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Some Preliminary Thoughts on Care and Liberty

Care may be defined as (1) helping individuals to meet their basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, and other essential goods as well as supporting them emotionally; (2) facilitating the development of individuals’ physical, emotional, imaginative, intellectual, and other capabilities;

  • (3) assisting individuals in learning important survival and social skills;
  • (4) helping individuals to recover from illness or injury; (5) mitigating individuals’ pain and suffering; and (5) supporting individuals’ ability to function in the world.4 So defined, care can arguably make some important contributions to human freedom - at least where freedom is defined as having opportunities to make choices and pursue one’s preferences unobstructed by others. Most generally, care supports the development of the physical and mental conditions that can enable individuals to make choices and exercise their autonomy. Unless children receive adequate care from parents, teachers, and others, they will not develop their reasoning, emotional, social, and other capabilities sufficiently to be able to make meaningful choices. Medical care, physical therapy, and the like similarly help individuals to maintain or recoup the physical and mental powers necessary for free choice and the exercise of autonomy. Longterm care and personal assistance can further help disabled and elderly individuals to carry out their choices and pursue their preferences in ways they otherwise would not be able to do. In all these respects, care can be said to contribute to the conditions of a free society.

This perspective on care, development, and freedom has not, of course, gone entirely unnoticed by liberal political theorists. John Locke, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, and other classical liberal theorists all recognized the importance of good parental or tutorial care and a proper education for developing individuals’ capacities for freedom. In contemporary theory, Amartya Sen (1999), Martha Nussbaum (2000, 2006), and others have likewise highlighted the importance of the development of capabilities for freedom. As critics have argued, however, most liberal theorists have overlooked or neglected the contributions of care to freedom (Hirschmann 2003; Kittay 1999; Nedelskv 1989; Tronto 1993). Negative liberty and autonomy theorists often take for granted the fully formed, adult, rational agent without attending adequately to the “relationships - with parents, teachers, friends, loved ones - that provide the support and guidance necessary for the development and experience of autonomy” and free choice (Nedelsky 1989, 12).

Good care can further contribute to liberty in other ways besides capability development. Good-enough care is generally considered necessary, for example, for helping children to develop impulse control, emotional intelligence, and empathy - all qualities considered important for helping individuals to understand social situations, control their behaviors, and not aggress against others (see, e.g., Renkin et al. 1989). Insofar as negative liberty depends on a lack of coercion by others, it thus would seem to play an important role in supporting a free society. To the extent that individuals receive better care, they will be less likely to interfere coercively in one another’s affairs, which will provide a wider scope of liberty for all and require less state policing.

Care can also contribute to positive liberty in some often-overlooked ways. As relational autonomy theorists have argued, a person’s ability to form and pursue preferences depends in large part on the context or environment in which they live. A social environment marked by good care can facilitate individuals’ opportunities while an environment marked by bad care can constrain it. Eva Kittav (1999, 67-68) uses the phrase “nested dependencies” to describe the embedded nature of caregiving: caregivers always depend on others for the resources they need to care for others. One might similarly talk about the nested quality of autonomy. Our autonomy will be greater to the extent that we live among people who have received and are receiving better care. The more developed, capable, and well-off the people around us are, the more likely we will be able to enjoy a wider range of choices and opportunities from new technologies and a wider and deeper pool of knowledge and skills.5

Highlighting or just bringing back into focus the important role that care can play in supporting the background conditions that contribute to negative liberty and autonomy is significant. It fills out our understanding of the prerequisites for freedom and highlights some strategies for expanding the scope of people’s liberties. Even so, these arguments fail to establish a direct link between care and liberal freedom. Some accounts of negative liberty theory, for example, discount the importance of capabilities for freedom altogether. Isaiah Berlin famously wrote in his classic defense of negative liberty: “If a man is too poor or too ignorant or too feeble to make use of his legal rights, the liberty that these rights confer upon him is nothing to him, but it is not thereby annihilated” (Berlin 1969, liii). By Berlin’s account, liberty consists in opportunities not abilities.6 Opportunities can exist even where abilities do not. Care is therefore in no way important, on his account, to negative liberty. What matters is leaving people alone and respecting their self-ownership rights.

A similar point can be made about autonomy. Relational autonomy theorists have made a powerful contribution to our understanding of autonomy by highlighting the fundamental role that personal and social relationships play in supporting the “background requirements for the development of autonomy” (Christman 2004, 158). The connection between care and autonomy nonetheless remains general and vague in these theories, and the particular ways in which care contributes to autonomy are underspecified. This has led to the charge that caring relationships support autonomy only in a secondary or indirect way (Christman 2009, 21-23). Obviously, a person needs food and water to be able to exercise autonomy since otherwise they might be too weak or sick (or dead) to make any meaningful choice, but this does not mean food and water are constitutive of autonomy. They are supportive or background conditions for it (much like peace and security). The same has been said about care: it supports autonomy in a general way but is not an essential component of it.

In the following two sections, I demonstrate the integral link between care and negative liberty and autonomy. My point is to show that good care not only provides the necessary background conditions for the exercise of liberty but also should be a central concern for anyone concerned to protect or promote negative liberty and autonomy themselves.

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