Key Ethics Concept: Care Ethics

Care ethics began as a feminist perspective on ethics. Some of its founders (e.g. Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings and Virginia Held) stressed that traditional ethics neglected roles and values that were stereotypically attributed to women, such as care and empathy.

Care ethics begins from a different metaphysical stance on identity. It conceptualizes humans as fundamentally relational, interdependent, and emotional.

The ethical approach starts from this position of relationality and focuses on the value of creating and sustaining caring relations. Care ethicists sometimes disagree about what this means, but overall the stance is different from other theories insofar as it places our relationships with others as the primary focus of ethical analysis. So, rather than ask ourselves “what are my ethical obligations?” or “what are my ethical duties and rights?”, we instead ask “how can I cultivate caring relationships?”.

In the clinical setting, this approach can change our actions insofar as it asks us to think about our particular relationships first. Think about the case of a “difficult clinician-patient encounter”. Care ethics would ask us to think about how to repair the relationship first and then move towards figuring out the best treatment options. Likewise, in the case of a non-adherent patient, care ethics would ask us to think about what relationships are obstructing adherence and how they might be appropriately changed to best instantiate care.