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									Ethics of Care
For decades, moral theorists, many of whom work in the field of women’s studies,
have proposed an “ethics of care,” understood as a viable alternative to traditional
ethical systems—virtue ethics (Aristotle) and universal rational ethics (Kant).

In general, an ethics of care redefines the moral agent: whereas rational ethics
posits an autonomous, self-sufficient individual performing according to abstract
(universal) principles, an ethics of care presents an interrelated, interdependent
person who acts in particular, complex contexts.

Kant’s moral philosophy—fully outlined in his second Critique (Critique of Practical
Reason)—links moral acts to human freedom and equality. Although as physical
bodies and sensuous beings we are bound to the laws of nature, in the moral realm
we are free to act according to our rational will. Yet, these acts are morally just only
when they can be universally accepted.

In contrast, an ethics of care is based on an individual’s obligation to others, an
obligation to act according to the particular circumstances at hand, without a regard
for universal applicability.

Rational ethics recalls Stoic ideals, insofar as Stoic morality consists in eradicating
the emotions. We achieve moral securitas, when we are no longer disturbed by
emotional concerns. By removing care, the Stoic constructs a self that is as secure as
a fortress. This understanding of moral security orients later ideas of political
security, where the State is regarded as detached, autonomous and self-sufficient.

An ethics of care relies precisely on the emotions that Stoicism renounces: here, we
should cultivate sympathy and empathy, sensitivity and responsiveness. Even anger
can play a role, insofar as it instigates engaged concern.

The questions are: Must the decision to care for others cause us to abandon hope for
security? Must we choose either the security of independence or the insecurity of
co-dependence? Is it possible to think of a security that does not turn its back on

Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice (1982)
Gilligan earned her PhD in Social Psychology from Harvard in 1967 and taught here
until 1988. Her major work, In a Different Voice, was published in 1982 and instantly
sparked a broad re-evaluation of ethical philosophy and feminist theory.

The book explicitly targets the work of Lawrence Kohlberg who, in the early 1960s,
proposed what became a definitive model for understanding moral development.
Kohlberg distinguishes six stages; each is determined by a particular moral dilemma
and guided by developing notions of “justice.”

I. Pre-conventional Morality (individual)

   1. “Heteronomous morality”: The earliest stage concerns children, who
      generally make moral decisions based on the risk of punishment. The just
      cause of behavior is understood as obedience, insofar as obedience allows the
      child to avoid being punished.

   2. “Individualistic, instrumental morality”: The second stage, also dealing with
      childhood behavior, is more concerned with “self-interest”—the leading
      question is: “What’s in it for me?” Justice is thus regarded as a benefit.

II. Conventional Morality (societal)

   3. “Interpersonally normative morality”: As the child develops, self-orientation
      shifts outward: just actions are those that conform with the actions of others.
      Moral behavior is determined by an interpersonal norm.

   4. “Social system morality”: These norms within the child’s narrow circle
      eventually expand to broader social norms, which are determined by
      authority figures.

III. Post-conventional Morality (universal)

   5. “Human rights and social welfare morality”: Adapting one’s behavior to
      authority provides the basis for the subsequent stage which marks the social
      contract. We renounce pure self-interest for the sake of societal peace.

   6. “Morality of universalizable, reversible, and prescriptive general ethical
      principles”: Finally, the conditions of the social contract lead to criteria that
      determine universal ethical principles.

Kohlberg bases his theory of stages of moral development on a universal ideal of
justice. From childhood to adulthood, there are clear markers of increasing justice,
even though many people suffer from arrested development or even become

Kohlberg illustrates his thesis with a famous illustration, known as the “Heinz
dilemma”: Heinz lives abroad with his wife, who is very sick. The pharmacist tells
him that he has a drug that can cure his wife, but Heinz cannot afford to pay for it
and the pharmacist will not give it to him unless he has the money. Is Heinz justified
then to steal the drug?

Kohlberg does not pose the dilemma to arrive at a solution to the problem. Rather,
he wants to trace the moral reasoning that various subjects employ to deal with the

From the perspective of “obedience” (stage 1), Heinz should not steal the drug,
because if he’s caught, he’ll go to prison.

