We sometimes think of the domains of ethics and morality as divorced from feeling and emotion. You keep your promises because it maximizes good.
This week, we’re thinking about feminism and care ethics. Caring and being cared for are really important for human flourishing. Imagine a person who cared about nothing but him or herself. Such a person would be a monster. On the flip side, a person that nobody else cared about at all would be lonely and invisible.
But caring has its risks too. Caring about one person too much can cause you to care about other people too little. Or you can care about the wrong things altogether. Imagine a person who cared mostly about doing everything in their power to embarrass other people. Such a person would be very strange indeed. But figuring out who and what to care about and to what degree—that can be a tricky thing.
Still, there are a few clear cases of where our care and concern should lie. I clearly owe my own children more care than I owe complete strangers. I would never abandon my station as their caregiver and run off, even to do something very noble like working to save starving children in some distant land.
That is not to say it’s okay to be entirely indifferent to the needs of those starving, distant children. It would certainly be wrong of me to let excessive concern for my own children make me totally blind to their needs. And I’m not indifferent; indeed, I have no desire whatsoever to see them starved or trafficked or neglected. But I do admit that, although I am not indifferent to their needs, I am more partial to my own children than I am to the children of others.
But therein there still lies a potential problem. Caring about someone typically comes with a degree of partiality toward them. To care about someone is to elevate their needs to some degree in your calculation of what matters. But justice sometimes requires us to adopt an impartial point of view. And this requires us not to favor one person’s needs over another, but to regard them, at least initially, as equally important. Hence some people worry that an ethics of care—which involves and permits partiality to some over others—may be irreconcilable with the demands of justice, which often requires impartiality.
While impartiality sounds good and morally compelling in the abstract, it’s not entirely clear what it can mean in practice. After all, I’m not in a position to take care of children around the world as I can my own children. Nor is it clear that focusing on my children is necessarily incompatible with the demands of impartial justice. Isn’t it a good thing that I do what I can to help those I am most able to help? Does impartial justice really require me to do otherwise? I don’t mean to suggest that I should let my care for my children take up all my energies. For example, instead of buying your child that extra toy that he thinks he just can't live without, I might donate the money I would otherwise spend on that extra toy to some charity devoted to helping disadvantaged children around the world.
We need to distinguish here the concept of caring about someone from the concept of taking care of them. I care about lots of people I’m in no position to take care of. In the abstract, maybe impartiality does require me to care about all children equally. But it doesn't follow that my personal energies should be equally devoted to taking care of them on a day to day basis, which is a good thing, since I couldn’t possibly do so, even if I wanted to.
But this raises an important a question. How do we ensure that people in need are adequately cared for? On whose shoulders should the burden of caring fall? Now I know where the burden mostly does fall—on the shoulders of women, whether in the family or in the paid caring economy. That’s one reason that feminists care so much about the ethics of care.
When I talk about the ‘burden” of caring, I don’t mean to deny the intrinsic worth and importance of caring for others. The work of caring is noble work. And it can be deeply spiritually and emotionally rewarding. We should praise the overburdened women who so often do care work in our society. But we should also pay them. That we don’t is a form of injustice. In the context of the family, care work is basically uncompensated labor, unequally shared between men and women. Even in the paid economy, care work is radically undercompensated. Paid care workers are atomized, marginalized, stigmatized, and exploited. And they’re mostly women of color.
Given how crucial to human flourishing caring and care work clearly are, it makes no real moral or economic sense for us to treat care workers the way we do. And this raises the question of what we can do collectively to elevate the status of care work in a society that seems for not entirely clear reasons to care so little about those who do most of the caring.
Perhaps you have some thoughts. If you do, join the conversation. Indeed, do so, even if you have more questions than answers.