Ethics of care

The ethics of care (alternatively care ethics or EoC) is a normative ethical theory that holds that moral action centers on interpersonal relationships and care or benevolence as a virtue. EoC is one of a cluster of normative ethical theories that were developed by feminists in the second half of the twentieth century.[1] While consequentialist and deontological ethical theories emphasize generalizable standards and impartiality, ethics of care emphasize the importance of response to the individual. The distinction between the general and the individual is reflected in their different moral questions: "what is just?" versus "how to respond?".[2] Gilligan criticizes the application of generalized standards as "morally problematic, since it breeds moral blindness or indifference."[3]

Some beliefs of the theory are basic:

  1. Persons are understood to have varying degrees of dependence and interdependence on one another.
  2. Individuals affected by the consequences of one's choices deserve consideration in proportion to their vulnerability.
  3. Details determine how to safeguard and promote the interests of those involved.

Historical background

Carol Gilligan and In a Different Voice

The founder of Ethics of Care (EoC) was Carol Gilligan, an American ethicist and psychologist. Gilligan was a student of developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. Gilligan developed EoC in contrast to her mentor's theory of stages of moral development. She held that measuring progress by Kohlberg's model resulted in boys being found to be more morally mature than girls, and this held for adult men and women as well (although when education is controlled for there are no gender differences).[4] Gilligan further argued that Kohlberg's model was not an objective scale of moral development. Gilligan considered it as a masculine perspective on morality, founded on justice and abstract duties or obligations. Dana Ward has stated, in a paper that appears never to have been formally published for critical peer review, that the scale is psychometrically sound.[5]

Gilligan's In a Different Voice offered the perspective that men and women have tendencies to view morality in different terms. Her theory claimed women tended to emphasize empathy and compassion over the notions of morality that are privileged in Kohlberg's scale.[6] Subsequent research suggests that the discrepancy in being oriented towards care-based or justice-based ethical approaches may be based on gender differences, or on differences in actual current life situations of the genders.[7]

Relationship to traditional ethical positions

Care ethics contrasts with more well-known ethical models, such as consequentialist theories (e.g. utilitarianism) and deontological theories (e.g. Kantian ethics) in that it seeks to incorporate traditionally feminized virtues and values which, proponents of care ethics contend, are absent in such traditional models of ethics.[8] One of these values is the placement of caring and relationship over that of logic and reason. In care ethics reason and logic are subservient to natural care, that is care that is done out of inclination, which is contrary to Deontology where actions taken out of inclination are unethical. [9]

Care ethics as feminist ethics

While some feminists have criticized care-based ethics for reinforcing traditional stereotypes of a "good woman"[10] others have embraced parts of this paradigm under the theoretical concept of care-focused feminism.[11]

Care-focused feminism, alternatively called gender feminism,[12] is a branch of feminist thought informed primarily by ethics of care as developed by Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings.[11] This body of theory is critical of how caring is socially engendered, being assigned to women and consequently devalued. “Care-focused feminists regard women’s capacity for care as a human strength”[11] which can and should be taught to and expected of men as well as women. Noddings proposes that ethical caring has the potential to be a more concrete evaluative model of moral dilemma, than an ethic of justice.[13] Noddings’ care-focused feminism requires practical application of relational ethics, predicated on an ethic of care.[14]

Ethics of care is also a basis for care-focused feminist theorizing on maternal ethics. These theories recognize caring as an ethically relevant issue.[15] Critical of how society engenders caring labor, theorists Sara Ruddick, Virginia Held, and Eva Feder Kittay suggest caring should be performed and care givers valued in both public and private spheres.[16] This proposed paradigm shift in ethics encourages the view that an ethic of caring be the social responsibility of both men and women.

Joan Tronto argues that the definition of the term "ethic of care" is ambiguous due in part to the lack of a central role it plays in moral theory.[17] She argues that considering moral philosophy is engaged with human goodness, then care would appear to assume a significant role in this type of philosophy.[17] However, this is not the case and Tronto further stresses the association between care and "naturalness". The latter term refers to the socially and culturally constructed gender roles where care is mainly assumed to be the role of the woman.[17] As such, care loses the power to take a central role in moral theory.

