The ethics of care

Virginia Heldinterviewed by Richard Marshall.

Virginia Held is the philosopher of care ethics which she thinks is a feminist ethics that preserves the persuasive aspects of kantian, utilitarian and virtue ethics but is better. She thinks the strength of her ethical position is that it is based on experience and that it should be equally considered from the point of view of the recipient as well as the provider and it implies a lot of liberal values. She thinks all the time about the nature of care relations, meeting the needs of others, and how paying attention to these things has radical transformational implications. She thinks that its hard to know which are the right questions to be asking but easy to see that neoconservatives have been wrong on all foreign policy since Vietnam and that the US is more deluded than bewildered these days. This all makes her a deep-fried and funky feminist philosojive-sister.

3:AM:What made you become a philosopher? Has it lived up to expectations so far?

Virginia Held:I had intended to be an architect, but in my first course in philosophy in college, I fell in love with philosophy. By the time I graduated, however, I had travelled in Europe and become directly aware of the horrors of war, and I became disillusioned with philosophy. It was not addressing the problems that really mattered, and it seemed to me to be an intellectual luxury. After a year of graduate work in Europe, I left philosophy for a decade and worked for a political magazine in NYC. Another reason was that my husband was a graduate student and one of us needed to earn some money. But then I had a serious falling out with the editor of the magazine over US foreign policy, and the intellectual independence of academic life looked extremely attractive, so I went back to philosophy. At that time, jobs for women were very rare, but I was lucky. And yes, it has lived up to expectations in the sense that the field has changed and it is now possible to deal with what seem to me the most important questions, and I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to earn an adequate income doing something I am really interested in doing.

3:AM:You’ve developed an ethical theory around ‘care.’ You see this as an alternative to the dominant ethical theories of the last couple of centuries. It’s important to you that it isn’t an ethics to be added on to Kantianism or utilitarianism or virtue ethics. Can you say something about why it is so important that a care ethics is not an adjunct but is a fresh start? The Kantian Christine Korsgaardhas placed reciprocity and human relations at the heart of Kantianism. Onora O’Neillhas argued that justice and care are not opposed. In the light of these views, would you still defend the break, or would you be happier to see it as a continuation?

VH:I don’t find it satisfactory merely to add some considerations of care to the traditional moral theories for reasons similar to why it is not enough to simply insert women into the traditional structures of society and politics built on gender domination. Feminists should understand that the structures themselves have to change. The history of ethics shows it to be a very biased enterprise. Very roughly, what men have done in public life has been deemed important and relevant to moral theory, and what women have done in the household has been considered irrelevant. I think it plausible to see Kantian ethics and utilitarianism as expansions to the whole of morality of what can be thought appropriate for law and for public policy.

I have come to see, in contrast, caring relations as the wider network, and the ethics of care as the comprehensive morality, within which we should develop legal and political institutions. Caring relations should be guided by the ethics of care, which we can best understand and which is most applicable in contexts of families and friendship. But we can and should also have weaker forms of caring relations with all persons, and within these, the more limited institutions of law should be guided, roughly, by Kantian norms, and the more limited political institutions by utilitarian ones. Yes I see the legal and political as importantly different, and both as significantly different from the contexts of family and friendship. This is a very oversimplified statement of a complex position but I try to clarify and delineate these matters in my written work.

3:AM:So ‘care’ is at the heart of this new ethic but it isn’t to replace justice. So how do you get from care to justice in your system? Do we end up losing the common use of ‘care’ for a more term of art, technical use, as is the wont with philosophers? And isn’t that a cheat?

VH:Yes, various Kantians are trying to acknowledge the concerns of care, and various philosophers interested in the ethics of care are trying to combine it with Kantian ethics. I think the ethics of care has the resources to be an alternative moral theory that can include persuasive aspects of Kantian ethics and also of utilitarianism and virtue theory. It’s nevertheless a feminist ethicsthat includes the goal of overcoming gender domination, in our thinking as well as our institutions. And I see it as the more comprehensive view. Korsgaard and O’Neill are still Kantians, though more persuasive ones than some traditional Kantians. I think ethics should start with a vast amount of experience (the experience of caring and being cared for) overlooked by traditional moral theories, and see how the many important and valid concerns of other moral theories can be brought into care ethics. I think it is a strength of care ethics that it is based on experience. It is experience which everyone has had: no one would have survived without enormous amounts of care, in childhood at least. Most women, and increasingly men, have also had a great deal of experience providing care, especially for children.

