Thursday, March 8, 2012

Thinking about Care

In the last post, I introduced some issues arising from the unfamiliarity of intergenerational ethics.  We are used to thinking about the ethical and political significance of relationships between contemporaries. But when we try to apply these concepts to the relationships between present and (as yet) non-existent future people, we run into difficulties. Rawls points out that Hume’s circumstances of justice, for example, do not hold, and that therefore the idea of justice itself is somewhat problematic. Rawls tries to rescue the idea of intergenerational obligations, however – and unsuccessfully – but that’s a topic for another post. Here, I want to introduce an alternative way of thinking about intergenerational relationships, one which does not foreground justice, but privileges care instead

Thinking about intergenerational relationships in this way emphasizes different aspects of being human to those that are placed in the foreground when we focus on issues of justice. There are, however, difficulties with this kind of approach too. A care-based approach may also interpret the “unfamiliar” (intergenerational relationships) rather too hastily in terms of the familiar. The need for scepticism about our concepts, and to clear carefully the ground where we choose to stand, is no less pressing here than it is when considering the limitations of concepts of justice.

The use of particular metaphors to flesh out what is meant by a stance of care is one way where the ”overfamiliarity” of such an approach may become clear. Rupert Read has promoted a care-based approach to thinking about intergenerational ethics. He has also produced, for the Green House thinktank, thoughtful and cogentarguments for a “third house” of Parliament [PDF], tasked with representing the interests of future generations (a proposal about which I hope to write in due course). Whilst being sympathetic to Read’s arguments, I think some of his work shows how readily concrete and appealing metaphors may easily become overextended in attempting to deal with the unfamiliar.

In his paper Justice or Love?, Read argues that impartial justice is an inappropriate concept for us to use in working through problems of intergenerational ethics, because it is wrong to think that it captures the moral significance of the relationships between present and future people. Others have made similar arguments, such as Robert E Goodin and Hans Jonas (whom Read quotes). The relationship between present and future people is not like that between contemporaries, considered as, say, "mutually indifferent" citizens of more or less liberal-democratic polities. Rather, Read suggests, it is more like the relationship between parents and children - indeed, the comparison is closer than this: "The analogy is so direct, it is barely even worth calling an analogy: future generations are our children". 

I think that the idea of care (carefully conceived) can have a useful and even powerful critical role in, as Read puts it, "loosen[ing] the grip of the picture that has a hold of us" in thinking about future people (this "picture" could be justice, or something else, like unending technological progress - whatever, the point is that our familiar habits of mind tempt us to misrecognize the nature of our relationship to posterity). The analogy between present-future relationships and parental ones underlines the vulnerability of future people to our actions - even the basic conditions under which they will live depend on what we do. But to state that future generations "are our children" is a rhetorical flourish that goes beyond the limits of what the concept will bear. 

What is unique about care as a stance towards future generations - and this I shall return to in future posts, as it is a central theme of my book - is how it is mediated in ways which parental relationships are not. It is, of necessity, mediated by objects which are valued (in different ways - some as means to external purposes, some as constitutively meaningful and/or as embodying purposes in themselves). These objects might be cultural and/or social in nature, or they might be part of non-human nature itself. In fact, nature might be seen as the primary mediating "term" between present and future people. Whatever, I would suggest that it is these objects which give us the material through which care is expressed, and indeed, made meaningful at all. It is true that care for children may be made concrete and meaningful through these kinds of objects - we might wish our children to grow up in an unspoiled landscape, appreciate music, and so on - but the difference is that our relationships with future people are essentially and necessarily mediated by them. 

And further, some of these objects - such as technological artefacts like nuclear power stations or particular social institutions, like hedge funds - might, in standing between us and posterity, even undermine our efforts to care. While I think Read is, therefore, entirely correct to place care in the foreground, I believe how we understand what it means to care for the future needs to take a different approach and to draw on a wider range of conceptual resources. 


