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What is Care Theory?

The basic concept in care ethics as I develop it is the caring relation. Life itself starts in such a relation. The caring relation is an empirical reality, not a theoretical construct.


In this section, I briefly describe care theory and then focus on its embodied and performative aspects, in order to demonstrate that care is particularly well suited to understanding our relationships with companion animals. Evidence is mounting that, contrary to the traditional notion that competition, assertiveness, and cunning are the principle reasons for human flourishing, it has been care and compassion that have served to help humans survive and thrive, so much so that Jeremy Rifkin refers to humans as Homo empathicus.6 The literature on care ethics has only a three-decade history. Although relatively young when compared to the history of rule-based, consequence-based, or virtue- based ethics, care theory has captured the imagination of numerous philosophers and political theorists as both nimble and liminal enough to engage the reality of a postmodern world.7

Care ethics describes a relational approach to morality that values emotion, context, and reciprocity rather than abstract systems of principles or formulas of utility. Care resists such abstraction. Care engenders a moral ideal. Providing care represents an aspiration that is not always met in relationships. Furthermore, the caring ideal is not formulaic in its application. One cannot prescribe the proper manifestation of care in advance of knowing the particular individual and circumstances involved. Caring requires listening and attentiveness, thus suggesting an emergent normativity: a notion that right action emerges from context rather than from predetermined or abstract rules or moral calculus. This does not mean that care is purely subjective, however. Rather than definitively prescriptive, care is guided by several contours or trajectories. One of these guides is responsiveness. Care is responsive to the needs of the other and thus entails deep and active listening, or what Nel Noddings describes as “engrossment.”8 Another and related guideline is an acknowledgement that humans are fundamentally relational; thus actions are never isolated transactions but rather occur in a web of relationships. Care is also guided by motivational displacement, or imaginatively and sympathetically understanding the standpoint of others. Taken together, these moral guides situate care as neither relativistic nor normative in an a priori sense.

Since the early 1990s, Carol J. Adams and Josephine Donovan have been applying care ethics to understanding human relationships with animals, although not companion animals exclusively.9 Adams emphasizes the similarities and synergies between the oppression of women and the oppression of animals.10 Both Adams and Donovan view animal care ethics as superior to traditional rights-based or utilitarian-based approaches, which are based on individuality rather than rela- tionality, and which tend to confront animal welfare from an aggregate or species approach rather than from particular relationships with particular animals.11

My work takes care theory in a slightly different trajectory than those described above, in that I explicitly contend that care is embodied: care is understood and delivered through the body in large and complex ways as well as in small and simple ways.12 Our bodies have tacit yet rich knowledge of care through muscle memory and visceral understanding. For example, the body can learn the nuances of how to deliver a comforting hug, or demonstrate attention and concern through eye contact and facial expression, or use the voice to communicate understanding. When these skills are underdeveloped, there can be discomfort and awkwardness in circumstances where care is called for. Usually, these embodied habits of care are enacted without extensive forethought. Performing “embodied care” does not describe a natural ability but rather a natural capacity that requires exercise and development. Like other natural capacities, attention and practice can improve care. Also like other natural capacities, we can attain proficiency and habituation with significant work and thought. We are not born able to walk, but we are usually born with the capacity to walk given the proper development and practice. Eventually, walking becomes habit. Some people further develop the ability to walk into running with great skill. Similarly, our bodies are built with the capacity to care, as evinced by our ability to focus attention on others, learn about them, sympathize, and act to meet their needs. However, the capability of caring exists on a continuum, and proficiency only comes with development and effort.

The notion of care as embodied is the foundation for understanding it as a performative activity. Judith Butler famously developed a performative theory of gender identity based on the notion that gender is neither fully natural nor fully socially constructed.13 For Butler, gender is created by a series of iterative choices and performances that coalesce into a dynamic sense of identity. This identity can evolve, but it is not simply determined by biology or social forces. According to Butler, we help recreate our gender identity every time we make choices to act and display ourselves in a particular way, even though certain choices are strongly reinforced or discouraged by social norms. Similarly, I contend that our caring moral identity is created through our performances of care in our relationships with other beings. Care is a series of actions taken in the world—in time and space. Caring involves agency because caring is always a choice we make, but it is a constrained choice. There are always social forces that impede or promote our caring activities. Describing care as performative is a method for capturing the negotiation of personal agency within social constraint. Because as embodied beings we are both subjects (we have agency and will) and objects (we can perceive and reflect upon ourselves in time and space), we engage in care while simultaneously observing ourselves performing care. Witnessing ourselves care and thematizing the experience creates an iterative feedback loop that contributes to constructing our self-identity. What is a caring person other than someone who repeatedly demonstrates care ? This is the ontological dimension of care. I participate in creating my identity, but my efforts confront social norms. The character of my caring identity is not an innate quality, nor is it the product of assent to a set of abstract ethical principles. My caring identity is a negotiation of will and social forces.

Care has sustained both human civilization and mammalian species. Frans de Waal, although not explicitly a care theorist, has repeatedly argued that the basis of human morality in evolutionary terms lies in the empathetic relationality observed in animals.14 Thus, when we engage our companion animals, we are in a sense interacting with individuals who possess the building blocks of our own morality minus the abstract notions of ethics that society has constructed. In The Bonobo and the Atheist, de Waal gently (and caringly) implies that although there is nothing to be gained by antagonism between atheists and theists, religious morality has likely run its course:

The big challenge is to move forward, beyond religion, and especially beyond top-down morality. Our best-known “moral laws” offer nice post hoc summaries of what we consider moral, but are limited in scope and full of holes. Morality has much more humble beginnings, which are recognizable in the behavior of other animals.15

De Waal is arguing for a fresh way to look at morality that is more embodied, social, and relational than traditional approaches. Our caring performances in the context of our relationships with our companion animals exhibit this kind of morality. Although marked by routines, caring relationships with companion animals are largely devoid of mutually agreed-to rules, rights, or moral calculus. Rather, these relationships are guided by need and response.

To summarize, I suggest that care is both an embodied and a performative activity that influences who we are. If this is the case, then ethical development cannot be a strictly cognitive endeavor. Caring habits and behaviors need to be attended to and fostered in rich, varied, and meaningful ways. Because moral identity is an iterative process, rich opportunities to care can help form our sense of caring self and provide the structures and schemas of caring habits that can be applied to new and unfamiliar circumstances. Such opportunities can come through deep and varied relationships with other humans and through imaginative engagement of stories such as in theatre or novels; it can also develop in relationships with companion animals. Relationships with companion animals not only provide rich opportunities to habituate flexible care structures of responsiveness; they offer the imaginative character that can contribute to moral progress as well.

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