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Care ethics & feminism

Consider feminism and the application of care ethics to purely human ethical issues. There are related to certain environmental and animal rights ethical concerns (e.g. eco-feminism) and hence to issues I am interested in but I will not discuss such things here – they are more related in any event to feminist critiques of male hierarchy.   From an initial position of cynicism I have come to respect some of the feminist work on care ethics – particularly that due to Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings.

Basically care ethics sees traditional ethics as male-dominated and substitutes for this an alternative female waysof thinking with an emphasis on relationships, on using emotions and on paying attention to the particulars of ethical situations. The following are some rough notes I needed for a class I will soon give. They are largely based on the excellent Ethics for Dummies by C. Panzar & A. Potthast and this wikipedia entry on care ethics.  A useful additional reading was Grimshaw (1991). My preliminary conclusion is an obvious one:  A decent approach to ethics does require thinking about gender differences in making ethical judgements. I am a bit uncertain, however, whether care ethics delivers the goods in that regard or whether it inadvertently, in fact, reinforces sexist prejudice. I welcome comments  on these notes – the treatment is elementary stuff since I have not read much in this area. 

Feminism  is concerned with male biases that cause the political, economic and social marginalisation of women’s views.  Feminism seeks to correct such biases by seeking greater equality between men and women in terms of such things as home duties and participation in the paid workforce.  In terms of ethics the different life experiences of men and women create different ways of thinking.  However since men did most writing on ethics it was their views that have come to be seen as the set of ethical theories.

The psychologist Kohlberg (1927-1987) argued that people’s ethics develop to maturity in stages.  In the pre-conventional stage he saw ethics are based mainly on selfishness. Children begin behaving ethically on the basis of receiving rewards and avoiding punishments.  They then move toward egoistic exchange relationship phase where they see that self-interest can be advanced within relationships.  Children behave quasi-altruistically on the basis of self-interest.  In the conventional stage children move towards genuine care for others.  They foster good interpersonal relationships and move to considering ethics as a way of sustaining laws and regulations that preserve cohesiveness in groups and society.   Breaking laws is then the primary instance of ethical behaviour.  The post-conventional stage sees ethics as duties based on abstract rules than transcend culture and historical circumstance.   In the post-conventional stage people initially think of rules as part of the social contract that reflects majority agreement but, finally, in the sixth stage it is thinking which defines ethics.  Here one distances oneself from relationships, individual needs and culture in order to assess how universal laws determine human rights in various situations.   This last stage reflects much traditional ethics: Kant emphasised reason, Mill impartiality and the social contracts idea was developed by Hobbes and Rawls. Whatever the emphasis here, behaviour that accords with such rules is ethical.  Kohlberg’s ethical maturity model is schematized in Table 1.




Stage 1: Obedience to authority.

Stage 2: Nice behaviour in exchange for future favours.


Stage 3: Live up to other’s expectations.

Stage 4: Follow rules to maintain social order.


Stage 5: Adhere to valid social contracts.

Stage 6: Personal moral system based on abstract principles.


Table 1: Kohlberg’s ethical maturity model.

Feminists call the final stage of Kohlberg’s scale the justice perspective.  It emphasises justice with related traits of universality and impartiality.  All relative and situation-specific norms are put to one side and thinking is cast in terms of abstractly portrayed “human beings” or “rational agents”.

Carol Gilligan (a student of Kohlberg) disputed Kohlberg’s approach.  In Gilligan (1982, 2008) she claimed Kohlberg’s work showed male bias and hence that it marginalised female thinking.  She claimed women form attachments faster and are partial to those people close to them. They use emotions such as empathy and sympathy in their reasoning and were hesitant to apply abstract moral principles to particular relationships when making ethical judgements.  Men, alternatively, emphasised autonomy and impartiality in their reasoning, were less likely to care and more likely to think in terms of impartial rules applied to everyone equally.  Indeed men see feelings as an obstacle to clear thinking and hence tended to discount them.

These views might reflect nature so women are more caring because in evolutionary biology terms they care for children whereas men are hunters and gatherers.  Abstract thinking doesn’t help much with child rearing and caring doesn’t help you hunt!  They might also reflect nurture and the way men and women are socialised into different roles.

