The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the ways in which “care” is both essential to and devalued in American society. The early months of the pandemic saw healthcare workers using garbage bags as surgical gowns, parents forced to choose between childcare and their own professional and personal needs, and those who provide homecare for people with chronic illnesses and disabilities continuing to struggle to earn a living wage.
This crisis of care is marked by deep gender and racial disparities: Women do the lion’s share of unpaid household labor in the United States and around the world. Around 88 percent of homecare workers are women; 18 percent are women of color. During the early months of the pandemic, one in three jobs held by women was deemed essential, and 80 percent of women with young children reported that they did more work associated with virtual schooling than their spouse. In the same survey, 45 percent of men reported that they did the majority of work to facilitate their children’s online education.
As the last statistic makes clear, this crisis of care is not simply a failure to reward care economically or prioritize it politically. It is a failure to recognize when care work is happening at all. Beginning in the 1980s scholars working in a variety of disciplines, including psychology, education, and philosophy began to work to understand the causes of care’s erasure, and to imagine new philosophical, political, and ethical approaches to care. Especially in the 1990s, this work had an optimistic tone – many working in the new field of “care ethics” argued that getting the philosophy right would address the persistent social and economic undervaluing of care work.
Religion has historically played a significant role in defining—and thereby helping people recognize or fail to recognize—care. On the one hand, religious traditions develop their own discourses of what care is and its significance. Though care ethics presents itself as a secular tradition, it is deeply informed by Christian accounts of care as personalized, emotionally-driven, and antithetical law. In turn, religious traditions’ own discourse about care has shaped political discussions about what care is and who should provide it. Especially on the right, one proposed solution to America’s crisis of care has been to ask religious institutions to provide forms of care that other institutions cannot or simply will not provide. The work that these institutions do also structures how and when we see care. In this way, the project of bringing care into view, both philosophically and politically, is shaped by religious traditions and their role in the public sphere.
The development of care ethics is often said to begin with the 1982 publication of Carol Gilligan’s book In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Gilligan argued that women and men address problems differently; men use the “voice” of justice to decide what a person is owed or is obligated to do, while women tend to use the “voice” of care to evaluate and then address a person’s needs. While the psychology community has identified significant problems with Gilligan’s methodology, her basic paradigm launched a robust tradition of philosophical inquiry. Following Gilligan, Nel Noddings’s book Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics and Moral Education explores the possibilities of taking on the voice of care more fully. Noddings, along with those who follow her, argue that part of the reason that care has not been taken seriously as a resource for ethical thinking is that existing ethical frameworks rely on abstractions. These abstractions make it harder for us to see when care is happening.
This critique takes two main forms: first, Noddings argues that moral philosophy has long relied on an abstract, and implausible, philosophical picture of the human being – this philosophical anthropology treated embodiment as an accident, or even an annoyance, rather than a basic feature of human experience. Second, Noddings argues that existing moral philosophies, especially those that focus on moral “laws,” “principles,” or “obligations,” rely on a kind of abstract reasoning that is antithetical to care. In contrast, she proposes a less analytical approach “rooted in receptivity, relatedness, and responsiveness” which she takes to be distinctly feminine (23). For Noddings, care is what we do when we attend to another person’s needs without thinking (though some care ethicists later critiqued this opposition between thinking and care). Standard ethical categories miss this kind of “receptivity” because they locate the ethical in purportedly “impartial” modes of thought and deliberation.
Later theorists sought to integrate care ethics into contemporary debates in political theory and moral philosophy. In her book, Situating the Self: Gender, Community, and Post-Modernism in Contemporary Ethics, Seyla Benhabib distinguishes between a “sovereign self,” which has been the dominant philosophical anthropology in political theory, and a “situated self.” “The world inhabited by the sovereign self is a strange world,” Benhabib writes, “it is one in which individuals are grown up before they have been born; in which boys are men before they have been children; a world where neither mother, nor sister, nor wife exist” (157). The sovereign self is, in other words, a self who neither provides nor needs care. This conception of the self constructs a public sphere dominated by men; because one has to be a “sovereign self” to enter public political life, and women do the vast majority of care work, women are de facto excluded from the public sphere.
While Benhabib sought to use care as a tool to reshape our conception of the public, other theorists treated care ethics as a broad ethical theory, which could address the same range of questions as Kantianism, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics. Eva Feder Kittay highlights the challenges of treating care, especially care for those with intellectual disabilities, as a central category in an anglophone moral philosophical tradition that locates the value of the human person in rationality and utility.
