Reflections on Care and Social Justice

Il·lustració. © Margarita Castaño

Care is a relational practice that involves those who give it and those who receive it and includes both the right to be cared for and the right to care. As work on the ethics of care has been developed, more and more proposals for understanding the differences and intersections between care and justice have emerged. It is important to understand what characterises care in order to put forward a broader, more inclusive idea of justice. 

What do we mean when we talk about a ‘right to care’? Do we mean that every individual experiencing illness, frailty, disability, or suffering from troubles associated with trauma has a right to be ‘looked after’ for a temporary period or on a more long-term basis? Or do we mean the right of parents to care for their children, for lovers and friends to take care for those close to them, or for adult children to reciprocate the care they received as infants as their parents become frail? The former focuses our attention of the right to receive care, the latter on the right to give care.

I am, of course, going to argue that a right to care encompasses both – but more than this. By introducing this distinction at the start of this piece my aim is to highlight what is essential to understanding care. Care is a relational practice. It involves givers and receivers. It is not a commodity to be bought, bartered, or exchanged without reference to the relational context in which caring takes place. This perhaps means it sits rather uneasily in conjunction with a notion of rights where civil rights and consumer rights can become conflated, since both start from the individual rather than from relationships. The philosopher and psychologist Carol Gilligan (1993) distinguished the ethics of care from the ethics of justice: care ethics is characterised by a focus on relationships and responsibilities; justice ethics by a focus on rights and rules. Her ground-breaking work reveals the way in which ‘different voices’ expressing moral dilemmas were suppressed, and assumptions that moral development requiring capacity to abstract rather than to contextualise judgement became dominant.

As work on the ethics of care has matured, approaches to understanding both the differences between and intersections of care and justice have multiplied. I want to argue that care is necessary to social justice – we need to understand what is distinctive about care to propose a broader and more inclusive conception of justice.

Connections and interdependencies

Let’s step back a bit. Neoliberalism has failed in its own terms as an economic strategy, as a basis on which to meet needs via market transactions, and in terms of its consequences for our relationship with the other than human world. In claiming the moral superiority of the assertive individual exercising choice and control over the means through which their needs and desires can be met, neoliberalism has ignored the relational ontology of what it means to be human. It has undermined the value of collective solutions to shared problems.

Consumerist strategies for welfare became uneasily entangled with the rights claims of disabled people and others who had experienced marginalisation, exclusion and ‘caring’ practices that were abusive, demeaning or incompetent. Competitive rights claims that promote the interests and perspectives of either care givers or care receivers ignore the interdependencies in all our lives, and the way in which we shift between giving and receiving care throughout our lives. The stories I tell in my book Caring and Social Justice are testimony to the way in which “Binary distinctions between rights and care, and those which separate care providers from care recipients, do not reflect the fluid identities and experiences of those involved in caring relationship” (p. 150). Devaluing care itself, as well as those who both give and receive care, undermines our capacity to address both the redistributive and recognitional needs of care givers and receivers.

What matters to people is the quality of their relationships: with other people close to them; with those who provide necessary help, but also the interactions they have with strangers; and their relationships with the places in which they live and work and with the broader environment. People care about those things and their well-being is impacted by them. So here we have another take on care: care is an evaluative concept as well as a relational practice. The ethics of care invites us to build policies and practices based on recognition of the necessity of interdependence and the values attached to this. It is necessary in creating what Joan Tronto calls a ‘caring democracy’, a society that emphasises care rather than being primarily concerned with economic production.

What is care?

In a much-quoted definition, Fisher and Tronto express the scope of care:

On the most general level, we suggest that caring be viewed as a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web.

This definition opens up our vision of what care means across a broad range of life dimensions. Rather than restricting care to the circumstances of those who are ‘needy’, it speaks to the necessity of care to us all – if we are to survive, be nurtured, live well with ourselves and with others. Care ethics has given us a language to talk about those things that are fundamental to what it means to be human, and enables us to communicate across disciplines, practices and policy fields. Care ethics has resonated with people working in very different fields, many of which are not traditionally associated with care. Thus, whilst it has certainly informed thinking about long-term care for old people, early childhood education, nursing and other care practices, the ethics of care has also been applied in fields such as international relations, architecture, and sustainable agriculture. Its power derives from its purpose in not only enabling critical analysis of policies and practices, but in pointing towards transformative alternatives. That has included ways in which care ethics points to the responsibilities of rich nations in adopting anti-poverty strategies based on long term relationships rather than issue specific interventions (Robinson); the significance of care in approaching soil not as a resource for food production, but as a living organism that itself embodies webs of care (Puig della Bellacasa), and redefining architecture as a form of care necessary to both human and non-human survival and well-being (Krasny). Thinking with care alerts us not only to the ethical significance of mundane, everyday practices across a range of public policies, technical/scientific domains and environmental challenges, but enables us to give voice to those things that trouble us, that matter to us and that are inadequately debated by references to rights.

