The ethics of care

April 27, 2020

There is always a competition between different ‘ethics’ out there – because different people, cultures and organisations have different normative frameworks; or they have no framework at all but are guided by different instincts, preferences, or allegiances to various religions or ideologies.

From a philosophical viewpoint, the most popular distinction is that between a utilitarian and a principle-based framework. Some consider virtue ethics a third option; I tend to see it as a principle-based type of reasoning.

But ethics is a practical field – or at least that is where it should be tested, in my view. In practice. Which raises the bar, from normative challenges, to action-focused scenarios. It’s not enough to have a normative framework that makes sense (in theory), from a logical point of view; it has to have applicability potential, too.

So, where does that leave us, in the current scenario – with the whole world being affected by the pandemic? How should we choose, given the challenges posed by the new way of life – the scale of loss and suffering, the unmeasurable impact on the most vulnerable, and the inequality of it all?

I put to you that none of the traditional frameworks are entirely appropriate. Each of them may be, taken separately, justifiable (and therefore necessary), but they are far from sufficient. What I would suggest is that an ethics of care should be our primary choice, in the current circumstances. Neither principle, nor utility can guarantee that both individuals (no matter how small) and communities, will be looked after. Utilitarianism – we know – privileges the majority, to the detriment of the minority. And principles are often too lofty and abstract to be applicable. Only an ethics of care would prioritise looking after the other – whomever and wherever they may be.

If I had to choose a candidate for a global ethics, for here and now, the ethics of care would be my first choice.