  1. Within the educational literature the concept of the ethic of care is well illustrated by the work of Nel Noddings, also there is a counter set of arguments against therapeutic education, particularly in the work of Dennis Hayes. In the context of a present generational responsibility and care for future unknown generations I think this might be explored most through out relationship to children (sons/daughters and grandchildren) this is where many find their focus moves from the present and past to the future and the concept of legacy here might also be one to think about. Happy to continue this conversation,

  2. Thanks Anne.

    I guess questions of responsibility in general split into two halves, which traditionally philosophers (in particular) have wanted to separate out: on the one hand, there is whether people can be motivated to care for distant others, and on the other, whether care has normative significance (i.e. can we draw conclusions about what we should do from experiences of caring?). Habermas has consistently argued (e.g. in "A genealogical analysis of the cognitive content of morality" in The inclusion of the other, 1998) that you can't get to a normatively compelling theory, one that "“accounts for the normative priority of duties” from an essentially empirical account of why some people care about certain others/things.

    In the book, I'm interested in showing how a care-based approach can do both, and bring the two halves of the question back together. We need, first, an account of future-oriented obligations which is normatively compelling - which can be levelled as a moral and political demand. I think this is made possible by a properly-developed concept of care (as I argue in this paper). Secondly, we need to build into such an account an adequate understanding of what kinds of emotional and imaginative resources might motivate fulfilling responsibilities to future people.

    It's in this latter area that the work of Noddings is, I agree, particularly relevant - but I think something which has been relatively under-appreciated in this literature is how care (and attachment) relate to experiences of uncertainty. I want to build a link between the normative and motivational applications of care by showing that, in both cases, it is as a response to uncertainty that care helps us solve both moral and motivational difficulties.

    So while I think Rupert Read is on the right track (as have been others who have drawn broad inspiration from care metaphors, like Annette Baier, Daniel Callahan and Avner de Shalit, I think to date the motivational and normative aspects have remained separated. Thinking about care in terms of parental care provides important resources for reimagining social and political relationships (I think Sara Ruddick's work is a great example of how to do this), but it is, I think, the wrong place to start for addressing the normative question.

  3. Thanks Chris!
    Btw, a version of this paper has now appeared in print: in CHANGING THE CLIMATE (arena, 2011).
    I guess my response would be that what it is for someone to be one's child need not be as tied to a certain version of 'the literal' as it sounds like you think. Of course I don't think that future generations are literally our biological children (though in some cases they will be biologically our great grandchildren, etc.!). But that doesn't to me imply that they can't be our children. Much as, for instance, techno-optimists talk about 'our children among the stars'.
    So: I have thought quite a lot about the normative and the motivational question. I used to think that probably they have to be separated (Which is what Analytic philosophers typically tell me). But I no longer agree...

  4. Cheers Rupert, will check it out. "Doing intergenerational ethics" adequately centres, I think, on how one links the two 'questions'. Would love to hear you

    I think we just need to be careful about the metaphors we employ in seeking to loosen the grip of certain habits of mind on our ways of thinking about the nature of our relationship to future generations. Care, as a concept, is a metaphor as well as as an analytical concept - the way Goodin and Jonas use it is, I think, goes too far in the direction of literalness and one-dimensionality. I am trying - in recent essays as well as the book - to use phenomenological ideas about care as well as feminist ones to develop a richer conception of care.

    Some indications of how this might work are given here and here.

  5. I'd also add that I think the movie CHILDREN OF MEN is interested in the questions under discussion here. And I think it comes down more on my side than on your's. ;-) I think the film seeks marvellously to suggest that our need _collectively_ to have descendants is much less 'mediated' than you are suggesting.

  6. p.s. Another version of my thinking on this has now also been published, here:

    1. I still think the discussion of CoM in your new paper - and the paper itself - identifies 'children' and 'descendants' rather too readily, though - and that eliding care and love is equally problematic (can love be required of one in the same way that care can be?).

      My approach remains centred on how the question of mediation is central to trying to articulate the nature of our care for future generations, in such a way that this care doesn't remain a 'mere ought', in Hegel's language - or alternatively (to stick with Hegelese), where is the 'actuality' of care? I think Douglas MacLean's argument that care for others is ultimately bound up with self-care (though not in a way that reduces the one to the other) is the key to this. This is a case which needs to be made, though - which should therefore be the burden of my next post here (when I finally get around to it...).