What Is Ethics of Care? - Definition, Theory & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is Ethics of Care?
  • 1:11 History of Ethics of…
  • 3:05 Criticisms of Care Ethics
  • 4:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Deborah Teasley

Deborah has 4 years of teaching experience and a master's degree in program development & management.

Do you believe there is a universal code of ethics or that context matters? In this lesson, we will discuss ethics of care theory and how it relies on our relationships with one another when making ethical decisions.

What Is Ethics of Care?

Ethel is 89 years old and was just diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her doctor believes that she's got only a couple of months left to live. In that time, Ethel's health will deteriorate rapidly, and she will experience a lot of pain. Ethel wants to live out the rest of her good days with her family.

However, once the pain becomes unbearable and she can no longer take care of herself, Ethel is considering opting for physician-assisted suicide. Her current doctor does not support this idea because she views it as murder. However, in Vermont this is considered a legal act under certain guidelines, and there are other doctors willing to perform the task.

What do you think about this situation? Is this an act of murder or compassion? There are some who believe that there are universal codes that remain constant no matter what the scenario may be. Care ethics is the exact opposite of that. The ethics of care theory believes that context can sometimes overrule justice and our universal code of conduct. This approach focuses more on the interconnectedness of humanity and places a moral significance on our relationships as 'care-givers' and 'care-receivers.'

History of Ethics of Care Theory

The phrase 'care ethics' has its roots in feminist theory and was originally coined by psychologist Carol Gilligan. The phrase was created after a study that was conducted on how little girls look at ethics. Gilligan found that in relation to boys, the moral development of girls tended to come from compassion instead of being justice-based. From the study, Gilligan proposed that ethics should be focused on relationships instead of emphasizing autonomy and rules. Her theory focused more on our connections with each other and situations being context dependent.

Another woman, philosopher Nel Noddings, further contributed to the theory in the 1980s. Noddings decided to focus the approach more on our intimate relationships. She felt that it was necessary to differentiate between natural caring or 'wanting to care' and 'ethical caring' or 'needing to care.'

For example, let's say your aunt tells you that she's just lost her job. You give her a hug in an act of affection. This is an example of natural caring. Now let's say that an acquaintance tells you she just had a messy break-up with her boyfriend. You don't know her very well. However, you believe that 'showing you care' is the best response, so you give her a hug. This is an example of ethical caring.

In current times, care ethics has been applied to a number of different scenarios. This includes business ethics, environmental ethics, and even animal care ethics. One of the best examples of care ethics being used in modern times is in bioethics. Professions involved in medicine specifically deal with caring for others. As a result, care ethics has become a part of assessing both medical practices and policies. Additionally, it has also been applied to a number of different social movements. Care ethics has been included in the debate about capital punishment, hospice care, and also gay marriage.

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