Ethics of care

Ethics of care

The ethics of care is a normative ethical theory; that is, a theory about what makes actions right or wrong. It is one of a cluster of normative ethical theories that were developed by feminists in the second half of the twentieth century. While consequentialist and deontological ethical theories emphasize universal standards and impartiality, ethics of care emphasize the importance of relationships.

The basis of the theory is the recognition of:

1. The interdependence of all individuals for achieving their interests

2. The belief that those particularly vulnerable to our choices and their outcomes deserve extra consideration to be measured according to

i) the level of their vulnerability to one's choices

ii) the level of their affectedness by one's choices and no one elses

3. The necessity of attending to the contextual details of the situation in order to safeguard and promote the actual specific intersts of those involved

Historical background

The ethics of care was initially inspired by the work of psychologist Carol Gilligan. [Gilligan, Carol: "In a Different Voice: Psychological theory and women's development." Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982.] Early in her career, Carol Gilligan worked with psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg while he was researching his theory of moral development. [Kohlberg, Lawrence and Carol Gilligan: 'The Adolescent as a Philosopher: The Discovery of the Self in a Post-conventional World', "Daedalus", 100, 1971: 1051-1086.] Gilligan's work on women's moral development arose in response to the seemingly male-based results that arose from Kohlberg's studies.

Gilligan and others have suggested that the history of ethics in Western culture has emphasized the justice view of morality because it is the outlook that has traditionally been cultivated and shared by men. By contrast, women have traditionally been taught a different kind of moral outlook that emphasizes solidarity, community, and caring about one's special relationships. This "care view" of morality has been ignored or trivialized because women were traditionally in positions of limited power and influence. The justice view of morality focuses on doing the right thing even if it requires personal cost or sacrificing the interest of those to whom one is close. The care view would instead say that we can and should put the interests of those who are close to us above the interests of complete strangers, and that we should cultivate our natural capacity to care for others and ourselves.

Carol Gilligan's Stages of Moral Development

Comparing ethics of care with traditional ethical positions

Ethics of care contrasts with more well-known ethical views, such as utilitarianism and deontology or Kantian ethics. This sort of outlook is what feminist critics call a 'justice view' of morality. A morality of care rests on the understanding of relationships as a response to another in their terms. It focuses on the moral value of being partial toward those concrete persons with whom we have special and valuable relationships, and on the moral importance of responding to such persons as particular individuals with characteristics that demand a response to them that we do not extend to others.

Ethics of care and feminist ethics

Although the ethics of care was developed as part of a feminist movement, some feminists have criticised care-based ethics for reinforcing traditional stereotypes of a 'good woman'. [Bartky, Sandra Lee: "Femininity and Domination", page 104-5. Routledge, New York, 1990.]

ee also


*Feminist ethics
*Relational ethics


* Sandra Bartky
* Grace Clement
* Carol Gilligan
* Virginia Held
* Sarah Hoagland
* Eva Feder Kittay
* Rita Manning
* Nel Noddings
* Ellen Feder
* Michael Slote


Further reading and External links

* cite book
last =Held
first =Virginia
title =The Ethics of Care
publisher =Oxford University Press
date =2005
location =Oxford
url =
doi =10.1093/0195180992.001.0001
id = ISBN 978-0-19-518099-2

* cite book
last =Slote
first =Michael A.
title =The Ethics of Care and Empathy
publisher =Routledge
date =2007
location =London ; New York
url =
id = ISBN 9780415772013 (pbk.)
id = ISBN 9780415772006 (hardback)

* [ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Feminist Ethics]
* [ Ethics of Care article at Carnegie Mellon website]
* [ Gilligan's stages of moral development]
* [ Nel Noddings biography]

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