Tronto states there are four ethical elements of care:

  1. Attentiveness
    Attentiveness is crucial to the ethics of care because care requires a recognition of others' needs in order to respond to them.[17] The question which arises is the distinction between ignorance and inattentiveness.[17] Tronto poses this question as such, "But when is ignorance simply ignorance, and when is it inattentiveness"?[17]
  2. Responsibility
    In order to care, we must take it upon ourselves, thus responsibility. The problem associated with this second ethical element of responsibility is the question of obligation. Obligation is often, if not already, tied to pre-established societal and cultural norms and roles. Tronto makes the effort to differentiate the terms "responsibility" and "obligation" with regards to the ethic of care. Responsibility is ambiguous, whereas obligation refers to situations where action or reaction is due, such as the case of a legal contract.[17] This ambiguity allows for ebb and flow in and between class structures and gender roles, and to other socially constructed roles that would bind responsibility to those only befitting of those roles.
  3. Competence
    To provide care also means competency. One cannot simply acknowledge the need to care, accept the responsibility, but not follow through with enough adequacy - as such action would result in the need of care not being met.[17]
  4. Responsiveness
    This refers to the "responsiveness of the care receiver to the care".[17] Tronto states, "Responsiveness signals an important moral problem within care: by its nature, care is concerned with conditions of vulnerability and inequality".[17] She further argues responsiveness does not equal reciprocity.[17] Rather, it is another method to understand vulnerability and inequality by understanding what has been expressed by those in the vulnerable position, as opposed to re-imagining oneself in a similar situation.[17]

See also




  1. “Care Ethics” Maureen Sander-Staudt, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002,, 22/3/2016.
  2. Gilligan, Carol. "Moral Orientation and Moral Development." The Feminist Philosophy Reader. By Alison Bailey and Chris J. Cuomo. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008. N. pag. 469 Print.
  3. Gilligan, Carol. "Moral Orientation and Moral Development." The Feminist Philosophy Reader. By on Bailey and Chris J. Cuomo. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008. N. pag. 471 Print.
  4. Walker, L.J. (1991). "Sex differences in moral reasoning.” In W.M. Kurtines and J. L. Gewirtz (eds.) Handbook of moral behavior and development: Vol, 2. Research. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  5. Ward, Dana (2000). "Still Hearing Voice: The Persistent Myth of Gendered Judgment," Keynote address presented at the VIIIth Biennial conference of the International Society for Justice Research, Rishon LeZion, Israel.
  6. Gilligan, Carol. In A Different Voice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1982)
  7. Ford and Lowery (1986). "Gender Differences in Moral Reasoning: A Comparison of the Use of Justice and Care Orientations". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 50(4), 777-783; Rothbart, Hanley and Albert (1986). "Gender Differences in Moral Reasoning." Sex Roles. 15 (11&12), 645-653; and Krebs, D.L., Vermeulen, S.C., Denton, K., and Carpendale, J. I. (1994). "Gender and perspective differences in moral judgment and moral orientation". Journal of Moral Education. 23, 17-26.
  8. Tong, Rosemarie; Williams, Nancy (May 4, 2009). "Feminist Ethics". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Metaphysics Research Lab. Retrieved January 6, 2017.
  9. Noddings, Nel, author. Caring : a relational approach to ethics & moral education. ISBN 9780520957343. OCLC 859158671.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. Bartky, Sandra Lee (1990). Femininity and domination: studies in the phenomenology of oppression. New York: Routledge. pp. 104–105. ISBN 9780415901864.
  11. Tong, Rosemarie (2009). Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introdruction (3rd ed.). Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press. pp. 162–65. ISBN 978-0-81-334375-4.
  12. Tong, Rosemarie (2018). Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (Student economy edition, 4th ed.). Routledge. ISBN 978-0-81-335023-3.
  13. Noddings, Nel: Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, page 3-4. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984.
  14. Noddings, Nel: Women and Evil, page 222. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1989.
  15. Held, Virginia. Ethics of Care, page 64. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
  16. Kittay, Eva Feder: Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality and Dependency, page 20. Routledge, New York, 1999.
  17. Tronto, Joan C. (2005), "An ethic of care", in Cudd, Ann E.; Andreasen, Robin O. (eds.), Feminist theory: a philosophical anthology, Oxford, UK Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 251–263, ISBN 9781405116619.
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