The ethics of care is a normative ethical theory often considered a type of virtue ethics. Dominant traditional ethical theories such as utilitarianism and Kantian deontological ethics developed ethical theories based on an understanding of society as the aggregate of autonomous, rational individuals with an emphasis on rules, duties, justice, rights, impartiality, universality, utility and preference satisfaction; care ethics, on the other hand, developed based on the understanding of the individual as an interdependent, relational being and emphasized the importance of human relationships and emotion based virtues such as benevolence, mercy, care, friendship, reconciliation, and sensitivity. In care ethics, the family is the primary sphere of morality where a person can cultivate his or her character.
Care ethics was initially developed by psychologist Carol Gilligan during the 1960s from a feminist perspective. Since then, it has been widely applied in various professional fields such as nursing, health care, education, international relations, law, and politics. While both care ethics and Confucian ethics consider the family as the foundation of ethics, care ethics is critical of the Confucian patriarchal perspective, or at least a patriarchal interpretation of Confucian ethics.
Ethics of care is sometimes called "ethics of love" or "relational ethics," which has several notable characteristics in contrast to two traditional normative ethical theories: Utilitarianism and Kantian deontological ethics. While ethics of care is considered a virtue ethics, it is also different from traditional Aristotelian virtue ethics. Although some care ethics theorists reject generalization, ethics of care has some notable common characteristics.
Traditional ethical theories presuppose that a moral agent is an autonomous, independent individual. Care ethics, however, points out the fact that a human being is essentially dependent on others. Children are dependent upon parents, the elderly is dependent on their children or other care takers, and handicapped persons have to rely on others. Each human being goes through a process of dependency according to his or her age or physical or mental conditions.
Human life presupposes and is possible only by the care and support humans offer each other. Parents have a moral responsibility to care for their children and children have moral responsibility to care for the elderly. Thus, human beings exist in interdependent relationships that entail ethical responsibilities.
Traditional ethics are built upon the primacy of reason. They value reason as a stable faculty of mind over emotion, which they viewed as unstable, changeable, ephemeral, and less important. While care ethics recognizes the value of reason, it recognizes the importance of feeling or emotion and related virtues such as benevolence, compassion, sensitivity, responsiveness, and sympathy. The emotions that traditional ethics have rejected are egoistic, impartial emotional attachments which brings about favoritism, resentment, hatred, and other negative or destructive feelings.
Traditional theories focus on establishing abstract, universal rules and principles in consideration of impartiality. Yet, in human life, not all human relationships are equal. For example, while caring for all children on the earth is noble and important, caring for one's own child is an immediate and direct responsibility the parent.
Care ethics recognizes the importance of limited impartiality and prioritization of human relationships.
Traditional ethics operate within a framework constituted by the relationship between individuals and society. Primary ethical concepts such as justice, universality, impartiality, and duty are all discussed within this framework. The family does not play any specific role in this framework; in fact, the family is a "private" realm in which the public or sphere (government) does not and should not interfere.
On the other hand, the ethics of care considers the family as the primary sphere in which to understand ethical behavior. It considers the family as an ontologically, epistemologically, and morally important sphere where virtues are cultivated and inherited.
This family-based perspective can be compared with the role of the family in Confucian ethics. There are, however, some differences. First, because care ethics developed within a Western tradition, it contains more critical, analytical elements. Second, while the concept of family in care ethics is usually limited to immediate family members, it is extended to one's ancestors in Confucian ethics. Third, care ethics question the patriarchal aspect of Confucian ethics.
The concept of person in traditional ethical theories tends to view the individual as independent, isolated, rational, and self-interested. Care ethics, however, views a person as interdependent, integral (emotion, reason, and will), and relational. It argues that the concept of self can be properly defined only when the person is understood as interdependent and relational being. The concept of the liberal individual is an abstract, illusory concept.
The ethics of care was initially inspired by the work of psychologist Carol Gilligan. Early in her career, Carol Gilligan worked with psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg while he was researching his theory of moral development. Gilligan's work on women's moral development arose in response to the seemingly male-based results that arose from Kohlberg's studies.