According to “self-interest” (stage 2), Heinz should steal the drug because he’ll be
happy to have saved his wife, even if he has to serve a prison sentence.

According to “conformity” (stage 3), if Heinz steals the drug he’ll be a good husband;
if he does not steal the drug he’ll prove that he’s not a criminal.

In terms of “social system morality” (stage 4), Heinz should not steal the drug
because stealing is against the law.

In terms of “human rights” (stage 5), Heinz should steal the medicine because one
should choose saving a human life over obeying the law. Or: Heinz should not steal
the drug, because the drug company and the pharmacist deserve compensation.

Finally, from the perspective of “universal ethics” (stage 6), Heinz should steal the
drug because human life is more valuable than the law—a criterion that moves
beyond issues of choice or obedience.

The progressive stages reflect a greater realization of universal justice. But is
“justice” the only criterion for judging moral behavior? Is it possible to think of an
ethics without incorporating some ideal of universal justice? Is this the only way to
understand the progression from childhood dependence to adult autonomy?

Carol Gilligan, who studied with Kohlberg, questions her teacher’s methodology and
results. She begins by noting that the majority of Kohlberg’s case studies were male.
And it may well be that, for men, justice is the governing ideal that determines moral
development. However for women, Gilligan argues, the case is entirely different. In
brief, for Gilligan, moral decisions are gendered.

In Gilligan’s view, whereas masculine morality attends to an ideal of justice,
feminine morality is driven by an ideal of care. Gilligan’s ethics is based on a strict
contrast between the demands of justice and the demands of care.

Whereas justice raises questions of equality, individual rights and abstract
principles of moral behavior, care has to do with attentiveness to others, trust,
responsiveness and responsibility, personal relationships.

A morality based on justice strives for universal, abstract fairness, while an ethics of
care involves particular, concrete interactions: the life of the caregiver is
intertwined with the life of the person cared for. Justice maintains freedom and
equality; care promotes cooperation and mutual understanding.

To illustrate, Gilligan reconsiders the Heinz dilemma:

Jake, an 11-year-old boy, insists that Heinz should steal the drug. Life is worth more
than money; and if Heinz steals the drug, his wife will live and the pharmacist, too,
will live even if he’s been robbed. And what if Heinz is caught by the police? Jake
says that the judge would give a light sentence; moreover, laws are not always just.
Gilligan notes that for Jake, the moral decision is clear: there is a right choice and a
wrong choice. The right choice is logical and even maintains the social order (Heinz
would still be punished, however lightly, if he’s caught).

Gilligan then considers Amy, who is less sure what to do. She thinks that it is
probably wrong for Heinz to steal the drug. Maybe he could borrow the money from
someone? And what if he’s caught? He would go to prison and then who would care
for his wife? Maybe he should just talk with the pharmacist and try to work
something out. Doesn’t the pharmacist realize that the drug would save her life?
Gilligan notes that Amy does not take the law or obedience into account. There’s no
strict logic between right and wrong (“maybe”). Instead, Amy focuses on the
personal relationships and the need for care.

Throughout her study, Gilligan aims to demonstrate that an ethics based on
universal ideals of justice is qualitatively different from one based on particular
circumstances of care.

One can pose at least two main questions: 1. Are justice and care mutually
exclusive? and 2. Is it possible to distinguish moral behavior by gender?

In the third chapter (“Concepts of Self and Morality”), Gilligan distinguishes the
autonomous self, which is reinforced by legal and juridical concepts, from an
intersubjective, more open self, which is motivated by care or concern for the other.

Whereas the legal and juridical concepts help to secure selfhood, care or concern
undermine this very security.

Chapter 3 argues that an ethics of care involves particular conflicts and a desire not
to hurt someone else. An action is moral when no one is harmed, when people help
each other, when one responds to others’ needs and is therefore responsible.

