Second Wave Of Feminism - Caring Ethics



The ethics of care is by far the most well-known and probably the most contentious feminist ethical theory. This normative moral theory arose from Carol Gilligan's psychology study and is often contrasted with Kantian deontology or justice-based normative theory. 

  • Traditional Kantian ethics has been attacked by several feminist moral theorists for overemphasizing fairness at the expense of relationship-based accountability. 
  • To address this seeming flaw in conventional Kantian ethics, several feminist ethicists have proposed an alternative that utilizes personal connections as both a model for moral responsibility to others and a starting point for making decisions. 


Care in a specific situation, rather than abstract rules of conduct, becomes the ethical decision-making guideline. 

Lawrence Kohlberg, a moral psychologist, created a six-stage model of moral growth, which Gilligan was a student of Kohlberg's phases tracked a child's moral growth from a punishment orientation, in which he or she is obedient (or moral) out of dread of punishment, to the greatest degree of moral development in autonomously chosen universal ethical standards. 

  1. The lower phases all indicated that individuals are moral because they desire to be seen as good by others — in other words, moral decision-making was driven by preserving interpersonal connections or keeping one's reputation as a decent person in the eyes of others. 
  2. The upper phases placed a greater emphasis on abstract law or commercial agreements as the foundation and motivation for moral decision-making. 

Individuals behave autonomously, but the greatest, self-legislated universal ethical standards universalize the principles on which they act such that they would expect all other people to act similarly. 


The context of a choice or the connections that it impacts should not be considered during the discussion. 


Gilligan utilized the identical moral problems and scenarios that Kohlberg had used in his research (which he created by testing male volunteers), but observed that girls and women tended to react by concentrating on the relationships of the players in a moral dilemma scenario. 

  • On the other hand, the boys were more concerned with individual rights and the legitimacy of the fictitious situations. 
  • The players in the dilemma were regarded by the boys as autonomous, self-sufficient people who made moral choices solely on the basis of reason. 
  • The girls saw the different characters as interdependent subjects with a sense of community who made moral choices based on both emotion and reason. 
  • In terms of ethics, this implies that the boys tended to see the characters in the problem as acting in accordance with abstract justice ideals. 
  • The characters, according to the girls, operate based on the value of connections and accountability within those ties. 
  • Females who made moral choices in this way were morally immature, whereas males were at a higher level of moral development, according to Kolhberg's six stages of moral growth. 


Instead of being morally immature, Gilligan found that women just made moral choices differently; her results are published in the book In a Different Voice (1982). 


The reason of this variation in moral decision-making has been investigated by subsequent thinkers. 

Some believe that the gender gap is due to patriarchal indoctrination, while others argue that it is due to women's natural ability to care for others. 

Whatever the reason of women's "different voice" in moral decision-making, Gilligan's work has resulted in the "ethics of caring" thesis, which has changed how all moral theorists think about ethics. 


Some care theorists believe that care stems from family connections, particularly the mother-child bond. Others argue that women think in a different manner, which informs a more compassionate approach to all types of decision-making. 


A web analogy is often used by care theorists to show how caring plays a role in moral decision-making. Consider a spider's web. 

  • The many components of the internet are interconnected and dependent on one another. These many components are analogous to the individuals with whom we are associated. 
  • When confronted with a problem, a person does not decide and act on their own. 
  • Rather, that choice considers the many connections one has with others – the majority of whom care about the person as well – and has an impact on these people. 
  • Furthermore, the choice, by its very form and origin, is likely to include the decisions of caring-others. Some relationships are more important to a person than others, much like a spider web. 
  • Most care theorists believe that the most proximal connections contribute more to decision making than the more distant ones, implying that there is an ever-expanding web of ties. 


Some forms of care ethics extend this web of relationships to far people, either via the growing web or by similarities between remote others and those one cares about. 

However, ethics may not necessarily apply to people. 

Some environmental ethicists have discovered that the ethics of care may be applied to organisms other than humans, such as plants, animals, and whole ecosystems. 

The topic of care technique has sparked a lot of controversy and discussion. 

Caring is a highly personal act performed in a specific situation. It seems illogical to establish moral standards based on it.  

As a result, care theorists avoid using principles at all. Rather, they provide standards for caring behavior. 


Among the many guidelines proposed are: 


(1) develop a ‘disposition to care,' which means that a moral agent has an attitude or desire to care; 

(2) act on a duty to ‘care for,' which means that care should be acted on appropriately and in a non-domineering way; 

(3) attend to the caregiver, or make sure that in caring we do not exhaust ourselves or completely lose ourselves in those we care for; 

(4) pay attention to the caregiver, or make sure that in caring we do not in some ways caring as precisely what a patriarchal society expects of women.


Therefore feminists must be careful not to fall into the trap of praising feminine self-sacrifice while attempting to reclaim women's distinct perspectives and contributions. 


The ethics of care, like other normative systems, may be applied to any moral problem. 

Feminists, on the other hand, prefer to emphasize women's experience in creating applications of a caring ethic. 

For example, an ethics of care has been applied to the care of elderly parents, environmental protection, domestic violence, childbirth and other biomedical practices, parent-child relationships, and all of the many decisions that go into raising a child, business situations, and countless other moral situations. 


An ethics of care, for all of its advantages, is not without flaws. 


Some feminist and non-feminist moral theorists reject any rigid separation of justice and caring; the two may and do coexist in various moral systems. 


  • Among feminists, some argue that an ethics of care is modeled on relationships that are perpetually imbalanced, unequal, and frequently unreciprocated: the parent–child relation. 
  • Other critiques center on the caregiver's capacity for self-sacrifice, the misuse of caring, and the potential for caring to become oppressive or dominating. 

Another issue may be that an ethics of caring lacks the capacity for collective political action or a liberation plan. 

Such a critique suggests that care must entail not only the specific relations in which it is evidenced, but must be politicized so as to acknowledge the ramifications of caring action on other relationships as well as oppressive structures.


~ Jai Krishna Ponnappan

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