By Calvin Liu, ’24
Historically, the world of thinking has been dominated by men. We can all look back on political guidance from Plato and Machiavelli, “how to live the best life” from Marcus Aurelius and the Buddha, and even pamphlets on how to think from Freud. However, one final, at times unanswerable question remains: how should we act?
To answer this question has been attempted countless times by countless people through a hodgepodge of ethics. John Stewart Mill and John Rawls say in consequential utilitarianism we must look at the consequences of actions. If stealing from the rich and giving to the poor saves more lives, that’s what we should do. Immanuel Kant says in deontology that reasons for actions matter just as much as the consequence: we cannot steal, since the intention of stealing is bad, even if it results in good. We must go to the bakery, buy the bread, then feed the poor.
An Aside: I personally like to think of actions as a set of personal obligations, and choices as decisions about how to honour certain obligations. Phillipa Foot’s classical Trolley Problem, which will probably be the subject of another piece, can also be considered in the same terms. In the face of crisis, we, as citizens of a society, have an obligation to pull the lever and save people because it is morally correct if we can do so at no harm to ourselves.
But just as Wollstonecraft is buried by Rousseau, feminist ethics rose only in the late twentieth century, heralded by Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice. She confronts the reality of reasoning: while historically men are focused on supposed justice and truth, women have been focused on providing care, and have considered moral problems from a view of how they affect individual relationships instead of the world.
As a result, the ethics of care is hardly a set of ethics at all. Instead of considering what to do in a certain situation and backtracking to see if we made the right choice, the ethics of care honours the pre-ethical conception of natural care, recognizing that everyone has certain needs and concerns, and if “we are in a position to meet these needs, … [the] situation makes a moral claim on us.” Thus, it is superior to ethical care as it recognizes what is best done in consideration of the other instead of what is simply ‘best done.’
In historical, male-dominated education systems, we are often taught what the most rational choice in a perfect situation is. If a person is inherently evil, they are worse than a person who is inherently good. If we were to pick which person to flip the lever for the trolley towards, it should always be the evil one.
However, problems in life are not so simple. People can be a variety of different things beyond being branded “evil” or “good.” Decency is not given but earned. Individuals are so much more complex than the 16 groups Myers tries to separate them into or the labels we easily place upon them. They are built up of layers upon layers of emergent factors which cannot even be approached with our current levels of sociological understanding.
Alas, I hope that the message of this is not that “we should take mercy upon each and every situation.” I stand by that adequate reactions be doled out for wrongful actions, possibly another topic for another time. However, especially as for the first time in human history, what Simone de Beauvoir referred to as “the second sex” approaches the male-dominated hierarchy, it is high time to ask:
Do we care about the ethics of our act, or do we act for the ethics of our care?
Further (Literary) Investigations, in order of relevance:
In a Different Voice by Carol Gilligan
An Ethic of Care by Joan Tronto
Caring by Nel Noddings
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (more feminist background than Ethics of Care specifically)