This essay is the third of three starting with my essay on the Evaluator General in two parts followed by an essay responding to the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into competition in human services.
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. 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.]
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”. 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.
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. [2. I note parenthetically, or footnotically, that care ethics seems to make a lot better sense of the ethics of our ethical responsibilities to animals, than Peter Singer’s claimed utilitarianism which I can’t make head or tail of.] 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. 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] 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. 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. ]
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. “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.] 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. 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] 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. You can read more of the essay here.] 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.
The ‘market’ in human services
I think the ‘care’ perspective helps us see something I’ve suggested and am becoming more convinced of – that the whole agenda for opening up human services to competition is built on a misplaced metaphor of human services as a ‘market’. And what are markets if not waiting to be opened up? Of course, those weasel words ‘other things being equal’ are thrown about, and given them, who wouldn’t want services opened up?
I think we should start from a different premise. Before doing so let’s take a quick look at a canonical market. Note that in a market, buyer and seller have conflicting interests. This was seen as a problem by pre-modern economic thinkers. They had difficulty escaping the pull of ethical theories that were built for other contexts than markets. Smith’s breakthrough (or you can attribute it to his antecedents like Hutcheson, Mandeville and their intellectual ancestors) was to treat markets as an autonomous ethical field enabling the claim that, in an ideal market, the conflict between buyer and seller is a feature, not a bug.
It drives the discovery by simultaneously facing both buyer and seller with the Spice Girls question: Tell me what you want, what you really really want. The buyer must determine how much he wants the item – including in relation to all the alternatives – while the seller must determine how much he wants to sell it – compared with all the alternatives which will normally involve judgements about the opportunity cost of its production and sale.
Again, that this is a mercenary exchange is a feature, not a bug. For if the long list of pre-conditions for market efficiency are met, market participants need not trouble themselves with knowing anything of each other – or indeed of many other things. [8. For Smith of course it wasn’t quite this simple, because though at the limit market exchange was mercinary, it all took place within a context that was given by the society. It was an invitation for human connection.]
In any event, if one takes the market as the ‘ground’, as the place in the chaos at which one sets intellectual anchor and tries to make sense of the world, we end up in the ‘second best’ logic of saying that, because the market in human services does not meet the preconditions of an efficient market, policy should devote itself to providing them as a precondition for moving towards opening up service provision. There’s a technical objection to this – which is the theory of the second best. One way of outlining its import is to say that the theory (I’ve never known why it isn’t known as a theorem because that’s what it is) tells us that if you can’t remove all obstacles to optimal outcomes, removing some sub-set of them may make things worse rather than better. Anyway, that theory amounts to an impossibly theorem and has, as you might expect, been summarily swept under the intellectual carpet courtesy of the phenomenon of discursive collapse.
Anyway, I have some sympathy for ignoring the strictures of the theory of the second best – at least if one tries to keep your wits about you and understand, as Hicks did in a different context, that you’re taking a dangerous step. But I think there are more compelling, commonsensical reasons for being suspicious of this approach. One is this. Empathy is of the essence in caring relationships. It is, as Smith argued, the principle mode of cognition of one human by another. [9. He used the word ‘sympathy’ as the singular fulcrum or engine of society aspiring to the ‘Newtonian method’ of rhetoric in which “an immense chain of the most important and sublime truths, all closely connected together” were explained “by one capital fact, of the reality of which we have daily experience”.] And it’s also integral to the delivery of care which is, generally speaking, more efficacious when received within some empathic bond between those giving and receiving care.
Finally, there’s this. In a great many human services we don’t really know what we’re doing. Though bureaucrats have no trouble running up benchmarks against which they can administer programs with every sign of pursuing ‘best practice’ and being ‘evidence based’, the KPIs that emerge are often scientistic, which is to say they ‘go through the motions’ of being evidence based, of setting the right incentives and so on, but in fact their ‘rigour’ is only an imitation of rigour. They look good on the ‘dashboard’ that’s shown to the minister and used to generate briefings on the program, but whether they’re the right measures, whether they’re being gamed, whether the conditions of the program are changing as it unleashes its own incentives: well as Ted Kennedy said to Mary Jo, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
In fact, we can be more specific about this idea of starting with a market full of market failure and then purging it of those failures. As I wrote in my previous piece on human services:
[A]n appealing measure of the performance of a job placement program would be the number of job seekers continuing in new jobs after job-placement services. For a child protection program, it might be the number of children removed from struggling families following early intervention. But could too rapid job matching destroy value by foreclosing better matches, or by diverting valuable system resources to where they are redundant? And how does one weigh up the relative merits of child removal with poor home care?