Kohlberg in placing abstract reasoning at the top of the ethical scale and care-based reasoning lower down is imposing a male bias.  While Kohlberg showed experimentally that girls tended to get stuck in Stages 3 and 4 in Table 1 whereas boys fell in stages 5 and 6.  But this was not simply delivered as a descriptive observation.  Instead the data was used to suggest the ethical reasoning of boys was superior to that of girls.  Indeed this view reflected a widespread male assumption that women are not good at handling complex moral situations because they become emotionally involved.

As Gilligan argues this is bias because it reflects only a male perspective of how things are not how, in fact, they are.  It implies, moreover, that for women to be ethical they must think like a man.  Hence an independent and complementary women’s ethics also needs to be developed.

Care Ethics focuses on the protection of close relationships.  It was originally developed for relationships between people. It has recently  been extended to include care for animals and the environment but I do not discuss these approaches here. Nell Noddings (1984) argues that a caring person should feel a desire or inclination towards another specific person that reflects a felt regard for their interests.  That felt regard should be experienced as a burdening.

Care ethics stresses the importance of feelings and emotions, such as empathy and sympathy, with a focus on the particular rather than general features of moral situations.   What matters is how people respond to others with whom they have close relationships.

It is claimed men see the self in terms of an atomic model in which each self is independent/autonomous but which can on a discretionary basis enter into relationships.  Women alternatively see the self as intrinsically connected to others via a relational view of selfhood so  self involves an inevitable connection to other selves.  Hence ethics involves primarily protecting interpersonal relations and responding appropriately to the needs of those close.

This response is not to treat ethical situations as puzzles but as the need to make an emotional investment in empathy.  Detached reasoning and ethical rules are part of care ethics but the main issue is empathetic connection.  Thus in a family dispute the important thing is not justice but damaged relationships.  Here there is partiality rather than impartiality because ethical obligations are greater to those in a close relationship.  Consider the  hypothetical:

Drowning mother and stranger.  Your mother and a stranger are drowning but you only have the time to save one of them.  A utilitarian should ignore their relationship with their mother and act impartially to maximise the social advantage.  A Kantian would likewise act impartially and think about a maxim such as ‘life is precious”.  A care ethicist would emphasise your obligations to your mother and save her an action that would accord with most people’s intuition.

Care ethics thus wants to make ethics non-abstract – it is particularistic.

The three substantial criticisms of care ethics ask:

How does it deal with public policy issues? Public policy involves ethical concerns among people not involved in close relationships. Nepotism does not seem generally attractive as an ethic ensuring justice. Some care ethicists agree these ethics are only useful in the private sphere of life. Others argue nepotism should be avoided because it is not doing those close to you a favour.  That can be disputed. It certainly seems to stretch things a bit.  Feminist care ethics is not an exclusive ethics since male ethics also matter. Perhaps there is a natural allocation of ethical concerns here that reflects gender.

Do all relationships deserve care?   Should relationships with people who are abusive or evil be maintained?  This would seem counterintuitive.   Care theorists respond that sometimes care involves “tough love” particularly if this will induce a change in behaviour.  In extreme cases it might make sense to end a relationship to protect your caring self although extricating oneself from a relationship should involve care.  My guess is that you don’t need to be mindlessly caring and must consider your own welfare.

Does care ethics damage women?  Care ethics can be rejected as anti-feminist because it might be seen as reinforcing sexist prejudices against women that they are emotional, that they  deserve marginalisation and hence to being assigned to traditional roles.   In fact women have heterogeneous ethics and accepting care ethics suppresses this somewhat. If feminists do assume that care ethics are due to nurture then this straightjacketing is not inevitable since the nurturing can be changed.  In particular it is not necessarily true that all women should be coerced into caring roles or, indeed, that men should not occupy such roles.

Despite this criticisms the development of care ethics does provide a convincing argument that male dominated views of ethics will distort sensible ethical judgements.  Care ethics has immediate practicality and does reflect some experimentally observed gender differences.


C. Gilligan, In a Different Voice, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1982.

C. Gilligan, “Moral Orientation and Moral Development”, in A. Bailey & C. J. Cuomo (eds) The Feminist Philosophy Reader, McGraw Hill, Boston, 2008.

J. Grimshaw, “The Idea of a Female Ethic” in P. Singer (ed)  A Companion to Ethics, Blackwell, 1991,  Chapter 43.

N. Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, 1984.


