Interview Tom van Sprang: Fiona Robinson
How can an ethics of care perspective gain ground and be a horizon in a period of anxiety where there’s a lot of thinking in dichotomies?
Dominant understandings of ethics and morality – as well as many ‘everyday’ understandings, especially in the West – are constructed in dichotomous terms. Ethics is understood in a ‘theoretical-juridical’ sense – as a set of rules and principles setting out right and wrong, good and evil; this understanding informs our ‘common sense’. The ethics of care questions these assumptions. It asks: what if ethics were not about a set of moral decisions in response to moral crises or dilemmas – what if ethics were about our ongoing, everyday behaviours in relation to those around us? This view sees moral agents not as autonomous, rational calculating subjects but as relational subjects whose own subjectivity is constructed with and through others. On this view, giving and receiving care is brought to the foreground, rather than hidden from view. All moral agents are seen as inherently vulnerable and interdependent, thus challenging the dichotomy between ‘autonomous’ and ‘dependent’ persons (and between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’, and ‘protector’ and ‘protected). This view of ethics also undermines the dichotomy that is implicitly or explicitly set up between those who make moral judgements and ‘legislate’ on moral issues – the moral theorists, the decision-makers in powerful states – and those whose actions are ‘judged’ morally – ‘the poor’, the marginalized, the ‘Others’.
I also believe that the feminist aspects of care ethics contribute to this breaking down of dichotomies. As I recently wrote in a book chapter entitled ‘The Ethics of Care and the Future of Feminism’, care ethics has much to offer at a time when ‘feminism’ seems to be in crisis. Care ethics does not pit the masculine ‘against’ the feminine. Care ethics is not a claim about women’s essential nature, or about women’s universal oppression. It is not an exhortation for us to all ‘care’ more, or to be ‘more caring’. Care ethics is a critical theory that seeks to reveal the different forms of power that keep the values and activities of care hidden from ‘public’ view, and to demonstrate the devastating effects that ensue when care is consistently devalued, sidelined, and subordinated to the higher values of profit and military power. As an antidote to the values of neo-liberalism, care must be recognized as a social responsibility, an attribute of citizenship and a basis of feminist solidarity.
Because care ethics is not a normative articulation of the moral standpoint of women, it helps to overcome dichotomous thinking about gender. Rather, it is a set of claims about the world and about human activity in that world. It reminds us that human beings are not just workers – as work is normally defined – but also carers. From an ethics of care perspective, the lines between ‘work’ and ‘care’ are blurred, and yet another dichotomy is challenged. But these activities – the activities of care – are often hidden from view, due to discursive and material relations of power that circumscribe our understandings of public and private, work and care. The ethics of care offers us a critical lens through which to view existing arrangements for care in societies, and encourages the foregrounding of care as an issue of public concern and public debate.
From the perspective of an ethics of care, human beings are not wholly or even primarily rational minds that exist autonomously and judge impartially. Rather, our subjectivity and our very existence comes into being through relations with others – relations which are thick with responsibility, and must be negotiated with due regard for both the dependence and the difference of those others. As care ethicists we can make these claims not simply by invoking Kant or some other moral authority such as ‘human dignity’ or ‘fundamental rights’. Instead we make them by really looking at how people live their lives, and the struggles they face.
During my research I’ve done a lot of thinking about responsibility. Is it a responsibility from strong states to deploy military assets for humanitarian purposes, in Syria for example? In Ethics of Care (2011) you’ve explained why humanitarian intervention holds a dichotomy in itself. I understand that you rather want to solve the underlying problems of humanitarian crises than make a statement for military action. But, in times where people suffer from a tyrant, what do you think about humanitarian intervention in such a case?
My answer to this question begins with the points from my answer to question 1. Our thinking about military humanitarian intervention is very much a product of this dichotomous way of thinking about ethics and politics. Intervention is seen as a moral obligation to ‘protect’ innocents who are being oppressed or persecuted by an evil dictator. ‘We’ are in the position to make moral judgements about good and evil, and the unleashing of military force.
But most humanitarian crises are actually highly complex political situations that cannot be reduced to a single tyrant and a united, oppressed population. Michael Walzer has consistently and convincingly argued for the need to recognize these situations as political, and as having a history, rather than seeing them as isolated moral dilemmas. As I have written on a number of occasions, care ethics invites attention to the practices and activities of care-giving by active agents who negotiate and act against conditions of insecurity on a daily basis – before, during and after the ‘moments’ of humanitarian crisis. While it does not offer universal moral prescriptions or epistemologically-secure judgements for making the world more secure, it invites critical moral reflection on the practices and understandings that justify and enable better or worse circumstances and arrangements of care in the world. Importantly, care ethics approach also highlights the important links between the ‘global’ and the ‘local’; the ‘everyday’ realm of the household is not unconnected to the global realm; rather, care connects a number of different scales – the body, the household, the nation-state, the ‘global’ – recognizing them as interconnected and mutually constitutive. In making these connections, however, care ethics foregrounds the agency all people as givers and receivers of care. It reveals the often hidden activities of care, and highlights the fundamentally relational nature of moral agency.
Using an ethics of care to justify humanitarian intervention seems to me to be potentially very dangerous. Practices of care among, say, parents/caregivers and children, or differently-abled individuals and those who assist them, are very different from the relations and responsibilities of care that we normally consider to be most relevant to global politics. That said, if we are prepared to accept that questions about how we care for one another in the world are important questions for the theory and practice of international relations, then we must also accept the very real possibility that some self-described care is, in fact, ‘bad care’ (Barnes 2012: 7) and that the language of ‘caring about’ distant others is often used as a justifying discourse for ideological ends. While Narayan refers to the use of this language in the context of modern colonialism, its relevance extends beyond the period of formal imperialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, discourses of ‘care’ in international politics have been used regularly to justify paternalistic acts of domination through the use structural and physical violence – in the treatment of indigenous peoples, the ‘protection’ of women and children in warfare, and in the practices of contemporary humanitarianism, including humanitarian interventions. As Michael Barnett argues, however much humanitarian governance is propelled by an emancipatory ethic and the siren of humanity, it also contains elements of domination (Barnett 2013: 486).
It is thus crucial to make use of all possible resources for challenging the dyadic and dichotomous notions of ‘protector’ and ‘protected’ that characterize contemporary world politics. Challenging the dichotomous logic of ‘carer’ and ‘cared for’ in the world restores a vision of all persons as givers and receivers of care, and focuses attention on strategies for ensuring strong relations and networks of care in societies in all parts of the world.
Although it would be nice to have a principled, clear solution to the moral problem of humanitarian crisis, care ethics does not offer one. Care ethics is characterized by its contextual, relational approach to morality and moral dilemmas. Each case must be examined on its own terms, and in its own context. Relations between various actors must be considered before moral decisions can be reached. Morality is thus not a ‘math problem with humans’, but a complex, ongoing and socially-embedded. The moral and political issue of military humanitarian intervention must be dealt with on these terms. What this means in practice is that, in all likelihood, military intervention may be the right thing to do under very specific circumstances in a small number of instances. But in most cases, military intervention will not be justified from the perspective of care ethics.