Ethics of Care

In this short paper I shall in very broad outlines present the ethics of care through one of its main voices, Carol Gilligan, and what it entails for the women’s understanding of morality. I shall also attempt to delineate some of its central features, which are usually associated with feminine and/or feminist approaches to morality. Although I shall not pursue in any detail here, the scope of the Ethics of Care has recently been widened to include broader concerns than its sole confinement within gender issues . Lastly I shall present the critique that Allison Jaggar made of this approach to morality.

Gilligan and the Different Voice

Ethics of care is a relatively young approach to the moral issues. One can almost date the moment of its birth with the publication of Gilligan’s book In a Different Voice in 1982. Gilligan, the developmental psychologist, took issues with her mentor Lawrence Kohlberg who in his book published in 1981 The Philosophy of Moral Development claimed to have discovered certain universal structures of moral development that underlie all human moral perspectives. Gilligan criticized her mentor’s theory for being insensitive to characteristically feminine concerns for caring and being biased against women; for espousing a theory which, if true, would to relegate women to a lower stage of moral development and maturity.

Feminism has for long time now been concerned with criticizing the moral theories of various philosophical schools for not taking into consideration women’s particular needs and perspectives when developing their moral (or other, epistemic and political) theories. Feminists of various persuasions have demystified and shown the historical roots of these theories, their alleged universalism being but one form of cultural bias against ‘the other’, which in the feminist theories is the woman. Because of their exclusion from the social realms women have not been in a position to influence the theories that spoke in the name of some universal moral maxims. Being relegated and confined to the ‘private sphere’ of the household they were denied the right to influence the ‘public sphere’, the sphere that almost by definition belonged to, and was associated with men. Morality therefore was an issue of public sphere; it sought to regulate human affairs that fell beyond the realm of the household where the woman was confined. Susan Moller Okin, among others, has convincingly demonstrated the exclusion of women from political thought since the Ancient Greece and their treatment, at best, as second-class citizens. ‘This has led’ says Okin, ‘to the prescription of a code of morality and conception of rights for women distinctly different from those that have been prescribed for men’ . That is, distinctly different from the impartial moral norms which were supposed to apply only outside the household since women were considered incapable of understanding the maxims of reason. They were governed by their fluctuating emotions.

Kohlberg interviewed over 80 boys over a period of 20 years during which time he developed his six stages of moral development. What emerges from the six-stage model of moral development is that ‘not all moral experiences are equally conducive to moral development’ . Since women have historically been perceived to belong to the stage three, and Kohlberg’s theory seems to lend support to that traditional view, i.e. that girls progress more slowly than boys in acquiring moral maturity, it was no great surprise that feminists would object to his findings. Gilligan’s challenge was intended to show that Kohlberg’s findings did not sit well with her own findings. In Gilligan’s view the third stage, that of caring, is seen as a universal obligation and therefore the highest. This view has not passed unchallenged, as we shall come to see later, but it provided an impetus for questioning the male dominated theories of morality. The third stage of Kohlberg was not necessarily inferior to the sixth stage, but merely an indication of the fact that women spoke in a “different voice”. A voice, we may add, that Gilligan herself marshalled as an expression of a growing disillusionment with tarnished ideals and unfulfilled promises of the ‘modern ethical theory dominated by a neo-Cartesian model of the subject as disembodied, asocial, unified, rational and essentially similar to all other selves’ . Women tackled moral questions from a perspective of care, responsibility, intimacy and trust rather than that of justice: women in Gilligan’s study appeared to be more concerned with contextually sensitive issues such as actual relationships between persons; girls tended to prefer games which involved patterns of imitation of adult interaction in day to day life, whereas boys’ games were seen as rule-oriented and conflict-ridden situations. Drawing on Nancy Chodorow’s study where she identified the patterns of early childhood development of the self as distinct in both males and females (due to early parenting by women, girls defined themselves in terms of connection to mothers while boys in terms of distance from their mothers), Gilligan noted some visible differences in patterns of moral reasoning.

In Gilligan’s view the moral problems, as witnessed by her discussion of the Heinz’s hypothetical dilemma , arise not from competing rights but from conflicting responsibilities. This mode of moral reasoning therefore ‘requires for its resolution a mode of thinking that is contextual and narrative rather than formal and abstract’ . Women’s moral judgement, in other words, is tied more to feelings of empathy and considerations of close relationships than abstract formalistic or impartial moral reasoning. Women’s ‘different voice’ is thus not an indication of lower modes of female moral reasoning nor does it follow that Kohlberg’s progression from lower to higher stages indicate any maturity of moral views. It only shows that women posses a different moral voice, one that perhaps is superior to the abstract rigid rules, or that in different contexts different moral norms are required .

It seems as if what Gilligan is doing is to elevate a historical condition of women’s long subordination to man’s desires, as argued so persuasively by Okin, to a universal moral judgement which applies to women, although Gilligan is careful not to exclude the possibility that men as well may be brought under this regime of ethics. This is a serious flaw which has been addressed by a number of feminists, especially those of liberal persuasions. It seems to make virtue out of a necessity, a vice. Moreover, a dire vice that has mobilized an army of feminist scholars to fight against it.

