Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy

Robert Cavalier

Philosophy Department
Carnegie Mellon

Part I History of Ethics

Preface: The Life of Socrates
Section 1: Greek Moral Philosophy
Section 2: Hellenistic and Roman Ethics
Section 3: Early Christian Ethics
Section 4: Modern Moral Philosophy
Section 5: 20th Century Analytic Moral Philosophy

Part II Concepts and Problems

Preface: Meta-ethics, Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics
Section 1: Ethical Relativism
Section 2: Ethical Egoism
Section 3: Utilitarian Theories
Section 4: Deontological Theories
Section 5: Virtue Ethics
Section 6: Liberal Rights and Communitarian Theories
Section 7: Ethics of Care
Section 8: Case-based Moral Reasoning
Section 9: Moral Pluralism

Part III Applied Ethics

Preface: The Field of Applied Ethics
Section 1: The Topic of Euthanasia
Multimedia Module: A Right to Die? The Dax Cowart Case
Section 2: The Topic of Abortion
Multimedia Module: The Issue of Abortion in America
Postscript: Conflict Resolution

Search this site:

This section is informed by Beauchamp and Childress, Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 5 th edition)

Ethics of Care

In the 1970s and 80s feminist writers began to question the assumptions behind many of the traditional ethical theories. Carol Gilligan’s work in moral psychology (A Different Voice, 1982) challenged "justice-based" approaches to moral discussion: " tend to embrace an ethic of rights using quasi-legal terminology and impartial principles … women tend to affirm an ethic of care that centers on responsiveness in an interconnected network of needs, care, and prevention of harm. Taking care of others is the core notion." (B&C. 371)

Annette Baier’s philosophical account ("What Do Women Want in a Moral Theory" 1985) of an ethics of care "does not recommend that we discard categories of obligation, but that we make room for an ethic of love and trust, including an account of human bonding and friendship." (B&C, 371)

In both of these accounts, there is a specific criticism of "Traditional Liberal Theory" and its emphasis on impartiality and universality:

The impartiality and the ‘standpoint of detached fairness’ advocated by liberal theories of justice, overlook, for example, the moral role of attachment to those close to us. Speaking from the perspective of medical ethics, "The care perspective is especially meaningful for roles such as parent, friend, physician, and nurse, in which contextual response, attentiveness to subtle clues, and the deepening of special relationships are likely to be more momentous morally than impartial treatment" (B&C, 372)

In articulating the challenge to "universal principles," Beauchamp and Childress write:

"We can produce rough generalizations about how caring physicians and nurses respond to patients, for example, but these generalizations will not be subtle enough to give helpful guidance for the next patient. Each situation calls for a set of responses outside any generalization…." (B&C, 373)

Proponents of an Ethics of Care emphasize the roles of Mutual Interdependence and Emotional Response that play an important part in our moral lives: "…many human relationships involve persons who are vulnerable, dependent, ill, and frail … [and] the desirable moral response is attached attentiveness to needs, not detached respect for rights" (B&C, 373) and "The person who acts from rule-governed obligations without appropriately aligned feelings such as worry when a friend suffers seems to have a moral deficiency. In addition…insight into the needs of others and considerate alertness to their circumstances often come from the emotions more than reason." (B&C, 4th Ed. 89) Thus the emotions seem to have a ‘cognitive role,’ allowing us to grasp a situation that may not be immediately available to one arguing solely from a ‘justice perspective.’

Critical Evaluation of the Care Ethic

The example of a nurse who personally wants to help a patient die, but who will not do so as it violates professional duty, shows that "…the ethics of care must confront situations in which bona fide requirements of impartiality conflict with acting partially from care." (B&C, 4th Ed. 90)

Some feminists actually interpret the ‘care ethic’ as culturally determined by the male hierarchy. For example, a terminally ill grand mother may request to be allowed to die because she doesn’t want to be ‘a bother’ to her family. Here someone like Susan Sherwin "sees a need to examine the social context of care as well as to establish limits to the ethics of care. Both enterprises would involve appeals to justice…" (B&C, 375)

Constructive Evaluation of the Care Ethic

Sensitivity and emotional response to particular situations (like family discussions with physicians) provide important guides to morally acceptable actions. A care ethic also seems to favor adopting procedures from Conflict Resolution and Dispute Mediation as alternative ways to approach an apparent ethical conflict.

Top of page
Copyright 2002 (first published 1/96)