Despite these profound challenges, some philosophers were optimistic about care ethics’ potential to effect significant change both inside and beyond the discipline. In her 2005 book, The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global, Virginia Held suggests that adopting a care-ethical approach to policymaking has the potential to significantly shift the economic and social structure of care. While Held leaves the precise political mechanism by which this change is to come about unstated, her optimism is grounded in a progressive historical narrative. For Held, “The history of the development of the contemporary ethics of care is the history of recent feminist progress” (21). The contemporary backlash against reproductive rights (i.e. the right to reproductive care) as well as the crisis of care during the COVID-19 pandemic suggests that this progress has been both less linear and less substantial than Held has argued. Held’s narrative of “recent feminist progress” is in many ways a white feminist narrative. Intersectional feminists have demonstrated the ways that white feminism has failed to adequately account for the structural challenges facing women of color. Care ethics is not immune from these problems, and, notably, virtually all of the key figures in care ethics’ initial stages were white.
Though they are often presented as secular narratives (both Held and Noddings embrace some version of this label, and Noddings explicitly eschews religion as antithetical to care), theorizations of care are often deeply rooted in religious discourse. The critique of law as antithetical to caring has its roots in anti-Jewish polemics which see Judaism’s emphasis on law as unfeeling and as undermining the “receptivity” Held and Noddings use to characterize care.
Recent scholarship in Jewish thought has inverted this dynamic, turning to care as a tool for elucidating, rather than critiquing, Jewish concepts of law and obligation. In her book, The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity in Jewish Thought, Mara Benjamin argues that analyzing maternal obligation can help us better understand rabbinic notions of obligation. Benjamin argues that “the rabbinic notion of obligation comes into felt experience most viscerally in caring for young children” (14). Far from being antithetical to obligation, then, Benjamin uses care as a paradigm through which we can better understand what it means to be obligated, and, conversely, obligation is a lens through which we can better understand the experience of caring for others.
Even as theoretical engagements with care have helped us unlearn the habits of mind that so often make care invisible, some important forms of care remain hard to see. For Held, Noddings, and Benjamin, care is distinctly embodied and particular. But care can come in other, less obviously embodied forms as well. A person mourning a loved one is caring for them and their memory – indeed, classical Jewish sources mark caring for a dead body as hesed shel-emet, “the truest form of lovingkindness.” A person pursuing fertility treatments to conceive a child might be caring for a future, as yet-non-embodied child. Relationships of caring obligation might also be differently constructed. As recent work in Queer theory has highlighted, “family” can be chosen as well as born, though chosen family remains shaped by racial, economic, and other social forces. Relationships of care might, as Stacy Holman Jones has written, be characterized more by waiting than by “responsiveness” or “receptivity.” Perhaps then, if theorizations of care are to more directly address the current “crisis of care,” we need not only to prioritize the kinds of embodied, particularized care that care ethics has highlighted in the past, but to explore this wider range of caring relationships and their diverse structures.
Benjamin, Mara. The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity in Jewish Thought. (Indiana University Press, 2018).
This path-breaking work in Jewish thought argues that maternal experience can help us better understand classical Jewish notions of obligation. Benjamin also explores the role that “thirds” —including non-parental caregivers, neighbors, teachers, and other community members—play in caring for young children. Crucially, Benjamin also offers a set of tools for critiquing and moving beyond the subfield of modern Jewish thought’s narrow and male-dominated canon.
Benhabib, Seyla. Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics. (Routledge, 1992).
This crucial text in feminist political theory offers a corrective to social contract theories which assume a “sovereign self” who is unrealistically detached from familial relationships of dependency. Benhabib proposes that recognizing the ways that selves are in fact always “situated” can restructure the public sphere, making it more hospitable to women’s full participation.
Held, Virginia. The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global. (Oxford University Press, 2005).
In this foundational work, Held articulates a version of care ethics that can function as a stand-alone ethical theory, alongside philosophical frameworks like Kantianism, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics. Held argues that care ethics can reach beyond parent/child or care-giver/cared-for relationships to address questions of global justice.
Noddings, Nel. Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, 2nd Edition (University of California Press, 2013).
This crucial text in the early development of care ethics explores the phenomenological experience of doing care work and the distinctive forms of “responsiveness” that characterize it. Noddings also explores how religious practices and texts have marginalized care.
 The kind of gender essentialism on which Noddings relies here has been justifiably rejected by many theorists. For approaches to this issue, drawn from critical theory and analytic philosophy respectively, see: Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 1st Edition. New York: Routledge, 2006. Dembroff, Robin. “Real Talk on the Metaphysics of Gender.” Philosophical Topics 46, no. 2 (Fall 2018).
 Jason Rubenstein explores the potential of treating hesed shel-emet as a resource for care ethics in Jewish thought in Jason Rubenstein, “To Shelter an Egyptian Firstborn: The Revelatory Potential of Care Ethics in Jewish Thought,” in Care Ethics, Religion, and Spiritual Traditions, ed. I. Van Nistelrooij, M. Hamington, and M. Sander-Staudt (Peeters, 2022).
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