3:AM:So ‘care’ is at the heart of this new ethic but it isn’t to replace justice. So how do you get from care to justice in your system? Do we end up losing the common use of ‘care’ for a more term of art, technical use, as is the wont with philosophers? And isn’t that a cheat?

VH:The values incorporated into this carecan be reflected on. Existing practices of care can be evaluated, and reformed as appropriate, for instance so that parenting is shared and not primarily the responsibility of women. Care should always be considered as much from the point of view of the recipient as of the provider, and care that is domineering or demeaning should be reformed. Rationalistic moral theory purports to be universal but is less so than it imagines. Another advantage of the ethics of care is that it has no need to appeal to religion, which can be divisive, whereas the experience of care really is universal. Of course care ethics builds on previous moral theory. The sentimentalist tradition and Hume are important for the ethics of care. I’m very sympathetic to aspects of Kantian ethics, for instance that actions should be judged by the intentions with which we act. But the ethics of care can include this, as it evaluates what our actions express as well as being concerned with the effectiveness and results of our caring labours. The centrality of respect for persons in Kantian ethics is appealing, but can too easily be combined with notions of negative freedom such that we respect people by just leaving them alone. Kant’s imperfect duties seem to me weak motivation for actually meeting people’s needs. The concerns of care are much more compelling.

I think caring relations should form the wider network within which we should develop various more limited ties that give priority to justice. But care is more fundamental. We need to care enough about distant others to care that their rights are respected. Justice should be the primary value for interactions that are primarily legal ones, but many relations should not be interpreted as primarily legal. Our relations with our children, for instance, are primarily caring ones and only legal in a minimal sense. Justice, or fairness, should not be absent in these relations, but it doesn’t have priority here.

3:AM:You place your ethics in a traditional liberal setting. Why do you argue that it is a better approach than its rivals, not just in personal morality but also on wider political and cultural issues? You even see it as playing a decisive role in global politics, so that for example the current crisis in the Eurozone would benefit from a dose of care. Is that right?

VH:Rather than saying that care should be developed in a liberal setting, I think I would say that care implies a lot of liberal values. Good care requires respect for others, including for their individuality and often developing freedom. Yes, the ethics of care is better than other moral theories at handling many global problems, such as the vast migrations of care workers that are occurring. And as I have recently argued in an article in 'Ethics and Global Politics', I think it is a better foundation for international law than are the traditional moral and political theories with their Hobbesian assumptions about states. The ethics of care has fundamental implications for economic activity – that it ought to be structured and engaged in to promote the well-being of all, not primarily the economic interests of those with economic power. And it implies that markets and market values should be appropriately limited, and that market values should not be increasingly the dominant values, as in the U.S., in areas where other values should have priority, such as in childcare, healthcare, education, and the production of culture.

3:AM:You note that virtue ethics seems at times to have some things in common with care but nevertheless think care is a superior approach? Can you say something about this and how that particular contrast works?

VH:Virtue ethics seems to me focused on individuals and their dispositions, their virtuous characters etc. Care ethics focuses instead on caring relations, and evaluates relations, such as whether they are trusting, characterised by mutuality, etc. The activity of care involves meeting the needs of another, with sensitivity and responsiveness. This is not altruism because the situation is not a zero-sum contest between individuals but the building of a relation good for both or all persons involved. When parents care for children, they benefit together. When members of a community care for one another, all can gain.

3:AM:Now this ethics of care could well be seen as a ‘feminist ethic’ and you’re well known for writing about that. But I started asking questions like I did just to see if gender doesn’t actually need to be a starting point for understanding the theory. So I guess I’m wondering whether we need feminism to get the theory, or is the point that in enacting the theory of care we’re implicitly engaged in feminism? How important is it that this is positioned as an explicitly feminism position?

