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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Care Ethics

Care Ethics

Jonathan Kwan is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at New York University Abu Dhabi and was previously the Markkula Center’s Inclusive Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow in Immigration Ethics. Views are his own.

What does it take to care for someone, say a friend, a parent, a partner, or even a stranger? Somehow, merely appealing to general moral principles—for example, to maximize the overall net amount of happiness in the world (not even specifically your friend’s own happiness but only indirectly) or to respect everyone’s rights—seems to miss the mark. We care for the particular individuals with whom we share valuable relationships, by attending in nuanced ways to their whole person, including their needs, feelings, and interests. And we do so not for the sake of some abstract moral end (not even because caring for them would make us more virtuous people) and not simply by mechanically applying rules. We can even ask, not just of our personal relationships, but of our social practices and political institutions—might they be more caring?

Care ethics sees care as a morally rich and generative notion that should be at the heart of ethical thinking and decision-making (and that is often ignored by other ethical theories). In so doing, care ethics emphasizes the value of people’s relationships, the universality of human dependence on others, the significance of emotions and the body, and the context-sensitive nature of ethical deliberation that does not merely follow abstract moral rules. Care ethicists employ these interconnected ideas, each of which will be elaborated upon further in this essay, to develop a distinctive and cohesive theory and picture of ethics.

One of the first explicit formulations of care ethics can be traced back to the work of psychologist Carol Gilligan in the 1980s.[1] Gilligan rejected a model of moral development advanced by Lawrence Kohlberg that characterized universalized principled thinking as the pinnacle of moral development, and that found girls scored lower than boys on this count. Gilligan criticized Kohlberg’s model for its gender bias and argued that instead of being worse moral reasoners, girls often reasoned in a “different voice”—a voice of care—that focused on people’s relationships with others and paid attention to the nuanced context of moral dilemmas, rather than simply applying general principles. Although many feminist thinkers have since continued developing care ethics in new directions, care ethics is neither identical with nor does it exhaust all of feminist ethics. Furthermore, care ethics is not simply concerned with the perspectives of women (nor is feminist ethics for that matter) but is meant to guide all of us in our ethical decision-making, no matter our gender. Gilligan herself never characterized the voice of care as a difference of gender, but instead as one of theme. Additionally, although the academic origin of care ethics can be located within Gilligan’s work, the notion of care can be found in moral perspectives across a number of cultural traditions including ones from outside the West, such as African communitarian views, Indigenous worldviews, Confucianism, and Buddhism.

Care ethics begins by taking people’s relationships with other individuals to be paradigmatic contexts of morality. One’s relationships with one’s friends or family, for example, are often morally valuable and generally generate duties and motivations to act. Moreover, one cares about the particular people one has a shared history and relationship with and one cares about them for their own sake. For example, one loves one’s own mother—not just any person will do nor can anyone replace her—and one loves her for her own sake and not simply because she is instrumentally useful for realizing other interests (though she may also be so helpful, as moms often are).

Not all relationships are valuable, of course. As such, care ethics also pays attention to what is required for relationships to be healthy, reciprocal, and caring, rather than abusive, exploitative, or unfair. Furthermore, care ethics is not limited just to considering personal relationships that are especially intimate or close, but can also extend to professional relationships, political relationships with fellow citizens, and even global relationships with distant others across the world.

Second, care ethics recognizes that human dependence on others is universal—in contrast to other ethical theories that present an image of humans as wholly independent, atomistic, or simply in competition with each other. All people depend on and require care from others to flourish and meet their needs. This is perhaps most obvious when people grow up, grow old, become sick, or experience a disability. But of course, even healthy functioning adults are not islands unto themselves but depend on others in all sorts of ways. Even if independent autonomy is a valuable ideal, this ideal can only be realized against the background of our mutual interdependence, in which caring relationships are recognized as in fact enabling rather than restricting autonomy.

Next, instead of basing morality purely on reason, care ethics recognizes the moral significance of both our emotions and our bodies. Caring for people (including oneself) involves both caring actions that meet people’s needs and caring attitudes in which one feels care for others or for oneself in the right ways. This isn’t to say that all emotions are equally valuable or that all emotional reactions should be automatically considered valid, rather than sometimes in need of further reflection or revision. Nonetheless, care ethics emphasizes the importance of emotions such as sympathy, empathy, and compassion that enable individuals to be more attentive and responsive to the needs of others and to imagine themselves in the perspectives of others. Such emotions can aid, instead of hinder, ethical reasoning. Even emotions such as anger may not merely be negative or undesirable attitudes but rather can exemplify the correct ethical response in certain situations, such as when expressing moral outrage at a grave injustice.

Connected with its valuing of emotions and in contrast to ethical views that dichotomize the mind (reason) and the body, care ethics acknowledges the moral significance of the fact that humans are and have bodies. Caring for embodied creatures such as ourselves requires, among other things, responding appropriately to people’s feelings, meeting people’s basic needs and interests, and recognizing human vulnerability and dependence on others.

Finally, care ethics often points to the inadequacy of merely following a set of abstract moral rules in one’s ethical deliberation and behavior. This is no surprise, given the other commitments of care ethics as previously described. Care ethics countenances caring for particular others with whom one shares a relationship, and recognizing the ways in which the unique character of such relationships impacts the ethical issues at stake in each circumstance. As such, simply applying general moral rules in an automatic or top-down way will often fail to appropriately engage with the nuances and complexities present in our caring relationships. Perhaps a rule should even sometimes be violated or an exception admitted—and for good reason. Care ethics calls on us to be more sensitive to the context of each situation and to leverage the full repertoire of our ethical capacities, including our affective, emotional, and embodied responses, when deciding how to act. This isn’t necessarily to reject any role whatsoever for moral rules or principles (which may nonetheless be helpful in other regards, such as in maintaining moral consistency) or even to deny that principles of care can potentially be developed. However, it is an acknowledgment of the limitations of rule-following in ethics, and of the importance also of judgment and context-sensitivity. Care (that is, nuanced attention to particulars) must be taken when taking care.

