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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 response. "The shift in moral perspective is manifest by a change in the moral question from "what is just?" to "how to respond?"[1] Ethics of care criticizes the applications of universal standards as "morally problematic, since it breeds moral blindness or indifference." [2]

The basic beliefs of the theory are:

  1. All individuals are interdependent for achieving their interests
  2. Those particularly vulnerable to our choices and their outcomes deserve extra consideration to be measured according to
    1. the level of their vulnerability to one's choices
    2. the level of their affectedness by one's choices and no one else's
  3. It is necessary to attend to the contextual details of the situation in order to safeguard and promote the actual specific interests of those involved

Historical background

One of the founders of the ethics of care was American ethicist and psychologist Carol Gilligan. Gilligan was a student of developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg and developed her moral theory in contrast to her mentor's theory of stages of moral development. She disputed his concept of human maturity which measures, and assesses progress along the following stages:[3]

Stage Goal
Pre-conventional Stage 1: Obedience to authority

Stage 2: Nice behavior in exchange for future favors

Conventional Stage 3: Live up to others' expectations

Stage 4: Follow rules to maintain social order

Post-conventional Stage 5: Adhere to social contract when it is valid

Stage 6: Personal moral system based on abstract principles

Gilligan advanced the view that this model must be wrong. Measuring progress by it resulted in boys being found to be more morally mature than girls, and this held for adult men and women as well, although when education is controlled for there are no gender differences.[4] This was not an objective scale of moral development, Gilligan argued, but other researchers have found the scale to be psycho-metrically sound.[5] It displayed a particularly masculine perspective on morality, founded on justice and abstract duties or obligations. She also stated that Kohlberg's founding study consisted of largely male participants.[6]

Gilligan offered a difference feminist perspective: men and women have tendencies to view morality in different terms, with women tending to emphasize empathy and compassion over the notions of morality that are privileged by Kohlberg's scale.[7] The "different voice," however, is not characterized by gender. Rather, it is associated with women by means of an empirical observation. [8] Subsequent research, confirms that the difference in the use of the care ethic or the justice orientation is not based on gender differences. [9]

Comparing ethics of care with traditional ethical positions

Ethics of care contrasts with more well-known ethical views, such as consequentialist theories (e.g. utilitarianism) and deontological theories (e.g. 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.

Ethics of care and feminist ethics

While some feminists have criticized care-based ethics for reinforcing traditional stereotypes of a “good woman”[10] others have embraced parts of this paradigm under the theoretical concept of care-focused feminism.[11]

Care-focused feminism is a branch of feminist thought, informed primarily by ethics of care as developed by Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings.[12] This body of theory is critical of how caring is socially engendered to women and consequently devalued. “Care-focused feminists regard women’s capacity for care as a human strength”[13] which can and should be taught to and expected of men as well as women. Noddings proposes that ethical caring has the potential to be a more concrete evaluative model of moral dilemma, than an ethic of justice.[14] Noddings’ care-focused feminism requires practical application of relational ethics, predicated on an ethic of care.[15]

Ethics of care is also a basis for care-focused feminist theorizing on maternal ethics. Critical of how society engenders caring labor, theorists Sara Ruddick, Virginia Held, and Eva Feder Kittay suggest caring should be performed and care givers valued in both public and private spheres.[16] Their theories recognize caring as an ethically relevant issue.[17] This proposed paradigm shift in ethics encourages that an ethic of caring be the social responsibility of both men and women.

Joan Tronto argues that the definition of the term "ethic of care" is ambiguous due in part to the lack of a central role it plays in moral theory. [18] She argues that considering moral philosophy is engaged with human goodness, than care would appear to assume a significant role in this type of philosophy.[18] However, this is not the case and Tronto further stresses the association between care and "naturalness", referring to the socially and culturally constructed gender roles assumes care to the role of the woman.[18]As such, it loses the power to take a central role in moral theory.

