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The Ethics of Care (EoC) and Feminism


Several movements, theories, ideologies and initiatives have developed in response to gender-based discrimination. This includes feminism, which is the "theory of the political, economic, and social equality" of the genders ( Merriam-Webster). The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) (established in 1976), UN Women (established in 2010), African Women's Development Fund (founded in 2001), All-China Women's Federation (ACWF) (established in 1949), European Feminist Forum (launched in April 2007), and North American Indian Women's Association (founded in 1970) are just a few examples of programmes and initiatives that are focusing on women's rights and interests. 

Chandra Talpade Mohanty had written in the 1980s that white Western feminists have tended to gloss over the differences between women from various parts of the Global South. She criticized their treatment of the "Third World Woman" as a "singular monolithic subject", stressing that the experience of oppression is incredibly diverse, and contingent on geography, history, and culture (Mohanty, 1984). In 2003, however, she revisited her argument and observed that: "The critique and resistance to global capitalism, and uncovering of the naturalization of its masculinist and racist values, begin to build a transnational feminist practice" and that these feminist alliances are crucial (Mohanty, 2003).

Within the feminist movements, thinkers and advocates have developed gender-centred approaches to ethics during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. While there are many branches of feminist ethics that focus on diverse ways in which traditional notions of ethics could better take gender-related issues into account, the underlying common goal for all branches is "the creation of gendered ethics that aims to eliminate or at least ameliorate the oppression of any group of people, but most particularly women" (Tong and Williams, 1998). One prominent approach within feminist ethics is the care-focused approach, which is associated with the EoC theory. This approach, as discussed in further detail below, calls on all individuals to take conscious and empathetic steps and actions towards the advancement and protection of vulnerable members of society-in this case, women.

Ethics of Care, also known as Care Ethics, has developed historically from the feminist tradition of recognizing, and requiring, that we can and should respond to marginalized members of the community with care and empathy. As explained above, EoC has been selected from various ethical theories that can be used to address gender discrimination because of its historical links to feminism and because it is an influential theory that provides us with rich resources for thinking about gender and sexuality. EoC is a normative ethical theory, which means that it is a theory about what makes actions morally right or wrong. The EoC moral imperative goes beyond our legal responsibilities and urges us to act even where it may be uncomfortable to do so. According to the EoC, acting morally means more than the passive idea of "do no harm". Doing the right thing means acting to make the world a better place for those who have been made vulnerable or otherwise excluded and/or marginalized.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines EoC as follows:

The moral theory known as "the ethics of care" implies that there is moral significance in the fundamental elements of relationships and dependencies in human life. Normatively, care ethics seeks to maintain relationships by contextualizing and promoting the well-being of caregivers and care-receivers in a network of social relations. Most often defined as a practice or virtue rather than a theory as such, "care" involves maintaining the world of, and meeting the needs of, ourselves and others. It builds on the motivation to care for those who are dependent and vulnerable, and it is inspired by both memories of being cared for and the idealizations of self. (Sander-Staudt, 2016)

EOC differs from the three major Western ethical theories discussed in Integrity and Ethics Module 1 (Introduction and Conceptual Framework), namely: utilitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics. While deontology and utilitarianism demand impartiality above all, EoC focuses on the moral importance of relationships with families and groups, and on how individuals or societies should respond to a situation or person requiring care. EoC differs from virtue ethics because it focuses on the caring relations rather than the virtues of individuals. In this sense, EoC is a relational ethics, a framework that includes many non-Western ethical approaches such as Chinese Confucian ethics and the African ethics of Ubuntu. It is interesting to note in this context that Ubuntu conceptualizes power as deriving from immaterial force rather than from material resources such as wealth, weapons, physical strength or natural resources (Tavernaro-Haidarian, 2018). Power is understood, therefore, as that which is between people, grows the more it includes and is measured in terms of how sustainable our actions are for society. This idea is consistent with the idea that women's empowerment goes beyond material aspects.

The key characteristics of an EoC perspective are:

  1. The complexity and variation in degrees of dependence and interdependence between people and institutions over time are acknowledged and considered.

  2. Those people particularly impacted by our choices need to be considered carefully in our decision-making. Those especially vulnerable deserve extra consideration, love and care.

  3. Rather than relying on a "blanket" or "one size fits all" approach, it is necessary to attend to contextual details of situations in order to safeguard and promote the actual specific interests of those involved.

