By Daniel Engster
In the first chapter of “The Heart of Justice,” Engster provides a definition of caring, justifies the obligation for caring, and proposes a distributional framework for caring. Engsters definition of caring includes “as “everything we do directly to help individuals to meet their vital biological needs, develop or maintain their basic capabilities, and avoid or alleviate unnecessary or unwanted pain or suffering, in an attentive, responsive, and respectful manner.” Based on the ‘principle of consistent dependency,’ he argues that our obligation to care for others is based on the dependency of every person on care. Each individual’s claims on others for care prove that they at least implicitly agree with a moral basis for a right to caring. Finally, Engster argues that caring is a moral duty that can be carried out more efficiently when particular people are assigned special responsibility for particular portions of a task. Therefore we have a responsibility, first, for self-care, second, for those we are closest to or in a special position to care for, third for those within our social web, and finally for everyone in general.
Chapter 1: The Nature of Caring and the Obligation to Care
There have been a number of previous definitions of the nature of caring. Some believe that it can be defined by virtues, while others argue that it must take into account the exercise of the ability to care. Nel Noddings creates a definition of caring by starting with a description of the best homes and then moving outward to the larger society – identifying central goals of maternal caring as preserving life, promoting growth, and achieving acceptability. However, using parenting as a basis for care has limitations since it can be argued that morally competent adolts do not usually have motherlike responsibilities for each other. Also, by identifying a particular conception of the good life, these definitions tend to be of limited applicability, and more relevant to Western liberal democracy. Other definitions are more broad. Tronto and Fisher define caring as “a species of activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our “world” so that we can live in it as well as possible.” However, this broad definition would include plumbing, housebuilding, and other activities not usually thought of as caring.
1.1 The Definition of Caring
Engster defines caring as “everything we do directly to help individuals to meet their vital biological needs, develop or maintain their basic capabilities, and avoid or alleviate unnecessary or unwanted pain or suffering, in an attentive, responsive, and respectful manner.” Focusing on vital biological needs, such as access to adequate food, sanitary water, appropriate clothing and shelter, etc. ensures that they can survive, develop, and function. Helping them sustain basic capabilities such as sensation, movement, emotion, reason, speech, and literacy, for example, allows them to function is society without being tied too closely to one ideal of human life. Helping people avoid harm and relieve pain and suffering often overlaps with the first two goals, but is generally aimed at allowing people to function in society. Direct care means that it would not be possible to successfully complete the task without caring for anyone. A task such as producing and selling hamburgers, houses, or shirts do not direct result in caring – the itmes are often sold to someone who will use them for caring.
In addition to having caring actions, it is also necessary to have caring virtues. The first virtue is attentiveness, which means noticing when a person is in need and responding appropriately. Attentiveness asks the question: Do you need something? The second virtue of caring is responsiveness, which means engaging with others to discern the precise nature of their needs and monitoring their responses to our care to be sure they’re getting the care they really need. (e.g. Sending food and clothing when what is needed is building materials is not responsive.) Responsiveness asks the questions: What do you need? The third virtue of caring is respect, meaning the reconition that others are worthy of our attention and responsiveness, and are presumed capable of understanding and expressing their needs. Respect asks the question; What can I do to help you, or even better, what would help you to be able better to meet your needs?
The definition of caring takes into account the importance of caring for one’s self. It precedes and in many cases trumps caring for others. The definition does not require emotional engagement, because though this may sometimes be important, we are still required to help, for example, a stranger that is drowning, even if we don’t have any connection to them. Others argue that the definition of caring should only take into account situations in which the person being cared for cannot take care of themselves. Engster arges that care for those who are capable of meeting their own needs is still defined as care, though it is not morally obligatory.
Based on this definition, there are three ways of caring for others. One may personally care for others, one may care for others by providing their caregivers with the resources and support to provide good care for them, or one may care for others collectively by supporting institutions and policies that directly help individuals to meet their needs.
1.2 The Obligation to Care
Some argue that the obligation to care is based on emotions such as sympathy and compassion, which do not require further rationale. However, Engster argues that a reason must be given for why emotions such as sympathy and compassion, which are central to care, should be encouraged and developed in society. There are a number of existing theories justifying the obligation to care. Goodin argues that we are obligated to care for family and friends because our family and friends are especially vulnerable to our actions and choices. He extends this argument to strangers in foreign countries. However, this does not explain why we should care about the interest or vulnerability of our family and friends.
However, it is important to acknowledge that we are dependent on others for care. At the least, as an infant, each person is dependent on others. Most other people will have periods of illness, disability, and old age which require care. We are also dependent on others to care for others – parents who raise happy, healthy, and successful children create an important public good. We might assume from this that it is prudent to care for others, since we’ll need to be cared for – a principle of fairness. However, Engster argues this is inadequate because it focuses too much on reciprocity to those who directly care for us. Instead, he offers an alternate argument, based on the ‘principle of consistent dependency.’
Since all human beings depend upon the care of others for our survival, development, and basic functioning, and at least implicitly claim that capable individuals should care for individuals in need when they can do so, we should consistently recognize as morally valid the claims that others make upon us for care when they need it, and should endeavor to provide care to them when we are capable to doing so without significant danger to ourselves, seriously compromising our long-term functioning, or undermining our ability to care for others.
Basically, this ‘principle of consistent dependency’ argues that since we are dependent on others, we make a claim that they should care for us. Since we make this claim, we are recognizing this type of claim as morally valid, and must also respond when others make a claim on us for care. This is similar to the principle of fairness, but is based not in reciprocity, but in common human dependency. It’s not just doing to others as we’d have them to unto us, but rather responding to their particular needs. Since all humans fit this description, they are all covered by this obligation.
1.3 The Distribution of Our Caring Duties
Given the limitations of time, money, and other resources, we cannot care equally for everyone. We need a way to order our caring priorities so that the obligations aren’t overwhelming. Goodin defined ‘distributional general duties’ as moral duties that are pursued more effectively if they are subdivided and particular people are assigned special responsibility for particular portions of a task. For example, it is better (more effective) for doctors to have particular patients, then to just float around the hospital feeling equally obligated to each patient.
The first priority under this model is for self-care. An individual usually knows best whether he is hungry or cold and can best identify what whill best nourish or warm them. The second responsibility is to individuals with whom we share a special relationship or are in a special position to help. This can be children, parents, spouses, friends, etc. However, it may also be the injured hiker you come across on a remote hiking trail, even though they’re a stranger, since you are in a special position to help them. Another special responsibility may be to those in our direct social environment, who may become our partners, friends, or care-takers. Finally, there is a general duty to care for all others in need. We may be least well positioned to help distant strangers, since we have little contact with them and may not fully understand their position.
In addition to this basic distribution, there are some individuals to whom we have a particular responsibility. If a parent is sick, it is not always clear which individual has a responsibility to help him. However, in some cases, obligation is clearer. If parents choose to keep a child, rather than giving it up for adoption, they assume a special responsibility for the child’s care.
This framework does not answer the question of the level of resources we can justifiably spend on the care of ourselves and our dependents. Can you buy toys for your children and symphony tickets for yourself? Engster argues that there is nothing in the theory of care that gives caring moral predominance. Care theory just suggests that we should balance our goals of achieving the ‘good life’ and caring as a basic moral duty. Finally, the theory does not obligate us to care for those who won’t care for themselves. However, if someone does need care, that person’s past choices, even if unwise, don’t affect our obligation: if an ice skater recklessly skates onto thin ice and falls in the water, she still deserves to be saved.