What Is and What Can Be Done with the Ethics of Care?

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First, the description I will give of the ethics of care is based on my own development of it. My familiarity of the literature on this type of ethical theory is limited. I have only came across it here and there, and also in an introductory book on ethics I read within the past year. But, this was enough to start me thinking about this form of ethics, and I have since developed it to a greater extent then when I first encountered it. So, in this blog post I will explore my take on the ethics of care – what it is and what can be done with it.

The first thing I will say about the ethics of care is that it is hierarchical. One must ask: who am I obligated to care about or for? Or, how obligated am I to care about a particular person or group? Think of concentric circles. There is an inner circle, and around this is another circle and then another and another and so on. The inner circle are those who one needs to care most about. The second most inner circle are those one needs to care about more than any other, except those in the innermost circle. And then, one keeps adding circles for those of less importance to you morally speaking.

Some will ask: why should I treat those closest to me with more moral concern than those who are not? For one reason you associate more and more intimately to those in your inner circle, whether they are parents, siblings, partners, children, or besties.* Not everyone will have the same grouping of people in their circles.

So, what are some of the reasons for showing more moral concern to those that make up this inner circle. One reason is that some of these people are genetically related to you. Your biological parents share half your genes, and except for identical twins,^ where your share all your genes, sisters and brothers share half their genes, like child and parent. The next level down on the scale of relatedness is those that share a quarter of their genes. These are your grandparents, nephews and nieces, and aunts and uncles. The final level I will mention is where you share one eighth of your genes. Among these are your first cousins, great aunts, and great uncles.

J. S. Haldane is famous for his depiction of this scheme of relatedness. Somehow the relatedness relationship gears your to act altruistically toward your genetic connections. This is the closer you are related genetically the more likely you are to act altruistically. This is the evolutionary explanation, but because the environment or what some call nurture, there may not be a one hundred percent expression of our genetic inheritance, including genes that contribute toward altruistic behavior, especially those that our genetically close us.

So, we are predisposed to want to help those that are genetically close to us. I think this can be extended to those that are close to us in everyday life, but are not our genetically related individuals. There appear to be some kind of bonding among people who hang together intimately. This too must have some genetic backing. There is a hormone called oxytocin that becomes active when bonding is occurring. The most common example of this is the bond is between mother and child, but the same chemical reactions can occur between others when they share significant moments together. When you first hold your girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s hand further bonding occurs via the release of oxytocin. Of course, this event may trigger other hormones (sex) as well, but not necessarily. Those that are bonded through oxytocin reactions are geared to behave altruistically toward each other.

All of these relationships whether between those we our genetically related to or through close bonding experiences involves us in acts of altruism. However, as mentioned above these acts may not occur or occur infrequently. There are even actions of the opposite side of acting altruistically toward one another. Child and spousal abuse, whether physical, verbal, or sexual are examples of what can occur between close relations. These acts are usually done when the abuser is angry. Anger is also an evolutionary behavior. It may be, although I am not certain, that an anger event is competing in the brain with acts of altruism. This might explain the imperfectness of any altruism response among closely connected people.

There are also acts that fall under acting selfishly, which can hurt those that our close to us. Say, you are desperate for money to bet on sure thing at the racetrack. A very close friend of yours is over you place, and she goes to the bathroom. You see her pocketbook lies open on the floor with easy access to her wallet. You then get a twenty out of her wallet, intending to put it back when you win at the track. These actions are selfish, and will hurt your friend if she finds out a twenty is missing from her wallet, or you do not win at the track. In the family siblings might jockey for position for their parents favor, acting in ways that would be hurtful to their sisters or brothers.

Notice that these actions are not done in anger, so anger would not be able to turn off your tendency towards altruism. How might these types of acts be capable of doing the same thing? There are other feelings that may interfere with altruism. Jealousy in case of the sibling thing, or excitement of gambling at the track. Would these feelings be sufficient to negate acts of altruism? I think that they probably could. So, we can see how altruism can be interfered with, whether in intense feelings like anger, or milder but still active enough feelings to do the trick.

I introduced feelings into my discussion in the last paragraph. Feelings are probably the most important aspect to moral behavior.† Now, there are a collection of moral feelings, starting with empathy. This is the main feeling for altruistic behavior. After all, practically all the time when altruistic behavior is performed the person you are helping is a person you have some sense of care toward. Without empathy there would be no caring.

