An Introduction to Sara Ruddick’s Ethics of Care | By Anya Zoledziowski, Marnya Jain, Ola Osuch, Mia Bottos & Batul Gulamhusein

A few months ago, a few friends of mine and I learned about ethics of care, a kind of political philosophy. Although each of us had been studying politics for a varying number of years, we were all new to this theory. Ethics of care assumes that extending our abilities to care beyond the private sphere can dramatically alter politics, domestically and internationally. For example, in her interview with 3:AM, the feminist philosopher behind ethics of care, Virginia Held, illustrates how political interactions based on ethics of care would approach contemporary terrorism and political violence. Care, Held explains, would encourage us to seek an understanding of not only our friends’ but also our opponents’ feelings.

Regarding terrorism or political violence, proponents of ethics of care call for a rejection of an “us versus them” mentality. Instead, the philosophy seeks to establish dialogue where the actors on all sides of a conflict are considered. Thus, we would be pushed to ask questions such as “what causes individuals and/or groups to engage in terrorism?” to  develop policies that do not perpetuate terrorism, but rather, prevent it. Additionally, the aforementioned 3:AM article explains how in a world governed by ethics of care, domestic policy would prioritize childcare and healthcare over the banking sector and military might!

One of the biggest influences on ethics of care theory is Maternal Thinking, a body of work that argues society must embody motherhood to achieve a more peaceful world order. The author of Maternal Thinking,  Sara Ruddick, breaks down motherhood into three key elements: (1) mothers have to learn to “live with dissonance,” (2) mothers have to “creatively overcome disconnects between the interests of self and other,” and (3) mothers have to “bridge practical goals for surviving the present with more idealistic goals for best practices in the future.” Ideally, these three elements of motherhood could guide political interactions by cultivating meaningful diplomacy. Additionally, Maternal Thinking challenges the gendered nature of motherhood by arguing that both men and women could take on mothering roles. Because Maternal Thinking largely influenced ethics of care theory, the main ideas the work introduces are also main tenets of ethics of care.

The question: Is a widespread adoption of ethics of care beneficial and feasible?  Four of my classmates decided to weigh-in on the issue.

Opinion One: Batul Gulamhusein

In contemporary society, the gender binary is ingrained within every action of every individual. Recall that gender is defined as the cultural interpretation of perceived biological difference, organized around the themes of masculinity and femininity. Gender is perpetuated throughout society and creates rigid social roles for individuals. Historically, these social roles have subjugated women to the private sphere, within which their main roles are mother and wife.

Within the business world today, if a woman is to embody maternal values or maternal thinking, her ability and commitment to her job is questioned. Additionally, if a man embodies maternal values, he is viewed as emasculated. Thus, the stigma surrounding maternal thinking and values results from the systematic and institutional sexism plaguing women.  An ethics of care theory requires us to abandon preconceived gender roles in order to recognize that anyone can encompass maternal values. Unfortunately, I do not believe this is feasible, and therefore, an ethics of care approach cannot be utilized within the realm of international relations.

Opinion Two: Marnya Jain

In the future, I hope to see ethics of care become more prominent. As it stands today, mothering is perceived as a role made up of mundane tasks (for example, grocery shopping, taking the kids to soccer practice, etc.). In fact, mothering is a practice that requires conscious and constant decision-making. Many individuals argue that mothers are often working harder than their counterparts, who work stereotypical Monday to Friday, nine to five jobs. Subsequently, I would love to see the term “mothering” evolve. I hope that in the future a “mother” will be understood as an individual who is assuming care-taking roles, regardless of sex or gender. 

Unfortunately, throughout my research I’ve found that though the theory itself sounds good in theory, it falls foul to a number of  limitations. One of the most problematic criticisms I found is that the theory is essentialist. Particularly in early works, it has been difficult to find any distinction between different types of women. By not providing a diverse picture, ethics of care reinforces gender stereotypes, and ignores the impacts that race, class, and age have on an individual’s ability to be a mother.

On the other hand, scholars have recognized this limitation. As a result, essentialism can be avoided in ethics of care theory if we recognize the risk of essentialism and make a concerted effort to acknowledge diversity. By taking small steps towards implementing ethics of care into daily life, we will begin to change the society we live in and make this theory a reality.

Opinion Three: Ola Osuch

In 21st century North America, we like to believe that we have come a long way regarding female empowerment and —by extension— gender equality. Certainly we have made strides that other nations are only starting to make now; there are no longer any legal measures in place to prevent women from attaining an education, a career, holding public office, etc. But why is it that we only mark women’s progress by factors traditionally associated with the public sphere, and therefore “maleness?” The division of the public sphere as belonging to men and the private sphere as belonging to women is a well-known concept that has shaped our society since its inception. It seems that while many women have been able to successfully enter the public sphere by adopting aggression, competitiveness, and stoicism, there has been little effort made by men to adopt traits associated with the private sphere, such as nurturance, patience, and compassion. Ethics of care is important because it de-stigmatizes traditionally feminine traits and empowers men to enter the private sphere. 

An ethics of care is a comprehensive moral theory based on the universal experience of being cared for by others. It promotes an agenda of non-violence, cooperation, and mutual understanding —qualities stemming from maternal practice— to achieve peaceful relations. Additionally, ethics of care practice argues that men are equally capable of presenting these traits. Thus, maternalism is something that men can and should practice in familial as well as professional relationships. I believe this challenges the essentializing assumption that women have a natural inclination to childcare.

By incorporating an ethics of care into the public and political sphere, we can de-stigmatize and normalize qualities traditionally linked to motherhood and women, we can allow all genders empowerment, and we can provide a more inclusive space for diversity. I argue ethics of care would lead to important change because as long as traits of motherhood remain solely in the home, we cannot claim to be a gender equal society. Thus, a practical application of an ethics of care is our only hope.

Opinion Four: Mia Bottos

Sara Ruddick was a feminist and a mother, two roles that according to some could not possibly come to exist within one body. Despite passing away five years ago, Ruddick’s musings about maternal thinking and peace politics continue to bring up important issues today, especially those surrounding the tensions between women as mothers and women as feminists. Mothering has recently been on the receiving end of criticism based on the notion that it is anti-feminist, and that succumbing to the seemingly set-in-stone gender roles of caregiving goes against everything the three waves of feminism fought so hard for in the past. Instead, care ethics aims to prioritize those values while not characterizing them as solely embodied by women. Ethics of Care regards these values as the key to success in global politics; as discussed in the introduction, adopting maternal attitudes at the political level could result in a more harmonious world order.

I personally believe that if caregiving and maternal values could be redefined as no longer intrinsically female, but as characteristic of fathers, as well as mothers, the cries of “anti-feminism” would be silenced. Caregiving is vital to humanity; human mothering develops morality, shapes personhood, and teaches important lessons of consideration and responsibility. If we could “de-gender” motherhood and apply these principles to politics, the true value of maternal thinking and ethics of care could advance both international and domestic relations among actors.

CC photography courtesy of Flickr user Neil Mullins (npmullins)

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