This is not the whole story, however. A number of other feminists (Virginia Held, Julia Driver, etc) have argued that despite such flows, or because of them, Gilligan’s findings are important for other reasons: Gilligan challenged a dogma, a deeply entrenched dogma, viz. that the ethics of care is morally inferior to the various modes of ethics of impartiality. Gilligan turned Kohlberg’s naturalistic moral psychology on its head: ethics of care is superior; ‘vice’, if care is a vice, is indeed a virtue, and a superior virtue at that. Due to women’s social exclusion from the public realm they have developed and nurtured an ethics of care which has, in crucial respects, not simply excluded a justice perspective, but has redefined the very contours of what justice is, and what counts as justice when seen from the perspective of care, empathy and benevolence. It has shown the necessity of care as being of higher importance to human beings than the ethics of justice. Prior to being sent in conflictual situations, children need to be cared for and looked after, and no ethic of justice can lay claim to any kind of moral superiority simply because it is achieved on a higher stage of maturity, from which women were historically deprived. In this view, even when women fully achieve the final stage of Kohlberg’s moral development theory, and there is absolutely nothing in Gilligan’s theory of care which excludes such a possibility, that would still not disprove the fact that the ethics of caring is more primordial and therefore, in a crucial sense, superior. Gilligan also noted an often ignored fact, probably irrelevant in itself, but crucially important for conscious raising of those who tend to interpret the amassed data that they are open to more than one interpretation, that ‘One person’s evidence of progress is another person’s simple sign of change – and not necessarily change in the better direction’.

From this perspective Kohlberg’s study appears not only male-biased but also condescending. Gilligan’s advocation of the voice of the victimized women, their caring and empathic relations to their near and dear is a moral stance in itself, and it can be interpreted as identification with plight of the marginalized. Joan C. Tronto in her article Beyond Gender Difference to a Theory of Care, has persuasively argued that Gilligan’s study is vulnerable to various challenges: that women’s different voice may be a function of their subordinate social position, and that the psychological gender (and also moral) difference may be just intermediate causes of this social subordination and marginalization, that Gilligan’s work is open to the same criticism as the one she raised herself against Kohlberg, that Gilligan’s empirical evidence may lead her to draw a wrong conclusion about the nature of the moral voice she identified with women. Inadvertently, and despite her cautious warning that Gilligan’s theory must be situated and understood within a context of moral theory if it is not to be dismissed as parochial and misguided, Tronto provided Gilligan with a best defence, a defence I have been urging here: ‘if moral difference is function of social position rather than gender, than the morality Gilligan has identified with women might be better identified with subordinate or minority status’.

What does Tronto have in mind here? In drawing from a host of other social researches Tronto suggested that what is at stake in Gilligan’s work is not simply the gender of the person but also the minority status of different social groupings. Thus, in the United States for instance, the moral views of minority groups are much more likely to be characterized by an ethics of care than by an ethics of justice. As is evidenced by the research done with Black culture in the US, the Blacks themselves identify with the core values of their culture that emphasizes ‘basic respect for others, a commitment to honesty, generosity motivated by the knowledge that you might need help someday, and respect for the choices of others’. Is this morality less coherent because it is not expressed abstractly? To assert that Blacks are incapable of the same kind of abstract moral thinking as the Whites is to engage in racism, and to unduly restrict the scope of morality to that of justice and impartiality. The same logic is at work in Gilligan’s study of the women’s different voice. This voice is not founded on some a priory distinctly feminine ontology or psychology, although Gilligan’s wording can lend support to such interpretive moves, rather on a distinctly shared gender history which has given rise to some values that can be preserved even after women have ceased to occupy the traditional roles of mothering or the related domestic chores. Morality, Gilligan could be interpreted as saying, is larger than justice and includes or should include issues that traditionally have been considered to fall outside its scope of inclusion .

Some Features of the Ethics of Care

In our discussion of Gilligan’s study we saw and followed, albeit scantily, the outlines of an ethics of care and got a glimpse into its working. We also identified Gilligan as a major voice within this newly established tradition. One need not be reminded that Gilligan is not the only voice, nor the most important in this mosaic of voices. Other feminist have contributed their share and further developed many of the ideas which Gilligan had only hinted at, or had simply not thought about. Nel Noddings, Virginia Held, Sara Ruddick and others are among the leading voices of the ethics of care. My presentation so far thus has been one-sided and incomplete, especially since the new voices have taken the ethic of care far beyond its earliest formulations where it was confined, in the words of Fiona Robinson, to ‘the view of care as essentially a morality for women, belonging to private sphere’. Initially, as with Gilligan, Noddings argued that the ethic of care should be confined to the ‘private sphere’ since it required an ongoing relationship, a view which under pressure brought to bear on it by other feminists (as it seemed to reinforce the patriarchal stereotypes of women as non-rational agents) she later discarded to embrace the more inclusive position that caring can function as a total approach to morality, and that as an ethics can offer reasonably well justified and coherent accounts for the distant others. In the words of Slote we now have two kinds of caring: intimate caring and humanitarian caring .