Note that despite the power of well functioning markets to generate information, attending to the empowerment of consumers – as recommend in the recent Productivity Commission preliminary report on human services – no matter how much one purges the system, it exists as a relationship between consumers and producers and that relationship and the information it evinces reflects on that relationship. So even if it is possible to empower consumers about their own interest in the market which is often highly problematic this does not generate good information on efficiencies at the system level. Thus, if we’re worried about the system efficiency issues identified in the quote above, the ‘market’ won’t generate them.
Of course, if you think I’m arguing for ‘the government’ to handle this, well perhaps, but I’m certainly not arguing that we shouldn’t open up these ‘markets’ because ‘the government’ is doing such a great job now. Currently, I’d offer precisely the same critique of the system we have now – which is that it is not being built to generate the kind of information that’s necessary to try to improve system efficacy either!
So, as outrageous as it sounds, I think the preeminent task is not to configure ‘the market’ as open or closed but to understand what we’re doing. To put it another way, the focus on opening the system up looks like thinking about improving efficiency (though of course just thinking about it doesn’t mean one achieves it – Google “VET reform” for further references) when the real issue is efficacy. And we’re pretty ignorant about how to promote efficacy – which is hardly surprising because the information we’re generating doesn’t shed light on it!
Attentiveness is crucial to the ethics of care because care requires a recognition of others’ needs in order to respond to them.The question which arises is the distinction between ignorance and inattentiveness. Tronto poses this question as such, “But when is ignorance simply ignorance, and when is it inattentiveness”?
In order to care, we must take it upon ourselves, thus responsibility. The problem associated with this second ethical element of responsibility is the question of obligation. Obligation is often, if not already, tied to pre-established societal and cultural norms and roles. Tronto makes the effort to differentiate the terms “responsibility” and “obligation” with regards to the ethic of care. Responsibility is ambiguous, whereas obligation refers to situations where action or reaction is due, such as the case of a legal contract. This ambiguity allows for ebb and flow in and between class structures and gender roles, and to other socially constructed roles that would bind responsibility to those only befitting of those roles.
To provide care also means competency. One cannot simply acknowledge the need to care, accept the responsibility, but not follow through with enough adequacy – as such action would result in the need of care not being met.
This refers to the “responsiveness of the care receiver to the care”. Tronto states, “Responsiveness signals an important moral problem within care: by its nature, care is concerned with conditions of vulnerability and inequality”. She further argues responsiveness does not equal reciprocity. Rather, it is another method to understand vulnerability and inequality by understanding what has been expressed by those in the vulnerable position, as opposed to re-imagining oneself in a similar situation.
This seems to me to be a more promising list of considerations than the list of requirements for market efficiency – which are a lot longer than this list of requirements for perfect competition:
- All firms sell an identical product;
- All firms are price takers – they cannot control the market price of their product;
- All firms have a relatively small market share;
- Buyers have complete information about the product being sold and the prices charged by each firm; and
- The industry is characterised by freedom of entry and exit. Perfect competition is sometimes referred to as “pure competition”.
In this vein, the UK Institute for Government offers a list with some family resemblance to the abstract list from the economics textbook here:
To support effective market stewardship, government departments and other commissioning organisations should:
- Clarify roles, responsibilities and accountability arrangements
- Be more considered, open and flexible in design
- Focus on competition, market structure and market dynamics
- Increase transparency.
The (masculine) psychopathology of economics and management
Of course it is always possible to gainsay any claims I’ve made since I’m engaged in a paradigm war, the old paradigm will have resources with which one can bodgy up something of a defence. Certainly in the standard economic paradigm information is important (though as I’ve said, even here it’s not system information, but information between buyer and seller). But as on other occasions, I’m addressing myself to the psychopathology of the discipline.
What’s going on here has its analogues in psychology. The book Love at Goon Park tells the story of Harry Harlow of the ‘terry towelling’ monkey experiments which rescued Adam Smith’s point from the scientism of mid 20th-century behaviourist psychology:
Professor Harlow has already been asked to correct his language: He’s been instructed on the correct term for a close relationship. Why can’t he just say “proximity” like everyone else? Somehow the word “love” just keeps springing to his lips when he talks about parents and children, friends and partners. He’s been known to lose his temper when discussing it. “Perhaps all you’ve known in life is proximity,” he once snapped at a visitor to his lab at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “I thank God I’ve known more.” … Who wouldn’t believe that love was, at its best, a safe harbor — a parent’s arm scooping up a frightened child, holding it heart to heart? It’s hard to believe, in retrospect, how many powerful scientists opposed this idea.
