Part One

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Note: this post has been superseded by the full essay.

A couple of days ago I came upon care ethics via Virginia Held’s book The Ethics of Care (2006) with some excitement. The ethics of care grew out of feminism, but I think the issues it raises transcend feminism and I’ll conclude by arguing that in some ways its feminist roots are holding back its potential power. Though of course, it had antecedents, care ethics is associated with Carol Gilligan’s argument that dominant ethical frameworks embody masculine psychology or, if you like, dramaturgy. Gilligan developed her moral theory in contrast to her mentor Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Gilligan’s In a Different Voice argued that men’s and women’s ethical frames are different. Where men’s ethical frames embodied notions of justice and abstract duties or obligations tested in Kohlberg’s approach, womens’ perspectives privileged empathy and compassion which were defined in concrete relationships.   1

Here’s an outline of the structure of ‘care ethics’ in a review of Virginia Held’s book.

Held’s account of the ethics of care starts with a list of five defining features. 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” (10). 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 2 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” (11). 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.

I don’t know enough to say that this approach is ‘better’ than those it defines itself against, but it certainly speaks to my frustrations with the dominant paradigm – something I expressed in a comment on the Facebook post of Robert Wiblin, one of the (I think) founders of 80,000 hours a charity of which I’m a big fan) which asked “If you only had 3 minutes to give a random person (similar to your social network) advice, what’s the most useful thing you could tell them?” Amid lots of worthwhile tips for life, I wrote this. “Life is not a toy model, a trolley problem or a piece of inspiration porn. It’s life.”. I was trying to convey my unease at the question. It is, of course, a perfectly acceptable question to ask so no criticism was intended. Every discussion must start somewhere – with the universal or the particular, the abstract or the concrete – with the interest being in how each relates to the other.

Still our culture is awash with abstraction, universalism and instrumentalism and as such desperately in need of balancing with precisely the kind of thing that the ethics of care can offer. So here are some introductory reflections. This part concludes with some observations on Adam Smith as the original ‘care ethics’ guy. Subsequent parts at least as currently planned will talk about:

  • the implications of this framework for what we’re all assured is the ‘market’ in human services.
  • the way in which feminism as an ideological vehicle for women’s interests tends to underplay the wider universal significance I’ve intimated it has above.

Adam Smith and the ethics of care

Adam Smith’s work was built on the ethics of care. He was a very urbane guy, not easily roused to passion. But the two most passionate passages in his whole oeuvre (I’m not too sure what an “oeuvre” is – though I usually have mine poached – but I’m pretty sure it fits right here between the beginning and end of this sentence) 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. And here’s another quite good general description of care ethics which parallels the way Smith presented humanity in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

It is a moral fact of major importance that human beings are dependent beings and it is by and through their relations with other humans that they achieve moral maturity. Their moral sense develops as well by understanding the role of value of these relations and they become morally salient for it. This is not true just about female moral agents, but also about male moral agents.

Smith portrayed the phenomenology of ethics and culture in The Theory of Moral Sentiments in just the way foreshadowed above. The baby observes its dependence on its closest relations and from fear and love comes to crave approbation and fear disapprobation. This then leads to a theory of social ethics not unlike Burke’s observation about “little platoons”. 5 As I put it in a post more than a decade ago, and long before I’d heard of care ethics:

The Theory of Moral Sentiments is built up from reflection on how people care for each other – and how they care most for those closest to them. Their care, their sympathy, radiates from them towards others with an intensity which is inversely proportional to their social proximity.

Anyway, Smith’s simpatico with care ethics has been noticed in the literature – indeed Annette Baier 6 dubbing Smith’s friend and mentor David Hume the “women’s moral theorist.” Baier argues that Hume denies “that morality consists in obedience to a universal law, emphasizing rather the importance of cultivating virtuous sentimental character traits, including gentleness, agreeability, compassion, sympathy, and good-temperedness”.

These ideas about Smith as a ‘proto’ care ethicist have been pointed out since the early 2000s (I’d be surprised if Baier didn’t point them out writing about Hume, but who knows since I can’t easily access the essay?) and dealt with in this plodding essay 7 where Andrew Terjesen raises the question of whether Smith’s heart is in universalist or ‘contextualist’ values in a fairly academic way – which is at least to me pretty unconvincing. The point – it seems to me anyway – is that Smith built towards universal values via concrete experience. One did not trump the other.

But one – the universalist command of principle and policy – trumps the ethics of care today.

To be continued.

