Towards an Aristotelian Theory of Care

Dissertation, University of Notre Dame Australia (2019)
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The intersection between virtue and care ethics is underexplored in contemporary moral philosophy. This thesis approaches care ethics from a neo-Aristotelian virtue ethical perspective, comparing the two frameworks and drawing on recent work on care to develop a theory thereof. It is split into seven substantive chapters serving three major argumentative purposes, namely the establishment of significant intertheoretical agreement, the compilation and analysis of extant and new distinctions between the two theories, and the synthesis of care ethical insights with neo-Aristotelianism to generate a virtue ethical theory of care. In the first two chapters, I outline virtue ethics and care ethics, and argue for considerable agreement over central premises. Chapter 2 summarises the foundational commitments of care ethics, focusing particularly on their relational ontology and its links to the other ethical claims care ethicists universally ascribe to, namely particularism, partialism, the moral salience of emotions, and the rejection of hard public/private distinctions. Chapter 3 lays out the central concepts in neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, including eudaimonism, virtue, and character traits, and drawing a number of comparisons between virtue and care ethics specifically with regard to relational ontology and the meta-ethical commitments it underpins. In addition to doing the necessary expository work for the remainder of the thesis, Chapters 2 and 3 also argue that care ethics and virtue ethics have much more in common than is typically acknowledged – the first major contribution of this thesis to the literature. Chapters 2 and 3 to provide at least a prima facie justification for pursuit of the questions I confront in the remainder of the thesis. In Chapter 4, I ask what differentiates these two ethical theories. I survey some of the differences which philosophers in either camp have identified and offer some of my own. I suggest that several of those differences either rest on misunderstandings of one ethic or the other, or that in erecting a divide between virtue and care ethics they also disunify ethics of care. I do, however, identify two differences which seem defensible. Specifically, they are that virtue ethics seems to lack an account of care, which I define minimally as a response or responsiveness to need, and that virtue and care ethics organise their meta-ethical and normative concepts differently. This chapter thus presents a second contribution to the literature: a study of the differences between virtue ethics and care ethics. It also serves to set the trajectory for the remaining chapters, where I respond to the claim that virtue ethics lack an account of care. I spend the remainder of the thesis constructing what I take to be a satisfying foundation for a virtue ethical theory of care. In Chapter 5, I offer three initially viable means of incorporating care into virtue ethics, all of which treat care as a virtue. These are the analogical approach, according to which care is analogous to an existing virtue; the additive approach, according to which care is a novel virtue; and the bundling approach, according to which care is a bundle of virtues. I also offer and evaluate reasons to reject the claim that care is a virtue, concluding that the claim is indeed a viable one so long as the concept of care is sufficiently thick, and I contend that analogical approaches, and particularly analogies with charity, outperform the others. Chapter 5 therefore serves two ends. First, it proffers a novel meta-analysis of concepts of care as a virtue, and thus makes a third contribution to the literature. In doing so, it makes an inroad into the second: the development of a neo-Aristotelian theory of care. Chapter 6 continues this project. I attempt to show how care can be construed as an act-type and a practice. I argue in this chapter that practices are a subcategory of actions, and that care qualifies as an Anscombean act-type which aims at the meeting of needs relating to the care-recipient’s flourishing. I go on to consider the implications of this account for ethics which deploy care as a moral concept, maintaining that it not only offers a better account of consequences than theories of care which include success criteria, but also that it affords us interesting insights into the distinction between ‘caring about’ and ‘caring for’ which allow us to make sense of certain tenets of neo-Aristotelianism. This represents a contribution to both discourses, since neither care nor virtue ethicists working at the intersection of their respective normative theories have delved very deeply into the philosophy of action. Chapter 7 discusses caring relations, suggesting that a virtue ethical theory of caring relations can lean on the work care ethicists have done, and adding some necessary refinements, such as a distinction between ideal and non-ideal caring relations, and a theory of caring relations as reasons for action. This final chapter also draws these three concepts of care together by arguing that virtuous caregivers who are invested in the flourishing of those for whom they care are also sensitive to the relations those care-recipients bear to their institutional environment. I argue that because they are caring participants in caring relations, virtuous agents are characteristically motivated by states of need and dependency to engage in certain sorts of conventionally political practices. In other words, the virtue or virtues of caring characteristically manifest in certain sorts of political or social practices, relating specifically to those areas of moral life. This allows us to build upon recent work in feminist virtue ethics of the sort offered by Tessman and Friedman. I also offer a novel analysis of migration, suggesting that the account of care presenting here is analytically useful both when it comes to historical cases of migration such as the underground railroads and escapes from Nazi-occupied Europe, but also for contemporary issues such as the migrations occurring in the Southern United States and in much of Europe. I thus conclude not only that virtue ethicists ought to incorporate care into their normative framework, and that the theory of care presented here is a coherent one, but that this leads us naturally into applied topics such as virtue politics. I conclude the thesis by considering some its implications and by identifying some further avenues for research.

Author's Profile

Steven Steyl
University of Notre Dame Australia


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