An ethic of care does not ignore the impact of oppression or of power relationships that are considered matters of justice. Care ethics asks us to be attentive to the personal and relational harms and consequences of such injustices. It offers a way of acting to repair these harms. These may be harms deriving from structural inequalities, from collective contemporary and historical exclusions and marginalisation encompassing cultural and epistemic factors; as well as from the exploitation of a willingness to care, and practices that should be caring but are not. Harms that impact humans, social relations and both micro and macro ecosystems need to be repaired and we need more than appeals to compassionate virtue to achieve this.

Care in context

The ethics of care asks us to be attentive to the particular context for care before taking responsibility to act competently and be aware of the consequences of our actions. It warns against proposing generic or universal responses. Because of this, much work on care ethics is focussed on its application to specific circumstances. So I now want to suggest ways in which care ethics can enhance and expand our approach to justice in different contexts. I start with what is often understood as the ‘archetypical’ caring relationship.

If we are relational beings then what Eva Kittay has called the ’circumstances of justice’ need to encompass what is necessary to sustain relationships. Her starting point for this was what is necessary to sustain being a mother when mothering a severely disabled child involves complex understanding and support beyond that which is usual. Kittay writes of the ‘inevitable dependencies’ of the human condition that render classic liberal theories of justice inadequate. To achieve justice both for her and for her severely cognitively disabled daughter required finding a form of ‘distributed mothering’ that would work in their situation.

If we stick with mothering we can think of other, rather different, circumstances of justice. For example: what is necessary to enable a woman compulsorily admitted to hospital because of significant mental health issues to continue to mother her child? In these circumstances it is not only a question of rights attached to proper treatment when individual decision making is constrained: justice also requires us to address the relational impacts of such actions. This highlights not only issues relating to the policies and practices of mental health service providers, but also issues such as the physical design of spaces in which people are detained and their potential for enabling continuing connections with close others. This concerns the right to both give and receive care and what is necessary to sustain caring relationships in difficult circumstances. This includes intimate caring relationships other than mothering and illustrates the web of caring responsibilities that extend well beyond those involved in face-to-face relationships. And the significance of this extends to us all. How do we design environments and make policies which prioritise our capacity to sustain connections with those who are important to us?

Thinking with care is relevant not only to close relationships, but also to how we think about and respond to strangers. A contemporary context for this is practices adopted by nation states in response to increasing numbers of refugees – an increase prompted in part by the consequences of failures to care for the unjust impact of climate change. States such as Australia and the UK that have or have considered contracting with others to locate the administrative process of checking entitlements to enter the country ‘offshore’, in an attempt to avoid the recognition of need that comes from face-to-face encounters with strangers. They seek to prevent relationships coming into being. Caring relations with those who might help are prevented. The possibility of renewing relationships with family in the host country are ignored. The injustices in this situation are not only uncaring responses to needs, but also preventing the development of understanding and solidarity with very different lives.

Care Full Policy Making

To end I reflect on the importance of what I have called ‘deliberating with care’ as one way of creating the caring democracy Joan Tronto writes of as necessary to achieve justice.

Deliberative democracy is based on the value of bringing different people together to listen to expert evidence, ask questions, discuss and come up with policy ideas. Deliberative practices such as citizen’s assemblies and juries have been utilised to address policy issues including anti-social behaviour, environmental planning and health care. If we think about the dimensions of care applied to the process of deliberation, we can start to see what caring politics can look like. This goes well beyond promoting compassion as a political objective. It asks us to be attentive to why people care about the issues they are debating and what will help them take part in a constructive and supportive way; it asks those who are organising deliberative events to take responsibility for the process, to competently plan and facilitate so that people who speak in different ways and who have different types of experience can contribute well. It asks us to be aware of how people are responding to taking part and what they expect as outcomes from their involvement. Getting these things right can build solidarity amongst those who may not agree but who develop better understanding of why others think as they do.

People have a right both to give and receive care, but social justice requires much more than promoting rights to care.


Bibliographic references

Barnes, M (2006) Caring and Social Justice, Palgrave
Barnes, M (2012) Care in Everyday Life. An Ethic of Care in Practice, Policy Press.
Gilligan, C (1993) In a Different Voice, Harvard University Press.
Kittay, E F (1999) Love’s Labor, Routledge
Krasny, E. and Fitz, A. (2019) Critical Care. Architecture and Urbanism for a Broken Planet. MIT Press.
Puig de la Bellacasa, M (2017) Matters of Care, University of Minnesota Press.
Robinson, F (1999) Globalizing Care, Westview Press.
Tronto, JC (1993) Moral Boundaries, Routledge.
Tronto, J C (2013) Caring Democracy, New York University Press.

Recommended publications

  • Ethics of Care: Critical Advances in International PerspectivePolicy Press, 2015
  • Care in Everyday Life: An Ethic of Care in PracticePolicy Press, 2012
  • Caring and Social JusticeMacmillan Education UK, 2005

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