Gilligan and others have suggested that the history of ethics in Western culture has emphasized the justice view of morality because it is the outlook that has traditionally been cultivated and shared by men. By contrast, women have traditionally been taught a different kind of moral outlook that emphasizes solidarity, community, and caring about one's special relationships. This "care view" of morality has been ignored or trivialized because women were traditionally in positions of limited power and influence.
The justice view of morality focuses on doing the right thing even if it requires personal cost or sacrificing the interest of those to whom one is close. The care view would instead say that we can and should put the interests of those who are close to us above the interests of complete strangers, and that we should cultivate our natural capacity to care for others and ourselves.
Following Carol Gilligan’s seminal work in the ethics of care In a Different Voice (1982), Nel Noddings developed "relational ethics" in her Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (1984).
Like Carol Gilligan, Noddings accepts that justice based approaches, which are supposed to be more masculine, are genuine alternatives to ethics of care. However, unlike Gilligan, Noddings believes that caring, 'rooted in receptivity, relatedness, and responsiveness' is a more basic and preferable approach to ethics.
The key to understanding Noddings' ethics of care is to understand her notion of caring and ethical caring in particular.
Noddings believes that it would be a mistake to try to provide a systematic examination of the requirements for caring, nevertheless, she does suggest three requirements for caring (Caring 1984, 11-12). She argues that the carer (one-caring) must exhibit engrossment and motivational displacement, and the person who is cared for (cared-for) must respond in some way to the caring. Noddings' term engrossment refers to thinking about someone in order to gain a greater understanding of him or her. Engrossment is necessary for caring because an individual's personal and physical situation must be understood before the one-caring can determine the appropriateness of any action. 'Engrossment' need not entail, as the term seems to suggest, a deep fixation on the other. It requires only the attention needed to some to understand the position of the other. Engrossment could not on its own constitute caring; someone could have a deep understanding of another person, yet act against that person's interests. Motivational displacement prevents this from occurring. Motivational displacement occurs when the one-caring's behavior is largely determined by the needs of the person for whom she is caring. On its own, motivational displacement would also be insufficient for ethical caring. For example, someone who acted primarily from a desire to accomplish something for another person, but failed to think carefully enough about that other person's needs (failed to be correctly engrossed in the other), would fail to care. Finally, Noddings believes that caring requires some form of recognition from the cared-for that the one-caring is, in fact, caring. When there is a recognition of and response to the caring by the person cared for, Noddings describes the caring as "completed in the other."
Nel Noddings draws an important distinction between natural caring and ethical caring. Noddings distinguishes between acting because "I want" and acting because "I must." When I care for someone because "I want" to care, say I hug a friend who needs hugging in an act of love, Noddings claims that I am engaged in natural caring. When I care for someone because "I must" care, say I hug an acquaintance who needs hugging in spite of my desire to escape that person's pain, according to Noddings, I am engaged in ethical caring. Ethical caring occurs when a person acts caringly out of a belief that caring is the appropriate way of relating to people. When someone acts in a caring way because that person naturally cares for another, the caring is not ethical caring.
Noddings' claims that ethical caring is based on, and so dependent on, natural caring. It is through experiencing others caring for them and naturally caring for others that people build what is called an "ethical ideal," an image of the kind of person they want to be.
Noddings describes wrong actions in terms of "a diminishment of the ethical ideal" and "evil." A person's ethical ideal is diminished when she either chooses or is forced to act in a way that rejects her internal call to care. In effect, her image of the best person it is possible for her to be is altered in a way that lowers her ideal. According to Noddings, people and organizations can deliberately or carelessly contribute to the diminishment of other's ethical ideals. They may do this by teaching people not to care, or by placing them in conditions that prevent them from being able to care.. A person is evil if, in spite of her ability to do otherwise, she either fails to personally care for someone, or prevents others from caring. Noddings writes, "[when] one intentionally rejects the impulse to care and deliberately turns her back on the ethical, she is evil, and this evil cannot be redeemed."
Those who accept more traditional approaches to ethics argue that care ethics can promote favoritism which violates fairness and impartiality.
Care ethics is still at an early stage of development and must address various issues, including how it can integrate traditional ethical values such as justice, impartiality, and others.
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