What is ‘An Ethics of Care’ and Why is it Important?

Sophie Harbour

Sophie Harbour is a recent Masters of Political Science graduate from the University of Witwatersrand. Her research interests include human rights, political motivation and the ethics of care.”

In the wake of the New Zealand terror attack, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who took office towards the end of 2017, has been hailed across informal and formal media sources as a true leader. This is not due to her swift action in terms of gun control measures, but instead due to her immediate and continued displays of compassion that drew praise from individuals in New Zealand and across the world. A New York times editorial hailed her as ‘the leader America needs’ and a range of journalists, professors, celebrities and social media sharers all contributed to the tide of applause. This display of compassion – of care – has made the New Zealand PM an overnight symbol. What political effect does this have? Does it show the power that compassion can wield in the public sphere? And, could it push mainstream discussion towards greater engagement with ‘an ethics of care’?

In general, ideas of care can be found across current political spaces. For example, the UK’s Brexit and Venezuela’s presidential crises, along with numerous other events in recent years, have caused concern over the lack of politician’s care for citizens’ views and demands. In South Africa, the most reported violation of human rights is discrimination, particularly hate speech, suggesting the continuing deterioration of caring relations between persons and groups. In addition, with regard to dependency (one of the key tenets of care theory), there is often the persistent recognition yet continued disregard of the dependent nature of people and nations politically, economically and socially.

At the same time, exploration of an ethics of care remains undervalued. In general, the theory places emphasis on crucial realities in human societies including dependency, vulnerability and emotion. It has its origins in feminist thought and feminist moral theory, specifically in the early works of Carol Gilligan (1982/1993) and Nel Noddings (1984/2013) who argued, respectively, that the female ‘voice’ carries with it important contributions to understanding justice (largely as a consequence of a better grasp of care) and that focus on relationships, rather than individual justice, should form the basis of our moral reasoning. It is important to remember that an ethics of care is not just about ‘caring more’. It is, instead, an important range of considerations, theories, and arguments that create an alternative foundation for moral reasoning and that lend themselves to a better understanding of social and political realities in a way that may create useful approaches to modern crises. Crucially, these approaches rely on giving more attention to the way humans operate, and are motivated to operate, from within networks of relations and in an overwhelmingly contextual manner.

The theory continues to be extended by a number of authors with regard to various topics: in relation to the moral sentimentalism of Hume, understandings of empathy, and in reconciling care with talent (Slote, 2007; 2013); in terms of equality with particular regard to caregivers and their dependants (Kittay, 1999); for insights on political violence (Held, 2006); for the potential of a such an ethic to be applied globally (Robinson, 1999); and how such an ethic fits into an approach to human security (Robinson, 2011), amongst others. Yet, there is still more research to be done and time to be dedicated to the application, in a more real way, of an ethics of care in current societies.

It is an approach that has an important stake in conversations around compassionate leadership, emotions in the political space, concern over individual and group immorality, and global dependency – conversations that are continually circulating in current politics. Adopting and adapting understandings from this theory could have some important insights for current crises and for political motivation. Hopefully, the attention the New Zealand PM has received in her recent actions will continue to bring the ideas of care and compassion into key conversations.

  • Gilligan, C. 1982/1993. ​In a Different Voice.​ Harvard University Press.
  • Held, V. 2006. ​The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global.​ Oxford University Press.
  • Kittay, E. F. 1999. ​Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency​. ​New York: Routledge.
  • Noddings, N., 1984/2013. ​Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics.​ University of​ ​California Press.
  • Robinson, F. 1999.​ Globalising Care: Feminist Theory, Ethics and International Relations. ​Westview Press.
  • Robinson, F. 2011. ​The Ethics of Care: A Feminist Approach to Human Security. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Slote, M. 2007. ​The Ethics of Care and Empathy.​ Routledge.
  • Slote, M. 2013. Education and Human Values: Reconciling Talent with An Ethics of Care. New York/London: Routledge.