Virginia Held on ‘An Ethics of Care’

Yesterday Professor Virginia Held delivered the annual Sprague and Taylor Lecture at the Philosophy Department at Brooklyn College.

On a personal note, it gave me great pleasure to welcome Professor Held to Brooklyn College. My association with her goes back some twenty years, when I first began my graduate studies in philosophy as a non-matriculate student at the CUNY Graduate Center. My first class was ‘Social and Political Philosophy,’ taught by Professor Held. On her reading list, I saw four unfamiliar names: Carole Pateman, Susan Okin, Catherine MacKinnon and Patricia Smith. Who were these, I wondered, and what did they have to do with the ‘public-private distinction’ (the subtitle Virginia had added to ‘Social and Political Philosophy’)? As we were introduced to the syllabus, Professor Held skillfully handled some questions: Why were these readings on the list? Why not the usual suspects? I was impressed, of course, by her deft location of feminist philosophy in our canon and its importance in exploring the public-private distinction, but I was even more impressed by the grace and firmness that she displayed in dealing with contentious student interlocutors. During that semester, I had my intellectual horizons considerably expanded; after I had written my term paper on Marx and Feuerbach’s views on religion, Professor Held wrote a recommendation letter for me that secured my admission to the doctoral program. Thus was my professional career in philosophy launched. Twenty years on, now a professor at Brooklyn College, I was delighted to welcome the scholar that kicked it all off for me.

Virginia’s lecture was titled “Why Care”; it attempted to highlight the significance of developing frameworks for moral decision-making based on an ethics of care. The abstract for her recently released The Ethics of Care (Oxford University Press, 2005) notes:

Where…moral theories as Kantian morality and utilitarianism demand impartiality above all, the ethics of care understands the moral import of ties to families and groups. It evaluates such ties, differing from virtue ethics by focusing on caring relations rather than the virtues of individuals. [Held] proposes how values such as justice, equality, and individual rights can “fit together” with values such as care, trust, mutual consideration, and solidarity….[Held] shows how the ethics of care is more promising than other moral theories for advice on how limited or expansive markets should be, showing how values other than market ones should have priority in such activities as childcare, health care, education, and in cultural activities. Finally, [Held] connects the ethics of care with the rising interest in civil society, and with limits on what law and rights are thought able to accomplish.

In her talk, Virginia drew out some of the implications of such an ethics: for instance, the value it would ascribe to the maintenance of many significant personal relationships (such as mothering, which currently is paid a great deal of lip service by our politicians but is devalued by their actions and legislation) or more abstractly, the reconfiguration it might cause in our current notions of personhood, which consider persons to be highly individualistic, unitary, autonomous, rational entities, but which an ethics of care might understand as more relational objects.

This last part is of great intellectual interest to me; I intend to write on it in this space. Soon enough.

3 comments on “Virginia Held on ‘An Ethics of Care’

  1. […] the contrasting notions of persons in ‘other’ cultures. For instance, as I suggested in a post here on the ethics of care, which conceives of persons in more relational terms, most puzzles about personhood ascription […]

  2. […] A couple of years ago, in a post commenting on Virginia Held‘s Sprague and Taylor Lecture at Brooklyn College, I wrote: […]

  3. […] Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, delivered the Philosophy Department’s annual Sprague and Taylor lecture at Brooklyn College. The title of her talk was ‘How Women Changed The Course of […]

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