Theorising care: attentive interaction or distributive justice?

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  • 1 Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University Stuttgart (DHBW) and University of Tübingen, Germany
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A main reason for the slow advance of a political theory of care is the conceptual differences between two strands of approaching care. Ethico-political approaches of care ask how to better perform supportive interactivities. They aim to bring the traditional concept of justice out of the centre to achieve room for other normative viewpoints such as attentiveness. The welfare-resourcing strand asks who provides support and how the fact of its performance is linked with society’s unjust social structures. These researchers believe that making attentive interaction more central is likely to hinder a fairer distribution of needs-meeting activities, not help it.

Abstract

A main reason for the slow advance of a political theory of care is the conceptual differences between two strands of approaching care. Ethico-political approaches of care ask how to better perform supportive interactivities. They aim to bring the traditional concept of justice out of the centre to achieve room for other normative viewpoints such as attentiveness. The welfare-resourcing strand asks who provides support and how the fact of its performance is linked with society’s unjust social structures. These researchers believe that making attentive interaction more central is likely to hinder a fairer distribution of needs-meeting activities, not help it.

Introduction

A core question that confronts any theory of care is how to think the political. Should a theory of care emphasise justice for caregivers and the equitable distribution of care work? Or, should it stress the attentive interactions between givers and receivers of care, along with the societal conditions for activating, cultivating and repairing them? These responses represent the two main paths that theorists of care have taken while grappling with the implications of thinking the political. One path seeks to raise awareness of care work, which remains stubbornly underappreciated despite its importance for society. In trying to facilitate the fair treatment of caregivers, it sets its sights on those who provide care and the support they themselves receive. The other path looks at the way in which caregiving can be good for the receiver. It considers how to respond ethically to human vulnerability and takes into account unrecognised forms of attentive interactivities in everyday situations. The first approach is primarily about inequality in the making of welfare resources and about inequitable structures at a societal level. The second path focuses on the political importance and the societal conditions of good human interactions at the social level. Both ways of theorising share certain assumptions and aim to achieve societal change; however, they differ in how they employ those assumptions and in the ways in which they go about achieving that objective.

Each of these strands is primarily located in a different discipline. The ethico-political strand is a philosophical position that criticises the one-sidedness of existing ethical theories. Inspired by Carol Gilligan’s work in the 1970s on the importance of attachment, relationality, dialogue, attentiveness and listening, it became increasing re-evaluative as it aimed to help distinguish good from bad, and successful from deficient, performances of support, assistance or help (Jaggar, 1989: 102–6; Code, 1991: 95–109). The ethico-political strand proposes new theories and, in some cases, envisions new realities. The philosopher Virginia Held (2010: 117, emphasis in original) stresses that the ethics of care ‘evaluates existing practices and understands that caring practices as they exist are usually in need of fast improvement’. Held asks about the ethical beliefs that come to bear on care practices in close social relationships and whether such ethical beliefs can be extended from the social to the societal and, ultimately, to the political (Gould, 2014: 43; Held, 2010: 117).

The welfare-resourcing strand is sociological in nature. On the one hand, it relies on a social theory to analyse the function of supportive activities in society; on the other, it focuses on those who provide support, assistance or help and how such activities relate to the structure and political organisation of society. The welfare-resourcing strand reflects on power relations and scrutinises forms of privilege that assign the performance of such activities to people with lower status or income, frequently along the lines of class, gender and ethnicity (Tronto, 1993: 120–1; Robinson, 2011: 63, 81–3, 93; Williams, 2012). It is not a purely socio-political outlook, however. It also includes a socio-economic dimension that critically considers what gets lost in the commodification of care (Folbre, 2001). A considerable number of theorists envision a fundamental socio-economic and political transformation; some endorse a redistribution of care work (Fraser, 1995; Esquivel, 2014). Although the supporters of this feminist-inspired social theory describe unjust structures, they usually refuse to submit concrete problem-solving proposals (Plonz, 2019).

The differences in these approaches have generated a host of conflicts and rivalries between the two camps. This is particularly apparent in German-language countries, where these strands of theorising care have seen increasing bifurcation among feminist scholars. Ostensibly, this split has emerged in response to Gilligan’s work. While a minority of writers have embraced her ethics of care, many others have rejected it in favour of a theory of care work (Eckart, 2004: 27).1 What is the reason for this uneven divide? Does it derive primarily from a misunderstanding of Gilligan or is it fuelled by deeper, more general, factors? Are the two positions fundamentally at odds or are they compatible, even complementary? Does the division permit a more systematic explanation?

In addition to generating conflict, the differences between these positions have slowed developments in the theorising of care and weakened its impact. This article contributes to care ethics and to a political theory of care by reflecting on the underlying assumptions of each strand. It seeks to provide more clarity about what exactly is at stake, and to identify areas of commonality among the divergence. In trying to understanding the division, I turn to some unresolved debates in the English-language scholarship of the 1980s that, I will argue, laid the groundwork for the subsequent fractures between care theorists.