  1. 1. From Wikipedia: Subsequent research suggests that the discrepancy in being oriented towards care-based or justice-based ethical approaches may be based on gender differences, or on differences in actual current life situations of the genders.[]
  2. to?[]
  3. 2. at this point Grammerly helpfully highlights the last three words indicating that there’s a “qualifier before non-gradable adjective” – I suggest Grammerly takes it up with Adam Smith[]
  4. 32. It seems reasonable to speculate that the passage is really about his own mother. Smith was a sickly child whose mother feared for his life as an infant. []
  5. 4. “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution.[]
  6. 5. Who incidentally married Kurt Baier, Dunera Boy and my Dad’s closest friend, confidant and mentor in the camps and in Melbourne after the war[]
  7. 6. You can read more of the essay here.[]
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7 years ago

To me comparisons with care and markets don’t have a whole lot of validity. This is for a number of reasons. For example, most care is done for free, people generally don’t compete to care for each other, we cared for each other before markets, we care for each without markets, and to some extent we are likely to be evolutionarily biased to help/care for each other. So when people say market for services, I feel this represent a very small amount of what constitutes human helping behavior, and a relatively poor analogy for the rest. So I’m not assured there is a market for most care at all. This also makes me worry about the idea that care sits on top of other higher level things — for example morals, etc . . The idea that care might have an evolutionary basis means that acts of care are just correlates of these things since we can be influenced them, but to some extent care sits by itself.

7 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Basically, I think people should be careful defining care as “markets” and so on — which seems to be relatively common now. It reminds me of what some of the feminist (and other) literature calls “unpaid work” when you look after your children or help your sick grandmother. To me this is dehumanizing as it is assumes anything you do is work which is no different to the type your employer might pay you for. If people start believing this, perhaps helping your sick grandmother or looking after your children really will be seen as work in the same way as a job go to each day.

paul walter
paul walter
7 years ago

Having just power back is Adelaide, I have given it a quick read, always good to visit here .

I think it reminds me of the conversation on about a few years ago between conservatives and lefty liberals as to empathy, social policy and economics and pol economics.

But here we have the inclusion of gender, which raises elements of the old nature nurture debate, eg that ‘s just the way men and women think about things, through to influences like the sexual division of labour, especially since the industrial revolution, with what feminists claim to be a confining of women and their removal from information and influence that might have occurred in simpler societies asx well a possible changed influences concerning indviduation and socialisation.

Whatever the final truth, it certainly intrigues someone like me who enjoys current affairs blogs and has observed the different ways individuals and blocs of individuals approach social problems. The most obvious example seems to be the difference which many women on one hand and many men approach asylum seeker policy, with women overt and intense on what occurs with refugee women and children, while men often tend to abstract more on wider issues that are not always recognised as factors contributing to large scale people movements. Women seem to regard men as as callous and tending to overlook the human toll of world affairs; men may see women as overly emotional and not geared to the big picture of what goes on here.

I am of course speculating and reducing like a mad thing. I hope people understand the above musings, nothing definitive and scientific but just a subjective response to the piece.

I guess there are many things that seem curious as to some issues, such as Trump (or Hillary) for President ; different male to female responses to thing like Bill Clinton’s philanderings, or Julian Assange ‘s misfortunes say, or even the efficacy of Botoxing. In the end, what you must hope for are variant viewpoints and the patience to try and understand a context in which a given commenter might be arguing a point.

I have probably missed the point of this thread starter and will no doubt be told by all sorts of folk how this has come to pass and what it says about my brains, but I really am not trying to be doctrinaire on anything , so much as just musing
“out loud”on the thread starter…by all means fill me in if you think Ive missed the point, but don’t just blast me off ,say why, so I get whatever real point I should have got, also.

paul walter
paul walter
7 years ago

Nick, wow!… something actually happened in Adelaide. Got home before the weather hit and had an afternoon snooze, woke up to find the power gone eventually like, everywhere.

Mercifully I had kept a supply of candles for the day it was going to happen and had a gas stove’, so I was laughing really. Everything dark and quiet, like out in the country, except for the occasional muffled cavilings of neighbours in the street and it was beaut going for a walk later when it got boring, up to the bridge to survey from on high…everything out except a couple of street lights on the bridge and elsewhere.

End up sitting in the dark with the cat on lap when it all came back on.

Figuring out how it came to pass and how the system seemed not to able to cope better is the game unfolding…Frydenberg, grandstanding.. the Premier ducking and weaving like Cassius Clay; who says talking about the weather is boring or politics can’t be fun!

john Walker
7 years ago
Reply to  paul walter

We are in Burra, power was off for 19 hours and mobile phone is more off than on, and its very wet and cold. Not the best for plein air work , luckily we are well stocked with Clarke Shiraz :-)

paul walter
paul walter
7 years ago

Thing that worries me is, if they can’t get this right, what are the prospects concerning oil rigs in the Bight or nuclear dumps?