The ethics of care (alternatively care ethics or EoC) is a normative ethical theory that holds that moral action centers on interpersonal relationships and care or benevolence as a virtue. EoC is one of a cluster of normative ethical theories that were developed by some feminists and environmentalists since the 1980s.[1] While consequentialist and deontological ethical theories emphasize generalizable standards and impartiality, ethics of care emphasize the importance of response to the individual. The distinction between the general and the individual is reflected in their different moral questions: "what is just?" versus "how to respond?"[2]: 469  Carol Gilligan, who is considered the originator of the ethics of care, criticized the application of generalized standards as "morally problematic, since it breeds moral blindness or indifference".[2]: 471 

Assumptions of the framework include: persons are understood to have varying degrees of dependence and interdependence; other individuals affected by the consequences of one's choices deserve consideration in proportion to their vulnerability; and situational details determine how to safeguard and promote the interests of individuals.[3]

Historical background

The originator of the ethics of care was Carol Gilligan, an American ethicist and psychologist. Gilligan created this model as a critique of her mentor, developmental psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg's model of moral development. Gilligan observed that measuring moral development by Kohlberg's stages of moral development found boys to be more morally mature than girls, and this result held for adults as well (although when education is controlled for there are no gender differences).[4] Gilligan argued that Kohlberg's model was not objective, but rather a masculine perspective on morality, founded on principles of justice and rights. In her 1982 book In a Different Voice, she further posited that men and women have tendencies to view morality in different terms. Her theory claimed women tended to emphasize empathy and compassion over the notions of morality in terms of abstract duties or obligations that are privileged in Kohlberg's scale.[5] Dana Ward stated, in an unpublished paper, that Kohlberg's scale is psychometrically sound.[6] Subsequent research suggests that the differences in care-based or justice-based ethical approaches may be due to gender differences, or differences in life situations of genders.[7][8][9] Gilligan's summarizing of gender differences provided feminists with a voice to question moral values and practices of the society as masculine.

Relationship to traditional ethical positions

Care ethics is different from other ethical models, such as consequentialist theories (e.g. utilitarianism) and deontological theories (e.g. Kantian ethics), in that it seeks to incorporate traditionally feminine virtues and values which, proponents of care ethics contend, are absent in traditional models of ethics.[10] One of these values is the placement of caring and relationship over logic and reason. In care ethics, reason and logic are subservient to natural care, that is, care that is done out of inclination. This is in contrast to deontology, where actions taken out of inclination are unethical.[11]

Virginia Held has noted the similarities between care ethics and virtue ethics but distinguished it from the virtue ethics of British moralists such as Hume in that people are seen as fundamentally relational rather than independent individuals.[12]: 221  Other philosophers have argued about the relation between care ethics and virtue ethics, taking various positions on the question of how closely the two are related.[1][13][14] Jason Josephson Storm argued for close parallels between the ethics of care and traditional Buddhist virtue ethics, especially the prioritization of compassion by Śāntideva and others.[15] Other scholars had also previously connected ethics of care with Buddhist ethics.[16][17]

Care ethics as feminist ethics

See also: Difference feminism

While some feminists have criticized care-based ethics for reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes,[18] others have embraced parts of the paradigm under the theoretical concept of care-focused feminism.[19]

Care-focused feminism, alternatively called gender feminism,[20] is a branch of feminist thought informed primarily by the ethics of care as developed by Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings.[19] This theory is critical of how caring is socially engendered, being assigned to women and consequently devalued. "Care-focused feminists regard women's capacity for care as a human strength"[19] which can and should be taught to and expected of men as well as women. Noddings proposes that ethical caring could be a more concrete evaluative model of moral dilemma, than an ethic of justice.[21] Noddings' care-focused feminism requires practical application of relational ethics, predicated on an ethic of care.[22]

Ethics of care is a basis for care-focused feminist theorizing on maternal ethics. These theories recognize caring as an ethically relevant issue.[23] 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.[24] This proposed paradigm shift in ethics encourages the view that an ethic of caring be the social responsibility of both men and women.

Joan Tronto argues that the definition of "ethic of care" is ambiguous due in part to it not playing a central role in moral theory.[25] She argues that considering moral philosophy is engaged with human goodness, then care would appear to assume a significant role in this type of philosophy.[25] However, this is not the case and Tronto further stresses the association between care and "naturalness". The latter term refers to the socially and culturally constructed gender roles where care is mainly assumed to be the role of the woman.[25] As such, care loses the power to take a central role in moral theory.

Tronto states there are four ethical qualities 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.[25] The question which arises is the distinction between ignorance and inattentiveness.[25] Tronto poses this question as such, "But when is ignorance simply ignorance, and when is it inattentiveness"?[25]
  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.[25] 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 not follow through with enough adequacy - as such action would result in the need of care not being met.[25]
  4. Responsiveness: This refers to the "responsiveness of the care receiver to the care".[25] Tronto states, "Responsiveness signals an important moral problem within care: by its nature, care is concerned with conditions of vulnerability and inequality".[25] She further argues responsiveness does not equal reciprocity.[25] 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.[25]

In 2013, Tronto added a fifth ethical quality:

  1. Plurality, communication, trust and respect; solidarity or caring with: Together, these are the qualities necessary for people to come together in order to take collective responsibility, to understand their citizenship as always imbricated in relations of care, and to take seriously the nature of caring needs in society.[26]

In politics

It is often suggested that the ethics of care is only applicable within families and groups of friends, but many feminist theorists have argued against this suggestion, including Ruddick, Manning, Held, and Tronto.[12]: 226  Attempts have been made to apply principles from the ethics of care more generally, by identifying values in one particular caring relationship and applying these values to other situations. Moral values are seen as embedded in acts of care.[12]: 220 