After presenting the ethico-political and the welfare-resourcing strands in more detail, I first point out their dissimilarities with regard to definitions of care, normative claims, objects of criticism and overall aims. Next, I examine the ways in which they diverge in the importance that they attach to gender and their, at times, antagonistic visions of social transformation. By way of conclusion, I think about the lessons that care ethics draws from the care work debate and how these lessons simultaneously help and impede the thinking of the political. While my reflections are mostly metatheoretical, they will also help us think about creating a more appropriate and successful politics of care.

The two strands of theorising care

The ethico-political strand

Ethico-political theories of care conceptualise attentiveness as a crucial feature of social interaction (Gilligan, 1988a: 16). They put forward concepts of relationality and reject the one-sidedness of mainstream ethics.

A possible point of origin for the ethical-political strand is an essay from the mid-1960s by the philosopher Milton Mayeroff, who writes: ‘Caring like knowing is a human activity that is intrinsically interesting, and also like knowing it is an activity whose understanding is central…. But, unlike knowing, it has been the subject of very little philosophical reflection’ (Mayeroff, 1965: 462). The essay, whose recurring motif is a father who cares for his child, cites Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel and Erich Fromm as influences (Mayeroff, 1965: 462). It was expanded several years later into a slim volume that begins with a definition of care: ‘To care for another person, in the most significant sense, is to help him grow and actualize himself’ (Mayeroff, 1971: 7).

In 1984, more than a decade later, Nel Noddings (1984: 9) embraced Mayeroff’s definition but criticised him for portraying care mostly from the perspective of those who provide it. For Noddings (1984: 9), the fundamental aspects of caring lie in the relationship between caregiver and care receiver. While Mayeroff stresses ‘the promotion of growth in the cared-for’, Noddings wishes ‘to start with engrossment and motivational displacement’ (Noddings, 1984: 16). A few years earlier, Noddings (1981) published the essay ‘Caring’ in the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing. Appearing under the subject category ‘Political and Psychological Studies’ (and not ‘Feminist and Gender Studies’), the article references Kierkegaard and Buber (Buber, 1965; Noddings, 1981: 145f) in examining the relationship between adults as teachers and children as students. In his commentary article for the same edition of the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, William F. Pinar (1981: 149) underlines the importance of addressing the topic of care not only from the perspective of education theory, but also as part of the burgeoning study of gender relations and feminist thought.

The feminist approach to an ethics of care and responsibility started with the developmental psychologist Carol Gilligan and her work In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development (Gilligan, 1982), which makes no mention of Mayeroff or Noddings. She criticises a certain kind of moral research for privileging topics such as justice and reciprocity, and reviews studies that rely solely on these concepts (Gilligan, 1988a: 8). Gilligan argues that relationality and responsibility must be seen as just as morally relevant as justice and reciprocity. In this vein, she takes Lawrence Kohlberg to task for basing his model of moral development solely on boys and men as test subjects (Gilligan, 1982, 1987) and calls for the inclusion of girls and women. When Kohlberg later applied his model to women and girls, he attributed to them a lower level of moral development than the overwhelming majority of men. Gilligan wonders how an exclusively male sample could be considered representative for so many years. On the basis of her empirical research, Gilligan reinterpreted some interviews conducted by Kohlberg and his staff and suggested that there might be diverging models of moral development, with lots of women making different moral judgements than the majority of men (Gilligan, 1982, 1987). ‘What had been considered a problem in women’s development was recast as a problem in the framework of interpretation’, she later wrote (Gilligan, 2014: 89). Gilligan criticises social orders that encourage types of masculinity and femininity that determine appropriate ethical responses. She argues that we need to oppose such social orders that impede or dismiss care-related reflections. Based on her empirical findings, Gilligan introduces the idea of care as a specific way of perceiving the world (Gilligan, 1988a: 8) in which people relate to each other through human connection (Gilligan, 1982: 29).

Gilligan starts off with everyday situations in which people turn towards others who require responsiveness and support for the foreseeable future, though their situation is not life-threatening. In this, she shares much with Jewish social ethics in the 19th- and early 20th centuries (Conradi, 2018: 26–7). Certain similarities exist between her and Hermann Cohen (1935), who regards the active support of others as a result of a certain type of awareness, and with Martin Buber, who stresses the importance of attentive and affective attachment between human beings (Cohen, 1935: 6–7). However, she also shares some common ground with Jane Addams (1982 [1892]). Although care has no conceptual importance in Addams’s works, she does speak of sympathetic knowledge and follow a relational approach to morality (Hamington, 2004: 108–21). Like Alice Salomon, the editor of Addams’s works who maintained a transatlantic dialogue with her for decades, Addams actively promoted the expansion of the welfare state and reflected on the relationship between ethics and politics in her writings: she proposed a bridge from ethics to political theory (Addams, 1964); she developed a concept of citizenship that includes social rights; she argued for a plural society; and she was a vehement proponent of peace.

