Care ethics and social vulnerability in India

Interview with Kanchana Mahadevan, professor of philosophy in Mumbai. Marieke Potma visited her in India. Mahadevan’s research focuses on ethics of care, feminist philosophy and socio-political philosophy. “The ethics of care offers an alternative to Eurocentric notions of self-sufficiency and planned rationality.”

1. Where are you working at this moment?

I am a Professor at the Department of Philosophy, University of Mumbai, India.

2. Can you tell us about your research and its relation to the ethics of care?

I work in the areas of feminist and European philosophy in the Indian context. The inadequate presence of women in curricular histories of philosophy (both Western and Indian) motivated me to engage with gendered readings of philosophical traditions in the 90s. I endeavored to bring women such as Diotima, Hypatia, Meerabai, Ann Conway – imagined, forgotten or erased – to mainstream philosophical discussions.

I realized that this would not be possible on grounds of ‘sameness’ between women and men. The ‘sameness’ position allows for denying the problem of patriarchy in philosophy. Thus, one needs to think beyond Nussbaum and Okin who assume the position of sameness (initiated by Wollstonecraft, Taylor, Mill and Engels). Instead, the difference between women and men needs to be problematized, so that gender becomes central to interpreting philosophical texts or writing them anew. The works of Gilligan, Baier, Held, Kittay and Tronto (which are not homogeneous) are significant; for they argue for women’s distinct role as caregivers and yet critique its patriarchal aspect. Consequently, they open up the possibility of engaging with care both as a descriptive and critical concept.

I draw upon the latter to examine the Indian philosophical (since the nineteenth century) and mythological (particularly the Mahabharata) traditions. I also draw upon the critical concept of care to engage with women activists who have brought about social change in colonial India such as Savitribai and Ramabai. The writings of Uma Chakravarti, Meera Kosambi, Mary John, Ratna Kapur (feminist Indian social scientists), among several others, have helped me in this respect.

Care ethics has also opened alternate ways of philosophizing that go beyond the Euro centrism that characterizes rights-based feminist theory. Indian feminism in the academic context has a social science and literature focus. I have interpreted Ramabai – a feminist activist during the colonial era – as articulating an ethics of care in her own way. I have argued that adopting a philosophical approach towards activists this is particularly important for theorizing in the postcolonial Indian context.

For Indian feminism has been grappling with neglect and erasure imposed by Western feminism. Nussbaum for instance is rather apprehensive about feminist philosophy in India. As a result, like Okin, she makes a case for saving Indian women from the bondage of tradition! Such a one-sided problematic picture can be remedied, if one examines the Indian feminist intervention – which is rich and heterogeneous – through the lens of care. There is a kinship between the Indian feminist movement and some of the theorizations of care. I have looked at this kinship in my work.

3. How did you get involved into the ethics of care?

I got involved with the ethics of care in the course of my teaching and researching in philosophy of feminism since 1995. I read Gilligan’s works in the context of debates and discussions within feminism (Benhabib, Fraser and Okin) and critical theory (Habermas). I read more of care with Held, Baier, Kittay and Tronto. I realized that their work has deep relevance in the Indian context where feminism aims at going beyond the entitlement position in rights without falling into the trap of patriarchal traditions. Okin inspired me to think about the possibility of reconciling freedom with care, in the Indian context.

4. How would you define ethics of care?

I would define it as an ethics of collective freedom and responsibility based on interpersonal, trans-subjective and fallible notions of identity. It endeavours to create spaces of peace in a world wrought with violence. It endeavours to diminish the line between the personal and political. It endeavours to engage with the lived, material world of dialogue and conversation. It argues for the relevance of women’s work – which is still privatized and domesticated – in public spheres.

5. What is the most important thing you learned from the ethics of care?

The ethics of care has, I believe, foregrounded human interdependence and vulnerability to make space for non-violent, affective and creative existence. Care has also opened up the domain of emotions as valuable: for it connects human interdependence through felt relationships, rather than logic. The ethics of care, thus, offers an alternative to Eurocentric notions of self-sufficiency and planned rationality that have become hegemonic today. I see the ethics of care as especially relevant to understanding the contribution of non-Western feminism(s).