VH:Historically, it was through paying attention, often for the first time, to caring activities, especially mothering, that the ethics of care was developed. This was experience of which women had a great deal and most men rather little. As men assume more responsibility for caring for children and engage more equally in other caring activities, I think they are quite capable of appreciating the values of care. But I think it would be a mistake to forget the feminist originsof these ways of thinking, or to overlook the feminist goals embedded in them. The implications of the ethics of care for transformations of society are very dramatic. Imagine, as a thought experiment, a society that really did make childcare of central importance, and economic or military power of more marginal interest, or that paid kindergarten teachers more than bank executives.

3:AM:You approach feminism to remind us about the pernicious omissions and commissions that make traditional liberal theories of ethics fatally flawed. You want to get us to see how a sexist gaze holds our institutions in their thrall. You wrote Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture, Society, and Politicsback in 1993. Have things changed in the intervening time to an extent that you’d reject some of the things you set out there, or add stuff?

VH:In Feminist MoralityI was just beginning to work out what I thought about the ethics of care. In The Ethics of Care, and in quite a few subsequent papers, I’ve come to have what I think is a much better picture of it as an alternative moral approach.

3:AM:I guess what might seem strange to some is that you continue to work in the liberal tradition even though liberal individialism seems anathema to you. Why not go Marxist or anarchist?

VH:I’ve been very influenced by Marxism in the past. I’ve always found anarchism too unrealistic about human beings. I don’t think I see liberal individualism as anathema. I think it’s often appropriate for limited domains of human activity and interactions, like legal ones. What I object to is the prevalent way it is seen as applicable everywhere and to everything, or as the way to think about all sorts of domains where it doesn’t belong, or only belongs in very limited ways.

3:AM:We’re in a continuous state of war and terrorism is the justification for lots of it. You’ve written extensively on political violence and I’m struck that you say it’s not just the answers that are hard but knowing which are the right questions to ask about this subject. Why do you think it is so hard, and what questions are beginning to feel like the ones we should be asking? I’m interested in your idea of wide and narrow definitions of ‘terrorism’ guiding our thinking. You prefer a wide definition don’t you? Why is this a superior approach?

VH:It’s often hard to know if we are asking the right questions in a lot of domains, but perhaps especially so with violence and terrorism because so much of the discussion has been distorted by strongly identifying with those on “our side.” Frequently, in violent conflicts, both sides think that violence is being used against them and that they themselves are using violence to defend themselves. They use the weapons available. The definitions are often chosen so that the conclusion can be reached that what “we” do is to justifiably defend ourselves, and what “they” do is engage in terrorism.

3:AM:I guess the ethics of care guides much of your thinking here: what kinds of answers have you to these questions? How different would the political landscape of terrorism look if your ideas were taken into the policy arena do you think?

VH:Care encourages us to try to understand the feelings and thinking of our opponents as well as of our friends, of those our actions harm as well as those they protect. Violence is most obviously antithetical to care. As I have put it: violence destroys what care takes pains to create. With an outlook guided by care we will be steadily reminded that our goal must be to reduce the use of violence. Care does not, in my view, imply pacifism. It can recognise that some violence will be with us for the foreseeable future, and it can see some genuinely defensive uses of violence as justified, but it will work tirelessly and effectively to greatly reduce the uses of violence in multiple areas of life. It will point out that using violence to maintain a status quo needs moral justification as much as does using violence to change it.

3:AM:You worried in your early book Rights and Goods: Justifying Social Actionabout clever casuists constructing ethical arguments to defend whatever they liked. But you defended the idea of an applied ethics. I’d have thought these days it’s been difficult to get ethics into any policy discourse. Economics since the Reaganite/Thatcherite eighties has been part of a neo-liberalism of performativity and managerialism marketisation that has successfully ousted moral talk about fairness and justice, hasn’t it? So how do you see the place of ethics in policy discourses at the moment?

VH:I think it is actually easier now than it used to be to raise moral questions, to frame an issue as a moral one: what ought we to do about climate change, health care, education, and so on. Moral positions are not so often thought to be nothing but mere personal preferences. I agree that in the wider culture, “the market” has taken on mythical proportions as it is imagined to be capable of achieving best outcomes without requiring that we bring in moral considerations. But I think, or at least hope, that this very ideological and distorted way of thinking has about reached its limits and more plausible ways of understanding the issues will prevail. Certainly among thinking persons there is a willingness to ask about the morality of for-profit schools and hospitals and the buying and selling of human organs. And, for good reason, the satisfactoriness of a moral theory has seldom been judged by its immediate influence on policy.

