Care Theory

Slightly Revised: August 23, 2002

Many of the ideas as well as the principle of care quoted on this page are derived from a recent edition of Manuel G. Velasquez, Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall), chapter 2. Those who have access to Velasquez's textbook are urged to consult his fuller discussion. Velasquez's treatment in turn is derived from a large and growing literature by care theorists. See Further Reading below.--J. G.

It has been argued that some ethical duties cannot be justified by theories of rights, justice and utility. All of these theories are inspired by the law, which is supposed to be impartial, or science, which is objective and impersonal. It's no accident that rights theories and utilitarianism arose during the early modern era, the period when modern science and the nation-state, with its uniform body of laws, and the world market, with its laws of supply and demand, emerged.

Some people argue that at least some of our duties are based upon the concrete relationships we have with other persons. These emerge in particular circumstances and they have a very particular history in each case.

An example of how care ethics might work in business is provided by the case of the Malden Mills textile factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Malden Mills was a highly successful producer of specialty fabrics. But the Malden Mills textile factory was destroyed in a fire. The owner, Aaron Feuerstien, could have taken the insurance money and rebuilt his factory in a third world country where the labor was much cheaper. This would have been entirely legal, and might have been the most profitable thing to do. Perhaps it could perhaps have been given a defense on the basis of rights (as understood by libertarianism) and maybe even utilitarianism. It would have been difficult to use justice arguments to criticize him if he had picked up and left. On the impartial view of justice, Latin American workers would have just as much right to Feuerstein's jobs as the workers with whom he had build a successful company in the U.S.

But Aaron Feuerstein decided to stand by his workers. He decided to rebuild the plant in Lawrence and paid the workers full wages with full medical benefits while the factory was being reconstructed.

Feuerstein seems to have approached this choice along the line advocated by Care Ethics, for which the concrete relationships which we have with other persons is the most important moral fact. The task of ethics is to respond to particular individuals with whom we have valuable and close relationships. Compassion, concern, love, friendship, and kindness are owed in proportion to the closeness and value of these relationships.

We can express this as a principle in the following way:

We should preserve and nurture the concrete relations which we have with specific persons; exercise special care for those with whom we are concretely related, attending to their own needs, values, etc. and responding positively to these needs, etc., especially of those most vulnerable.

Warning: Care Theorists stress the importance of sensitivity to the entire context of choice. They are highly critical of attempts to reduce ethical choice to following rules that admit of no exception. Thus, it would be a mistake to think that care theorists would automatically oppose abortion because of the mother's concrete and intimate relation to the fetus. This would be one important consideration but not the only one: the woman's other concrete relationships could be equally important in the way she arrives at her decision.

A care ethic de-emphasizes the idea of the independent individual and instead stresses that persons exist in a web of relationships. In this respect, it is the polar opposite of libertarianism as an ethical theory.

It is also different from utilitarianism and justice theories because it works with what I call a thick conception of history. Utilitarianism is concerned with the future, not with history, because it decides on the basis of probable consequences of action. The abstract principles of justice can take the past into account, but only clear and distinct aspects of the past. How much did A contribute to the work of the firm this year (in comparison to B's contribution)? (The answer determines how big a bonus A should receive [in relation to B]?) Care ethics tries to be sensitive to the indefinitely complex system of relationships that build up in a community over time, or even within a family over time.

Criticisms: A one-sided care ethic can conflict with the demands of justice. Some of the concrete relationships in which we exist are oppressive or exploitative--should those be nurtured and preserved? A qualified or modified care ethic will incorporate a theory of rights or justice so as to guard against this possible problem.

Further Reading: Rosemary Tong's "Feminist Ethics" article on Feminist Ethics article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. See in particular her sections on "Feminine Approaches to Ethics" and "Maternal Approaches to Ethics."