Gilligan’s thinking in terms of relationships goes far beyond the ‘do no harm’ maxim long defended by most major philosophers. She argues that we must also improve others’ situations. The philosophical mainstream sees supportive activities as forms of aid but questions whether individuals have a duty to help others. Even a philosopher like Arthur Schopenhauer (2005 [1840]: 101), who saw compassion as the driving force behind ethical behaviour, believed that the need must be acute and the emergency dire before action must be taken. The emphasis on awareness, not feelings, distinguishes Gilligan significantly from Schopenhauer. He believes that awareness can prevent us only from committing harm; assistance itself is motivated by feeling (Schopenhauer, 2005 [1840]: 89). For attention and concern to be activated, ‘the distress’ must be ‘great and urgent’ (Schopenhauer, 2005 [1840]: 101). By contrast, Gilligan believes that action is needed when people are neglected and lonely; distance and detachment ‘constitute grounds for moral concern’ (Gilligan, 1987: 20). She wants to illuminate pathways for activating or repairing networks of communication and to synthesise her ideas about human relationships into a coherent perspective, one that, she hopes, will make up the core of a new ethics of responsibility and attentiveness (Gilligan, 1987: 32).

The political dimensions of care theory and the approach of Joan Tronto

Gilligan’s ideas about responsibility and thinking in terms of human relations also have a political dimension, and over the past decades, quite a few care theorists have devoted much attention to the nexus of care ethics and politics. For instance, Sara Ruddick (1989) has studied pacification and the avoidance of violence, Selma Sevenhuijsen (1998: 147) has argued for a ‘caring solidarity’ among citizens and Margaret Urban Walker (2007: 1) has raised the question as to whether moral and political standards are shared by all members of society. There are also a number of works that discuss care with regard to transnational and global issues (Held, 2005). The subject matter ranges widely: the sovereignty of states, inequality, poverty (Koggel, 2004), citizenship, the formation of global communities, migration, security, repair (Walker, 2006; Heier, 2014) and international relations (Robinson, 2006; 2010).

Several of these theorists take a twofold approach. Synthesising the results of earlier debates, they conclude that the ‘ethics of care’ means recognising ‘caring activities’ as fundamental to human life (Robinson, 2011: 90). This seems to be particularly evident in the work of Joan Tronto, whose position might be called ambivalent: she argues in the sense of an ethico-political strand, on the one hand, and expresses welfare-resourcing arguments, on the other. The ethico-political side of Tronto’s theory of care seeks to overcome the individualistic perspectives of Mayeroff and Noddings (Tronto, 1993: 106). Like Gilligan, she critically examines gendered expectations (Tronto, 1993: 77, 113) and identifies inattentiveness as a central factor in people’s failure to care (Tronto, 1993: 127).

She laments the unwillingness of some to turn their attention to others and tries to find out its source (Tronto, 1993: 127–9). Tronto is also curious about how care is practised. She illustrates in detail four phases of engaged care: caring about, or determining that support is necessary; taking care of, or assessing how help can be given; caregiving, or addressing need directly; and care receiving, or people’s response to care (Tronto, 1993: 106–8). Two decades later, Tronto introduced a fifth phase: caring with, a notion of shared practices that points to the collective and political dimensions of supporting others (Tronto, 2017: 32). On the one hand, in her welfare-resourcing perspective, Tronto (1993: 103) proposes to regard care, in the sense of a comprehensive definition, as a world-shaping activity that encompasses a broad field of meaning. On the other hand, with her ethical-political perspective, Tronto (1993: 106–8) seems to largely limit caring in the conception of the phases tacitly to dyadic interactions between two individuals: a person with a problem clearly delineated in time and space; and a person who takes action to help that problem. It seems that nursing sciences and theories of civil volunteering, rather than philosophy, serve as the point of reference in her exploration of ‘hands-on’ caring.

Tronto (1993: 127–37) describes four ethical elements that complement these forms of care. The first element is attentiveness, which represents the awareness of other people and their concerns, and describes the readiness to put aside one’s own goals, ambitions and plans. Responsibility is the second ethical element. Unlike traditional approaches to ethics, Tronto’s idea of responsibility is not about fulfilling specific duties; rather, it is a flexible notion of what people should do for each other and must hence be discussed publicly (Tronto, 1993: 133). (Like Gilligan, Tronto takes into account how and why conflicts occur. One of the factors in conflict is what she calls ‘privileged irresponsibility’ [Tronto, 1993: 129]. This explicitly political idea is meant to criticise the privileged situations that enable inattentiveness and allow people to evade responsibility for themselves and others.) As her third ethical element, Tronto identifies competence, or how well care is performed. The fourth ethical element is responsiveness: the interested participation in, and/or the response of people to, the support that they receive.