3:AM:In her recent ‘Tanner Lectures’ the economist Diane Coyleargued that we need to bring back ethical discourse into economic theory and that economists were at fault for mistaking market mechanisms for distributing ideas and materials and describing the processes of making stuff with markets as arbiters of value. And also of associating markets with a business lobby. This seems to be close to what you are arguing for. What sort of approach does your care ethics take in economics?

VH:I agree that we need to bring ethical discourse into economic theory, in the sense that economic processes ought to be evaluated morally. Many questions in economics are straightforwardly empirical rather than normative or moral, but we ought to ask routinely about the moral justifiability of economic arrangements and activities. I have argued in The Ethics of Carethat education, healthcare, childcare, and the production of culture, ought not to be in the market, where economic gain has the highest priority. Yes they should value efficiency, and competition can often be helpful, but other values than profit should be given priority.

3:AM:An alternative to your care ethics position is the ‘civic friendship’ ethic proposed by Sibyl Schwarzenbach. Why is your approach preferable?

VH:I think care is a more fundamental and a wider concept than friendship. No one can exist without having been cared for. So I would see civic friendship as a more limited kind of caring relation, relevant especially to political life. It’s closer to the social contract model of agreements between equals voluntarily entered into, a model that plays such a central and often misleading role in political theory and then is expanded, often wrongly in my view, to the whole of moral theory. Care is more of a contrast and I think there are good reasons to make this contrast for understanding human relations and the moral questions involved. Caring relations are often unchosen and between those of very unequal power, and lots of other human relations than family ones are more like this than like voluntary contracts between equals, so it’s illuminating to explore this contrast even if we want to conclude by supporting social contract models for legal matters.

3:AM:Although a top philosopher yourself, the position of women in academic philosophy is pretty bad, although improving by all accounts. So what’s your thinking about this? Why is philosophy so much worse than other humanities subjects which you’d think shared a profile? What can be done?

VH:As you say, the position of women in academic philosophy is improving. Some parts of philosophy are more like mathematics and science than like other humanities, so perhaps these are relevant comparisons. Progress has been slow, but to someone my age it has been significant.

3:AM:In 1962 you wrote a report on the ethical attitudes in the USA. 40 years on, is the US still bewildered? And are you optimistic or pessimistic about the way things are going?

VH:More deluded than bewildered, perhaps. People are less hesitant to take moral positions or positions that might be considered based on ideology, but I think the positions taken are often wrong. I have been appalled by the success of the imperialism of the market, with market takeovers of all sorts of activities where market values are not the right ones to be dominant. And I find the corporate control of culture very depressing. And the neoconservative influence on foreign policy has been almost entirely a bad influence.

The neoconservatives have been wrong about just about every foreign policy issue from Vietnam to Iraq, and yet they continue to have a thoroughly outsize influence. So my optimism and pessimism vary. When I read that as many people in the U.S. believe in creationism as in evolution, and that the figures are the same for college students, or when I hear about how many people in this country have been misled into doubting that climate change is a problem, it’s very depressing. But then I watch Stephen Colbertpuncturing such delusions, and that he can appear on television night after night, with his extraordinary cleverness and effective wit, and actually be a commercial success doing so, restores my sense that there’s hope. And if I reflect on the progress that women, and gays, have made in my lifetime, I am sometimes cautiously optimistic as the diplomats may say.

3:AM:And finally, for all us feminists here at 3:AM Magazine, which five books (other than your own which we’ll all be dashing away to read straight after this) would you recommend to give us deeper insights?

VH:I spend more time reading the New York Timesthan I wish I did, but I find it so hard not to! All my life I have been especially attracted to art museums, so I like going to exhibitions at the Met and elsewhere. I’d like to read more novels but I rarely do. If I’m not working on care I’m apt to be trying to read up on international law or global theories of justice or some other topic I plan to write some essays on.

Five books I’d recommend to understand how the ethics of care developed and where it may be going are:
Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace

Joan C. Tronto, Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care

Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education

Engster, The Heart of Justice: A Political Theory of Caring

Fiona Robinson, The Ethics of Care: A Feminist Approach to Human Security.

Richard Marshallis still biding his time.

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