Women and babies

I’ve been working through a body of feminist work in ethics for my dissertation that goes by the label of “care ethics”. It’s a subfield of study that got jumpstarted in the early 1980s, when the American psychologist Carol Gilligan wrote a damning critique of Lawrence Kohlberg’s work on human moral development in her book In a Different Voice. Work on “care” in subsequent decades took the notion in two very different ways. According to Gilligan, and to philosophers like Nel Noddings, “care” is primarily a psychological orientation. It’s a disposition to be responsive to others, to care about them, to think about social life relationally, etc. And, very importantly, it’s allegedly something women are better at than men. According to other philosophers (Sara Ruddick, Joan Tronto, Margaret Walker, and many other feminists), care should be thought of as work, as something people (of whatever gender) do. Whether you frame things in terms of psychological care or in terms of practical care makes a big difference, it turns out.

One of the reasons feminists prefer the practical conception of care over the psychological conception of care, as far as I can tell, is that the psychological conception of care seems like a recycled version of the claim that women are more “naturally” suited for tasks like childcare and so forth. They’ve been wary of that claim at least since Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963 (which documented the dissatisfaction of white, middle-class housewives with their dull, mind-numbing and “care”-filled lives).

One of the (many) things I do in my dissertation is look at the debate in care ethics over how to think about care. And so I’ve tried to reconstruct the argument for focusing on practical care (how care as work is distributed in our societies) rather than psychological care by assuming that women are more caring than men, and seeing what follows from that.

The argument runs as follows.

(1) Women are usually more psychologically caring than men.

Therefore,

(2) Women ought to do more care work than men.

(2) here justifies the femininity of care work in our world. But clearly, the argument as it stands is invalid. We seem to be missing at least one premise. Something like:

(1b) Work is best distributed according to ability.

By “work” I mean simply to include the work entailed by a practical conception of care. The argument thus becomes:

(1) Women are usually more psychologically caring than men.

(1b) Work is best distributed according to ability.

Therefore,

(2) Women ought to do more care work than men.

This new iteration of the argument from a psychological conception of care to a justification of the femininity of care work is still incomplete however. It assumes a straightforward connection between a person’s psychological orientation and that person’s ability to perform a task (well). We must consequently interpose yet another intermediate premise.

(1) Women are usually more psychologically caring than men.

(1a) Psychological care consistently drives effective practical care.

(1b) Work is best distributed according to ability.

Therefore,

(2) Women ought to do more care work than men.

On this iteration, the argument is valid, as best I can see. Is it sound?

Given that I have granted the truth of (1) for the sake of the argument, the soundness of the argument hangs on the truth of (1a) and (1b). Very briefly, I am skeptical that psychological care consistently drives effective practical care. Psychological care may well be a factor in driving effective practical care. It might move a person to try harder to care practically than someone less so motivated, for example. But other factors might be equally or more important in the effectiveness of practical care (effort, or experience, for example). Be that as it may, (1b) is more problematic than (1a), and its dependence on (1a) makes it more problematic still. Even if we grant that women are more “caring” than men, and that this psychological disposition makes them more effective practical carers, there may be a variety of reasons for distributing care work more widely. For instance, the presumption of women’s sole or primary responsibility for care work might prevent the achievement of other goods (as Friedan argued). The lives of men might be enriched by a greater responsibility for care work (as social workers and social theorists have long argued). The lives of women might be enriched by less responsibility for care work. There is no reason to suppose that men are incapable of caring in the practical sense (such a claim would be plainly false [full disclosure: I’m a stay-at-home dad]). And many women express a desire for greater male involvement in care work. These are all good reasons, on my view, for resisting the inference from (1) to (2).

Whether women are “naturally” more caring or not, they are certainly more than just that. And men are not “naturally” uncaring. Feminists have concluded that the distribution of care work is something to be discussed, to be negotiated, to be adjusted, according to the needs and desires of both women and men. Logically speaking then, the psychological conception of care functions to bolster patriarchal distributions of care work only in conjunction with further, problematic, premises.

Of course, the psychological conception of care, in its association with women, is problematic to say the least. Complex human behaviors cannot generally be traced straight back to biology without reference to culture (perhaps with some exceptions). I’m an evolutionist, so of course I think it’s possible that human males and females have certain characteristic cognitive differences. But I also know that one of our evolved traits is an amazing cognitive flexibility, which accounts for the possibility of wide cultural divergences. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no precisely formulated and cross-culturally replicated analysis of care that conclusively shows that human females are more caring than human males by biological nature; although I grant as a matter of course that women in Western culture (and many other contemporary cultures, no doubt) are taught to be more “caring” than men. But then I also see feminism as a movement to rectify the gender imbalance in that cultural lesson.

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