Just as Tronto later adds caring with to the four phases of engaged care, she supplements the four ethical elements with plurality, trust and solidarity (Tronto, 2013: 35). Each of these ethical elements helps distinguish good from bad, successful from deficient, care (Tronto, 1993: 127–37). The ethical elements can be seen as modifiers describing the moral value of practices: morally ‘good’ care implies attentive perception, responsible support, skilful treatment and in-depth resonance; morally ‘bad’ care implies inattentive perception, irresponsible support, incompetent treatment and a one-sided focus on the caregiver. Another function of these ethical elements is to illustrate and explain the moral conflicts that arise in the process of care.

Tronto also asks whether care is practised, and, if not, asks why. Normative ideas underlie her questioning: she regards the practice of care to be a moral good and its omission as morally reprehensible. She speaks of good persons instead of appropriate actions or successful practice: ‘To be a morally good person requires, among other things, that a person strives to meet the demands of caring that present themselves in his or her life’ (Tronto, 1993: 126).

The welfare-resourcing strand

As previously noted, the other part of Joan Tronto’s work can be assigned to the welfare-resourcing strand of theorising care. This strand is rooted in a critical theory of society and explores issues related to politics, societal relations and the ways in which the different domains correlate and influence each other (Conradi and Heier, 2014: 32). Tronto (1993: 146–7) examines why the people who provide support, assistance or help possess disproportionately less power than those who can afford to delegate these tasks to others. She finds that people who provide support, assistance or help are frequently marked along lines of class and ethnicity (Tronto, 1993: 120–1). The question of who is providing support and with what resources brings inequities into stark relief (Tronto, 1993: 175). The welfare-resourcing strand not only focuses on the people who perform supportive activities and whether their work has been acknowledged, but also considers those who require assistance and asks whether they receive the help that they need (Narayan, 1995). It raises questions concerning who requests and who receives support, and who else is in a position to demand assistance from others (Lynch and Walsh, 2009). Arising from 1970s’ debates on household work and the vehement political crusade to ensure its proper acknowledgement (Cox and Federici, 1975; Jaggar and McBride, 1985), the welfare-resourcing strand highlights characteristic traits of supporting, assisting and helping activities, and reflects on their function for society (Bubeck, 1995). Furthermore, it seeks to ensure that these activities receive more conceptual attention in academia.

In its effort to rethink the practice of care, the welfare-resourcing strand calls into question the Marxist opposition of production and reproduction (hooks, 2000: 104). Researchers have proposed the expansion of the idea of work to encompass unpaid, informal work in the household and ‘reproductive’ tasks such as protecting and attending to other human beings and non-human nature and animals (Groenhout, 2006). They call such unpaid activities ‘care work’ or ‘household work’ (Delphy and Leonard, 1992; Bubeck, 1995). Occasionally, the proposal is accompanied by the idea of financial compensation for informal household work (Dalla Costa, 1974). This push has occurred irrespective of the fact that unpaid, informal activities exist alongside informal, paid activities as well (hooks, 2000: 104).

Discussions from the 1970s about financial compensation for informal household work continue to reverberate in debates today. Ciccia and Sainsbury (2018: 94), in examining tensions within current European welfare state theory, address the controversy between the defenders of unpaid care activities and their opponents, along with the attendant normative claims and concerns about the effects on labour. Some argue that care activities could remain unpaid as long as they are associated with social rights; others argue for paid work as a prerequisite for the emancipation of caregivers. Another topic of discussion is how recent global socio-economic and political changes – particularly widespread migration – have transformed care activities in the international division of labour (Williams, 2011). When care activities are primarily performed by migrant women, the division of labour in families and societies changes, which may undermine a fairer redistribution of care (Ciccia and Sainsbury, 2018: 99–100).

The ethico-political and the welfare-resourcing strands of theorising care not only have different roots; they also employ different concepts and pursue different objectives. I will discuss these differences by beginning with their respective understanding of care.

Differences between the two strands: caring, normative claims, objectives

Sustaining networks and meeting needs

Each strand of theorising care presents its object of study differently. In English-speaking countries, the word ‘care’ is part of ordinary language (Laugier, 2015), and as in everyday situations, the term assumes multiple meanings in academic disciplines. The ethico-political strand, which takes much of its influence from philosophy, understands care as a form of doing good while acting in concert with others (Pulcini, 2016: 122). This strand focuses on attentiveness in everyday situations and sees careful interactions as constituting the moral quality of a good life. The ethico-political strand argues that support and assistance should be helpful, attentive, gentle and considerate (Baart, 2004; Baart and Klaver, 2011). Ethico-political thinkers emphasise intersubjectivity and conceive ‘of subjects who recognise themselves as constitutively in relation with the other’ (Pulcini, 2016: 125). Some theorists broaden their view from intersubjectivity to interrelationality, in that they also take into account the organisational, institutional, social and political conditions that enable successful caring relations.

