Morality from relationships

While natural rights theory is a little more personal than utilitarianism and kantianism, it still doesn’t seem to get at what is really important to some people about morality: caring about people and considering the way our actions affect each other. Feminist philosophers criticize the cold, calculating nature of other moral theories as being too masculine, expecting people to behave like machines, utilitarians calculating pain and pleasure like a computer, kantians and natural rights theorists deducing duties from abstract principles, egoists worrying only about themselves and never considering others, cultural relativists and religious authoritarians slavishly following traditions that are largely established by men. These feminists argue that all these systems neglect the feminine side of human experience, that caring and relationships are morally relevant too. The moral theory that is based on relationships and caring is called Ethics of Care.

Care ethicists are interested in the ways people are connected to each other, and how they maintain these connections. For a care ethicist, an action that damages relationships is morally impermissible, and an action that nurtures relationships is permissible, or possibly obligatory. As you might guess, actions like lying, cheating, and stealing are going to be impermissible according to care ethicists because they damage the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. If they have no relationship, that is, if they are strangers and never meet, a care ethicist can still say that the action is impermissible because the action certainly would harm any relationship between they if there had been one. It’s easy to see how some actions definitely do not respect relationships between people. Another way to think of it is like this: would you lie, or steal, or whatever if the victim was your friend? If doing the action would damage that hypothetical friendship, then you shouldn’t do it. 

Ethics of care also allows for the possibility of doing things that might usually be considered impermissible in special situations. If you need to lie to your friend to protect his feelings, it might be okay according to the this theory. Relationships are complicated, and care ethicists say that it’s appropriate to rely on feelings to tell you what’s right or wrong depending on the nature of the relationship that is at stake. Also, care ethics allows us to give preference to the people we care about when we make decisions. If you had to choose between the needs of your best friend of a complete stranger, most moral theories would say that you can’t discriminate, but ethics of care allows for you to put the people you care about ahead of people who you don’t’ have any relationship with.

To illustrate this moral theory consider the following scenario, which was used by the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg to assess moral development in children:

Heinz's wife was near death, and her only hope was a drug that had been discovered by a pharmacist who was selling it for an exorbitant price. The drug cost $20,000 to make, and the pharmacist was selling it for $200,000. Heinz could only raise $50,000 and insurance wouldn't make up the difference. He offered what he had to the pharmacist, and when his offer was rejected, Heinz said he would pay the rest later. Still the pharmacist refused. In desperation, Heinz considered stealing the drug. Would it be wrong for him to do that?[1]

In Kohlberg’s experiments, he found that girls often gave different sorts of responses than boys. While boys would say things like “it’s always wrong to steal” or “the pharmacist is being unfair so it’s okay to steal the drug”, girls would say things like “They should talk about it and compromise because it’s wrong to steal but it’s also wrong to let your wife die” Kohlberg thought this meant that girls were wishy-washy and morally inferior, but feminist theorists think that girls were just approaching the problem differently. 

The American feminist philosopher and psychologist Carol Gilligan describes the way one of Kohlberg’s test subjects, Amy, answers the dilemma, and how Amy’s answer represents an importantly different approach to moral problem solving.

Asked why he should not steal the drug, she considers neither property nor law but rather the effect that theft could have on the relationship between Heinz and his wife:

“If he stole the drug, he might save his wife then, but if he did, he might have to go to jail, and then his wife might get sicker again, and he couldn't get more of the drug, and it might not be good. So. they should really just talk it out and find some other way to make the money.”

Seeing in the dilemma not a math problem with humans but a narrative of relationships that extends over time, Amy envisions the wife's continuing need for her husband and the husband's continuing concern for his wife and seeks to respond to the druggist's need in a way that would sustain rather than sever connection. Just as she ties the wife's survival to the preservation of relationships, so she considers the value of the wife's life in a context of relationships, saying that it would be wrong to let her die because, "if she died, it hurts a lot of people and it hurts her." Since Amy's moral judgment is grounded in the belief that, "if somebody has something that would keep somebody alive, then it's not right not to give it to them," she considers the problem in the dilemma to arise not from the druggist's assertion of rights but from his failure of response.[2]

Instead of applying universal rules like boys did, Amy considered the relationships between all the people involved. They didn’t want Heinz to just steal the drug, because that would potentially destroy the basic business relationship whereby Heinz a quires the drug, but they were not willing to let the wife die either, because Heinz has some responsibilities to her as her husband and that relationship is obviously important too. Gilligan also notes that Amy’s criticism of the pharmacist is that he is withholding a life-saving treatment, not that he is demanding money. Amy cares about the lives and needs of the people involved, not any questions about justice or utility.

This illustrates the big difference between ethics of care and other theories. While most theories demand that we apply universal moral principles uniformly in all cases, ethics of care allows us to do what we feel is right, based on the changing needs of our relationships with the people we care about. Care ethics focuses on the complex, changing nature of human interactions, rather than on cold, abstract rules.

The problems with this approach are that it’s either unreliable or self-contradictory, and almost impossible to use to judge the actions of others (a function of morality that we use quite a lot). There is no reason to think that care ethics will give the same answer twice to the same moral question. Care ethicists don’t rely on principles that can be applied consistently, so if you asked two different care ethicists about the same case, you’d likely get two different answers, and if you asked the same care ethicist the same question once and then again later, you would probably get different answers. This is because ethics of care lets people make decisions based on relationships and caring, which change all the time, and are radically different for different people. So care ethics is unreliable for producing consistent answers to moral questions. Alternatively, care ethicists could say that moral questions shouldn’t be answered differently by different people, because everyone should be compassionate and caring. If they say that, however, they are admitting that care ethics works by appealing to universal principles, the very thing that they criticize other theories for doing.

Finally, care ethics is almost useless for judging the actions of others. If you want to know whether something another person did was morally permissible or impermissible, you would use your moral theory and apply it to the action in question, but with care ethics, since everyone’s relationships are different from everyone else’s, and everyone cares about different people in different ways, it is nearly impossible to know whether someone did the right thing, since you don’t know what relationships mattered to them and what they care about.

[1] Kohlberg, Lawrence (1981). Essays on Moral Development, Vol. I: The Philosophy of Moral Development. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

[2] Gilligan, Carol, In a Different Voice, Harvard University Press, 1993.