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.
Very interesting point of view, specifically utilitarianism and how it would affect the minority groups after the COVID-19 circumstances. The article interests me a lot in terms of there is a bidirectional relationship ethics of care and the pandemic circumstances. I agree with your opinion that we should adopt an ethic of care in the pandemic era however utilitarianism still is more effective for governments. In a pandemic, it is inevitable to need strong ethical values to treat people equally. Considering governments move according to their interest from utilitarianism perspective, they are insisting to retain their policies although claiming the opposite proposition. It is a controversial issue in most countries where lockdown decisions are made to assess the financial risks of the situation rather than the overwhelming conditions of healthcare units, or could the vaccine be another concern now as to who will be able to reach first by what criteria? Ethics of care would be my first choice too.
Hi Ana. The article was a very good read, and it was a smart move to weave in the current situation with Covid-19. I do firmly believe the ethics of care is extremely important, and something that people should be looking at at least a little bit. Since its not an ethical dilemma that politicians cover or seem to even remotely care about since they have different incentives; more than likely economic incentives and trying to keep themselves in office.
I enjoyed your article above and its relevance and importance to our lives today during this time of instability. I think that although ethics of care is very important, it is not one that politicians prioritise as they have different incentives and perhaps from a economical perspective utilitarianism may be more effective to them. Although I think that in the handling of COVID they have in fact placed a greater importance on the ethics of care and prioritising the old people while ignoring the principles of utilitarianism by ignoring and not analysing the negative consequences of their measures on the economy and peoples health. For example, in my opinion lockdown measures have far worse consequences on our health than the virus itself.
– Cosmo Osmond
Hello Ana Maria,
Very interesting article, and I enjoyed how you applied it to the ongoing Covid pandemic. Nevertheless, maybe it’s exclusive to this particular scenario, but do the most popular ethical doctrines become dogmatic and ineffective when related to real life cases? You assert that both a Utilitarian approach and a principled one fall short of looking after the most vulnerable – what are some real life examples of them succeeding in doing so?
Gavin, there are plenty of examples of how principle-based theories can help the vulnerable, such as the rights of children (against multinationals using child labour in developing regions), or those of abused women or children (in the absence of relevant legislation). The problem is with utilitarianism, which by definition recommends that we make decisions based on the happiness principle, and the way to determine that is by considering what works for the largest number of people – in other words, the majority. That automatically places any minority at a disadvantage – hence, as you say, the theory falls short of looking after the most vulnerable. I’m not a big fan of generalisations, especially when they bring together things (or theories) as different as utilitarian and principle-based approaches. So I would not haste to conclude that all popular theories become dogmatic and ineffective. But I would signal the risk – and look for ways to mitigate it. One such way would be to recommend a more nuanced interpretation (and application) of utilitarianism – one that would integrate minority rights in its judgement. Because, remember, a theory is not a pattern that we must apply without thinking; the most important part in the application of utilitarianism is how we evaluate the various consequences (positive and negative, for various people) of either action – before we choose the course of action we want to recommend.