8 comments to Care ethics & feminism

  • conrad

    a) I’m not sure anyone takes Kohlberg’s stages too seriously, although actually delineating potential types of ways one can think about morals is nice.
    b) A lot of this idea about male-bias seems to be based on the rather poor assumption that males and females have especially different value sets for many things. There may be slightly shifted distributions for some particular issues (e.g., abortion), but in terms of higher level thought on moral issues and lower level implict behaviour (e.g., some aspects of empathy), my reading of stuff is that there’s really not much difference between the sexes. Part of the problem is people (generally psychologists who have a very poor grasp of statistics) always want to find differences as it’s a “wow” find, rather than report than 98% of the distribution is overlapped (or whatever it is on each aspect of moral thought under investigation). It’s a bit like crime. You can always find differences between males and females, but almost all of the population isn’t doing any. So it looks like a big gender difference (and it is in terms of the people doing it), but it really isn’t if you consider all people.
    c) If you’re interested in concrete things like whether there are gender biases in the workplace or things like that, they are easy to find, and I assume you know many of them (cf., moral issues, general aspects of low-level human behavior). Investigating whether there are things like gender biases in payment of care workers or whether they get payed poorly for other reason I would see as worthwhile.

  • hc


    “in terms of higher level thought on moral issues and lower level implict behaviour (e.g., some aspects of empathy), my reading of stuff is that there’s really not much difference between the sexes”.

    I don’t have background in this area but Kohlberg got his insights by studying actual data. Do you have a specific reference that refutes this?

  • conrad

    Do you mean stuff on gender differences? Kohlberg is really like a historical reference now, not really where modern thought is at (a bit like Piaget, Skinner and all the old psychology people — worth knowing about as the bases of where more modern ideas have come from)

    If you mean gender differences, then this person has a whole book on why the neuroscience and some other psychology findings are vastly over hyped, although I don’t remember much on morals (I think it is “Delusions of Gender”). She gives good talks to. This is a worthwhile book because so much detritus comes out of this area on this issue.

    I also think it’s fair to say that most of the time, gender differences are not even examined in morals now, because the differences on most things are so small. I read some of this literature (I have a PhD student looking at altruism), and I read some of the stuff on really young kids as I intend to do a bit of work in that area if I get some time (probably not!).

    You can also just look for yourself on the major issues you are interested in where surveying has been done — attitudes to environment, animal welfare etc. . There’s none you’ll find where there are major gender differences as far as I’m aware. So if all of the surveying on the major moral issues of our day arn’t showing any thrilling differences, that’s really telling us something about what differences there really are (or arn’t).

  • Jim Rose

    Bryan Caplan wrote a nice paper on personality traits and labour market outcomes using Myers Briggs and other measures. He argued that preferences are quite stable by the age of 30, they are far from identical and have proven predictive power for interesting variables

    Women are more agreeable and have different ratings on thinking-feeling according to personality tests. This influences occupational choices.

    boys are known to perform worse than girls on many non-cognitive dimensions such as is shown in recent books and papers sharing the title “The trouble with boys”.

    about 60% of graduates being women says something is going on.

  • conrad

    Jim, you need to take about saying there is a difference, versus saying there is a meaningful difference (a bad habit of psychology people who are always looking for differences). For example, a quick search on agreeableness shows this sort of finding: from the people that thought of that personality scale. These are also for personality traits, not moral judgments.

  • Jim Rose

    the evidence is growing that men will be the weaker sex of the 21st century. good for cannon fodder and little else.

  • Jim Rose

    conrad, I should add that that Popper and Koopman and many others point out that measurement is always theory-based.

    a theory tells you where to look, what you are looking for and when you have found it.

  • Kenneth Black

    While some women oppose the ethic of care, for fear that it paints women with a particular brush, it should be celebrated that the ability of women to care, the talent of caring, is the focal point here. The male perspective aside, there are legitimate signs that point to the female gender as being more of the caretaker. There are rewards for caring, that come forth with ethical behavior, coupled with genuine caring for others. Kohlberg’s theory may be geared toward the male behavior, but Gilligan had a legitimate reason for researching and giving a dedicated look to how women behave in similar circumstances (pre-conventional, conventional, post-conventional). I believe people of either gender could stand to maximize ethical behavior with an element of care.

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