The welfare-resourcing strand, with its stronger underpinnings in sociology, describes care as an all-embracing activity and aims to conceptualise its function and status – first and foremost in society, but also in the economy, administration, law and government. In Tronto’s understanding, caring encompasses informal, unpaid activities, as well as paid activities inside and outside private households, and can include clothing alterations, janitorial work, public waste removal and so forth. Her extensive definition of care includes anything that contributes to the preservation, conservation or rehabilitation of the world. The welfare-resourcing strand starts from this definition and examines the social status of people who provide support, assistance or help, and thinks about how to give it more conceptual space in academia and more acknowledgement in society.

Given the equal proximity of sociology and philosophy to political science, the important question here is whether the ethico-political notion of care or the welfare-resourcing notion of care says more about the relationship of care theories to the political. Interestingly, both strands understand care in terms of cultivating networks – building them, maintaining them and repairing them. Gilligan’s ethico-political approach focuses on interrelated networks of communication and connection, and identifies ways to activate or repair them when needed. It explores issues related to attentiveness, relationality and listening. Tronto, arguing in the sense of the welfare-resourcing strand, speaks of a web that needs to be linked, protected and re-established. She suggests that caring be seen as a world-shaping activity encompassing a wide field of meaning: ‘That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web’ (Tronto, 1993: 103).

Central for both theorists is the moral demand ‘not to turn away from someone in need’ (Gilligan, 1987: 20). This demand, which evokes the image of a person turning his or her back on someone, is meant to avoid the emotional pain caused by ‘detachment, disconnection and depersonalisation’ (Gilligan, 1987: 32; see also Gilligan, 1988b: xviii). Gilligan (1987: 22–3) argues that we should ‘organize relationships in terms of attachment’ by means of communication. Arguing under the heading ‘an ethic of care’, Tronto (1993: 127) places a premium on the assistance and support that actually takes place, and focuses on the willingness to meet needs. While Tronto asks about the kinds of needs met by supporting, assisting, nurturing or helping activities, and thinks about how to describe them, Sophie Bourgault (2014: 4) stresses that needs are an integral part of everyday life. These include not only ‘basic needs for food, hygiene, and sleep’, but also ‘significant higher needs for security, attachment, and intellectual stimulation’ (Bourgault, 2014: 4). While ‘attachment’ usually counts among them, the need for security and intellectual stimulation has yet to receive a central place in care-related discussions and goes beyond Gilligan’s approach.

There is, then, a significant divergence between the two strands of theorising care that I have identified: the ethico-political approach starts with fostering communication in social situations and focuses on how everyday practice should be performed for forging successful caring relations; the welfare-resourcing approach begins with the societal conditions of supportive activities and reflects on the kinds of needs that they meet and the social status of those who perform them. Although these positions have much in common, they are also different in some respects, including their underlying normative claims.

Normative claims

The ethico-political strand brings to the table themes such as responsibility, attentiveness and the successful creation of everyday interactions. It criticises justice as a norm in the tradition of Enlightenment philosophy, which understands justice in terms of autonomy and reciprocity (Kittay, 2011:50). Many of those who support the ethico-political approach believe that this concept of justice, which privileges the cognitive and places primacy on the will of the individual, is too narrow. In its place, they prefer a practice-based approach that combines the intellect, the emotions and experience (Held, 2015: 27). Ethico-political thinkers also question the dominance of notions of justice within the normative spectrum, arguing that it marginalises other normative viewpoints. Instead, they seek to supplement justice with other normative positions and so make it one among many. This strand of theorising care assigns more importance to attachment, relationality and dialogical skills, such as attentiveness and listening (Benhabib, 1992: 149f). Its aim is to bring the traditional norm of justice out of the centre in order to achieve room for other normative viewpoints such as attentiveness.

Researchers following the welfare-resourcing approach generally think that justice is suitable as a guiding norm (Uhde, 2016: 392). They examine injustices in the division of labour and argue for more social equality. Diemut Bubeck (1995: 137, 176) regards the interpretation and meeting of needs as a matter of social justice, distributive justice in particular. She believes that the interpretation of needs must be made explicit and the consideration of needs must be subject to criticism so as to improve and revise political decisions. The welfare-resourcing strand weighs the reorganisation of activities that aim to meet needs within society (Uhde, 2016: 392). Several of its proponents do not want to bring the traditional norm of justice out of the centre, and they do not make attachment and relationality into normative viewpoints. They believe that a more central position of dialogical skills is more likely to hinder than help the goal of creating a fairer distribution of need-meeting activities (Eckart, 2004: 27; Esquivel, 2014: 423). Decentring justice would run counter to policies favoured by them. Here lies a fundamental difference between the approaches: the ethico-political strand aims to bring the traditional norm of justice out of the centre so as to make room for other normative viewpoints; the welfare-resourcing strand wants to broaden the scope of the traditional norm of justice to include the active consideration of needs, among other subjects. Besides their definitions of care and normative claims, there is one more fundamental difference between the two strands: their ultimate objectives.

