Care Ethics. Appreciating the Sorrow of Women’s History Month.

Ethics of Care? While studying moral philosophy especially history of ethics, there are hardly any women philosophers that one gets to read. If there was a predominantly male focused area of study it would definitely be Philosophy. Hence, I was delighted when I was introduced to feminist ethics. Hardly a stranger to highly educated women, since the Philosophy department at UC Davis is perhaps one of the only few departments with equal number of female and male professors. Furthermore, having spent my younger years under the tutelage of one of Pakistan’s highly acclaimed High School teachers ironically the Principal of an all boys religious school section. Therefore, perhaps I was more receptive of the literature then a student who has not had much exposure to applied ethics of care.

Ethics of care is still a contemporary position according to the author Joan Tronto an prominent professor at the University of Minnesota. According to the professor when the term Care Ethics is mentioned, for many it invokes a form of ‘women’s morality’. Therefore, this invoked idea leads to the ethics of care being dismissed as a system that should holds its own alongside the many theories of applied ethics. Women’s Morality is something that is envisioned as instinctive and therefore perhaps partial and not in the realm of moral choice.

The professor then argues that the ethics of care cannot be understood unless it is placed in it’s full moral capacity.

The four elements of care then put forward by Berenice Fisher and the Professor are then;

  1. Caring about, noticing the need to care in the first place.
  2. Taking care of assuming responsibility for care.
  3. Care-giving, the actual work of care that needs to be done
  4. Care Receiving the response of that which is care for to the care.

From these four elements of care arise four ethical elements of care; attentiveness, responsibility, competence and responsiveness.

What is Caring:

The predominant ideal that held in the 19th century and is an ideal that cannot be dislodged that easily developed, with the ‘middle-class men into the capitalist market place and the exclusion of their wives from paid work. The cult domesticity emphasized women’s emotional and moral sensibilities (versus the physical work of caring that could be done by servants.) the duty of caring (versus the right to compete and express individual interest that was exercised by men.) and the intensely private nature of caring (versus the public business of politics and profit-making.).

Furthermore caring is not as simple as it seems and it involves certain ability factors, specific preconditions of caring activity. The most important of these abilities being time, material resources, knowledge and skill.

Caring About:

“Caring about is the phase of the caring process in which we select out attend to the features of our environment that bear on our survival and well-being.”

There is no intrinsic time limit to caring about.

What we care about intertwines with what we know about. We expect people to have knowledge of what they care about and certain types of knowledge will lead to caring.

Caring about does not bring with it skills although certain skills and trained perception may shape what we care about.

Material resources do-not prevent us to care although lack or abundance of resources has an impact on what we care about.

Love and affection play an important role in caring although caring extends beyond these particular emotions.

Taking Care of

“Taking care of implies the responsibility of initiating and maintaining caring activities.”

Take Care of is different from Caring About as taking care of requires more continuous time spent and more explicit knowledge of the situation than does Caring About. When we Care About we assume responsibility and therefore we are accountable for the consequences and hence we need to know enough to predict the outcome of our intervention.

Hence then the most important skill that Caring About requires is the skill of judgement. As judgement is required to make choices or to choose one resource over the other, there is an assumption and ‘pervasive contradiction’ with power and the ability to not only judge but to command resources.

Care Giving:

“Caregiving is the concrete (sometimes called hands-on) work of maintaining and repairing our world.”

Care giving requires more time commitment and a dense time commitment than taking care of.

The knowledge required for care giving varies as it requires a more detailed, everyday understanding.

Care Receiving:

“Care Receiving can be defined as the response to caregiving by those towards whom care is directed.”

As caregiving acts upon something or someone else there will necessarily be a response to it.  The response may-not be intentional, conscious or even human and it may further be conditioned by the ability factors in the caring situation.


“The bureaucratic mode of caring relies upon large-scale hierarchical organizations to accomplish caring in the marketplace and public sector.”

Much like any bureaucracy, caring is governed then by market forces and it is a political process quite fragmented and at times inadequate.

Feminist Ideals of Caring:

Feminism has encouraged women to understand the character of house hold caring, to explore it’s traditional norms and to reconsider the social structures that limit its functions. Three central relationships in household life are fully explored; motherhood, friendship and sisterhood.

Work Cited. 

Circles of Care: Work and Identity of Women’s Lives.

Personal Thoughts:

Well, Care Ethics has important implications both in the private sector, public sector and especially in the health sector. Women form the basis of many households and the responsibilities that women have only in the recent years received much attention and study. The application of care ethics is prominent in the fields of Bio-Ethics pertaining to subjects such as surrogation, abortion and more importantly so in the fields of human rights. These are important areas of research that can benefit from further research and application of care-ethics. I look forward to further research and appreciation of the part women play in our everyday lives, be it as a mother, friend or sister.

I also look forward to reducing the inequality that exists between men and women and gender stereotypes that exist in all cultures. Furthermore, I look forward to researching and writing on Care Ethics and making it an integral part of my repertoire of Applied Ethics.



Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Naomi Shihab Nye


(Additional thoughts forthcoming).

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