Now, all acts of caring are acts of altruism in some manner. Parents looking after their children is an act of caring, but it also means giving up something to do it,‡ like time and money, so this type of caring is also an altruistic activity. Helping a best friend move is also an act of caring to ease your friend’s burden is another example were caring is acted out altruistically. And, how about doing extra work around the house and going to doctor appointments when your partner is ill. Here there is an immense amount of caring going on, which is also being altruistic. Finally, take going shopping for your increasingly enfeebled parent. This also is a case of caring and acting altruistically. The reason why acts of caring and altruistic behavior are almost equivalent is, as mentioned above, there is almost always some personal costs involved. This is so even if it is just the fact of worrying, which costs in psychological terms. It is hard for me to come up with an example when the two are not equivalent. Perhaps, good readers, if you have one, please place it in a comment.

So, why are we disposed to act altruistically toward are inner circle—those that are closest to us? The evolutionary answer, which I have given above is one. It is clear from even causal observation that evolution did not provide us with a sure way to altruism. There are plenty of people who do not exhibited it that often or not at all (the psychopaths situation). It is a tendency with influence from our environment, which include how are parents raised us, how we interacted with peers and friends, what we are taught, and what we come to belief.

But, the evolutionary explanation only goes so far. What might be some explanation that feels more alive, than what some might find as a dry evolutionary explanation? On a level above the evolutionary, but ultimately reducible to it, is in the realm of feelings. I feel that feelings as explanations for acts of caring and altruism is more attractive, than those based on evolution. So, let me move to explore this explanation of how and why  feelings move us to perform acts of caring. I will now drop using altruism for the most part because after all this post is about care as a key function in ethics.

As mentioned above empathy is what I consider to be the main feeling when we are in the act of caring for someone; it serves as the cornerstone for all acts of caring. But, empathy is not the only feeling that plays a role when we care for another. I think most people would agree that compassion would be at the top of the list, but I think rapport and concord are important as well. And, they are particularly apt when it comes to our closest relations. We are often in accord with those closest to us, but again not always and not all relations (think of feuding siblings). Feeling magnanimous towards others can be a trigger for acts of caring. These are just a few of the other feelings that can contribute to our acts of caring.

So, why are feelings so important? For one I consider feelings as the generator of all actions. Feelings, I think, come at the beginning and at the end of our moral actions. They also play a role throughout the moral decision making process, but no moral decision making would begin or end without feelings. And, we usually have our most intense feelings to those closest to us, including nonmoral ones.

But, does feeling explain it all? Of course not. We are reasoners as well as feelers. Reasoning is very important in acts of reciprocity. These acts are often called reciprocal altruism. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” explains it well. Reasoning is important here because we have to calculate if I do this for someone, will she or he return the favor later on. Of course, this lessens a good deal of the time the caring part, but it is still altruism because you give up something (the hallmark of altruism) in hopes of being helped in the future.

Seeking harmony is another reason we tend to act morally toward those we are in regular contact with. While human beings are certainly capable of acts of war, we are also people who have the capacity for peace. I feel that peace is the default mode, and that it is anger, hatred, and envy, that lead us to violence, and certainly arise, but are hard to sustain. All wars have come to an end. While we might not go as far as kiss and makeup, there is some coming to terms among the combatants. It is harmony that greases the wheel, so to speak, that makes living with others possible.

I have covered some of the reasons (the whys) we are inclined to care for others, especially those that are closest to us. This explains the mechanics of caring and altruism. But, why should we care and care more about our inner circle of relations? That our genetic inheritance drives us is one, but most people are unsatisfied with this answer.

So, I have answered why to some extent, but what about the hows? To help us let us look at some of the other ethical theories to see if they can provide a rationale for our caring behavior. One of the first of such theories was Aristotle’s virtue ethics of which there are many variations today. One virtue he thought important was to be magnanimous, and above I relate that this is a strong feeling that is involved in caring behavior. So, we practice this in order be able to act in this manner when the need arises.

Two popular ethical theories that arose in the early modern period of philosophy of which ethics is one field within it are the utilitarianism and deontological theories. In utilitarianism your focus is on creating the greatest amount of happiness. If this is anywhere equivalent to the greatest amount of harmony, it could be applicable. Deontological theories suggest it is from duty that you should act. There are two basic rules developed by Immanuel Kant called categorical imperatives. These are to treat others as ends and not merely means, and make your actions so that they could be willed to be an universal rule. The first is not bad if you equate it with respect. If you treat others with respect you have the key to speaking assertively, which is the best way to express your feelings, wants, and desires to others. It will help you to live in the harmony with others, especially those that are close to you. The second imperative is to strict to be applicable all the times. Lying for instances has several uses that are positive. This imperative seems close to the “golden rule.” If this is what is meant it will also tend toward harmony with others.

