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The Justice of Caring*

  • Michael Slote (a1)


Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice, which appeared in 1982, argued that men tend to conceive morality in terms of rights, justice, and autonomy, whereas women more frequently think in terms of caring, responsibility, and interrelation with others. At about the same time, Nel Noddings in Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education sought to articulate and defend in its own right a “feminine” morality centered specifically around the ideal of caring (for people one knows). Since then, there has been a heated debate about the reality of the distinction Gilligan drew and about its potential implications for ethical theory. Discussions of the morality of caring have questioned, in particular, whether any such morality can really provide a total framework for moral thought and action. For in order to deal with our obligations to people we are not acquainted with and address large-scale issues of social morality, any morality of caring seems to require supplementation by typically “masculine” thinking in terms of rights and justice, with the result that caring turns out to be but one part of morality, rather than anything women, or more enlightened men, could find attractive as a total and self-sufficient way of approaching ethical issues.



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1 See Gilligan, Carol, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982); and Noddings, Nel, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

2 Noddings (in Caring, p. 68ff.) makes the moral value of caring depend in part on whether the person cared for receives the benefit of knowing he or she is cared for, but critics have questioned this assumption for reasons like those suggested in the text above. (See, e.g., Shogan, Debra A., Care and Moral Motivation [Toronto: OISE Press, 1988], p. 57.) It seems invidious to make the moral value of caring depend on accidental or uncontrollable consequences, and it is part of the attractiveness of the kind of virtue ethics I am proposing and also, of course, of Kantian ethics that they do not treat moral value as dependent on “stepmotherly nature” in this way, but regard it, rather, as a function of the inner life.

3 See Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, chs. 6 and 9; Book IV, ch. 5; and Book VI, ch. 8.

4 See, e.g., Plato, , Republic, Book IV, S. 443–44. It is worth noting that neither Plato nor Aristotle gives importance to general concern for the well-being of others and that neither can comfortably accommodate the idea of the supererogatory. As a result, their philosophies seem largely irrelevant to the pressing contemporary question of whether making sacrifices for the greater good of needy but distant others is morally required or merely supererogatory. An agent-based ethic of caring that can deal with such issues seems, to that extent, better adapted to the needs of contemporary ethical theory than either Aristotle's or Plato's virtue ethics.

5 Augustine, , De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae, 15.25; Martineau, James, Types of Ethical Theory, 3d ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1891), 2 vols.; Sidgwick, Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1907), Book III, ch. 12.

6 Secular agent-basing can also be developed as a kind of interiorized version of act-utilitarianism. In examining Martineau's agent-based theory, Sidgwick failed to see the distinction between act-utilitarianism, which assesses acts in terms of how well they (ex-pectably or actually) achieve the goals of universal benevolence, and a form of agent-basing that treats universal benevolence, concern for all humankind, as inherently the most virtuous of motives and evaluates acts in terms of how closely their motives approximate to such benevolence. The latter view clearly contrasts with the morality of caring, because it sees nothing especially admirable or morally praiseworthy in having a greater concern for some people rather than others. For those who agree with this judgment, an agent-based morality of universal benevolence may seem more promising than an agent-based morality of caring both as an ethics of individuals and as the basis for a theory of social justice. Both these views are discussed in my “Agent-Based Virtue Ethics,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 20 (1995), pp. 83–101.

7 See Williams, Bernard, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 10.

8 See my From Morality to Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), ch. 1.

9 See ibid., ch. 6; but the idea of balance among concerns is more thoroughly explored in my “Caring in the Balance” in Haber, Joram and Halfon, Mark S., eds., Norms and Values: Essays in Honor of Virginia Held (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997). Note that the idea of (some measure of) balance is not the same as (approximate) equality. It has more to do with non-lopsidedness between concerns.

10 Virginia Held has recently made some suggestive remarks in this direction; see her Feminist Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 223. Moreover, Susan Moller Okin has usefully pointed out that many of Gilligan's female respondents show themselves to be morally concerned not only about specific individuals, but also about human beings generally; see Okin, , “Reason and Feeling in Thinking about Justice,” Ethics, vol. 99 (1989), esp. p. 246f.

11 In Caring and later work, Noddings distinguishes our moral relations with encountered strangers from those relations we have to distant (and unencountered) others, claiming that caring is called for once we come face-to-face with someone. This is controversial, but I cannot here enter into the details.

12 Like act-consequentialism, however, a morality of caring based on concern for those who are near and dear to one and for other people as well seems to lack the resources for justifying deontological restrictions on killing one person, say, to save twenty. It will presumably have to say that where we are concerned with human well-being in general, it takes an analogue of tough love—what we might call “tough benevolence”—to overcome one's revulsion at killing and rightly save the twenty. But notice too that the revulsion and moral consternation are themselves explainable in terms of our ethic of caring, since broad humanitarian concern involves not only the desire to do what is good or best overall for people, but also the desire that no one should be hurt or suffer.

Note too that a general ethic based on caring/concern about (how well things go for) people and other animals will want to say that various other practical attitudes or motives like interest or involvement are not immediately relevant to morality. Still, at this point there is no obvious way either to rule out or definitively to include fetuses, plants, and even, perhaps, the environment and institutions as appropriate immediate objects of moral concern. How to understand concern about such entities (what its varying metaphysical and interpretative presuppositions and limits are) is a difficult question that needs addressing.

13 See Nussbaum, Martha's debate with critics in “Patriotism or Cosmopolitanism?Boston Review, vol. 19, no. 5 (10/11, 1994), pp. 334.

