The ethics of care – Starting with family and friendship when building moral frameworks – Virginia Held
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.
VH: …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.
VH: …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: 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.