An ethics of care does not rest on taking firm positions—the caring person is always
making exceptions. Lacking firm moral positions, the caring self is not secure in
judging. Moreover, this self is vulnerable, always able to shift ground. Gilligan refers
to George Eliot’s characterization of young women who are “susceptible” to the
malice of others (66).

The caring self is not a strong, stable self, but rather one that internalizes conflicts: a
multiplicity of options that would, by the standards of universal morality, appear to
be without true value. Universal ethics compels a person to make a clear choice
between right and wrong; but the caring self finds it difficult to make these kinds of
rigorous choices.

This vulnerable position—which Gilligan associates with the majority of women—
excludes people from participating in society. They depend on the judgment and
opinions of others, who are capable of making definite moral choices.

Yet, the reluctance to make definitive choices is itself a kind of moral behavior: not
one that reinforces the public world of social power, but rather one that belongs to
the private space of personal interaction. Women are not morally inferior; they are
simply morally different. (69)

Rather than continue to judge women’s behavior according to a masculine standard,
it would be wise to develop criteria in order to understand moral development
according to the ideal of care.

An ethics of care maps onto the progression in Kohlberg’s system:

       Preconventional judgment is egocentric and derives moral constructs from
       individual needs; conventional judgment is based on the shared norms and
       values that sustain relationships, groups, communities, and societies; and
       postconventional judgment adopts a reflective perspective on societal values
       and constructs moral principles that are universal in application. This shift in
       perspective toward increasingly differentiated, comprehensive, and
       reflective forms of thought appears in women’s responses to both actual and
       hypothetical dilemmas. (73)

All the same, the motivating ideal is entirely different for women:

       Women’s construction of the moral problem as a problem of care and
       responsibility in relationships rather than as one or rights and rules ties the
       development of their moral thinking to changes in their understanding of
       responsibility and relationships, just as the conception of morality as justice
       ties development to the logic of equality and reciprocity. (73)

The caring self is one that is interrelated with other selves: the subject is
codetermined by other subjects.

Therefore, according to an ethics of care, “there is no right decision” (75); because
there is no firm, subjective position on which to base a definitive decision.

Defining one’s identity firmly—exhibiting an inability to budge or to change one’s
mind—is a sign of the selfishness that contradicts the ideal of care, which informs
responsibility (generally understood as self-sacrifice).

Responsibility instead leads to a feeling of self-worth, which is distinguished from
selfishness. And this self-worth does afford a sense of “security” (79). Not the

security that results from adhering to firm decisions, but rather the security that
comes from understanding one’s role as a caring member of society.

Self-sacrifice, then, becomes the valuable source of self-worth.

Responsibility is the mark of a preconventional judgment (no longer selfish); self-
worth characterizes conventional judgment (responsibility to society); and honesty
is the mark of postconventional judgment (honesty as a universal ethical principle).

When honesty is the highest principle (as opposed to universal justice), then even
being selfish is moral, as long as one honestly acknowledges one’s selfishness. That
doesn’t mean that selfishness is moral, rather that morality no longer rests as a
fixed, knowable code. “Something is wrong, but all of a sudden, because you are
doing it, it is right” (86)

The ethics of care is replete with discrepancies and internal contradictions. It is
because care or concern ruins the security of absolute values. There is no abstract,
transcendent standard to guide caring or careful actions. Particular circumstances
steer particular actions at particular times—and these circumstances can change at
any moment.

Sometimes it is easier to reconcile the conflict between selfishness and
responsibility; but at other times, it appears impossible.

Regarding again the “Heinz dilemma”: “The right to property and the right to life are
weighed not in the abstract, in terms of their logical priority, but in the particular, in
terms of the actual consequences that the violation of these rights will have in the
lives of the people involved.” (95)

With care, morality is no longer impeded by abstract standards and prescriptions.
No code or “script” is given to direct action—one is left to improvise. Abstraction
robs moral actors of life. The women interviewed by Gilligan tend to recast abstract
dilemmas as particular, complex situations.

As in Ghandi’s ideal of Satyagraha (non-violent insistence on truth), violence is
always wrong because the absolute truth can never be known. (103f). Rather than
judge morality according to an absolute standard of justice, an ethics of care leads
one to judge according to relative tensions of conflicting responsibilities.

Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace (1995)

Ruddick applies Gilligan’s insights into an ethics of care to reconsider political

Chapter 8 (“Histories of Human Flesh”) deals with a woman’s rejection of war based
on maternal experience. Through the ordeal of childbearing, women have a

profound knowledge of the body, of what it’s been through: a visceral sense of
experience—in the words of Olive Schreiner, the “history of human flesh” (186).

Here, we find the same gendered distinction: “Women tend to know, in a way and to
a degree that many men do not, both the history and the cost of human flesh. Their
knowledge derives from the work of mothering…” (186).

“Maternal thinking” fundamentally qualifies militarist thinking. All the same,
maternal thinking can include a “militarist conception of the body.”

Ruddick specifies her thinking of the human body in terms of natality, sexuality, and
mortality. (187) These aspects rigorously distinguish maternal thinking from
philosophical idealism, which consistently devalues the body and all knowledge
derived from the senses.

In Ruddick’s depiction, idealism is opposed to the body, insofar as the body is a
source of opacity, confusion or falsehood. The body distracts. It gets in the way of
pure mental activity. The mortal body, which lives in time, compromises our
understanding of timeless truth, which should be immortal.

To this end, she provides a long quote from Plato’s Phaedo (188).

In brief, the body is irrational; and this irrationality is generally linked to the body’s
mortality. And the body’s mortality is further responsible for suspicions about the
depleting forces of sexuality. Even the idea of birth (“natality”) is rarely celebrated
by philosophers (with the notable exception of Hannah Arendt).

Ruddick rehearses the “big dichotomies” that course through Western culture:
“Reason is associated with mind, objectivity, detachment, culture, impersonal
concern, public order, and agreement. The body in turn is associated with
subjectivity, passion, nature, particular affections, domestic confinement, parochial
prejudice, and irresolvable difference” (194).

One might include another implicit dichotomy: masculine “security” as opposed to
feminine “care.”

As a political theorist, Ruddick needs to grapple with these commonsensical
dichotomies. One way to question them is to undertake a genealogical analysis, as
Nietzsche does regarding morality: “How did it happen that Western philosophers
came to think that some bodies [female bodies] are more ‘bodily’ than others [male
bodies]?” (194)

After all, men, too, have bodies; men, too, are mortal. Ruddick quickly concludes that
the fact of childbearing is ultimately responsible for ascribing the body to women.

Childbearing merges two individual lives (mother and child), and so Reason
emphasizes detachment. Birthing is often private and hidden; Reason is therefore
public and open. Mothering involves the infant’s dependency on another; Reason
teaches independence. Hence, Ruddick regards “the idealization of reason” as a
“defensive reaction to the troubling complexities of birthing labor” (195).

Reason thus creates its own body, which has nothing to do with the mother. It is this
body—“reason’s body”—that becomes “an instrument of military will” (198).

Ruddick claims that reason’s body is employed for defense, even for security
measures: a “techno-strategic rationality” that treats human bodies like abstractions
and therefore diverts “attention from what actually happens to real bodies” in war

The warrior is disciplined to work like a machine; techniques teach the soldier to
employ strategies of abstraction.

The experience of giving birth gives the lie to abstraction. The mother’s body and
the body of her child are emphatically real, singular, and irreplaceable. (206)

Hannah Arendt thus refers to “natality” as the “miracle that saves the world”—a
“new beginning”—a true and hopeful revolution. (209) A pleasure principle or eros
that revises Freud, insofar as it is decidedly not aggressive.

Ruddick places hope in this non-aggressive, antimilitarist eros as the basis for
political peace—“a welcoming, maternal eros” (213f), which also includes caring for
the dead. “Every body counts, every body is a testament to hope” (217).