14 See Dworkin, Ronald, “Foundations of Liberal Equality,” reprinted in Darwall, Stephen, ed., Equal Freedom (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), pp. 199214.

15 See Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Genealogy of Morals (Garden City: Doubleday, 1956); and Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).

16 One should not, however, imagine that all interesting cases of moral shift involve a move from less general to more general concerns in special circumstances. In the familiar example of miners trapped underground, we typically feel a need to help those miners rather than spend an equivalent amount to install safety devices in the mines that will save a greater number of lives in the long run. So if one were contemplating spending money on safety devices but miners suddenly become trapped as a result of an accident, general concern for miners tends to get displaced or damped down by concern for, compassion toward, these particular miners; and indeed one would not normally be considered a compassionate person if one did not feel this way and act accordingly.

17 It is sometimes said that concern for the good of one's country or fellow-citizens can and frequently does lead religious people to seek restrictions on civil liberties and, more generally, to act aggressively against nonbelievers and dissenters for the good of their souls. I do not believe this and have argued the point at length in “Love and Justice,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 22, forthcoming.

18 These sorts of arguments shadow those given by utilitarians in defense of democratic and equalizing laws and institutions, e.g., Mill, John Stuart's in Considerations on Representative Government (London, 1861). This should not be surprising, given the (usually assumed and frequently existent) connection between good consequences for (the people of) a country and devotion to and concern for a country's welfare.

19 For purposes of the present argument, I do not think it is important to distinguish countries or nations from societies; nor is there time to consider whether the well-being or good of a society is completely reducible to that of its members or of those who live in it.

20 There is a complication in cases where certain laws were originally passed for bad reasons (as a result of bad motives on the part of the legislators), but subsequent reformist legislators find reasons for preserving those particular laws. Perhaps we can and should say that such laws were originally unjust, but become just when their continued existence reflects good reformist motives, rather than the bad motives that originally gave rise to them.

21 It is also interesting to consider whether our agent-based account of justice is likely to justify the sorts of excusing conditions the law typically allows. For example, courts sometimes permit a mitigating defense of “provocation” and do not usually hold people legally responsible for causing harms they could not reasonably have foreseen, or for actions whose wrongness they lacked the capacity to recognize; and to the extent that such features of the law serve a socially benevolent purpose, the present view will almost certainly justify and mandate them. However, present law allows for strict liability, and it cannot be ruled out in advance that our account of justice should in some instances do so as well.

22 However, in some circumstances it may be difficult to compare the consequences of different acts of legislation, and different legislators may end up with different conclusions about what would be good for their country, despite good-faith efforts to convince one another. Compromise may then be called for, but, unlike some kinds of trade-off among special interests or factions, this sort of compromise may well reflect genuine public-spiritedness on the part of all concerned and thus may provide the basis for admirably just legislation.

23 But it will also hold it to be unjust to make a justly convicted person serve out his sentence after exculpatory evidence is discovered.

24 On these points, see, for example, Hill, Thomas E. Jr., “Kant's Anti-Moralistic Strain,” in Hill, , Dignity and Practical Reason in Kant's Moral Theory (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), pp. 176–95; Sidgwick, Henry, The Methods of Ethics, p. 284n.; Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 103, 314f.; and Scanlon, Thomas, “The Significance of Choice,” in The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, VIII, ed. McMurrin, Sterling (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988), p. 188. (Scanlon's views about desert seem to entail that an innocent person can deserve punishment, but this repugnant conclusion does not actually follow from what he says about justice.)

25 See Okin, Susan Moller, Justice, Gender, and the Family (New York: Basic Books, 1989); and Mansbridge, Jane and Okin, Susan Moller, “Feminism,” in Goodin, Robert E. and Pettit, Philip, eds., A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), esp. pp. 271–75.

26 See Rawls, , A Theory of Justice, pp. 16, 130, 133, 175–82. Given that caring for people and (unjingoistic) love of country are typically means to people's well-being and to the good of any given country, there will be reason, too, to promote or preserve justice conceived in our agent-based terms. Public acknowledgment of such a conception of justice need not interfere with and might actually help with such goals.

27 See, for example, Eisenberg, Nancy, ed., The Development of Prosocial Behavior (New York: Academic Press, 1982); Eisenberg, Nancy and Strayer, Janet, eds., Empathy and Its Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Kagan, Jerome and Lamb, Sharon, eds., The Emergence of Morality in Young Children (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); and Hoffman, M., “Is Altruism Part of Human Nature?Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 40 (1981), pp. 121–37.

28 See Nozick, , Anarchy, State, and Utopia, esp. ch. 7; and O'Neill, Onora, Constructions of Reason: Explorations of Kant's Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 122ff.

29 It is perhaps some measure of the present-day appeal of individual and political ideals of caring that we so frequently see references in the media to “the caring society” and that a Republican presidential candidate like Bob Dole feels compelled to tell us: “I am essentially a caring person and I care about America” (quoted in the Washington Post, 02 20, 1996).

* For all their helpful suggestions, I want to thank the other contributors to this volume, as well as Marcia Baron, Jorge Garcia, Scott Gelfand, Pat Greenspan, Virginia Held, Sam Kerstein, Judy Lichtenberg, Chris Morris, Nel Noddings, Susan Moller Okki, Ellen Frankel Paul, Ingmar Persson, Philip Pettit, Alan Strudler, Christine Swanton, Peter van Inwagen, David Wasserman, and, especially, Nancy Matchett.


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