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The Ethics of Care is Not Preferable to Traditional Ethical Systems

The normative ethical theory known as the "ethics of care" stems from feminist theory that is critical of traditional ethical systems including deontological, rules-based systems and consequentialist, good-maximizing systems such as utilitarianism. The ethics of care represents an attempt to transform moral discourse from the traditional focus on justice, rights, and fairness, to a new system that incorporates distinctly feminine traits such as a focus on relationships, compassion, and the interactions between caregivers and those for whom they care.

Ethical System

In this paper, I first provide a deeper look at the ethics of care and the ideas put forth by some of its major thinkers. Subsequently, I make the argument that the feminist ethics of care is not preferable to traditional ethical systems. This is true for three reasons. First, it asks the moral agent in question to do something that runs counter to basic human psychology: to be able to genuinely care in cases even where one's beliefs or interests are totally at odds with another. Second, the ethics of care relies on emotion and intuition, which are constantly changing, subject to fallibility, and cannot be considered reliable guides to moral decision-making. Finally, I argue that whether or not traditional ethical systems are biased toward distinctly male notions of justice and ethics, they may nevertheless be necessary to constrain the destructive acts arising from natural male behavior.

Overview of the Ethics of Care

One of the most foundational works in the study of the ethics of care is Gilligan's book In A Different Voice. In the book, Gilligan provides some of the fundamental concepts of care ethics, basing her theory on a rejection of Kohlberg's stages of moral development. Kohlberg's theory put forward a model in which humans go through three stages of moral development: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. During these phases, humans transform from a condition in which they morally act first out of a desire to avoid punishment, later out of a desire to please others, and finally at a mature stage, out of a realization of the importance and validity of abstract ethical principles. Gilligan rejected this model in A Different Voice, primarily criticizing Kohlberg's findings that females tended not to reach the same levels of moral maturity as males. She went on to characterize the underpinnings of care ethics theory, i.e., that the feminine conception of ethics is based primarily on caring, whereas the masculine conception of ethics is based primarily on rationality and fairness; thus, Kohlberg's model is not only inadequate to express the distinctly feminine care ethics, but also represents the entrenched bias toward masculinity present in traditional systems of ethics.

Held identifies five main features of care ethics. First, care ethics recognizes the "compelling moral salience of attending to and meeting the needs of the particular others for whom we take responsibility" (p. 10). In other words, care ethics refocuses moral debate from universalistic principles onto personal and relational considerations. Second, care ethics recognizes emotion as a valuable tool to guide moral decisions, and sees strictly "rationalistic deductions" (p. 10) of morality as deficient. Third, care ethics rejects the notion that traditional ethical theories achieve a status of superiority by giving preference to abstract reasoning over particular reasoning and seeking to eliminate all bias-instead, it embraces the particulars of personal relationships. Fourth, care ethics argues that traditional ethical theories neglect the importance of ethical concerns in the "private" realm, viz. the familial home and its related affairs. Fifth, care ethics conceptualizes people as relational, rather than independent and disconnected entities, again emphasizing the importance of relationships.

Under a system of care ethics, judgments of right and wrong are seen as less important overall than "heightening moral perception and sensitivity" (Noddings), thus understanding moral judgments as expressing an individual's commitment to a certain ethical position rather than a simple value judgment.

Criticisms of The Ethics of Care

In my view, the ethics of care is not preferable to traditional ethical systems for three reasons.

First, because care ethics places such great importance upon particular and personal relations, it faces great difficulty in providing moral guidance in cases where those relations are not positive. For example, in the relationship between a person and felon who has committed a crime against that person, how is care ethics to provide reliable moral guidance? The victim is not likely to be able to conceptualize the felon in a manner that is consistent with caring. In contrast, a deontological rules-based system, for example, provides a much stronger moral anchor in situations where one's own emotions and interests are opposed to another's. In that system, regardless of how one feels or what one's emotions are, one can always fall back on an unchanging and steady principle to guide moral action.

Second, the ethics of care relies too much on emotion to guide moral action. I contend that emotion is a poor guide, because it is subject to whims, moods, and even the possibly deterministic nature of neurobiology. Who has not had the experience of a late-night emotional bender, in which one feels that one has reached the end of the line or some other similar crisis, only to wake up in the morning with a much more positive outlook on life? Who has not had the experience of having one's own feelings on a matter evolve over a period of days, weeks, months, or even years? Surely our actions as moral beings should be tempered in some way. It is not sufficient to criticize traditional theories on the grounds that they are imbued with masculine traits; surely no person, male nor female, would want to live in a world where the rule of law were replaced by arbitrariness and the whims of emotional and capricious judges. That system has been tried before-it is called rule by fiat or dictatorship. The principles of traditional ethical systems are not simply oppressive masculine constructs from which society must be liberated; on the contrary, they are inherently tied to our legal system and our system of government.

Finally, for a moment let us continue with the previous train of thought, proceeding under the assumption that traditional ethical systems are indeed unfairly biased toward masculine traits. Even if that is so, perhaps these systems are necessary from a pragmatic, or positive point of view. In the course of human history, it is to be granted that much destruction has been caused by male ego and behavior. I contend that traditional ethical systems play an important role in constraining this behavior. To replace such systems with a system of care ethics could be a dangerous thing, because regardless of one's normative ethical stance, it seems unlikely that care ethics could function as a viable arbitrator of male actions.

In this paper, I first summarized major concepts within care ethics and defined it. Subsequently, I argued against the notion that care ethics is truly preferable to traditional ethical systems on three grounds. Care ethics faces difficulty in handling discordant relationships, relies too much on emotion, and is not sufficient to constrain male destructive impulses. Of course, this raises larger debates beyond the scope of this paper about whether it is necessary to attempt to devise a new, gender-neutral system of ethics, and whether such an attempt is even desirable.

Reference List

Gilligan, C.. In a different voice: Psychological theory and women's development (Vol. 326). Harvard University Press.

Kohlberg, L.. The philosophy of moral development: Moral stages and the idea of justice.

Morality and Ethical Standards. Essay Forum. Online.

Held, V.. The ethics of care: Personal, political, and global. Oxford University Press.

Noddings, N.. Caring: A feminine approach to ethics & moral education. University of California Pr.