The Ethics of Love (care ethics, partiality, and pluralism)

With Valentine’s day upon us, now seems a good time to touch on a metaethical view I have on the whole neglected: care ethics, a moral methodology based in love. It’s an interesting approach to morality arguing that the most basic and preliminary ethical relationship is between a mother and her child, such that our moral theories should be modeled off that relationship. The view is reminiscent of deontology and virtue ethics, espousing the moral value of the motives for actions being that of care and compassion (the deontological aspect), and the showing of practical wisdom in knowing how best to show care without being excessively codling or coolly distancing to build character (Aristotlean virtue of the mean). The most important place that it diverges from these views is in maintaining that partiality, rather than the impartiality posited by the major theories utilitarianism and Kantianism, should be the norm of ethics. So, care ethics welcomes personal biases. I want to consider whether another metaethical theory can accommodate the insight of care ethics without being burdened by the dangers of partiality and bias.

Carol Gilligan writes that, “from a justice perspective, the self as moral agent as the figure stands against a ground of social relationships, judging the conflicting claims of self and others against a standard of equality or equal respect. From a care perspective, the relationship becomes the figure, defining self and others. Within the context of [the] relationship, the self as a moral agent perceives and responds to the perception of need” (“Moral Orientation and Moral Development”).

This is all well and good if we have an infinite amount of time and resources to divvy up, but the truth of the matter is that we are finite beings such that the realm of possibilities for our actions are themselves finite. While the general notion of scarcity seems to be forgotten in Gilligan’s statement, it seems the care ethicist can concede this and maintain that we should respond to need, but only the need of those we care about. Indeed, this is an actual position held by some care ethicists, absurd though it is. I think the position is absurd because it holds that personal relationships trump obligations to strangers every time – for the care ethicist there is no obligation to strangers.

Now, while I think we can recognize that our duties to family members can outweigh the claims of strangers, it is far from the case our familial relationships always win out. Rather than saying that our moral obligations are determined by our emotional reactions, I think the better explanation is that for situations where there is a moral conflict between acting for the benefit of a family member and acting for the benefit of a stranger there is one duty that is the more pressing, and we should act accordingly – it might be the case that the duty to the stranger is weightier, but frequently there are more duties towards family members, causing there to frequently be more reason to aid a family member than a stranger. Thus, we can accommodate the notions of having different duties from varying relationships with persons without shouldering care ethics’ absurd notions of partiality and we can do so by positing a sort of Rossian pluralism.


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  1. #1 by SelfAwarePatterns on February 16, 2014 - 6:56 pm

    Interesting. I’ve never heard of care ethics. I agree that saying we should always be partial to our friends and family is absurd. But one of the reasons I gravitated toward virtue ethics is that, unlike utilitarianism or deontology, it recognizes that duties to one’s friends and family do exist, although as you said, it’s a balancing act that requires judgment. My duty to my uncle’s sensibilities should not require tolerating his racist mistreatment of a black waiter.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on February 17, 2014 - 9:44 am

      Yeah care ethics has perhaps gotten less attention than it deserves, but it’s difficult to say, because I think the view is completely indefensible.

      I think the question comes down to whether there are unique fundamental duties to family members, duties one could never have towards a stranger that one has towards a brother. I’m not sure if that’s true. I do think that I might have duties to my family over strangers, but that is at the level of reasoned moral beliefs, not fundamental duties that are self-evident. I think you and I (for very different reasons, of course) can agree that duties to family members are reasoned out beliefs (for you, reasoned out from instincts) that are not fundamental, but the care ethicist seems to require this.

      Thanks for your comment. And you certainly have no such duty to your uncle in the situation.

  2. #3 by jmeqvist on February 17, 2014 - 4:34 pm

    I generally agree with your thought that care ethics is absurd. Care ethics seems like a philosophy that forgets that one important reason why it is important to develop an understanding of moral principles is to figure out how we should treat those we do not care about. It is precisely because humans generally do not care about all others equally that moral principles are so necessary. I am not fully endorsing a contractarian approach to morality as I disagree deeply with contractarianism as it cannot explain why we care about moral motives or character, but contractarians are certainly right to point out that the articulation of moral principles that apply to all is necessary in order to ensure a decent standard of life for all.

    In essence care ethics gives a profoundly an unacceptable answer to the question “who I should care about?” As Care Ethics seems to suggest that we should care about the people that we care about (those we have emotional attachments), and this answer is unsatisfying, as it denies that there are any rational grounds for caring about one person rather than another.

    I find it troubling that many so called critical approaches like care ethics are so willing to defend moral theories that could justify very parochial activities. I have a very hard time understanding how people who seem to care so much about humanity, can be so suspicious of any form of universalism.

    • #4 by ausomeawestin on February 17, 2014 - 4:59 pm

      Very well said, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I quite like this line: “I have a very hard time understanding how people who seem to care so much about humanity, can be so suspicious of any form of universalism.” A sharp point.

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