Objectives

Political aims are not necessarily part of political theory. Nevertheless, when thinking about care’s relationship to the political, it is important to keep in mind that the ethico-political and the welfare-resourcing strands are motivated by two different political aims that are partly in conflict.

The ethico-political strand seeks to make disregarded voices heard, highlight unrecognised forms of communication and improve the quality of supportive social interactions. However, it does not just focus on the micro-level of performance. The aim of care, writes Tronto (1993: 103), is ‘to maintain, continue, and repair our “world” so that we can live in it as well as possible’. The general mid-range goal is to create successful social interactions; its larger goal is a comprehensive transformation of society that makes better living possible. The ethico-political strand asks for a proper way of performing assistance while acting in concert with others. It searches for ways to improve the performance of support activities in everyday life. To this end, the ethical-political strand would also like to see the social and political framework changed so that attentive interaction is encouraged and enabled. It seeks to determine the criteria for good practice and a more successful or better life by concentrating on those who receive support.

By contrast, the welfare-resourcing strand promotes the social acknowledgement of unappreciated supportive activities. The more immediate goal is to reach a fairer distribution of supportive activities in society; its larger goal is a comprehensive reorganisation of society that establishes more social equality in the provision and consideration of needs (Esquivel, 2014: 431). The ethico-political strand is more focused on the social, biographical and interactive reasons as to why some people are more likely than others to practise care. Gilligan (2014: 90) asks: ‘how do we lose the capacity to care, what inhibits our ability to empathize with others and pick up the emotional climate, and how do we fail to register the difference between being in and out of touch?’. The ethico-political strand asks about reasons for empathy and care being devalued in philosophy and society. In contrast, the welfare-resourcing strand asks about societal and structural reasons for supportive action being practised under conditions of social inequity. ‘How do we come to care’, writes Kristin Cloyes (2002: 207), ‘and how is the sociocultural production of desire and obligation central to caring? Further, how are these constitutive processes both constrained and enabled through political processes and asymmetrical power arrangements?’. The objective of the welfare-resourcing strand is a more equal distribution of supportive activities based on need and not on privilege.

Differences between theorising care: gender

Social transformation

Both strands of research differ with regard to the level of importance that they attach to gender and to the ends of social transformation. The ethico-political strand emphasises responsibility, attentiveness, relatedness, empathy, context sensitivity and participation as alternative normative viewpoints. It claims that those elements are not yet regarded as important because they are counted as viewpoints traditionally acquired by women. The ethico-political strand wants these disregarded voices to be heard and stresses that those viewpoints have been constituted by gender difference, a reality that future theory needs to keep in mind. The welfare-resourcing strand strives to acknowledge supportive but until now unappreciated activities in society. It claims that those doings are not yet seen as important because they traditionally counted as activities primarily performed by women. The welfare-resourcing strand seeks the acknowledgement of these unappreciated activities. However, it wants to do so by isolating these activities from the issue of gender difference in favour of gender equality (Tronto, 1987).

As both strands are grounded in feminist theory, they share a number of common political objectives. They criticise the way in which the state and society divide people into groups, award (or deny) them specific rights and privileges, and grant (or restrict) their access to receiving support. Following the transformative mission of feminist theory, they push to exceed the limits of current thought, whether it is about gender or other causes. In general, they: criticise the status quo and suggest alternatives; advocate changes to real societal conditions and existing legislation as part of social movements; criticise prevailing theories; and analyse the extent to which political practice corresponds with theory.

Although both strands of theorising care criticise the fact that society assigns people different rights and privileges (and that it grants or restricts their access to receiving support), a presumed difference between men and women underlies their theoretical foundations. Researchers from both strands assume that politics and academia are shaped by the experiences of certain privileged men – and both posit a considerable number of viewpoints traditionally acquired or activities traditionally performed by women, whose experiences, on account of societal structures, are different from those in mainstream politics and academia (Code, 1991: 89). Each strand criticises political and societal conditions, as well as the one-sidedness of traditional thinking.