Carol Gilligan is credited as being the founder of the EoC. Gilligan's ground-breaking work In a Different Voice promoted the view that women tended to emphasize empathy and compassion over the notions of justice-based morality. Subsequent feminist research suggests that these preferences are more likely to be a result of socialized gender roles, which in turn is reflected in the devaluation of a care approach and caring workplace and home roles.

In response, ethicist Nel Noddings has promoted the view that women's capacity for care is a human strength, which can and should be taught to and expected of men as well as women. Caring then is the social responsibility of both men and women. Rather than the either-or approach adopted by Gilligan, who regarded care-based morality as an alternative to justice-based morality, Noddings considers that values such as justice, equality, and individual rights should operate together with values such as care, trust, mutual consideration, and solidarity. At the same time, Noddings prioritizes caring as the preferable ethical approach that is "rooted in receptivity, relatedness, and responsiveness" (Noddings, 1984, p. 2). Joan Tronto (2005) further elaborated on the EoC and identified four ethical elements: attentiveness, responsibility, competence and responsiveness. Tronto also outlines these elements in her lecture entitled " The Challenges of Medical Care in a Caring Democracy".

The moral duty of care, which is at the heart of EoC theory, can be contrasted with the legal standard of care, which does not oblige a person to assist others (outside of the narrow class of persons where a legal duty is imposed). In many legal systems, the law may require people to refrain from acting in a harmful manner, but there is generally no legal obligation to actively help others. In systems where such an obligation does exist, it is often under extreme circumstances, such as where a person requires rescue. This is a significant difference between legal and moral obligations and illustrates why one cannot solely rely on the law to determine moral responsibility. The relationship between law and morality is discussed in further detail in Module 12 (Integrity, Ethics and Law).

The EoC advocates a moral obligation to provide care for marginalized segments of society. Where the carer is the beneficiary of a system established upon and perpetuating historical and/or current inequality, the EoC perspective would call for a heightened duty to care for others. But even utilitarian ethicists, such as the controversial philosopher Peter Singer, argue that individuals in a position of influence or power (whether it be financial, educational or positional) have a higher moral duty to care for those they can care for and who need their help, and to make changes to the systems and institutions that perpetuate sexism and inequality. For a further discussion of utilitarianism see Module 1 (Introduction and Conceptual Framework).

The challenge, however, when presented with so much need in the world, is how to determine where to start - and stop - caring, without becoming so overwhelmed that we do nothing instead. Environmentalist David Suzuki responds to this feeling of helplessness in a 2013 interview as follows:

In the 1960s and '70s we used to run around saying "think globally, act locally" and in many ways that was completely wrong because when people began to think globally, in terms of issues like species extinction or climate change or ocean acidification, it was so immense that people said, "Well, what the hell? There's over 7 billion people. What difference does it make what I do?" It imposed a sense of helplessness.

I think we have to think locally and act locally in order to have a hope of being effective globally. I find that where you get that real sense that we can do something is when you get involved at the local level. Of course, one's eye is always on the collective impact of communities around the world. But at the community level, we can really see the consequences of what we do. It's very uplifting.

Applying this proposition to the problem of gender discrimination, we can start acting locally by implementing an EoC approach in our own lives in everyday situations involving gender inequality. For example, we can call out sexist remarks or jokes. We can support and believe victims of sexual harassment or assault. We can speak up and support a fellow female colleague who has been interrupted or talked over during a meeting, in the spirit of the Amplification technique used by female staffers of Barack Obama to support the ideas and comments of other females in the room. In doing so, we are demonstrating behaviours of a carer for others outside of our immediate family circle. As stressed by Eileen Sowerby, we are continually confronted by opportunities to demonstrate caring behaviour for strangers (others) that require different levels of responses (1993, p. 55-56).

Another way in which we can take responsibility is by addressing our own implicit gender-based biases. For example, when we witness an act of discrimination against women, we should ask ourselves whether our own common practices could encourage such discriminatory actions. This is how we can deconstruct and question our own privileges and biases. Adopting an EoC perspective can help us identify and challenge these biases, increase our awareness of sexism in all its forms, and understand how we can alter our own life to become more inclusive and empathetic. These ideas are contextualized and explored through the exercises below. It is noted that EoC requires that we care for all marginalized segments of society. However, since this Module focuses on gender discrimination, it stresses the EoC moral obligation to provide care for women as a class of people marginalized on the basis of their gender.

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