What (the hell!) was driving this? Clearly not science, but a kind of scientism, in which ‘love’ was somehow tainted – to be ruled out by the framework itself – peremptorily, not on its merits. I had a milder, but similar frisson of resistance myself when I came across the centrality of the idea of empathy in design, but on understanding it, came to support the idea.
Technologies of empathy
What we need now are technologies of empathy. [10. I note here, by way of aside that empathy can’t ‘scale’ mechanically, it has to be grown. I suspect one attraction of ‘contracting out’ is the idea that it scales.] There’s little empathy in the existing system which is an unpromising foundation on which to open it up or otherwise marketise it. It might make things better. It might make them worse. [11. Folbre offers this point about empathy and choice:
Choice is a funny thing, affected by both moral values and by social pressures. Often what we choose depends on what we think other people will choose. It’s harder to stay honest if we see other people cheating. It’s harder to engage in teamwork if other team members are shirking. It’s harder to take on responsibilities for the care of other people if those responsibilities don’t seem to be shared. This is why too much choice—or too little social coordination of choice—can lead to outcomes that can be just as problematic as having no choice at all.]
What we do know is that we’re not focusing on what matters. And what matters is whether we can become properly intentional (or to adapt the term above, attentional) towards the caring role when it is not being provided organically within the society.
In this regard, there’s a deep lacuna in our ideologies. If you’ll permit these ideal types, to liberalism (and its mathematisation – neoclassical economics) the problem is largely invisible. To socialism or social democracy it’s a task for government to be overseen by a bureaucracy (rather than a task looking for an institution that might learn to perform it). Only in conservatism does what is provided by families and civil society come into full focus as a foundational quality of a functioning society. But, having made the giving of care in families and the maintenance of traditions of social concern, cooperation and coordination central to a functioning society, it has nothing to say about how to build such things where they’re damaged or require development in some way.
And it seems to me that the ethics of care offers some resources for developing that – for conceiving, developing, proving and resourcing technologies of empathy with which we can tackle those issues intentionally, rather than ignore them (as liberalism does) or assume governments can deliver them (as social democracy does by default) or consign them to a private sphere which is then effectively shunted off the stage of public concern.
The feminist roots of the ethics of care
In this regard, it seems that feminism’s relation to what I call the technologies of empathy that we need to build has been a little like conservatism’s relation to family and civil society. It acknowledges its centrality. Unlike conservatism, it then stresses its marginalisation from political and economic life, but where conservatism then offers nostalgia for the good old days when Big Government hadn’t damaged family life and reticence about any political project focused on using the resources of the state to rebuild and maintain it, feminism offers naturalism and culture war (I’m offering a cariacature to make the point clear). [12. My definition of culture war here consists of these elements.
1) the world is separated into goodies, or those on whose behalf the culture war is waged (in this case woman) and baddies, those standing in its way (in this case men and established structures of power and patriarchy) and
2) the benefits we seek will be delivered by the goodies winning. Any transformations that are necessary to delivering the benefits are either not considered, or assumed simply to follow from the goodies’ success. (At its crudest and most pronounced we see this in the sentimentalisation of revolution. A more prosaic example is the idea that we’ll have more and/or better innovation by sending more money to universities and hiring more STEM teachers).]
Feminist care ethicist Folbre puts it this way:
Liberal feminism has demanded greater individual rights for women. Social feminism has demanded greater social obligations, especially for men. For reasons that have to do with our economic system, as well as our political history, liberal feminism has enjoyed relatively more success in the United States than in the more traditional societies of Europe. Its very success has contributed to a dilemma. Women know they can benefit economically by becoming achievers rather than caregivers. They also know, however, that if all women adopt this strategy, society as a whole will become oriented more toward achievement than care.
Note how the thing privileged here is the interests of women rather than what might be called ‘the feminine’ in our culture. Of course, feminists should be promoting the interests of women and I endorse their efforts to secure justice for women. But is there a bigger prize? At least judging from this passage, the most important issue for Folbre is the interest of women vis-à-vis men, and, in so far as rebalancing our society’s values and capabilities and making them less one-sidedly, ‘masculine’, well that will be solved by promoting the interests of women. Once their interests are addressed, well they’re a natch at all that feminine stuff.
Postscript: Care: a fun interview.
Post-Postscript: This article offers an excellent empirical illustration of what is ultimately at stake here. [13. You may be able to download the article from here.] Here’s a chart of the extent to which Hilary Clinton adopted mannerisms of ‘masculine’ language as opposed to ‘feminine’ mannerisms. Each year in which she campaigned her language lurched strongly towards the masculine.