What distinguishes the strands is the focus on different sets of everyday experiences described as caring. The ethico-political strand explores the web of relationships that take centre stage in a comprehensive moral orientation (Gilligan, 1987: 32). It focuses on the connections between people and identifies ways to enable or repair them if needed. It values attachment, relationship and dialogic skills such as attention and listening, and it thinks of human beings as interrelated (Pulcini, 2016: 125). Ethico-political researchers understand activating, cultivating or repairing networks of communication (practices traditionally attributed to women) to occupy the core of normative theory. They seek to create more space for reflecting on these practices in theoretical frameworks across a variety of academic disciplines. Politics would fundamentally change if alternative normative viewpoints such as these were no longer marginalised, which is why, as Benhabib (1992: 148) stresses, academia must do more to promote them.

Welfare-resourcing theorists understand household activities (tasks that have been mainly performed by women) as work and seek to create more space for those activities in theoretical frameworks across a variety of academic disciplines. However, this is not all that needs doing. They believe that fundamental policy changes are needed to achieve a more just society.

Diverging political strategies? The relationship between care and gender

The relationship between the research strands is characterised by both similarities and sharp differences. For instance, the sociological side tends to have reservations about moralising viewpoints, arguing that they serve to legitimise hegemonic structures and to preserve unjust gender relations (Gutiérrez Rodríguez, 2014). Nancy Fraser (1995: 90) examines how theories, political struggle and policies based on and aimed at redistribution might have effects that reinforce a misrecognition of care activities and devalue the people who perform them. She also explores how it is possible that ‘claims for recognition impinge on distribution’ (Fraser, 1995: 90). Others have claimed that Gilligan’s approach undermines the political fight for reclassifying informal, unpaid supportive activities as work (Haug, 1992: 46–50). The ethical side tends to have reservations about efforts to reorganise society as a whole because while such ambitions might create a more equitable distribution of need-meeting activities, their emphasis could discount attentiveness as a crucial feature of social interaction and normative reflection. Moreover, a more equitable distribution of need-meeting activities will not, in itself, lead to a more successful performance of these practices.

A point of contention between the strands is whether social transformation is to be pursued by way of a strategy of equality (Tronto, 1987) or a strategy of difference (Young, 1985). Both sides – the welfare-resourcing strand and the ethico-political strand – start with gender difference. However, they provide two different answers to the question about which strategy – equality or difference – should undergird political efforts to improve societal conditions. In the so-called ‘care work debate’ about reproduction and housework, proponents attach much importance to gender relations. However, they claim that every gender difference is tantamount to an inequality that must be overcome by way of legislation or policy. One side focuses on gender equality: the belief that women’s thought patterns, moral ideas and forms of practice need to be overcome. The other side, following proposals by Carol Gilligan, understands the ethical norms of responsibility, attentiveness and participation in the context of gender difference. This side, particularly in European discussions, focuses on gender difference. It takes the practices, ideas and viewpoints traditionally attributed to women seriously, and elaborates their theoretical underpinnings (Maihofer, 1998). These theorists recognise practices, ideas and viewpoints traditionally attributed to women as such, without concealing their genesis in oppressive structures.

Representing the horns of a heated debate among feminists that began in the 1970s, these opposing strategies have one thing in common: both start from a distinction between men and women. Recently, this distinction has been challenged by a third position promoted by queer feminism. Its advocates have questioned whether the distinction between men and women has a place in emancipatory social transformation, and have instead proposed the proliferation of genders and the blurring of their lines as theory’s starting point and ultimate aim (Engel, 2013: 180).

Conclusion

Over the past few decades, Gilligan’s care ethics has led to further research in the English-speaking world and created new areas of study in Europe: the Dutch and Flemish Zorgethiek; the French éthique du care; the German Ethik der Achtsamkeit; the Italian etica della cura; and the Swedish Omsorgsetik. Despite the variety of disciplines and country-specific variations, these areas of work share a number of key concepts: connectivity, relatedness, presence, responsive connectedness, situatedness, context sensitivity, experience, vulnerability, subject critique, relationality, empathy, self-care, consideration of needs, active help, responsibility, repair and transformation. Moreover, a considerable number of researchers believe that it is important to think of this approach in political terms (Vosman and Conradi, 2016: 13–17). Daniel Engster and Maurice Hamington (2015: 4) have identified five core assumptions of care ethics: a relational approach; responsiveness to others; sensitivity to context; a crossing of moral boundaries; and emotions as ‘informative and motivating moral tools’. ‘Different theorists construct their definition of care ethics differently’, Engster and Hamington (2015: 5) admit, ‘but all care theorists give at least some attention to these five themes’.

Engster and Hamington (2015: 3) claim that mature theories often spark disagreement because they inspire increasingly diverse interpretations. Yet, the differences analysed in this article do not arise from this sort of diversification. Rather, they are the result of views whose assumptions derive from different sources.

