This recent essay in the Mandarin is a reworking of an essay I wrote in 2016 in a string of essays in which I developed the idea of the Evaluator General. I was following Gary Sturgess’ suggestion that governments should not think of themselves as producing complex services in a market, but rather as stewards of a supply chain as Toyota does. In that context it rather jumps out at one that the challenge isn’t to identify things that can be contracted out (though that should always be considered part of one’s repertoire) but to understand and so, try to improve what you’re doing. Of course the system pretends to do that via various bodgied up KPIs and so on, but the great guilty secret is that we keep restructuring things without attending to the most important thing of all. Knowing what we’re doing.
Then a chance encounter with a book on The Ethics of Care led me in a new direction which arises from the observation that many systems of government service delivery or funding should be built as systems of care first and markets only to the extent that that makes sense within that broader context. It seems to me that this provides an excellent framework for building and delivering these services.
Nicholas Gruen explores ways in which economics marginalises care for others and what an ‘economics of care’ might look like. This fills out part of the intellectual context for his proposal for an Evaluator General.
Late ‘second wave’ feminist Carol Gilligan’s 1982 book In a Different Voice argued that men’s and women’s ethical frames are different. Men tend to foreground justice and abstract duties or obligations; women empathy and compassion defined in concrete relationships.1 This provided a springboard for ‘care ethics’ which is well summarised in this passage from a review of Virginia Held’s ‘The Ethics of Care‘:
First, “the focus of the ethics of care is on the compelling moral salience of attending to and meeting the needs of the particular others for whom we take responsibility”. Second, from an epistemological perspective the ethics of care values emotions, and appreciates emotions and relational capabilities that enable morally concerned persons in actual interpersonal contexts to understand what would be best. Third, “the ethics of care rejects the view of the dominant moral theories that the more abstract the reasoning about a moral problem, the better because the more likely [to?] avoid bias and arbitrariness, the more nearly to achieve impartiality. The ethics of care respects rather than removes itself from the claims of particular others with whom we share actual relationships”. Fourth, the ethics of care proposes a novel conceptualization of the distinction between private and public and of their respective importance. Finally, the ethics of care adopts a relational conception of persons, which is in stark contrast to Liberal individualism.
This offers a useful counterpoint to dominant paradigm, awash, as it is with abstraction, universalism, instrumentalism and so, manipulation.2 So, here are some introductory reflections. We start with Adam Smith whose work is a constant reminder of how few of the intellectual riches he offered grew in modern soil. I then discuss the implications of ‘care ethics’ for what we’re all assured is the ‘market’ in human services. I conclude by asking whether, against the eclipse of this feminine perspective in our culture feminism should have a role in reasserting it alongside its legitimate role as an ideological vehicle for women’s interests in a world that’s unfair to them.
Adam Smith and the ethics of care
Adam Smith’s work was built on the ethics of care. He was very urbane and not easily roused to passion. But the two most passionate passages in all his writing are one referring to the tribes of Africa being captured as slaves as “those nations of heroes” and this one:
What are the pangs of a mother, when she hears the moanings of her infant that during the agony of disease cannot express what it feels? In her idea of what it suffers, she joins, to its real helplessness, her own consciousness of that helplessness, and her own terrors for the unknown consequences of its disorder and out of all these, forms, for her own sorrow, the most complete 3 image of misery and distress. The infant, however, feels only the uneasiness of the present instant, which can never be great. With regard to the future, it is perfectly secure, and in its thoughtlessness and want of foresight, possesses an antidote against fear and anxiety, the great tormentors of the human breast, from which reason and philosophy will, in vain, attempt to defend it, when it grows up to a man.4
This is philosophy as homage to care. Continue reading