Speaking of the golden rule, reminds me of another ethical theory called the divine command theory. Most religious people would consider this rule as god given, which is what the theory is about—god tells us what is right and wrong, or in more religious terms, what is good and what is evil. In actuality practically every culture, religious or not, has some form of this rule.

Divine command theory posits that we get our moral instructions from god. Fundamentalist Christians, at least, belief that the Bible has all that is necessary to be morally good. The problem with this theory is it is either nonsensical or is not needed. It focuses on what is good. Is it good because god dictates, or does god say that it is good because it is good? The first makes god into a moral monster because he/she/it could say that the murder of gays is good (there are actually believers that believe this). In addition if god does not exist (and this is the best position), than there exists no divine person who can dictate what is good. If god says it is good because it is good, than god is persona non grata.

Christians are told to love their enemies, but the Bible tells them to treat their families like shit. The father is in charge of both his wife and his children, and there are some who believe in Old Testament style corporeal punishment. Fortunately, most Christians do not behave in this manner. As far as as the inner circle is concern this family style is not very conducent for proper caring. Within the Muslim family, except for those in liberal countries, it is even worst. The female is worth less under Sharia Law, and can be (or is) considered property. So, biblical or Koranic based morality is problematic. You may find a few admirable moral principles in the revered texts of the world. But, they are either almost universal, like do not murder, or they copped it from earlier traditions. I would claim that the divine command theory is a bad theory based on the fact that it is not needed, and that it is pernicious in a lot of cases. It would be better to gently euthanize it.

There are, of course more than these four theories in ethics: virtue ethics, utilitarianism, deontological, divine command. But, all them take in to consideration either intentions or consequences, or both. Virtue ethics seems to ignore them, but if you think it through they are still intimately entwined. Utilitarianism focuses exclusively on consequences (does it make more people happy), while deontologicalism focuses mainly on intentions (what is required of me?); it is also more rule oriented. Divine theory, I suppose, considers both of them, but mainly relies on consequences. That is did my behavior warranted hell or heaven? It is also very rule oriented.

As far as rules are concern most of us know not to kill, steal, or cheat, and the golden rule in some form. I feel that any theory that uses rules needs to have escape hatches. There are practically at least one exception to any rule, and possibly more. Killing is acceptable to most, like in acts of defending yourself or others. Euthanasia under the proper conditions, like having a well document wish and the individual is incapacitated is another. Lying has many exceptions. In Is a Lie Ever True? I explore four. Stealing in the case of Jean Valjean is a defensible act.

Well, I covered a lot of the issues in the whys and hows of what are the foundations of the ethics of care. Now, I would like to continue talking about the circles that make up the centers of concern.

I have already talked some about the innermost circle of care. I explained why we are given to offer our care to the people in it. Of course, there are exceptions to this. There are child abusers, spouse abusers, non-consensual incest, cheating on your partner, and a little milder perhaps, using your best friend. All in all, though, I think you will find that the people in this inner circle care most for others in it.

The next circle of caring are other friends, neighbors (not all fit this category), acquaintances, co-workers, and other relatives. These are people that you interact with on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. They are people we interact most with other than those in our inner circle. We express empathy with them easier than in any more outer circle. Same goes for acts of kindness, favors, promises, and like acts (caring behavior). A lot of these acts are reciprocal, as in we hope that our kindness will be returned.

Then, there is the circle that is made up of those in your community (eg. city, county). These are people you might run into at the store, PTA meeting, or political forums. You might understand that people offer their care to those in the first two circles more than this circle; we see those in the inner two circles more often or daily for some. But, why should you care about the people in this circle of care. For one you are a human being, and human beings have a capacity to empathize and act kindly with other human beings. And, we have the capacity to be mean. But, I think the balance leans heavily towards acts of kindness.

We are approaching the last of the circles of care. The one that follows the circle made up of your community is that of those residing in the same state or territory and country. I think we give concern to the people in this circle because some of us give to charities or vote for aid programs. Those that do not, care in other ways, like voting for conservative candidates, thinking that is best. And, at times of war or disasters, most everyone cares about our soldiers in time of war and the victims of a disaster, even if they do not have the means to help. We also have a sense of belonging, which is the case for all circles of care, even if I have not covered this before. The withholding of belonging, ostration, is one of the most harshest of all things one can experience; it can be even worse than being a victim of violence.

