Serie Internationale Zorgethici 10: Per Nortvedt

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Per Nortvedt

1. Where are you working at this moment?

I am working at The Center for Medical Ethics, Institute of Health and Society, Faculty of Medicine, University of Oslo, Norway.

2. Can you tell us about your research and its relation to the ethics of care?

I am conducting research into the foundation of care ethics, in particular questions concerning the role of emotions and moral sensitivity in moral judgments. I am also engaged in metaphsyical questions concerning the basic motivations for care, particularly inspired by the ethics of Emmanuell Levinas. I call this ethics, an ethics of proximity: The Principle and Problem of Proximity in Ethics. Journal of Medical Ethics 2008 (34).

My works also pertains to the role of care and partiality in clinical health care priorities. The idea is that from the perspective an ethics of care there seems to follow a certain normative requirement to be partial. This role of partiality versus impartiality in ethics even though being heavily debated in moral philosophy has been scarcely addressed by care theorists, with some exceptions (Virginia Held, Joan Tronto, e.g). My idea is that an ethics of care, as well as an ethics of proximity can influence this debate in a constructive way.

3. How did you get involved into the ethics of care?

As a nurse and in my PhD work I was always interested in the role of moral sensitivity and empathy. During my PhD work I became increasingly interested in trying to establish a more solid normative basis for the role of emotions and empathy in moral judgments. Also my nursing background and research into how the historical tradition of nursing emphasised the phenomenology of illness and understanding the subjective experiences of the patient, greatly fueled my interest in an ethics of care and research into the foundations of care.

4. How would you define ethics of care?

The crucial focus of an ethics of care is on the importance of interpersonal relationships and the role of these relationships in moral judgments. An ethics of care takes place within interpersonal relationships to be of particular moral relevance to moral life and for moral judgments. In this respect two keywords of this ethics are:

  • partiality – to give some particular attention to persons with whom one is interpersonally connected; and
  • proximity – that personal closeness both relationally and in its spatio-temporality are morally significant.

5. What is the most important thing you have learned from the ethics of care?

That not only moral principles and moral judgment is what is central to morality and ethics. Also the role of moral sensitivity and moral motivation in which ones attitudes plays an important role is ethically and morally significant

6. Whom do you consider to be your most important teacher(s) in this area?

The one I have been the most inspired by, even though he does not consider himself a care ethicist, is the american philosopher Lawrence Blum with his work on care and particularity in the 1980’s and the 90’s. Also the work of the norwegian philosopher Arne Johan Vetlesen and his work on empathy and moral performance have been of great influence to my own position.

Additionally, neither of them being care ethicist, but the philosophy of Emmanuell Levinas, the Norwegian phenomenologist and nurse philosopher Kari Martinsen and the American philosopher Samuel Scheffler with his work on associative duties and personal relationships has been a great inspiration in my career. Among leading care ethicists, I think the work of Joan Tronto, Virginia Held and the norwegian Tove Pettersen, in my view represent very solid work on care theory today.

7. What works in the ethics of care do you see as the most important?

Of course the seminal work of Carol Gilligan, but also the works mentioned by Tronto, Held and Tove Pettersen. Of special relevance for care ethics is Lawrence Blum, Moral Perception and Particularity, Cambridge UP 1994, and his Altruism, emotions and morality, Routledge, 1980. And Arne Johan Vetlesen, Perception, Empathy and Judgment, Penn State Press 1994.

8. Which of your own books/articles should we read?

My works that are most relevant and that I am most satisfied with is my PhD dissertation,: Sensitive Judgment Tano press Oslo 1996.

  • Care, Sensitivity and “the Moral Point of View”.. I: New Pathways for European Bioethics. Intersentia 2007 ISBN 978-90-5095-670-3. p. 81-99
  • Levinas, Justice and Health Care. Medicine, Health care and Philosophy 2003; Volume 6. s. 25-34.
  • Sensibility and Clinical Understanding. Medicine, Health care and Philosophy 2008; Volume11. s. 209-219
  • Subjectivity and Vulnerability; Reflections on the Foundation of Ethical Sensibility. Nursing Philosophy 2003; Volume 4.(5) s. 222-231
  • The Principle and Problem of Proximity in Ethics. Journal of Medical Ethics 2008 (34) s. 156-161
  • Most recent work: The ethics of care. Role Obligations and Moderate Partiality in Health Care. Nursing Ethics 2011; Volume 18.(2) s. 192-200. Hem and Skirbekk co-authors
  • The Normativity of Clinical Health Care – Perspectives on Moral Realism. Forthcoming in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy.

9. What are important issues for the ethics of care in the future?

I think to clarify its normative potential and its distinctiveness with relation to other theories like virtue ethics and consequentialist ethics. To accomplish this, it is increasingly important to set care ethics in play with the dominant perspectives and discussions within moral theory and philosophy.

To mention some perspectives: Moral phenomenology, and metaphysics; Levinas, Husserl, Loegstrup. Analytical philosophy: Bernard Williams, Thomas Nagel, Samuel Scheffler, Christine Korsgaard. Moral realists and quasi-realists like Arne Johan Vetlesen, David Wiggins, consequentialists like Peter Singer, Peter Unger.

It is not satisfying that an ethics of care can argue for the importance of relationships to moral life and judgments without in more detail discussing the normative implications of a relational view in ethics and morality.

10. Our ambition is to promote ethics of care nationally and internationally. Do you have any recommendations or wishes?

I would very much like to be in more contact with you and would love to visit you, and perhaps have some joint seminars and projects.

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