Dr. Bossypants wrote much of this blog some years ago. Clearly, it has not changed the course of history yet. But onward, dear readers. Ever onward. Western ethical theories have been said to be driven by concern for individual rights, rather than informed by the intricacies of human relationships. Originally dubbed “feminist ethics,” the addition of a relationally-oriented moral viewpoint was ushered into Western view primarily by the work of Carol Gilligan. Gilligan worked with Lawrence Kohlberg, famous for his hypothesized six stages of moral development. Subjects in Kohlberg’s research had most often been boys.
In early studies that included girls, Kohlberg and associates found that girls were scoring statistically lower than boys in terms of moral development on their measures. This intrigued Carol Gilligan, and thus her groundbreaking research began. She and her research team conducted interviews with young women to better understand the moral substance of their reasoning and choices. She reported this research in her bestselling book, In a different voice. Although her work opened new avenues in ethical reasoning and research, ironically, the original assumption of a difference between boys and girls, like many such assumptions, turned out to be false! Males and females attend to justice concerns at roughly equal levels in most research projects. Further, more current research shows that all adults make moral choices inconsistently, depending on the dilemma, and each person’s social and personal goals in that moment.
Care ethics argues that moral decision-making should directly include concern for others and their well-being. Emotions of love, compassion, and empathy motivate us toward the care of others, thereby enhancing the relationships around us, and Dr. Bossypants would argue, the general condition of humankind. Those who advocate care ethics draw sharp distinctions between care reasoning and the approach reflected in Kohlberg’s work, called justice reasoning. Propensities toward one or the other orientation were initially purported to fall along gender lines, but in fact, males can be morally guided by concern for relationships and the welfare of others, and females by concepts of justice.
Joan Tronto wrote, “Care itself is not gendered. Care is a species activity that includes everything we do to maintain, continue, and repair our world, so that we can live in it as well as possible.”
Care ethics place relationship in the center of the moral vision. Ecofeminist theorist, Karen Warren, stated:
If we dare to care, if we dare to enter into community with others through an honest recognition of our commonalities and differences, we will be poised to create generally respectful, nonviolent, care-based, intentional communities where commonalities and differences are just that . . . Such intentional communities are a creative alternative to violence-prone communities where order is imposed from outside through unjustified domination.
Western philosophical orientations are generally far more individualistic than Asian, African, and American Indian orientations. Dr. Bossypants is worried that Western dominant culture is continuing on paths toward greater individualism, isolation, and commodified, single-purpose relationships, rather than communally-oriented and traditional, complex relationships. Writer Jeremy Rifkin reflects on the moral power of traditional communities:
Membership in traditional communities also brings with it restraints on personal action. Obligations to others take precedence over personal whims, and security flows from being embedded in a larger social organism. Commodified relationships, on the other hand, are instrumental in nature. The only glue that holds them together is the transaction price.
Care ethics offers a moral alternative to an over-emphasis on individual notions of fairness and justice. It is centered both on immediate relationships and on the tapestry of relationships that extends to people of other races, creeds, and nations–and further, to all living things.
To understand how the tension between responsibilities and rights sustains the dialectic of human development is to see the integrity of two disparate modes of experience that are in the end connected.
While an ethic of justice proceeds from the premise of equality—that everyone should be treated the same, an ethic of care rests on the premise of nonviolence—that no one’s rights should be trampled, no one should be hurt. In the morally mature adult, both perspectives converge in the realization that just as inequality adversely affects both parties in an unequal relationship, acts of violence harm everyone involved. Mercy and justice are not mutually exclusive, people. We can do this. We can.