Grace Clement, Care, Autonomy, and Justice: Feminism and the Ethic of Care

Both Gilligan and Ruddick presume a strict opposition between care and justice—an
opposition that is directly interrogated by the work of Grace Clement. To do so, she
questions the “ideals” that motivate the distinction between a universal, abstract
ethics of justice and a particular, contextual ethics of care. (11)

As expected, Clement begins her analysis by referring to the famous “Heinz
dilemma” and the conclusions that Kohlberg and Gilligan draw from the elicited

Clement notes that Kohlberg formulates the dilemma in terms that are already
abstract, which may guide responses toward the ideal of an ethics of justice.
Responses that rely on an ethics of care generally introduce particular details that
Kohlberg leaves out.

The alternative ethics may be understood by the distinction between reason and
emotion. Kant had insisted that moral actions could not be motivated by subjective
feelings, since they would compromise the universal claims of morality.

Whereas an ethics of justice is based on an autonomous self that is detached from
circumstances, an ethics of care presents a self that interacts with others. Justice
points to an ideal of freedom from others; care deals with an ideal of obligation to

Finally, an ethics of justice focuses on individual moral agents, while an ethics of
care focuses on the relationships between two or more agents. For Gilligan, then, the
ideal of individual autonomy is a threat to care.

This series of distinctions permits a kind of division of labor: the ethics of justice is
appropriate for the public sphere, while the ethics of care belongs to the private
sphere. As some theorists indicate, we can truly care only for those whom we know
personally. Being concerned for humanity in general is impossible, insofar as the
idea of “humanity” is an abstraction, which contradicts the constitution of care. (16)

“We cannot care for people we do not know” (Nel Noddings). If this is true, then
either we have no moral obligations toward them or our moral obligations toward
them are based on something other than care (17). Does care threaten to undermine
our capacity to be concerned for other people, for people we have never met?

If our relationship to people we don’t know is necessarily abstract, then perhaps
“justice”—as an abstract ethical concept—is simply a broader type of care. Perhaps
justice and care are not as rigorously opposed as once assumed.

Some scholars have pointed out the potential problem of favoritism. If we orient our
ethical behavior according to an ideal of care, then we may end up caring for only
those people who are somehow “like us.” Justice, which strives to be universal,
would evade the problem of selecting one group among others. (18f)

Finally, is there no justice at work in our personal, particular relationships? Must
justice be understood exclusively as an abstract principle?

Clement’s second chapter opens by broaching the problem, voiced by some recent
feminists, that an ethics of care prevents women from achieving social and political
autonomy (since autonomy is presented as problematic to caring). (21)

Yet, is it possible to oppose care and autonomy? Is autonomy always individualistic
or egotistic? Or should we not allow that a certain degree of autonomy is necessary
for care to be moral? What, then, would a non-individualistic (non-self-interested)
version of autonomy look like?

Autonomy means “self-determination”—the subject’s capacity to control his or her
actions. An ethics of care generally insists that the subject is not autonomous but is
instead socially constituted, determined by outside forces beyond the subject’s
control. (22)

In classical philosophy, autonomy requires that the subject’s actions are not coerced
and that the subject sufficiently reflects on these actions. We are autonomous when
we act freely, and we can act freely only when we critically reflect on the social
determinants that motivate our desires and choices.

But what if this demand to reflect critically is itself socially determined? Is a purely
autonomous choice ever possible?

In observing moral reasoning, we see that autonomy is learned (it is a result, not an
original state); and that we learn how to be autonomous through our relationships
with others. “Autonomy cannot be achieved individually” (24). Moreover, making
autonomous choices depends on a certain degree of social power and social

Clement thus argues that an ethics of care requires the autonomy of both the
caregiver and the recipient of care. “Genuine caring relationships take place
between autonomous individuals and serve to promote their autonomy” (27).
“Genuine care for another person requires that one retain one’s own individual
identity.” (30)

Rather than insist on ideal types—on the ideal of an atomistic individual found in
the ethics of justice and on the ideal of an inter-connected self found in the ethics of
care—we should focus on the notion of a “relational self.”

A security that fully removes care is no security at all: the selfish individual who
believes in pure autonomy carelessly ignores the role of society in creating that
autonomy; while the caring self that is dissolved in relationships lacks the security
of an autonomy that makes care possible.

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