Tronto states there are four ethical elements of care:

1. Attentiveness
Attentiveness is crucial to the ethics of care because care requires a recognition of others needs in order to respond to them.[18]The question which arises is the distinction between ignorance and inattentiveness.[18]Tronto poses this question as such, "But when is ignorance simply ignorance, and when is it inattentiveness"? [18]

2. Responsibility
In order to care, we must take it upon ourselves, thus responsibility. The problem associated with this second ethical element of responsibility is the question of obligation. Obligation is often if not already tied to pre-established societal and cultural norms and roles. Tronto makes the effort to differentiate the terms "responsibility" and "obligation" with regards to the ethic of care. Responsibility is ambiguous, whereas obligation refers to situations where action or reaction is due, such as the case of a legal contract.[18]This ambiguity allows for ebb and flow in and between class structures and gender roles, and to other socially constructed roles that would bind responsibility to those only befitting of those roles.

3. Competence
To provide care also means competency. One cannot simply acknowledge the need to care, accept the responsibility, but do not follow through with enough adequacy - as such action would result in the need of care not being met.[18]

4. Responsiveness
This refers to the "responsiveness of the care receiver to the care".[18]Tronto states, "Responsiveness signals an important moral problem within care: by its nature, care is concerned with conditions of vulnerability and inequality".[18]She further argues responsiveness does not equal reciprocity.[18] Rather, it is another method to understand vulnerability and inequality by understanding what has been expressed by those in the vulnerable position, as opposed to re-imagining oneself in a similar situation.[18]

See also



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


  1. Gilligan, Carol. "Moral Orientation and Moral Development." The Feminist Philosophy Reader. By Alison Bailey and Chris J. Cuomo. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008. N. pag. 469 Print.
  2. Gilligan, Carol. "Moral Orientation and Moral Development." The Feminist Philosophy Reader. By Alison Bailey and Chris J. Cuomo. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008. N. pag. 471 Print.
  3. Cavanaugh, J & Kail, R(2004) Human development: A Lifespan View, (3rd ed.) Wadsworth press Pg 321
  4. Walker, L.J. (1991). "Sex differences in moral reasoning.” In W.M. Kurtines and J. L. Gewirtz (eds.) Handbook of moral behavior and development: Vol, 2. Research. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  5. Ward, Dana (2000). "Still Hearing Voice: The Persistent Myth of Gendered Judgment," Keynote address presented at the VIIIth Biennial conference of the International Society for Justice Research, Rishon LeZion, Israel.
  6. In a Different Voice
  7. Gilligan, Carol. In A Different Voice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1982.
  8. Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1982. p. 8-9
  9. Ford and Lowery (1986). "Gender Differences in Moral Reasoning: A Comparison of the Use of Justice and Care Orientations". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 50(4), 777-783; Rothbart, Hanley and Albert (1986). "Gender Differences in Moral Reasoning." Sex Roles. 15(11&12), 645-653; and Krebs, D.L., Vermeulen, S.C., Denton, K., and Carpendale, J. I. (1994). "Gender and perspective differences in moral judgment and moral orientation". Journal of Moral Education. 23, 17-26.
  10. Bartky, Sandra Lee: Femininity and Domination, page 104-5. Routledge, New York, 1990.
  11. Tong, Rosmarie: Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction, page 162-165. Westview Press, Charlotte, 2009.
  12. Tong, Rosmarie: Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction, page 162-165. Westview Press, Charlotte, 2009.
  13. Tong, Rosmarie: Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction, page 162-165. Westview Press, Charlotte, 2009.
  14. Noddings, Nel: Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, page 3-4. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1984.
  15. Noddings, Nel: Women and Evil, page 222. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1989.
  16. Kittay, Eva Feder: Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality and Dependency, page 20. Routledge, New York, 1999.
  17. Held, Virginia. Ethics of Care, page 64. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
  18. 18.00 18.01 18.02 18.03 18.04 18.05 18.06 18.07 18.08 18.09 18.10 18.11 Tronto, J. (2005). An Ethic of Care. In A. Cudd & R. Andreasen (Eds.), Feminist theory: a philosophical anthology (pp.251-263). Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Further reading and External links

  • Gilligan, Carol. In A Different Voice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1982.
  • Jagger, Alison. “Caring as a Feminist Practice of Moral Reason.” Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics. Ed. Virginia Held. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. 1995.
  • Noddings, Nel, ed. Educating Citizens for Global Awareness. New York: Teachers College Press. 2005.
  • Held, Virginia. Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture, Society, and Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1993.
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