6. Whom do you consider to be your most important teacher(s) in this area?

I think that the works of Carol Gilligan, Eva Kittay, Virginia Held and Joan Tronto have deep bearing on issues pertaining to the specificity of women’s ways of thinking and its relevance to examining social problems and restructuring institutions.

7. What works in the ethics of care do you see as the most important?

  • Carol Gilligan’s pioneering work In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development published in 1982 by the Harvard University Press is still very relevant.
  • And so is her 2008 co-authored work (with D.A.J Richards) The Deepening Darkness: Patriarchy, Resistance, and Democracy’s Future (Harvard University Press). Additional interventions include:
  • Eva Kittay’s Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency (1999, New York: Routledge).
  • Fiona Robinson’s Globalizing Care: Toward a Politics of Peace (1999, Boston MA: Beacon Press).
  • Virginia Held’s 2006 The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

8. Which of your own books/articles should we read?

coverKanchanaI have a book-length study of care: Between Femininity and Feminism: Colonial and Postcolonial Perspectives on Care (published by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research and D.KPrintworld New Delhi in 2014). I have interpreted care ethics in the context of social vulnerability in India. I have also endeavoured to reconcile freedom and care by turning to Simone de Beauvoir’s ethics of ambiguity. I have been exploring ethics of care over the years in several research papers. To mention a few:

  • “Capabilities and Universality in Feminist Politics” in Journal of Indian Council of Philosophical Research October-December 2001, vol XVIII, no. 4, 75-106.
  • “Colonial Modernity: A Critique” in Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi’s Bi-Monthly Journal, May-June 2002, vol XLVI, no 3, 193-211. o “Wounding Words and Speech Acts” in Atenea, December, 2007.
  • “Feminist Solidarity in India: Communitarian Challenges and Postnational Prospects” in Deprovincializing Habermas, ed. Tom Bailey, 71-95. New Delhi: Routledge, 2013.
  • “Care Ethics” in Understanding Ethics ed. Vibha Chaturvedi and Pragati Sahni. Macmillan: Delhi, 2013. You are kindly invited to get in touch with Professor Mahadevan for requests on the above-mentioned articles:

9. What are burning issues for the ethics of care in the future?

There are two key issues that care could consider in the future:

  1. It could critically engage with welfare institutions (especially in the Indian context, where such institutions are being undermined) to integrate the dichotomy between recognition and redistribution that Nancy Fraser has diagnosed.
  2. It could also examine the possibility of global justice without Euro centrism and privileging Western feminism.

10. Our ambition is to promote ethics of care nationally and internationally. Do you have any recommendations or wishes? Please go ahead!

You could expand your international website of care-based research by actively seeking academic work.

You could supplement this by encouraging collaborative and comparative research between Western and non-Western feminist writers and care ethicists to arrive at more inclusive global perspectives on care and democracy. For example, context matters to the manner in which care can critique and supplement welfare in liberal polities. There is a difference in the kinds of challenges that confront welfare states in Western and non-Western contexts. In India for instance, welfare is still not the norm and there is no dearth of care-workers. Consequently, Joan Tronto’s ‘care deficit’ has different implications in these diverse contexts. These implications have to be considered while integrating democracy and care.

You could also request academicians who are teaching ethics of care to upload their course contents on your website. For instance, at the University of Mumbai’s philosophy curriculum we have integrated it in a core paper on ethics – both at the undergraduate and graduate levels – so that it has a wide reach.

About the author: Marieke Potma

Marieke Potma

Marieke Potma (1965) studies Ethics of Care and Policy (MA) at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht and works as a volunteer in palliative care. Her care ethical attention is focused on ‘Ethique du care’ and figures of vulnerability. She formerly worked as a senior member of staff and as students counsellor in Conservation and Restoration of Art in Amsterdam and studied philosophy at the University of Amsterdam (BA on Bergson). She is philosophical consultant and organizes workshops in philosophy in the Netherlands and France.