The ethics of care is contrasted with theories based on the "liberal individual" and a social contract, following Locke and Hobbes. Ethics-of-care theorists note that in many situations, such as childhood, there are very large power imbalances between individuals, and so these relationships are based on care rather than any form of contract. Noting the power imbalances that can exist in society, it is argued that care may be a better basis to understand society than freedom and social contracts.[12]: 219–221 

In mental health

Psychiatrist Kaila Rudolph noted that care ethics aligns with a trauma-informed care framework in psychiatry.[27]


In the field of nursing, the ethics of care has been criticized by Peter Allmark, Helga Kuhse, and John Paley.[28] Allmark criticized its focus on the mental state of the carer, on the grounds that subjectively caring does not prevent an individual's care from being harmful.[28] Allmark also criticized the theory for conflicting with the idea of treating everyone with unbiased consideration, which he considered necessary in certain situations.[28]

Care ethics has been criticised for failing to protect the individual from paternalism, noting there is a risk of caregivers mistaking their needs for those of the people they care for. Individuals may need to cultivate the ability to distinguish their own needs from those that they care for, with Ruddick arguing for a need to respect the "embodied willfulness" of those who are cared for.[12]: 226 

See also



  1. ^ a b Sander-Staudt, Maureen. "Care Ethics". The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ISSN 2161-0002. Retrieved June 4, 2022.
  2. ^ a b Gilligan, Carol. "Moral Orientation and Moral Development". In Alison Bailey and Chris J. Cuomo (eds.). The Feminist Philosophy Reader. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008.
  3. ^ Sevenhuijsen, Selma (2003). "The Place of Care: The Relevance of the Feminist Ethic of Care for Social Policy". Feminist Theory. 4 (2): 179–197. doi:10.1177/14647001030042006. ISSN 1464-7001.
  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. ^ Gilligan, Carol (1982). In a different voice: psychological theory and women's development. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674445444.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Ford, M. R.; Lowery, C. R. (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. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.50.4.777
  8. ^ Rothbart, M. K.; et al. (1986). "Gender Differences in Moral Reasoning". Sex Roles. 15 (11&12), 645–653. doi:10.1007/BF00288220
  9. ^ 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. doi:10.1080/0305724940230102
  10. ^ Tong, Rosemarie; Williams, Nancy (May 4, 2009). "Feminist Ethics". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Metaphysics Research Lab. Retrieved January 6, 2017.
  11. ^ Noddings, Nel (2013-09-14). Caring: a relational approach to ethics & moral education. Univ of California Press. ISBN 9780520957343. OCLC 859158671.
  12. ^ a b c d e Held, Virginia (2018). "The ethics of care". In Olsaretti, Serena (ed.). The Oxford handbook of distributive justice. Oxford, UK; New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 213–234. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199645121.013.12. ISBN 978-0-19-964512-1. OCLC 1013820392.
  13. ^ Sander-Staudt, Maureen (Fall 2006). "The unhappy marriage of care ethics and virtue ethics". Hypatia. 21 (4): 21–39. doi:10.1353/hyp.2006.0050. JSTOR 4640020.
  14. ^ Steyl, Steven (Summer 2019). "The virtue of care". Hypatia. 34 (3): 507–526. doi:10.1111/hypa.12481.
  15. ^ Storm, Jason Josephson (2021). Metamodernism: The Future of Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 263–64. doi:10.7208/chicago/9780226786797.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-226-78665-0. OCLC 1200579878.
  16. ^ White, Judith (May 1999). "Ethical comportment in organizations: a synthesis of the feminist ethic of care and the Buddhist ethic of compassion". International Journal of Value-Based Management. 12 (2): 109–128. doi:10.1023/A:1007779604630.
  17. ^ Chang, Dave; Bai, Heesoon (January 2016). "Self-with-other in teacher practice: a case study through care, Aristotelian virtue, and Buddhist ethics". Ethics and Education. 11 (1): 17–28. doi:10.1080/17449642.2016.1145491.
  18. ^ Bartky, Sandra Lee (1990). Femininity and domination: studies in the phenomenology of oppression. New York: Routledge. pp. 104–105. ISBN 9780415901864.
  19. ^ a b c Tong, Rosemarie (2009). Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (3rd ed.). Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press. pp. 162–65. ISBN 978-0-81-334375-4.
  20. ^ Tong, Rosemarie (2018). Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction (Student economy edition, 4th ed.). Routledge. ISBN 978-0-81-335023-3.
  21. ^ Noddings, Nel (1984). Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 3–4. ISBN 9780520275706.
  22. ^ Noddings, Nel (1989). Women and Evil. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 222. ISBN 9780520074132.
  23. ^ Held, Virginia. Ethics of Care, page 64. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
  24. ^ Kittay, Eva Feder: Love's Labor: Essays on Women, Equality and Dependency, page 20. Routledge, New York, 1999.
  25. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Tronto, Joan C. (2005), "An ethic of care", in Cudd, Ann E.; Andreasen, Robin O. (eds.), Feminist theory: a philosophical anthology, Oxford, UK Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 251–263, ISBN 9781405116619.
  26. ^ Tronto, Joan (2013). Caring Democracy: Markets, Equality, and Justice. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 9780814782781.
  27. ^ Rudolph, Kaila (2021). "Ethical Considerations in Trauma-Informed Care". Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 44 (4): 521–535. doi:10.1016/j.psc.2021.07.001. PMID 34763786.
  28. ^ a b c Edwards, Steven D. (2009). "Three versions of an ethics of care". Nursing Philosophy. 10 (4): 231–240. doi:10.1111/j.1466-769X.2009.00415.x. PMID 19743967.

Further reading