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Tove Pettersen traces the history of care ethics since the publication of Carol Gilligan's A Different Voice, including Gilligan's various formulations, research projects, and statements of the implications of her research for moral theory. In addition, Pettersen responds to most major criticisms of care ethics, proposes important distinctions within care ethics, and relates care ethics to non-violence, professional ethics, feminism, and its relation to justice. Pettersen is explicit that she intends a philosophical account of care ethics rather than an empirical theory. Pettersen's work is thus similar to recent work by Michael Slote.
There are many things to admire in Pettersen's work. For those who have not followed the formulations and reformulations of Gilligan's work since its first publication, this is helpful. Gilligan's initial formulation appeared to distinguish two disparate forms of moral reasoning. One form of moral reasoning, based on "justice," incorporates individualism, uses deductive reasoning to apply abstract principles to cases, and eliminates or radically reduces the weight of the deliberator's relationships with others in its calculation. The other, based on care, takes relationships as central, emphasizes the deliberator's concern for the well-being of particular others in the deliberators life, and proceeds by means of dialogue between the parties affected by the decision. Gilligan's early work responds to Kohlberg's theory of levels of moral development, which understands the justice perspective to be the goal of moral development. Gilligan's argument that Kohlberg's theory selects features typical of male deliberators sometimes leads her to explain her view in ways that imply gender specificity in moral reasoning, that women use care-based reasoning and that men use justice-based reasoning.
Two major points of contention arise. The first is whether the existence of specific patterns of moral reasoning distributed by gender implies 'gender essentialism.' The second is whether care ethics represents a theoretical justification of patterns of behavior historically associated with women's subordinate position in patriarchal hierarchies. The first point of contention gets its importance from feminist thinkers' worries that biologically deterministic doctrines limit women's conceptions of their lives, abilities, and goals. The worry association with the second point of contention is that care ethics could function ideologically, a view presented as theory that supports gender-based hierarchy and which its adherents are unable to evaluate without bias.
Petterson tackles these issues in a sensible way, sorting through the possible ways of understanding Gilligan's work and developing it into a moral theory that is neither essentialist nor ideological. Pettersen shows that a moral theory based on Gilligan's work is not a form of metaethical naturalism, since moral premises are implicit in Gilligan's work to justify care ethics independent of the empirical findings. These include a consequentialist premise stating that the consequences of caring attitudes and practices have greater value than the alternative. Alternatively, a premise that appeals to an expanded principle of non-maleficence is available for those attracted to deontological ethics. The form of consequentialism implicit here would be practice-consequentialism rather than act-consequentialism, since the practices of caring are what are claimed to have the best outcomes, not particular acts of caring.
Pettersen defends the claim that Gilligan's is a feminist moral theory, not merely a feminine theory, the former distinguished by a commitment to understanding women's subordination and oppression and to action that empowers women, while the latter merely articulates an alternative form of morality for women. Pettersen argues that this is the fundamental criterion of a feminist theory and that Gilligan's theory satisfies this criterion because her theory implies criticism of moral theories that do not make care more central than they do and since care is a feature of women's experience more often than men, Gilligan's theory advocates making a feature of women's experience more evident than they currently are. Pettersen creatively appeals to Simone de Beauvoir's claim that women's lived experience is a source of moral insight without having to entail gender essentialism to support the view that care ethics promotes women's experience without being open to the objection of gender essentialism.
Pettersen adopts a developmental view to avoid some versions of the claim that care ethics is ideologically supportive of women's subordination, limiting them to caring roles and behaviors. The developmental view claims that a three-stage developmental process. In the first stage, egotism characterizes moral self-conception and deliberation. The second stage is characterized by 'altruistic care,' in which the moral agent subordinates her interests, needs, and desires to others. The third stage is the stage of mature care, in which the deliberator takes into account her own and others' interests and is able to plan on and decide to perform courses of action that take into account the interests of everyone involved. Although the mature care stage takes into account the agents' and others' interests, it is unclear how this gets worked out in detail.
Pettersen suggests the central device by which deliberators would discover how the details of balancing interests is by means of dialogue, discovering who would be most harmed by the proposed action, and finding out more 'contextual' information. This suggests to me a consequentialist view of care ethics, reminiscent of points pressed by R. M. Hare. Discovering who would be most harmed by a proposed action and caring for their experience and the relationship with that person is similar to the process of moral reasoning Hare mentions in the chapter "Another's Sorrow" in Moral Thinking. In the same work Hare points out that an advantage of consequentialist moral reasoning is that it is more sensitive to empirical information about the actual effects of actions on actual agents, in contrast to deontological rule-based theories which hold that certain actions are morally wrong despite the empirical consequences. Although appeals to 'contextual' information are widespread these days, I think it likely that what is intended is something like empirical information mentioned by Hare.
Pettersen develops elements of care ethics for relationships, non-violence, and professional ethics. In addition, the prospect of a care-based social and international ethic gets consideration.
These features make Pettersen's book a thorough, comprehensive account of care ethics. There are frustrating aspects of Pettersen's book, even for someone like myself who finds care ethics an important, illuminating area of moral theory. The recounting of statements, counter-statements, and responses sometimes has the feel of a tedious list of who said what rather than engaged analysis of the issues. The book betrays serious deficits in the area of grammar and usage that is embarrassing. Admittedly, the author's first language is not English, so the embarrassment may more properly be the publisher's and editor's than the author's. Otherwise, this is a fine work that will enhance any library devoted to contemporary ethics, feminism, and the conjunction of ethics and feminism.
© 2008 Robert L. Muhlnickel
Robert L. Muhlnickel, MSW, has been a clinician and teacher in the University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry and is completing his Ph.D. dissertation in Philosophy at the University of Rochester. He also works on a grant training clinicians in evidence-based family practices for people with serious and persistent mental illness, co-sponsored by the NYS Office of Mental Health and University of Rochester Medical Center.