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The Ethics of Care- the New Branch of Normative Ethical Theories

Updated on August 20, 2014

The Ethics of Care Theory

What are the Ethics of Care?

The ethics of care are considered to be one of the newer branches of normative ethical theories in philosophy. Normative ethics are considered to be one of the three main component areas of inquiry of philosophical ethics. Normative ethics deal with human actions. The ethics of care is a new but growing branch within normative ethics that deals with human emotions. The philosophical approach of normative ethics deals with the quest to find out what actions qualify as “right” or “wrong”. When dealing with the ethics of care “the family is the primary sphere of morality where a person can cultivate his or her character” (New World Encyclopedia, 2008). The ethics of care take the decision of right and wrong one step further by questioning the emotion and reasoning behind the action.

Carol Gilligan's Husband Does a Live Lecture on the Ethics of Care

Carol Gilligan Developed the Ethics of Care

The ethics of care was originally developed by the psychologist Carol Gilligan. Gilligan was a feminist in the 1960s who developed the theory as a result of the society around her. Later, the idea was evolved upon by Nel Noddings, the Jacks Professor Emeritus of Child Education at Stanford University, who conducted an “analysis of caring and its place in ethics (Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education - 1984); an attempt to rethink evil from the perspective of women (Women and Evil - 1989) and a series of books that have explored the implications of a concern for caring with education (The Challenge to Care in Schools - 1992; Educating Moral People - 2002; Happiness and Education - 2003)” (Cavallier, 2004).

Both Gilligan and Noddings have been instrumental in the spread of the ethics of care. Gilligan first developed the idea and then Noddings helped apply the idea to nursing staffs, health care, school programs, welfare programs and much, much more.

Read "The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political and Global"

Virginia Held and the Ethics of Care

Virginia Held is the author of the book "The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political and Global" In her book, Held discusses the potential possessed by this approach to care, as well as the pitfalls.

Held breaks down the theory into five categories that summarize Gilligan's approach. Held's five categories include:

  1. The focus of the approach is on the compelling moral instinct of attending to and meeting the needs of people for which we feel the need to protect
  2. The way in which ethics of care values emotions as a driving factor when it comes to a person's to want what is best for others
  3. The way in which the ethics of care rejects the view of dominant moral theories
  4. The distinction between what is private and what is public, and the importance of each
  5. The relatorial conception of people, which is a dramatic different view than most popular approaches

Herd coveres each of the above mentioned qualities of the ethics of care, and analyzes each benefit when compared to dominant theoretical approaches.

Where Herd differs from the opinions of Gilligan is when it comes to replacing justice with care. Held goes on to discuss how the ethics of care isn't a realistic approach when dealing with justice issues.

Carol Gilligan- Founder of the Ethics of Care Theory

Have you ever heard of normative ethics, also known as the ethics of care?

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Confucian Ethics Compared to the Ethics of Care

The ethics of care is comparable to Confucian ethics in philosophy. Whereas the ethics of care deals with the family as the primary focus where a person can cultivate his or her career, Confucian ethics is believed to be its patriarchal inspiration- a philosophical set of beliefs that focus on the self. Confucius’ moral teachings emphasized self-cultivation, emulation of moral exemplars, and the attainment of skilled judgment rather than knowledge of rules. Many attribute the ethics of care to a Confucian style of thought, where moral character and the embodiment of virtues is essential to personal development.

A Question of Ethics

Read More About Normative Ethics in Philosophy

The Ethics of Care in the Education System, the Welfare System and the Healthcare System

The ethics of care has become crucial to many present day institutions, such as the education system, the welfare system and the healthcare system. “The impartiality and the ‘standpoint of detached fairness’ advocated by liberal theories of justice, overlook, for example, the moral role of attachment to those close to us” (Cavallier, 2002). Ethics of care has become crucial in the health care fields by implementing an aspect of kindness and compassion, a component that had been foreign in such institutions prior.

"We can produce rough generalizations about how caring physicians and nurses respond to patients, for example, but these generalizations will not be subtle enough to give helpful guidance for the next patient. Each situation calls for a set of responses outside any generalization…." (Cavallier, 2002).

Nel Noddings has played a huge role in the growth of the ethics of care in institutions like the health care industry- believing that the cultivation of caring in society is crucial for any society to function properly.

Noddings has made huge strides for the fairly new philosophical view of care ethics.

“Nel Noddings is closely identified with the promotion of the ethics of care, - the argument that caring should be a foundation for ethical decision-making. Her first major work Caring (1984) explored what she described as a 'feminine approach to ethics and moral education'. Her argument starts from the position that care is basic in human life - that all people want to be cared for” (Cavallier, 2002).

Nel Noddings developed the ethics of care based on a philosophical concept of virtue. Virtue ethics have been around for much longer than care ethics and “place great importance on the ‘kind of person one is’” (Cavallier, 2002). Virtue ethics emphasizes that character is more important than conformity to rules and that virtues should be inculcated and cultivated over time through educational interactions, role models. Care of ethics is an offshoot of virtue ethics.

Part Two of Professor Gilligan's Lecture on the Ethics of Care

Comprehending Care: Problems and Possibilities in the Ethics of Care

Opponents of the Ethics of Care

Despite its many practical uses, there are opponents of care-based ethics. “Those who accept more traditional approaches to ethics argue that care ethics can promote favoritism which violates fairness and impartiality” (New World Encylcopedia, 2008). Care ethics is still in the beginning stages of its development in philosophy and needs to answer many questions regarding who the ethics of care will deal with justice, fairness and non-discrimination.

The ethics of care is a new approach in the centuries old practice of philosophy, but it is a practical one nonetheless. Both Gilligan and Noddings have made huge strides to help put care ethics in the minds of healthcare professionals, welfare workers, educators and more. Though the philosophical approach still needs much developing, it is a beneficial approach for many areas and will be a huge benefit once the idea comes to fruition.

Watch Part Three of a Live Discussion on the Ethics of Care

© 2014 Kathleen Odenthal


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