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4.6 Ethics of Care

Learning Objectives

  1. Define the ethics of care.
  2. Show how an ethics of care functions in a business context.
  3. Note advantages and drawbacks to the theory.

The Rules of an Ethics of Care

Sometimes advocated under the titles of community ethics or feminist ethics, an ethics of careMaking the nurturing of our immediate communities and the protecting of those closest to us the highest moral obligation. switches the focus of moral regulation from the individual to networks of social relationships. The basic question isn’t about yourself; it’s not “What should I do?” Instead, it’s always about a larger us: “What should be done to nurture the connections among those of us closest to each other?”

A quick example dilemma: There’s a flaming car wreck involving your sister and a Nobel Prize–winning medical scientist, and you have the strength to rescue only one of the two. Which should you save? A strict utilitarian—someone believing we should always act to bring the greatest good to the greatest number—will go for the scientist. Saving him will likely produce future medical breakthroughs in turn saving many others, which means the greater good will be served by dragging him out. But how many of us would actually do that? Wouldn’t you go for your own sister before some scientist you’ve never met? And wouldn’t most of the rest of us agree that we’d do the same thing? If the answer is yes, an ethics of care provides a way of understanding and justifying the impulse, which is, before anything else, to protect those bound to us.

There are three critical steps on the way to formalizing care as a coherent ethical orientation. Each is a shift away from traditional ethics.

  1. At the center of attention, independent actors are replaced by a web of interrelated individuals. (Ethics is not about me and you; it’s about us.)
  2. The impartial application of abstract principles is replaced by the maintenance and harmonizing of human relationships. (Ethics is less about the fair imposition of rules and more about crafting social integration.)
  3. Tensions between the rights of individuals get replaced by conflicts of responsibility to others in established relationships. (Ethical tensions aren’t my rights versus yours; it’s me being torn between those I care for.)

In the international bribery example up to now, we’ve treated all those involved as anonymous individuals: it hasn’t mattered whether or how long they’ve known each other. It’s only important to know that there’s a supervisor X back at the US company headquarters, and there’s the person Y who’s gone abroad to win a contract, and there’s the prospective client Z expecting a bribe. That’s it. Maybe the three have never exchanged more than fifty words in a single conversation, or maybe they’re all cousins who meet for family blowouts every two months. We haven’t asked because it hasn’t mattered what their personal relationships may be. That will have to change, however, within an ethics of care because there are no anonymous, single individuals: everyone has a place—near or far, integral or accidental—within a social network. For that reason, all morality resembles the car wreck. It’s charged with human attachment, and because the ethics of care makes those attachments the center of deliberation, you have to know how people are related to each other before beginning to know how they should treat each other.

Turning this perspective toward the bribery example, the overseas client, let’s say, is an old and loyal client of the company, and also one who’s always gotten a little extra from one or another employee. About the company, it’s not an anonymous multinational but a medium-sized, extended-family concern. Brothers, uncles, nieces and nephews, and a hodgepodge of others all work there. For years, it can be added, this overseas contract has been vital to the company’s success. Now all this counts for something within an ethics of care. As opposed to the traditional idea that the best moral lessons show us how to coldly, impersonally, and impartially apply abstract rules, here we’re checking to see who’s involved, because the reason we have morality is to vitalize our human relationships.

An ethics geared to strengthen bonds isn’t necessarily easy to enact. Take a company like Oil-Dri, about which Forbes recounts,

Oil-Dri now makes about $240 million a year in revenues. At the company’s 50th anniversary party, the CEO asked anyone related to anyone else at the organization to stand up. Of the company’s 700 or so employees, almost 500 rose.Klaus Kneale, “Is Nepotism So Bad?,” Forbes, June 20, 2009, accessed May 12, 2011,

This is obviously an organization where relationships matter and where management is accounting for human concerns and networks when hiring people. No doubt there’s a lot of camaraderie in this workplace, but imagine how difficult it must be to dole out promotions when everyone knows everyone else in that personal, almost familial way. Within a more traditional ethics, one of the first steps to making a promotion decision is to clear away all the personal stuff before evaluating each employee directly and simply assess his or her professional merits. Within an ethics of care, however, any promotion decision—more or less any decision at all, for that matter—is going to require the subtle, complex, and difficult balancing of many individual and highly emotional situations and circumstances.

