Ethics — Day 1

The following is from my daily newsletter, The Pocket Philosopher. Each week we explore a theme, looking at that theme through the lens of a different philosophy each day.

Good morning philosophers,

I hope you’ve had a great weekend. Today, we’re going to be peeling back the layers on the conversation of ethics. We have a lot to cover. Chances are, you’ve had some exposure to this topic, and there’s even greater chance that you’ve developed your own personal ethic.

So we’re going to dive a bit into the deep end right off the bat this week and challenge some conventional notions and approach the world in a different voice, through a different lens.

Thought

Our ability to communicate our own feelings, and to pick up the feelings of others and thus to heal fractures in connection, threatens the structures of hierarchy. Feelings of empathy and tender compassion for another’s suffering or humanity make it difficult to maintain or justify inequality.

-Carol Gilligan

Application

This is definitely a letter where reading the backstory below will be very helpful. But, if I had to distill the Ethics of Care into a bite-sized idea, it’s this:

The global justice system is currently based off concepts of codes, rules, punishment, failure, and achievement. If you brake the law you deserve a fitting punishment, you’re either right or wrong, you’re good or bad and the good guys protect the world from the bad guys.

This way of thinking is a justice based perspective of the world, and lends itself to violence. At minimum, justice is often threatened by use of force, or enforced through pain and killing. Perhaps it keeps order, but it has many negative externalities (prisons, wars, death sentences, psychological punishment, separation etc).

The ethics of care invites us not to see the world a zero-sum justice situation, but instead a fluid web of relationship.

Carol Gilligan who founded the care ethic says that there are three levels of development within the care ethic.

At the first level, one must learn to care for and value themselves. At the second stage, one learns to care for and value other living things (even sacrificing self care for other care.) At the third stage, morally mature people realize that care is not a scarce commodity, and caring for themselves and others is not only possibly but advantageous. What’s done to me is done for you.

At its core, it’s when people move from competition and concepts of hierarchy to cooperation and mutual care.

Can you imagine the world without competition, scarcity, violence, or threat-based justice?

Backstory

The ethics of care is a radically different to approach morality and ethics than the classical, western views up to this point. It is based largely on the work of Carol Gilligan, who was an associate of Lawrence Kohlberg. He completed one of the largest studies in history on moral development and Gilligan helped him do the research.

Kohlberg wanted to pinpoint where morality came from and how it developed through the course of one’s life. I believe his main hypothesis was that morality was a concrete, universal concept that emerged psychologically.

At the conclusion of this study, Gilligan was unsatisfied that the sample size of people studied was almost entirely men of a certain privileged class in the United States. But this realization also inspired her.

She wanted to know if the outcomes would be different if we studied different types of people-say women from different social classes in various countries for example.

Her findings birthed the care ethics movement.

At the core of this movement is the realization that throughout history men and women are often socialized differently. In this way, men are socially instructed (implicitly and explicitly) using one moral framework, and women are taught another.

It’s important to note that according to Gilligan’s work, morality is not something that emerges naturally through development like Kohlberg thought, but was a social behavior taught to children they carried with them throughout life.

However, the moral code western societies (and most societies for that matter) have thrust upon women might actually better serve the world than the existing code handed down to males.

The distinction is one of justice vs care.

Care ethics seeks to understand the outcomes of ethical decision making that maximizes and preserves individual and collective capacities to care for themselves and one another.

To put it another way, the ethics of care seeks to maintain our web of relationships with compassion and empathy, without rejecting our own need for self-care.

It’s approaching ethical dilemmas with compassion and empathy first, rational conversation and dialogue second, and holistic outcomes which benefit everyone third.

Let’s wrap up this letter with a thought experiment to apply the ethics of care.

Let’s say you have a child that is very sick.

There is a medicine that could easily save your child’s life, but it is prohibitively expensive.

In order to save your child’s life, you steal the medicine.

You are caught.

In a justice-based ethical construct, you broke the law. Perhaps a judge will consider your intent and intervene or rule in a certain way, but in being caught you have stolen an item that did not belong to you-you are a thief and responsible for all that comes with it.

In a care ethics framework, you are a caretaker seeking to preserve the quality of life of all involved. The lack of compensation for a single dose of medicine is far outweighed by the life of your child, and the many lives that your child has and will touch.

You are acting both rationally and ethically in stealing the medicine, because it is a crime of rules or justice not of violence or harm.

In this way, a justice perspective destroys the relationship you sought to protect by threatening separation from your child via prison or punishment, leveraging the state monopoly of violence and force.

Care, however, maximizes our social, compassionate nature and accentuates those values above rules and codes.

Consider today what life would be like if we approached first with compassion, empathy, and care.

Until tomorrow friend,

-TPP

PS for more on the Ethics of Care check our In a Different Voice by Carol Gilligan and The Ethics of Care by Virginia Held.

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Matt Malcom

Matt Malcom

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West Point Graduate. Former Army Officer. Conscientious Objector. Home for Regenerative Spirituality and The Inclusive Orthodoxy. New Book: repairinghope.com