Contemporary care ethicists are neither the first nor the only ones to appreciate the importance and wide-ranging implications of the notion of care for ethics. The commitments of care ethics have broad cross-cultural appeal and can be found in various moral traditions outside the West, such as various African worldviews, Indigenous perspectives, Confucianism, and Buddhism, to name but a few. While recognizing that there is, of course, no such thing as a singular monolithic African moral theory, many scholars point out that the moral-philosophical worldviews of Black sub-Saharan societies share many commonalities that overlap with care ethics.[2] Moral perspectives indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa are often communitarian and relational in their sensibilities: they value community, recognize how people are dependent on and bound up with others in important ways, emphasize the importance of emotions such as compassion and sympathy, and attend to particularity and context and not just principles. Many Indigenous views, while themselves diverse in various ways, are also often relational and recognize, in particular, the importance of caring for the environment of which humans are a part. For example, Māori (the Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa/New Zealand) concepts of whanaungatanga (kinship), kaitiakitanga (guardianship), and manaakitanga (care) value reciprocal interdependent relationships with others, including ancestors in the past, future generations, and the land itself, and emphasize the stewardship and protection of humans and non-humans alike.[3]

Likewise, within Asian contexts, Confucianism prioritizes people’s relationships (especially familial ones), views emotions and feelings as crucial ethical responses, balances between principles and context-sensitive judgment, and endorses values such as ren (仁)—translated variously as benevolence, humanity, or even goodness—that involve cultivating care for others.[4] Finally, Buddhism famously denies that there is any such thing as a Self, or an essence that constitutes or makes individuals who they are (in the way that, for instance, a polygon with three sides makes a triangle a triangle). One consequence of the Buddhist no-Self doctrine is a (radically) relational conceptualization of people that emphasizes the cultivation of caring states such as karuṇā (care or compassion), muditā (sympathetic joy), mettā (love), and upekṣā (equanimity).[5] After all, if there is no essential Self, then there’s no reason not to care about eliminating suffering wherever it exists and regardless of who is experiencing it.

The affinities between care ethics, on the one hand, and African communitarian perspectives, Indigenous Māori views, Confucianism, and Buddhism, on the other, does not necessarily mean these various ethical approaches are just versions of care ethics rather than distinct if related cousins that themselves may contribute to or even revise care ethics. Nonetheless, when care ethics is deployed as one lens among many to aid in ethical decision-making, as the Markkula Center’s Framework suggests (instead of as merely a stand-alone theory in competition with others), it is salutary that such a lens is not parochially Western but resonates with ethical perspectives found within a variety of cultural traditions.

The very richness of the notion of care allows the lens of care ethics to be fruitfully applied to a wide variety of ethical issues ranging from the personal to the political. Care ethics can help us think through how to become better and more caring friends, children, parents, partners, co-workers, citizens, fellow humans, fellow creatures of our planet, etc. Alongside caring for others, care ethics can also empower us to practice better self-care, by acknowledging and responding appropriately to our own emotions, bodies, vulnerability, needs, and relationships (both with others and with our own selves).

In addition to guiding personal relationships, care ethics provides resources for evaluating social, economic, and political institutions and practices. How should schools, businesses, nonprofit organizations, social groups, and governments, for instance, be organized to contribute to and support caring relationships? How are existing policies, laws, social norms, systems, or organizations uncaring (if they are)? Many government programs fundamentally center around care: healthcare, Medicare, welfare, education, foster care, disability care, etc. How should such programs be structured to best realize their missions? How can care work, the labor required to take care of others, be fairly distributed and rewarded in society? What are our duties to care for the environment or non-human animals? As care ethicists have long underscored, care—whether exemplified in caring relationships, caring attitudes, caring practices, or caring institutions—is very much at the core of ethics.

[1] Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).

[2] Sandra Harding, “The Curious Coincidence of Feminine and African Moralities,” in Women and Moral Theory, ed. Eva Feder Kittay and Diane Meyers (Towota, NJ: Rowan & Littlefield, 1989), 296–317; Thaddeus Metz, “The Western Ethic of Care or an Afro-Communitarian Ethic? Specifying the Right Relational Morality,” Journal of Global Ethics 9, no. 1 (April 2013): 77–92,; Amanda Gouws and Mikki van Zyl, “Towards a Feminist Ethics of Ubuntu: Bridging Rights and Ubuntu,” in Care Ethics and Political Theory, ed. Daniel Engster and Maurice Hamington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 165–86.

[3] Amohia Boulton and Tula Brannelly, “Care Ethics and Indigenous Values: Political, Tribal and Personal,” in Ethics of Care: Critical Advances in International Perspective, ed. Marian Barnes et al. (Bristol: Policy Press, 2015), 69–82.

[4] Maureen Sander-Staudt, “Caring Reciprocity as Relational and Political Ideal in Confucianism and Care Ethics,” in Care Ethics and Political Theory, ed. Daniel Engster and Maurice Hamington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 165–86; Chenyang Li, “Confucian Ethics and Care Ethics: The Political Dimension of a Scholarly Debate,” Hypatia 30, no. 4 (2015): 897–903,

[5] Jay L. Garfield, Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 289–90.