Something similar happens within typical families. Most parents trot out the idea of treating all their children identically—they all get their first car at the same age and so on—but if a sibling has special problems at one stage of their development, they’ll normally get special treatment in the name of preserving the family unit. The other brothers and sisters probably complain, but if they’re old enough they understand that protecting those who are vulnerable is one of the first imperatives of caring for each other as a group. An ethics of care in essence takes that model from the family and extends it out into the world of business. Applying it to the promotion question, if there’s a member of Oil-Dri saddled by, let’s say, a difficulty with alcohol, then that might actually be a positive consideration within care-based thought. Promoting someone who has had problems and reinforcing their attempt to get past them may serve the general harmony of the entire group. As a result, someone who’s less qualified in purely professional terms may get the promotion in the name of caring for the social web.

How Might the Case of International Bribery Be Managed within an Ethics of Care?

Traditionally, ethics features questions about the competing rights of individuals. For example, when I offer a bribe, am I impinging on the right of another to compete on a level playing field for the same business? Starting from an ethics of care poses a different question: does giving a bribe reinforce or weaken the bonds of human relationships defining my place in the world? The answer, obviously, depends. If the company is Oil-Dri where everyone’s deeply connected, and it’s an old client, and a little gift of cash has always been slid under the table, then the maintenance of that network’s vitality and human health becomes a powerful argument in favor of continuing the practice.

Keeping the wheels turning isn’t the only solution, however. Discomfort with doing something that seems underhanded may lead the overseas representative to try a different way of keeping the contract going, one that’s based less on money under the table and more on aboveboard selling points. Quality of service as proven by work performed in previous years may offer a way to keep the business and personal link intact. There may be, in other words, a less controversial route to the same end of maintaining and enforcing existing relationships.

Alternatively, a different client, one not demanding a bribe, may be sought to purchase the company’s goods and services. Nothing in an ethics of care requires those participating to preserve every bond. Sometimes it happens in families that a member becomes so toxic and damaging to the rest that the connection needs to be severed in the name of maintaining the larger whole. The overseas bribery relationship may be one of those cases. It’s hard, of course, to break away, but there are other potential clients out in the world and going after them may, in the final analysis, do more for the social health of the core group than clinging to a problem at all costs.

Finally, enrolling in an ethics of care doesn’t mean going blind to what’s going on outside the circle of care. One fact from the larger world that should be taken account of comes from a recent article in the Washington Post about foreign business bribes: prosecutions of international bribery by the US government are picking up.Carrie Johnson, “U.S. Sends a Message by Stepping Up Crackdown on Foreign Business Bribes,” Washington Post, February 8, 2010, accessed May 12, 2011, Ethical concerns should normally be distinguished from legal considerations, but there’s no doubt that few events interrupt human relationships like a jail term. Cutting the bribery relationship, therefore, may be necessary regardless of how important the particular client and business are for the larger whole.

Conclusion. The activation of an ethics of care may justify continuing to pay money under the table. Or it may lead toward a less controversial way of maintaining the business relationship. Or it may cause a break between the company offering services and the overseas client demanding a bribe. There’s no way to know for sure which path will be the right one, but in every case the choice will be made in the name of preserving and nurturing the human relationships surrounding the decision.

Advantages and Drawbacks of an Ethics of Care

The advantages of a care-based ethics include the following:

  • It can cohere with what we actually do and think we ought to do, at least in cases like the car accident cited at this section’s beginning. In a certain sense, it corresponds with our natural instincts to act in favor of and protect those under our care and those involved in our lives.
  • It humanizes ethics by centering thought on real people instead of cold rules. Presumably, everyone agrees that ethics is ultimately about people: unlike the hard sciences, the end results of morality are tallied in human lives. To the extent that’s right, an emphasis on care seems well suited to the general practice of ethics.
  • It allows us to focus our energy and concern on those who are closest to us. Everyone knows that there’s injustice in the world, just as we all know we can’t solve every problem. The ethics of care allows us to focus our energy naturally on the most immediate human needs.

The main disadvantage of an ethics of care is that it threatens to devolve into tribalism: There’s my group, and I take care of them. As for all the rest of you, you’re in your groups and in charge of yourselves. This isn’t every man for himself, but it comes close to every social group for itself.

Key Takeaways

  • An ethics of care makes the nurturing of our immediate communities and the protecting of those closest to us the highest moral obligation.
  • In business, an ethics of care asks us to review decisions not in terms of hard rules but in terms of how they will affect the people with whom we share our lives.
  • An ethics of care humanizes moral decisions, but it threatens tribalism.

Review Questions

  1. What are the three major steps an ethics of care takes away from most traditional theories? Can you put each one in your own words?
  2. An ethics of care is frequently compared to the morality guiding a family. Can you think of another comparison that encapsulates how this ethics works?
  3. Imagine that you had two parents and a sister working for Oil-Dri in the United States. The overseas client you’ve been sent to do business with is a half brother from your father’s first marriage. He demands a bribe. How could the ethics of care be used to justify accepting or refusing?