Objections to an Ethic of Care

Since the publication of In a Different Voice, the proposal to develop a feminine ethic of care has met with a variety of concerns and objections. One set of concerns is that a feminine ethic of care may unwittingly undermine feminism. These concerns stem, in part, from a belief that the qualities in girls and women that feminine ethics esteems have developed within the context of a sexist culture. Thus, some suspect that women's competency at caring for and serving others is an outgrowth of their subordinate status within modern societies (Sherwin; Moody-Adams), and worry that emphasizing caring as a virtuous feminine quality may simply serve to keep women on the down side of power relationships (Holmes). Susan Moller Okin, for example, cautions that women are often socialized from a very early age into strict gender roles, involving caring for and serving others. This socialization radically limits their future prospects by diminishing women's capacity to choose alternative life plans. We should therefore reject traditional socialization, because it seriously violates the equality of persons basic to liberalism. Others urge women to aspire to assertive-ness, rather than caring, in order to challenge conventional images of women as concerned with serving and pleasing others (Card, 1991). Feminist critics also warn that caring cannot function as an ethic that is complete unto itself. Observing that caring can "be exploited in the service of immoral ends" (Card, 1990, p. 106), Card insists on the need to balance caring with justice and other values. Exclusive attention to caring can also lead to overlooking "the lack of care of women for women" and may preclude "the possibility of our looking at anything but love and friendship in women's emotional responses to one another" (Spellman, p. 216). Finally, excessive focus on caring at the expense of other values can blind us to the critical assessment of the object of caring. As Warren Thomas Reich noted in 2001, care by itself can be easily manipulated, and does not offer tools for analyzing the moral importance of what we care about.

In response, defenders of feminine ethics distinguish between distorted and undistorted forms of caring (Tong, 1998). Distortions of caring include the exploitation, abuse, or neglect of careers. As Tong notes, just because caring can become distorted does not suffice to show that an ethic of care is inherently distorted. Nor does it establish that "every woman's caring actions should be contemptuously dismissed as yet another instance of women's pathological masochism or passivity'; instead care should be preserved and celebrated in its undistorted form: "rescued from the patriarchal structures that would misuse or abuse it" (Tong, 1998, p. 171).

A second family of concerns about a feminine ethic of care relates to the belief that caring for others can lead to neglect of self. The phenomenon of burnout, for example, refers to the situation of parents, nurses, family caregivers, or other individuals who become utterly exhausted by the physical and emotional demands associated with giving care. Especially when care is conceived to be an ethic that is sufficient unto itself, the tendency may be to continue caring at any cost. Attention to other values, such as respect for the rights of the one caring, may be necessary in order to preserve the integrity of the caregiver: Arguing along these lines, Nancy Jecker notes that "if women are seen as having the same possibility men have to create a plan of life that places central importance [in activities other than caregiving] ..., then a duty ... [to care] can potentially stand in the way ofwhat a woman wants to do" (2002, p. 128). The idea here is that individuals presumably prefer to protect, as much as possible, their freedom to choose whether or not to devote themselves to caring (2002). Others suggest that in order to care for others—which is an inherently limited ability—one must first be cared for by other individuals, by communities, and by oneself (Reich, 1991).

A third group of objections to developing a feminine ethic of care holds that the concept of care is not helpful at the social and institutional level. This group of objections may acknowledge that an ethic of care serves well within the limited sphere of personal ethics, but finds care unhelpful outside of this sphere. One form this objection takes is to argue that an ethic of care cannot be formulated in terms of the general rights and principles that are necessary for designing public policies. Proponents of a care ethic sometimes acknowledge this limitation. Thus, Noddings states, "to care is to act not by fixed rule but by affection and regard" (1984, p. 24). Similarly, Patricia Benner and Judith Wrubel maintain that caring is always specific and relational; hence, there exist no "context-free lists of advice" on how to care (p. 3). They reject the idea of formulating ethical theories or rules about caring on the grounds that general guides cannot "capture the embodied, relational, configura-tional, skillful, meaningful, and contextual human issues" that are central to an ethic of care (p. 6). Despite this view, there exist historically important examples of using the vocabulary of general rights and principles to formulate an ethic of care. For example, the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights identifies "motherhood and childhood" as "entitled to special care and assistance," and that organization's Declaration of the Rights of the Child asserts general principles of caring for children, noting that children need "special safeguards and care" on the basis of their "physical and mental immaturity."

Another reason why care may be assumed unworkable at a social or institutional level is that historically, public and private spheres have been distinguished as separate moral domains (Elshtain). During the nineteenth century, for example, the doctrine of separate spheres held that the family constituted a private sphere in which a morality of love and self-sacrifice prevailed; this private domain was distinguished from the public life associated with business and politics, where impersonal norms and self-interested relationships reigned (Nicholson). To the extent that these historical attitudes continue to shape present thinking, they may lead to the mutual exclusivity of care-oriented and justice-oriented approaches. In response to this structural objection, some ethicists have argued that justice and care are compatible forms of moral reasoning (Jecker, 2002).

A final set of objections to a feminine ethic of care does not deny the importance of care, but rather argues that care is not properly interpreted as an ethic that expresses an exclusively feminine form of moral reasoning. Iddo Landau, for example, argues that the significant factors for preferring the use of care or justice ethics are, in fact, not masculinity or femininity, but factors such as education and economic class. Landau concludes that "Justice and care ethics should be seen as the ethics of certain economic classes and levels of education, not of men and women" (p. 57). Defenders of feminine ethics often meet this objection by claiming that their approach has been misunderstood. Thus advocates of feminine ethics may deny that care is an ethic that only women articulate, or an ethic that is valid only within the moral experience of women. According to Noddings, caring is an important ingredient within all human morality, and moral education should teach all people how and why to care. She concludes that "an ethical orientation that arises in female experience need not be confined to women"; to the contrary, "if only women adopt an ethic of caring the present conditions of women's oppression are indeed likely to be maintained" (1990, p. 171). Gilligan and Jane Attanucci also reject the idea that an ethic of care correlates strictly with gender, and instead report that most men and women can reason in accordance with both care and justice. Gilligan's research supports the more modest claim that care is gender-related. That is, although women and men can reason in terms of both care and justice, women are generally more likely to emphasize care while men generally emphasize justice. Thus she states that the so-called different voice she identifies is characterized "not by gender, but by theme," and cautions that its association with gender "is not absolute" and is not a generalization about either sex (p. 2).

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