From the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, the ethics of care was a predominant theme in feminist ethics. Based ultimately on an essentialist view of femininity, the ethics of care focused on human relationship, need, and care responses, as an alternative to the Western philosophical tradition's rights and law based approaches.
It might be expected that, raised masculine in a patriarchal society, I would think about ethical responsibility in terms of my autonomy and authority, and I do. But for me, this is not entirely a matter of gender. I was raised also to think of care as an alarmed response to an abnormal situation, rather than an ongoing, basic response to the ordinary human condition of need and interdependence. Seeking care, that is, admitting need, initiated a conflict or crisis, and the response was to that immediate emergency. Once resolved, the moment passed, both need and the care response were considered settled and finished.
While this may be underlying the patriarchal masculine notion of autonomy and independence, I also know that my own upbringing was profoundly lacking in ordinary and ongoing care. It was always better to remain in need than to ask for care. Admitting need is, for me, admitting pathology and vulnerability. Need exposes me to harm, terror, and chaos. Metaphorically speaking, sirens would blare, everything would need to come to a halt, until the care was provided.
My response to need is similar. Although I am better at caring than being cared for, my caring is still based on sensing the situation as abnormal. I worry over making sure I have provided the proper care for the particular need of the moment. I am driven to reach the point when care is done.
Of course, the feminist ethics of care tells us that care is never done, because care and need are ordinary, everyday, and fundamental to the human condition. It took reading Susan Wendell's chapter on care and disability in The Rejected Body for me to realize this about myself, and about what I had not really understood about the ethics of care.
It's really awfully sad, isn't it? Oh well.
(By the way, The Rejected Body is very good, and although the care discussion makes it rather dated, I plan to use it in Bioethics next year. My undergrad students won't have read any feminist ethics, so it won't be dated for them.)