilligan was able to appreciate that care is regarded as a feminine ethic within a patriarchal framework, but as a human ethic within a democratic framework. For her, reason can co-exist with emotion, mind with body, self with relationships and even men with women. This co-existence is not permitted in a patriarchal framework. Gilligan calls this less divisive and more human approach, the Ethics of Care.

Many other feminists, especially, have reflected on the Ethics of Care, and developed their own philosophies. One of the first was Nel Noddings (1929 – ) who wrote Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (1984). She makes a distinction between natural and ethical caring. Personally, Noddings is difficult to understand, except that she seems to be enforcing traditional views of nurturing.

Annette Baier (1929 – 2012) is more interesting because she states that women and men make their decisions about right and wrong based on different value systems: men take their moral decisions according to an idea of justice, while women are motivated by a sense of trust or caring. A major concern is that philosophy, and its history, have been dominated by men, resulting in the feminine perspective being ignored.

Joan Claire Tronto (1952 – ) attempted to operationalize the ethics of care, especially in Moral boundaries: a political argument for an ethic of care (1993). She defines care as “On the most general level we suggest caring be viewed as a species activity that includes everything we do to maintain, continue and repair our “world”so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web.” (p. 103)

Tronto differentiates obligation-based ethics and responsibility-based ethics. Obligation-based ethics involve a decision maker determines what obligations s/he has and responding. This contrasts with responsibility-based ethics, where the relationship with others is the starting point. Thus, the Ethics of Care involves/ requires developing a habit of care. (p. 127)

There are four elements of caring, that are the fundamentals necessary to provide effective care. These require certain attitudes and skills. They are: 1. attentiveness; 2. responsibility; 3. competence; and, 4. responsiveness of the care receiver. (p. 127)

Tronto defines four phases of caring. These involves cognitive, emotional, and action strategies. However, they are not in sequential order, and can overlap. They are: 1. caring about; 2. taking care of; 3. care giving; and 4. care receiving. (p. 165)

The one Norwegian philosopher who deserves mention is Tove Pettersen (1962 – ), perhaps better known for her work on the existential ethics of Simone de Beauvoir. In addition to numerous articles, she has written one major book on the subject, Comprehending Care: Problems and Possibilities in The Ethics of Care (2008).

In an interview, later published, Pettersen states, “In our culture, the Good Samaritan ideal overlaps with the traditional understanding of what it means to be a good woman. Female care workers in particular—whether they are mothers or nurses—are commonly expected to be altruistic, to systematically put the interests of others first, while treating their own needs as secondary and unimportant. Consequently, they are expected to work beyond what is reasonable in order to fulfil this altruistic ideal. Using the Good Samaritan as an ideal for care workers in professions where the employer’s goal is to maximize profit and minimize costs paves the way for exploitation. Care workers are especially exposed to exploitation, because they have the responsibility for the well-being of vulnerable others. In many situations, care workers simply cannot reject this responsibility. It is therefore very important to be aware of how easy it is to be exploited when the traditional images of what it means to be a woman, and the traditional images of what good care is, are jointly applied. Unfortunately, the Good Samaritan cannot be an ideal for contemporary care work.

4 Replies to “Ethics of Care”

  1. This is a good introduction, you’ve mentioned some of the major works on the subject. Hopefully you will do another post where you delve more deeply. I note that some of the major works, eg Tronto, are very expensive. It would be nice if there was a sampling of writing that was reasonably priced. Virginia Held’s Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics, costs fifty dollars for the paperback. Any suggestions?

  2. “Ethics for Dummies” by Panza et al, has a section on Feminist Ethics. It’s reasonably priced and well written.

    1. Feminist Ethics includes but is much wider than the Ethics of Care. Feminist Ethics contains various critiques of mainstream ethics, and various alternative ethical systems, some of which are based on the ethics of care, some of which critique ethics of care. Here are three reasonably priced books on Feminist Ethics from the nineties:
      Friedman, Marilyn, 1993 “What are Friends For? Feminist Perspectives on Personal Relationships and Moral Theory”
      Held, Virginia, 1993, “Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture, Society, and Politics”
      Walker, Margaret, 1997 “Moral Understandings: A Feminist Study in Ethics”

  3. Thank you for your comments, Charles. The main reason I have written about the ethics of care, is that this is one of the major ethical dimensions found in the teaching profession. Like nursing, teaching is also dominated by women, and like nurses, teachers can also be exploited with an appeal to their higher nature.

    I will try to read some of the works you suggest, but at the moment my reading time has been spent at understanding an Ethics of Technology.

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