International Center for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW)

A care-ethical perspective

by Lena Schlegel

15.04.2020 · The coronavirus outbreak has unravelled everyday lives and societal relations across the world. In no time, the pandemic has gained control over markets, political apparatuses, and our everyday lives alike. From effects on the global economy, over travel restrictions and short-time work, to the massive reduction of public life and individual social and physical isolation – we can see and feel the effects of the crisis everywhere. In the course of all this, the coronavirus pandemic raises questions of responsibility and appropriate response to a situation quite novel to us. We are confronted with deep vulnerabilities as we fear for ourselves and for others to be affected by the disease. We also feel insecure in light of the rapid changes in the world around us. At the same time, the corona pandemic reveals a great deal of societal ills. It alerts us to the painful consequences of financial cuts in the health sector, highlights the limits of the free market to regulate, and draws attention to the wanting appreciation for caring professions in society, such as health and child care, provision of food and essentials, and rescue services.

Just how important practices of care are for the functioning of social order, becomes all the more apparent, when we speak of them as “system relevant” professions in the ongoing crisis. However, the importance of care is not limited to times of crisis, but is a crucial aspect for all social life. Clearly, we should value the work of health and child care workers, grocery clerks and rescue service personnel not just during a pandemic crisis. We shouldn´t leave it at cheering at them from our balconies during self-isolation. Hence, sooner or later we need to face the question how we want and should reshape our societies in consequence of this crisis. In this article, I explore the potential of a care-ethical perspective on societal relations beyond the coronavirus crisis.

The idea to strengthen the societal worth of care work has not just emerged with the coronavirus crisis, but is reinforced by it. A variety of care-ethical arguments have been made by feminist authors like Carol Gilligan, Joan Tronto or Selma Sevenhuijsen, to name only a few. These theories have explored care as a fundamental societal practice, as well as an ethical-analytical perspective on social relations. The concept thereby refers to both practicing care, and to affectively caring for others, or for particular social or political issues. Both dimensions are essential to be able to assume moral responsibility within relationships of care. Following María Puig de la Bellacasa, an ethical theory of care involves an ethico-political engagement with the conflicting aspects of care.

An ethics of care assumes that all our relationships – to self, to others and to the broader world – are characterised by (conflicting) caring needs. Moral responsibility, in this sense, arises from our being-in-relation with others and the world. Everyone requires care in a variety of ways. In consequence, vulnerabilities and dependencies are not seen as weaknesses, but as necessary parts of our lives. It is thus quite alright to feel overwhelmed by the coronavirus crisis. The question is rather how to respond appropriately to the uncomfortable feelings raised by it, such as helplessness, guilt and existential fear (about one´s own life, the lives of others, or the loss of the world around us). How can we come to terms with these unsettling feelings and how can we assume responsibility for another and for which others?

A care-ethical response might suggest looking deeper into those uncomfortable feelings and facing the underlying conflicts revealed by them. Caring entails conflict and responsibility arises from ethico-political engagement with these conflicts. There are more caring needs in the world than can be met. What is more, caring may not always be what is considered positive. Relations of care are usually hierarchical and as such may entail negative dependencies, e.g. when a child-caring position is misused or when physical care is applied without affection. This implies that we have responsibility towards those others we share relations of care with. If we understand broader societal relations as relationships of care, a variety of responsibilities emerge in regard to the precarious situations of many due to the pandemic: Employers carry responsibility for their employees, house owners for their tenants, states for their citizens, et cetera.

At the same time, it is possible to care deeply for others and to perceive their needs, but without taking on practical care for them – raising questions of responsibility again. Because where practical care is required, caring affectively for someone is not enough. This becomes evident, for instance, in the situation of 20.000 people awaiting not only the coronavirus but also a humanitarian crisis at Lesbos refugee camp “Moria” where abysmal living conditions prevail. Caring for their situation is not enough, we must assume responsibility for their lives. As individuals, we may feel helpless, but as embedded parts of society, we are quite able to call actors to responsibility at other societal levels. For example, like this plea by Amnesty International to evacuate the camp directed at the German federal administration. Practicing good care, so to speak, depends upon the ability to perceive a caring need in its complexity and to judge it accordingly.

Engaging with our moral responsibility towards refugees in Moria at times where we scarcely leave our own homes, highlights another core aspect of an ethics of care: As a contextual ethics, it emphasises the embeddedness of individuals in social contexts. Moral judgements, according to Joan Tronto, need to accommodate the complexity of a given situation. In consequence, we are not to assume the position of an uninvolved observer in our ethical judgements. Rather, we need to acknowledge that through our relationships we are always already part of a particular ethico-political constellation. Therefore, care ethics do not offer universal ethical guiding principles, but emphasize the responsibility arising from specific societal contexts and particular webs of relationships. On the other hand, we should not feel enticed to reduce the realm of our moral community, for example to national or European borders, in order to refrain from responsibility. An impression that arises, for example, when the EU is refusing Corona-Bonds, or in the uncompromising competition for urgently required medical equipment such as protective masks between states on the world market.

We are responsible for people in other states, refugees, and communities of the Global South, and for the world we share with one another. The care-perspective can help grasping these chains of responsibility and to trace back our part in those relationships which seem less proximate: We do have responsibility towards the people in Bangladesh who sew our clothes under inhumane conditions; towards those who extract rare earth elements from the ground in Congo at the hazard of their life; towards those whose homes are already on fire or under flood in consequence of the unfolding climate crisis…

What we care for, depends upon what we care about. By including some things into the realm of our ethical considerations and excluding others, we always already make moral judgements with political consequences. This reflection should be key, when we evaluate societal consequences of the coronavirus experience in the long term. It means not only that we need to have long overdue public discourses about fair wages in caring professions, an appreciation of the value of care work, and the urgent strengthening of the welfare state, as for instance reflected in the renewed debate about an unconditional basic income.

By highlighting our deep entanglements with others and the world, the care-perspective also allows for a more fundamental ethico-political reflection of societal relations beyond the crisis. We should aim not to avoid the complex questions of an unbounded world, but rather to critically engage with their challenges, and our responsibilities. Taking care seriously, hence, implies an acknowledgement of our responsibilities concerning social inequalities, global justice and ecological crises, beyond our immediate life world.

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