According to Virginia Held

Note: This is an essay I wrote when I was in college and still a baby philosopher. I wrote this essay back in 2014 for my Moral Theory course.

An overview of Held’s care ethics.

Moral and ethical theories have, throughout history, disregarded emotions as a valid way of being able to behave in an ethical way. It is through reason that one is able to create a functional ethical theory, or so it has been thought. Moral theories have also been accounted to, the majority of times, men. Moral theorists have ignored women’s perspectives and experiences for years. Virginia Held changes this; her ethical theory is one that carries a feminist perspective. In her book “The ethics of care, personal, political and global” she gives a comprehensive account on current state of discussion in care ethics, one that is fairly new.

Care ethics is built upon the universal experience of caring and receiving care from others. We all have been cared for at one time or another in our lives, or else we wouldn’t be here. Some relative fed us when we were babies, and took care of us, and we all have some experience of taking care of others. This was well exemplified in class when we shared our experiences of care in “the wall of care.” Care ethics, unlike many other theories, such as deontology, virtue ethics, or utilitarianism, does value emotions as a source of understanding. “Not all emotion is valued, of course, but in contrast with the dominant rationalist approaches, such emotions as sympathy, empathy, sensitivity, and responsiveness are seen as the kind of moral emotions that need to be cultivated not only to help in the implementation of the dictates of reason but to better ascertain what morality recommends.” (Pg. 10)

Care ethics also conceptualizes people as relational and inter-dependent not as self-sufficient individuals. “The ethics of care characteristically sees persons as relation and interdependent, morally and epistemologically. Every person starts out as a child dependent on those providing us care, and we remain interdependent with others in thoroughly fundamental ways throughout our lives.(Pg.14) We tend to think that as we grow up we don’t need anybody, that we are self-sufficient. Just yesterday I was thinking about Held’s emphasis on our dependency of others even when we are already adults. I sprained my ankle at my job, and during the night, when I got home and laid in bed, I couldn’t move because of so much pain that I felt. I called my grandparents and they came in the middle of the night to give me some medicine and put some hot towels in my foot. If it wouldn’t have been for them, I would have been incapable of moving. It’s little things that we depend on others, on their care, even as adults.

With all of this being said, I think it is important to define what Held means specifically by “care.” Although many care ethicists have given different definitions of what care means, for Held, care is a practice and a value. Care should not be seen primarily as a virtue, but as a type of work, activity or practice. There is a human dependency and a need for substantial care, and this giving of care is what is seen as a practice. “Care is a practice involving the work of care-giving and the standards by which the practices of care can be evaluated. Care must concern itself with the effectiveness of its efforts to meet needs, but also with the motives with which care is provided.” (Pg. 36) When Held talks about care as a value, she is referring to “the values that are incorporated in practices, values that also need to be evaluated by the normative standards values provide.”(Pg. 38)

In the practice of care, justice could be one of the values that is incorporated but Held makes a clear distinction between care ethics, and justice. There can be care without justice but there can be no justice without care. To support this claim, Held talks about the practice of childcare by employees in a childcare center, and she argues that “providing care rather than exemplifying justice would be the primary aim of the activity.”(Pg. 41) Care ethics values caring relationships, social ties, and values such as trust, solidarity, mutual concern, empathy, and responsiveness. Justice, on the other hand, values equality, impartiality, non-interference, and freedom.

Rationalist theories, theories that are focused more on justice than care, “rely on simple, abstract universal rules; they assume a concept of person that is individualistic and independent; these are theories of right action aimed at recommending rational choice, and can be interpreted as far more suitable for guiding the decisions of persons in “public” life than for dealing with moral issues of family life or friendship or group solidarity.”(Pg. 63)

Care ethics has made steady progress over the years, and it has brought into moral theory an awareness of the importance of the perspectives and experiences of women and dependents. It gives a better input on what it means to take moral decision on a day-to-day basis, and not just an abstract theory of how one should behave. I am very grateful for the work of Held, and all those other care-ethicists for bringing up all of these points, because women’s experiences do matter. We are also part of this world, and should not be neglected. Thanks to Held, I look forward to seeing how care ethics will clarify its own foundations, how it will begin to dismantle patriarchal notions not only in moral theories but society, and how it will bolster more critical examination of other moral and political traditions, and give more importance to the conception of people as relational and inter-dependent.

Chapter 2: Care as Practice and Value

In this chapter, Held responds to the question—“What is care?”—by characterizing care as both a practice and as a value. In order to better understand and evaluate Held’s claims, I’d like you to reflect on your own personal experience of care in such a way that its various forms come into clearer focus. To do this, please take 5-10 minutes to answer the two questions immediately below:

What different kinds/forms of care have you received in the course of your life? Be sure to list some concrete examples. 

My three closest friends and I have been friends since we were 12 years old and we are now 20. We know how to listen to each other and respect each other’s differences and needs and help each other out. My friends have built my caring identity as well. I have had non-caring friendships along the way so I think I can compare a caring with a non-caring relationship and how both shape and define you in different ways. I would argue to prove Held’s point that sensitivity plays a huge role in the process of caring for others, and the people that have been sensitive towards my needs and my differences have been the ones who have made me a better person.

Based on what you just wrote, how would you define or otherwise characterize care?
The relationship one builds with an other to maximize virtue, well being and happiness.

Which philosophical description(s) of care reviewed by Held in the “Some Suggestions” section (pp. 31-36) best fit your own description of care?
Page 35: “Caring is a relation in which carer and cared-for share an interest in their mutual well-being.”
Page 31: “Close attention to the feelings, needs, desires, and thoughts for those cared for, and a skill in understanding a situation from that person’s point of view, are central to caring for someone.”

What does Held mean when she describes care as a practice?
Pg. 36: “Care is a practice involving the work of care-giving and the standards by which the practices of care can be evaluated.” Held refers to care as a practice in the more physical sense, what I mean by this is by the actual work one does, not so much the feelings one feels when caring about someone.

Chapter 3: The Caring Person

Through a feminist lens, I think it would be fair to say that care has been seen as something for women, something mothers should do, such as Held explains how in the past women have been thought to have an “instinct” for caring. I think that it is because of this reason that care has never been really though of as a virtue but as an instinct.

What does Held mean when she takes it for granted that we experience ourselves as moral subjects?
She refers to the capability of humans of being responsible for their actions, and our ability to cultivate virtues and practices of care. “Capable of action and of shaping their lives and institutions and societies over time, at least to some extent, through cultivating in themselves and others certain characteristics and practices and values.” (Pg. 45)

How is sensitivity important to the ethics of care?
Sensitivity “is not simply a trait we are born with or without, like being left-handed. It is important for being a caring person.” (Pg. 53) If one is sensitive for other needs one will make a greater effort to care for them in practice.

What shortcomings does Held see in views that consider caring to be a disposition or even a virtue that belongs to persons?
We need to know when to stop caring for another person and respect each other’s mutual autonomy. “To continue to have strong feelings of affection for someone who does not want those feelings but wants rather to be left alone, can be a failure of care in the sense of failing to constitute a caring relation.”(Pg. 54)

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