Since it is beyond the scope of this paper to present an overview of the ethics of care which falls beyond the limits of gender issues, I shall conveniently ignore it and instead present some of the features with which it is identified and distinguished from other views on morality. I shall follow Virginia Held who, in my view, has presented so far the most lucid expression of what an ethics of care entails. Held in her most recent book The Ethic of Care has identified five major features, which in her view make the ethics of care a distinct from those of deontological or utilitarian views. But first, it is essential that we know what the ethics of care is. Allison Jaggar has defined it as that ‘which elaborates a moral perspective said to arise from women’s characteristic experiences of nurturing particular others, especially their experience of rearing children’ . In view of the above discussion this definition is extremely narrow and therefore fails to do justice to the many sided complexity of this ethics. Her definition may be suitable to the earliest period when the ethic of care was still in its infancy.

Held defines care as both value and practice. ‘As a practice, it shows us how to respond to needs and why we should. It builds trust and mutual concern and connectedness between persons. It is not a series of individual actions, but a practice that develops, along with its appropriate attitudes’ . Caring thus is not simply mothering, or an affection or emotion of empathy or benevolence. Important as these are for the building of the caring relationships, by themselves and outside the caring practices their signifying power is of little value or importance. Care however is not only practice; it is in addition a value. The values of care which are exemplified not so much in the persons as individuals as in caring relations should be valued equally, if not more, as those of justice and impartiality. ‘Within the relations of care’ argues Held, ‘we can treat people justly, as if we were liberal individuals agreeing on a mutual respect’ . Care in this new version of the ethics of care does not exclude values of justice and impartiality rather embraces them as emanating from the same principles of caring practises that structure those of intimate caring. Impartial justice in other words is persuasive for legal-judicial context, where the semblance of an agent’s moral autonomy is left intact, while simultaneously recognizing that ‘much that has value in both personal and political life is “beyond justice”’ . This does not imply that the liberal theory of justice is accepted at face value. Liberal theory of justice is criticised for its ‘false picture of society and the persons in it’ for representing individuals as self-sufficient, autonomous agents prior to forming or having any form of relationship. In the ethics of care, on the contrary, humans are seen first as being in a relationship and interdependent both morally and epistemologically.

The first feature of the ethics of care then is dependence on each other and responsibility for each other. Outside this framework no question of justice can even be raised as meaningful. Second, the ethic of care values rather than rejects emotion, such as sympathy, empathy, sensitivity and responsiveness which need to be cultivated from the perspective of the ethics of care. That is why ‘we need an ethics of care, not just care itself’ . Third, the ethic of care seeks to limit the applicability of universal rules to domains where they are more appropriate, such as the domain of law. Fourth, it seeks to problematize and reconceptualize the notions of the public and the private, which traditionally, as shown above, worked to the detriment of women, rendering women vulnerable to domestic violence. Fifth, it seeks to render problematic the concept of the autonomous, disembodied person, providing instead a relational conception.

Since it is not possible to pursue this line of thought any further, I will conclude by presenting Jaggar’s criticism of the ethics of care approach. Jaggar finds the ethics of care problematic in two accounts: in methodological principle and ethical practice. She charges that the ethics of care is an attempt to derive ethics from empirical experience that involves the naturalistic conviction that ideals must be compatible with actual moral sensibilities. This attempt involves ‘moral dangers’ such as conventionalism, i.e. that it has a conservative, reactionary quality. Probably because it brings to mind the Victorian ideal of womanhood described so eloquently by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) as the angel of the house, ‘intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish… She sacrificed herself daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg: if there was a draught she sat in it…’ If the preservation of the relationships is the basic premise of the ethics of care then its model does indeed look like Woolf’s angel of the house. Another criticism directed at this approach is relativism, i.e. that morality is particularist, what is morally permissible varies in different moral communities. Methodologically, however the ethics of care involves different sets of problems. The concept of ‘ethical experience’ is too broad to suggest any guidelines for investigation. Secondly, people’s saying about ethics cannot be relied to guide their actions. There are no reliable means to confirm empirically generalizations about the moral experiences of different groups. Finally, Jaggar believes that the ethics of care approach lacks ‘guidance’, a set of universal rules one may understand from ‘guidance’, for distinguishing ethically appropriate caring responses from the inappropriate ones. As inappropriate caring responses Jaggar juxtaposes some disparate actions (spoiling, domestic violence and incest) which seem to have nothing in common with a caring attitude except, perhaps, that they are not inappropriate caring responses but simply display the lack of any meaningful caring response.

About albphilosopher

Sead Zimeri has studied Philosophy, Islamic Philosophy and Religion, International Politics and Psychoanalysis. He is currently the project coordinator of "Islam and the Liberal Society" at the Liberalt Laboratorium (LibLab) thin tank in Oslo, Norway.
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