Ethics of care colloquium with Joan Tronto

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a morning colloquium with Joan Tronto. Most of the morning was spent listening to current research in the area of the Ethics of Care, and we finished up with a lecture by Joan. Even though I teach Professional ethics, much of  what was presented today was much deeper than the level at which I usually engage with the work and even though I know enough to keep up, I didn’t have a whole lot to contribute.

One of the things I love most about being an academic is that I get the opportunity to listen to some really smart people talk about the world in ways that I don’t necessarily see. You get a taste of how infinitely interesting life is, even if you don’t always understand the details. Here are the notes I took today.

Rights discourses in relation to education of people with intellectual disability: towards an ethics of care that enables participation by Judy McKenzie

Disability viewed as a human rights issue

Based on a social model of disability → difference between bodily impairment and socially constructed disability i.e. negative of society that exclude people with disability / limit access (physical and information)

  • Autonomy
  • Choice
  • Social justice
  • Independence through assistance (if necessary)

BUT this model has failed:

  • Impairment seen as an objective deficit of the body only
  • Does not account for relationships of care
  • Problems of self-representation (“nothing about us without us”)
  • Erases difference between types of impairment / between multiple identities

Human rights is “universal” and “rational” but these conceptions are not necessarily available to intellectually disabled people

Discourse 1: Rights to full participation

Inclusion is a human right”

Interventions that highlight difference are seen as exclusive and avoided


Discourse 2: Rights to special services

Effective education must be tailored to the child’s individual needs

People with ID have a right to excellent education


Discourse 3: Rights to protection

Special education keeps children safe

Argues against inclusive / integrated education


Rights for people with ID are complex

  • Claim to participation and citizenship
  • Claim to special services
  • Claim to protection from harm

Above claims can be seen as competing


Ethics of care:

  • Places relationship and connection at the centre of everything
  • Need for care is universal

Avoid viewing independence as a goal of human development. Refigures the notion of “dependency” as being inter-dependent

Caring relationship” doesn’t have to be a one way relationship, both partners should be visible, care is reciprocal

Emotional attachment between interdependent people is often undervalued

Acknowledge the needs of the carer

Impairment is not fixed / static, it is a dynamic interaction with the environment

Moving forward:

  • Need to listen to dialogue / narratives / stories of people with ID
  • Acknowledge the experiences of parents
  • Explore the interaction between care, context and support


Understanding the difficulties of attending and responding to social injustices in the lives of cross-border migrants by Dorothee Holscher

Process of Othering”, putting people outside of our own contexts

What are the implications of cross-border migration into SA for social work’s normative commitment to social justice?

SA currently has the highest no. of people seeking refugee status in the word (1.6 – 2 million foreign national). Number might be reduced to try and combat xenophobia. Might be as high as 7 million

History of institutionalised criminalisation and exclusion of Others

Traditionally high levels of xenophobia “foreigners make perfect scapegoats for our own issues”

Culture of vigilantism

Us encountering Them (white / black, rich / poor, settled / homeless)

Found characteristics that bridged difference (e.g. different education levels, qualifications, income, colour…but we’re all Christian)

Universal ethical / moral principles are often inconsistent with the practicalities of “life as usual”. We regard everyone as equal, dignified and worthy of respect, but these features are often absent in daily life

Two problems in moral development:

  • Objectification (“otherness” is a condition for development”). “I will go and feed the hungry” objectifies the “other’ when they are sitting among you singing the same song
  • Assimilation (as we advance in our relationships, we mask “otherness” in order to convince ourselves the others are the same as us → those who manage to become the most like us, are raised above the others)

The notion of “privelidged irresponsibility”

The problems of tribalism, racism and of conceiving of the “other” with hatred is a response to the tremendous moral burden placed upon people by the claims that all share in “the rights of man” i.e. it is a way of escaping common moral responsibility

The racial contract by Mills

We have a 300 year head start on the previously disadvantaged in this country. We would rather lie to ourselves than tell the truth to others. Ignoring your privelidge is the only way to sustain it. “We’re / I’m not responsible for where I am / where you are.” Take responsibility for your privilidge. Unacknowledged guilt of white South Africans who might understand / be aware of their responsibilities, but who don’t make it explicit.


The incorporation of care and difference into social justice and social justice into care: towards a normative framework for human flourishing by Vivienne Bozalek

What constitutes good care?

How are difference and equality best dealt with?

Many approaches can be useful in exploring concepts of developing human flourishing

Social justice traditionally concernd with how social resources are distributed, but there is no accommodation of difference in this approach

The “rational, economic man” is disembodied, autonomous, independent and equal i.e. the normative ideal of a citizen

  • What are people able to be / do?
  • What capabilities can they exercise?
  • How are people disadvantaged / privileged?
  • How can they interact on an equal basis with others?

The human capabilities approach:

  • Addresses the general and particular
  • Takes into account peoples position
  • Looks at people as ends in themselves, not means to ends
  • People are sources of agency, rather than aggregations

Individual preference isn’t always a reliable indicator of need, as those who are disadvantaged easily become accostomed to their situations and adjust their expectations accordingly

Nussbaum’s list of capabilities – if anyone falls below the threshold of the items in the list, that society is unjust

Social belonging is about inclusion and exclusion – who belongs in a community and is therefore entitled to make justice claims?

We are all dependent at some point in our lives and all dependents need to be cared for i.e. dependency is an inevitable condition of life

The dark side of the refusal to recognise dependency or care work as valuable and our own vulnerability”

Care is dependent on a care giver and care receiver and there should be some amount of choice for both parties

It may be unthinkable for those who are socially misrecognised to have their needs prioritised over those who are seen as having greater value. Resources can be denied and diminished status in relation to others

Care: a species activity that includes everything we do to maintain, continue and repair our world so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves and our environment… (Tronto)

Political ethics of care is a framework to judge the adequacy of care:

  • Caring about
  • Caring for
  • Care-giving
  • Care-receiving

The above framework should lead to integrity of care

Participation is co-constructed meaning making and dialogue in relation to the lived human experience

Class determines access to resources


Relational responsibilities, partiality, and an ethics of care: thinking about global ethics by Joan Tronto

The UN MDG to reduce poverty will not be achieved by 2015. This is not a surprise

Wealthy countries should be held accountable for global poverty that they have helped bring about

Ordinary citizens don’t always understand their role in facilitating conditions of poverty

People tend to interpret moral beliefs and the facts in their own best interests. People want to describe themselves as moral, they believe that “they have done enough”

The disparity of what we know is right against what we actually do

Caring for anything is the first bud of responsibility from which something can be cultivated and developed

First level of care is the household, the second level is global

Responsiblity can be seen as a relational concept

Responsibility” as a word grew from the word “response” → there is already a relationship implied i.e. a response to something / someone

Moral obligation is inherent to all relationships

We are born into our responsibilities and our relationships shape them

Assigning, reflecting, accepting, deferring responsibility is related to power relationships

Relationships of care are often highly assymetrical

We are more likely to not meet our responsibilities, than to meet them

Can people be held responsible for things they don’t understand, or if they fail to recognise a moral harm? If you don’t know you’re responsible for something, are you still responsible for it?

When we make connections more visible, we deepen our responsibilities

Some thoughts of my own following Joan’s talk:

  • Do we care about our students? In what sense do we care about them? Do we care that they pass our course, or do we care that they fulfil their potential as human beings?
  • Do they care about us?
  • What are our responsibilities to each other?
  • What are our relationships with our students like?
  • How do those relationships and responsibilities impact on our T&L spaces?