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1. A caring society

In the unimaginably long-ago time of 2015, ethicist Eva Feder Kittay imagined what a care-based society might look like. In such a world, she speculated, we would honor “those who were valiant in their care of others, as well as those who showed us the dignity of all lives, no matter the extent of the dependency” (“A theory of justice,” 68). Now, in the pandemic time of spring 2020, we do in fact honor medical personnel who are “valiant in their care of others” and ordinary workers, including grocery workers, bus drivers, deliverers, truckers, cooks – everyone whose humble everyday work makes it possible to sustain life. Now we look beyond the celebrities, the superstar athletes and the glittering pop divas, and what we notice is a network of caregivers, diffuse, humble, and necessary. Kittay is right: they are heroes, and worthy of honor. But they are not the only caregivers; they are just the ones who make caregiving most dramatically visible. The coronavirus is helping us recognize the omnipresence of care.

Care means ‘meeting another’s need.’ To ‘meet another’s need’ requires us to practice reciprocal, egalitarian, flexible relations of sensing what the other needs, often when the other can’t articulate it themselves, and acknowledging when someone else has tried to meet our needs, even if they didn’t quite guess right. As teachers know, good care requires meeting a real need, which is different from acquiescing to what the recipients think they want. In Middlemarch, Dorothea tries to curb an extramarital affair, compelling her own pain into silence for the sake of others (741). But as students know, an authority’s assumption of knowing what you need can feel paternalistic and require pushback. “You are thinking what is not true,” says Rosamond (749). This kind of sensitive, mutually responsive interactivity is the basis of good relationships, which includes teaching, parenting, friendships, families, neighbors, communities.

Lockdown makes it obvious how much of daily life consists of minor, intermittent, but continual exchanges of care. We give care every time we ask how someone is doing, make a meal for someone, clean a surface someone has to use, wash clothes someone has to wear. We get care every time others reach out to us, send a funny video, empty the dishwasher, sweep the porch, bake us treats. In pre-lockdown life in the public sphere (if we remember that), common care exchanges include holding a door open for someone laden with packages, greeting a customer, passing along advice, paying a worker, the thousands of tiny daily acts we rarely consider, and those care activities are intricately interlaced. In a restaurant visit, the dishwasher, cook, waiter, cashier, and customer are engaged in a complex web of mutual service; their “human lots,” to use the language of George Eliot in Middlemarch, are “woven and interwoven, [so] that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web” (132).

Care, then, is everywhere and nowhere; we all practice it, we all care for others and feel ourselves cared for; and yet our culture has until this very month prioritized quite oppositional values: competition, individualism, accumulation. Nothing could be less like care than toxic masculinity or narcissistic femininity, paradigms that measure success by others’ deference and adoration. Nothing could be less like care than discounting the needs of others due to racial or regional identification.  The pandemic has made it utterly clear that we are all intricately interconnected in networks that are both local and global, where our health is literally in each other’s hands. We are in these webs, in these networks, whether we like it or not, and indeed, whether we know it or not. “Any one watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life on another, which tells like a calculated irony on the indifference or the frozen stare with which we look at our unintroduced neighbor. Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand” (Eliot, 88). Indifferently, we walk past our neighbor – but we breathe her breath, we brush her sleeve.

To become a caring society does not require us to do something new, but to understand ourselves differently. We are already a caring society, if we are a society at all. But let’s use the hard stop (hard in every way) of coronavirus to change how we understand our identity. We are not unique, isolated units competitively striving against each other for maximum market advantage. We are enmeshed, networked, part of what Eliot called a web, a metaphor literalized today in ways she could not have imagined. We should measure personal success not by who amasses the biggest accumulation of money, but by who best helps meet others’ needs. We should pursue our national interest not by increasing growth upwards, but by extending a safety net outwards, to sustain as many as possible. We should eschew the star system, the fetishization of certain chosen individuals, in favor of a recognition of the collaborative labor of a vast number that makes functioning possible. Eliot warned that if “we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence” (182).  One person can’t do it all, or do much of anything, but a society predicated on care, a “we,” can take care of all the grass and all the squirrels in the world. In coronavirus spring, when the pleasures we have are largely composed of feeling the grass and the squirrels, that means everything.


Sources used here:

Eva Feder Kittay, “A theory of justice as fair terms of social life,” Care Ethics and Political Theory, ed. Daniel Engster and Maurice Hamington (Oxford: OUP, 2015), 51-71.

George Eliot, Middlemarch, ed. David Carroll (Oxford World’s Classics, 1996, first ed. 1871-1872).


Read more on care’s relation to citizenship, justice, and economics:

Peta Bowden, Caring: Gender-Sensitive Ethics (Routledge, 1997)

Daniel Engster and Maurice Hamington, eds. Care Ethics and Political Theory (Oxford: OUP, 2015)

Daniel Engster, The Heart of Justice: Care Ethics and Political Theory  (Oxford: OUP, 2007)

Eva Feder Kittay, Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependence (NY: Routledge, 1999)

Katrine Marçal, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner (London: Portobello Books, 2015).

Nel Noddings, Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy (Berkeley: U Cal Press, 2002)

Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist (London: Random House, 2017)

Selma Sevenhuijsen, Citizenship and the Ethics of Care: Feminist Considerations on Justice, Morality, and Politics trans. Liz Savage (NY: Routledge, 1998)


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