The welfare-resourcing strand has grown out of discussions in the 1970s on reproduction, housework and gender relations that were strongly shaped by Marxist feminism. This is one reason why it is difficult to find examples from theorists in the welfare-resourcing strand who think about ethics. For instance, recent authors such as Zuzana Uhde, Diane Sainsbury and Rossella Ciccia write about gender, welfare politics, rights and equality but never about ethics. The same goes for the ‘Caring Labor’ website,2 which provides texts from the 1970s and 1980s covering topics such as housework, capital, reproduction and welfare. Indeed, it is likely that many welfare-resourcing theorists would neither endorse the five concepts identified by Engster and Hamington nor take interest in the traditional concerns of care ethics in Europe. Judging by Engster and Hamington’s classification, we might conclude that the welfare-resourcing strand of theorising care is not a care ethics at all.

However, what about the other side? Has the ethico-political strand of theorising care adopted insights from the care work debate? The answer is ‘yes’. Not only have care ethicists borrowed elements from the debate; they have also synthesised their ethical thoughts with these ideas. The ethico-political strand’s transformative mission originated in the welfare-resourcing camp, in keeping with its feminist origins. For instance, Sophie Bourgault (2017: 203) has distinguished between theoretical approaches that ‘pay attention to the ethical and relational concerns’ and those approaches that ‘analyze the socio-institutional conditions (wages, power and gender dynamics) that affect the manner in which care is delivered and received’. Bourgault has broadened the scope of Gilligan’s approach by analysing socio-institutional conditions as well as ethical challenges. The welfare-resourcing strand might have also been the reason why Bourgault extrapolated Gilligan’s concept of attentive social interaction into a political context so as to reflect on institutional requirements that are ‘conducive to good ethical care’ (Bourgault, 2017: 203). In this way, a political theory of care is part of a comprehensive transformation of society towards a better life.

Another aspect of the welfare-resourcing strand that has aroused the interest of care ethicists is the formation of needs at the structural level. For instance, Tronto (1993: 176) has argued that care institutions and organisations often fail to meet the needs of those to whom they purportedly dedicate themselves. Similarly, Marian Barnes and Phil Cotterell explore the possibility of involving people who benefit from health and social services in debates about the provisioning of services. The objective is to help empower clients and patients, and encourage them to participate in social movements (Barnes and Cotterell, 2012). The societal participation of care receivers is an element of care ethics that does not figure in the care work debate. However, Nancy Fraser (1989: 144–90) suggests that a ‘politics of need interpretation’ can help identify the lines between conflicting parties with regard to preferences, wishes, demands, requirements and necessities. The ethico-political strand can learn from Fraser’s understanding of societal and political priorities that involve care-related topics. Joan Tronto has adopted arguments from the care work debate (Tronto, 1993: 146–7, 175) and combined them with her notions of attentiveness and responsibility (Tronto, 1993: 127–37).

Although the adoption of insights from the welfare-resourcing strand has been important for care ethics, some problems remain. When thinking about care as a concept, we need to know what precisely we are talking about. To further a political theory of care, we require a deeper understanding of how we understand care, which normative claims are important, the political aims that motivate our theoretical research, the ends of social transformation and the notion of gender that can best achieve change. A particularly thorny issue is the range of transformation that theorists envision. What is even thornier is the issue of gender: is the point of transformation to overcome concepts based on gender difference in order to reach a purportedly gender-neutral position? Or, should transformation seek the equality of normative concepts? At any rate, the political theory of care cannot move forward when its theorists pursue different objectives. This lack of agreement is the reason why the political theory of care is still in its infancy, even though care has been a political issue for many years. If a political theory of care is to emerge, we must understand rather than ignore the internal disagreements that currently undercut its force and contribute to its marginalisation. As I have argued, some of the differences that separate the ethico-political and the welfare-resourcing strands of care theory are so fundamental that it is a challenge to join them. By identifying, analysing and relating the differences between existing theories of care, this article offers a useful framework for future efforts to bridge those gaps and advance political thinking in care ethics.

Acknowledgements

The author thanks Dominic Bonfiglio for his translation of this essay from the German and for his suggestions during the revision of the English manuscript. The author thanks the editors of this special issue, Sophie Bourgault and Fiona Robinson, for their suggestions and careful processing of the publication. The author also thanks the anonymous reviewers for their comments.

Notes

1

German-language feminists who have borrowed from Gilligan’s ethics of care include: Andrea Maihofer (1998), through her work on responsibility; Elisabeth Conradi (2001), through her work on attentiveness; Christa Schnabl (2011), who has developed a socio-ethical theory of solicitude; Herlinde Pauer-Studer (2015), who has considered moral theory as it pertains to gender relations; and Annemarie Pieper (1998) and Ina Prätorius (1998), who have sketched out a possible path forward for a feminist ethics. An ethical care perspective has also appeared in debates on the increasing professionalisation of social work, for example, in the work of Ruth Großmaß and Gudrun Perko (2011) and Margit Brückner (1998). Silvia Käppeli (2000), for instance, has developed a theologically based idea of care for nursing.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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