Finally, we come to the final circle—the people of the world (maybe even the universe). A lot of people are concern for the earth as a whole. They care about the poor and hungry; they care about climate change; they care about pollution; and they care about human rights. So, it is not unusual for people to help or even dedicate themselves more fully to such causes (e.g. CARE, Doctors without Borders, Amnesty International).

You can fiddle around with the boundaries for all these circles of care; but I hope you get the idea. But, I have not given why this scheme makes for moral responsibility on a sliding scale. Why do we have a greater moral responsibility for those closer to us? Why should I be more concerned for my closest relationships? Why am I not equally responsible to everyone? Am I not obligated to help anyone in need as long as I have the means?

To answer the last question first. Yes. But, where do you find them most—those closest and dearest to you. And, as you expand the circle the opportunities for most people lesson, and so the obligations become less and less. You might hear of a disaster in the news, but often since you are not invested in those people, soon any urge to help usually peters out. Disasters more local do stick in the mind more, so you are more likely to lend a helping hand or donate money if you have it.

You should be responsible most to your inner circle because they are the individuals that usually depend upon us the most. Think of a parent providing child care, and later in life maybe child to parent care. The relationship with your partner is possibly the most intimate in your life. It often, or should, involve mutual dependency. Think of your best friend and how you are sorry when he or she is feeling sorry, and you are glad when she or he is glad. In all these relationships your empathy is trigger much easier and quicker.

You are not responsible to everyone because that is impossible. And, it limits your ability to care for those that are closer to you, in whatever next inner circle you consider. Have you ever felt helping overload. Your desire to help is less than your ability to help. Those closer to you pull on your helping ability much more, so it would be a tall order to be helpful to everyone. And, often we are given to help total strangers, but since they have no dependency relationship to you, not to help unless it is an overriding need that you can fill it is not as strongly obligatory.

For all these reasons it makes good sense to consider that moral consideration is more of an obligation in your inner circle, and it grows less and less as you move on to larger circles of care. Now, I admit that there could be all sorts of other considerations that might arise within in this scheme of ethics, and it still does not tell you what kind of acts are morally correct or not, but I think that I have shown above, that most of the other major ethical theories would fit right into the ethics of care as an adjunct to it.

I have not mentioned moral subjectivism, but it relates to the ethics of care. This is because who we become involved with in life is different for each of us. We all have different families, partners, children, and best friends. We belong to different communities, states, and countries. This all eliminates a one size fits all ethical theory, which even without the ethics of care would not be true. It is up to us to decide each one to themselves what we consider as good or bad. Again, because evolution has shape our psychology most people consider the same things good or bad, especially when you considered the most hurtful of acts, like murder, robbery, sexual assault, cheating, and in most circumstances lying (see my recent Is a Lie Ever True? for some exceptions where lying may not be a immoral act).

Finally, I thought to wrap things up, I would share where my obligations most lie. My dedication to my partner of thirty plus years, Bette, is the most important person in my life, and so much of my caring and help is tied to this relationship.`Strange to some people I do not have much of a concern for my two older brothers. I desire no close relationship with them. I suppose if they were ill, I would visit them in the hospital, or offer to help out at home if I had the means to do so (I consider time here, and not money because I have more time than money). My parents are still providing me with help from time to time, like paying for my dentures. But, I believe if they were in need I would try to help them the best I could. I have no best friends other than Bette, so no other persons enter into my inner circle of care.

As I widen out my circle I include most of my neighbors, and friends at the PRP I attend twice a week. My major way I care for these friends is to give them some of the baked goods I bake up. Not a whole lot, some will suppose, but I put a good deal of time and effort into this activity.** But, I would be willing to help them out in some other way if I could. I am about to start mentoring some other clients at the PRP. So, over the years my care for others is expanding in both numbers and intensity. One other thing I will mention is that we, Bette and I, have looked in on her neighbor’s cats when she is away. She has return the favor for us. As for my community and outward, so far the only real thing I do is to vote. But, I am on the lookout in making a small contribution other than this.

So, this is my circles of care. Maybe you may want to take some time and reflected on yours.

In my circle of care

* I cannot believe I used this word.

^ There is a possibility of identical triplets and above, but these are generally rare, especially for anything above triplets.

† Feelings are actually important to all our behaviors. Someday I hope to write a blog post to further explore the importance of feelings. Not to knock reason, but our ability to get around in the world would be severely compromised without our feelings.

‡ See What is Moral Subjectivism About? for why I would say “most,” and much more. It is my most comprehensive post on ethics.

** For a look at this activity see Why Do I Cook and Bake?




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