We should look for fellow travelers

We should no longer allow the self-marginalization of care ethics by isolating ourselves from discussions with fellow travelling scholars: together there is more power to support care ethics’ political role, says Frans Vosman.

1.  Where are you working at this moment?

At present I work as a researcher at the University of Humanistic Studies, Utrecht, the Netherlands. It is a small university, that focusses on the relation between conceptual work (in philosophy, social sciences) and empirical research (mainly qualitative empirical and mixed methods). It supports a master in care ethics, since 2013, up to now the only one of its kind in the Netherlands. It is my fifth university in the 40 years that I am around in ethics.

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

The very idea that thought springs of in a practice and that people in that particular practice indicate what the actual problems are, to my mind, implies that care ethics is servient to a practice. That is why I developed the trias: thinking along with people in a practice, counterthinking and rethinking the problem, the second and third part of the care ethical inquiry being bound to the first phase. Care ethics is, or at least can be, intellectually exiting. The real excitement however is serving people in a practice by sound thought.

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

I was introduced into care ethics by Annelies van Heijst. She is one of the frontrunners of care ethics in the Netherlands, in the nineties, together with Selma Sevenhuijsen, Marian Verkerk and Henk Manschot. Annelies made a valuable move, to connect insights of care ethics with practices of institutionalized health care. She inspired me to come aboard, while I was trained as a moral theologian and a medical ethicist. That training however makes me always look around for (what I came to call) fellow travelers: scholars in social sciences, feminist studies and philosophy who deal with the very same issue as care ethicists do, scholars who would not call themselves care ethicists but have developed thought that is highly valuable to care ethics. An example is British sociologist Andrew Sayer who (among other issues) has dealt with the epistemological issue of where moral knowledge starts off (his notion of ‘concern’) and the issue of dichotomies that dominate ethics (fact-value e.g.) . These issues have to be addressed, as Joan Tronto has indicated in Moral Boundaries. There are fellow travelers (fellow from the perspective of care ethics, that is) whose scholarly work we as care ethicists are well advised to take up: sociologists like Andrew Sayer, François Dubet, Oliver Marchart and Robert Schmidt (amongst others) and philosophers like Rahel Jaeggi and Emmanuel Falque. They help to open up some of the discussions in care ethics. One of these urgent issues, to my mind, is the complexity of organizations that are vital for care. We should think about issues like complexity, about de- and possibly re-institutionalizing organizations etc. There is a lack of that reflection in care ethics. The important insight of Joan Tronto that care ethics is a political theory should be pushed forward. When I compare care ethics as I, together with Dutch colleagues like Guus Timmerman, Andries Baart, Flemish emerita Mieke Grypdonck, try to develop with care ethics in the US we should acknowledge that we address to some degree quite different practices. Those practices urge us to formulate different problems and look for insights, critically compatible to those practices (like welfare in the city, the restructuring of health care) and problems inherent to those practices.

4.  How would you define ethics of care?

Care ethics is, via an engaged inquiry into their practices, to inquisitively and critically think along with people, organizations and policymakers that care, dealing with issues that bother them, that invigorate them to care, that hinder them.

5.  What is/are the most important thing(s) you learned from the ethics of care?

An important insight, to my mind, is that caring is enabling to live together, one way or another. Caring is a deeply political activity, it keeps up people and the polis.

6.  Whom do you consider to be your most important/inspiring teacher(s) in this area and why so?

Three women: German care ethicist Elisabeth Conradi, who is so bold to quite radically inquire into where the political starts: where do people start to care and move around in society, relating to each other? French care ethicist Fabienne Brugère, who thinks about government and the state in relation to care ethics. French care ethicist Sandra Laugier who while drawing on Cavell, Wittgenstein and others enables to criticize the idea of ‘holy interiority’, that hinders the development of care ethics.

7.  What works in the ethics of care do you consider to be the most important and why so?

Joan Tronto’s book Moral Boundaries, because it politicized care ethics and books by the authors (and the reasons) I just mentioned: Elisabeth Conradi, Fabienne Brugère and Sandra Laugier.

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

Recently (2016) I have published an article on practices and suffering. This year an article on precarity and reorienting care ethics to late modernity  and a third one (Fall 2017) on the importance of political phenomenology when dealing with suffering. These articles are part of a larger project: I’d like to contribute to care ethics by concentrating on the paradoxes of late modernity and how these impact practices of care.

9.  What do you perceive as burning issues that you would like to draw attention to?

In society: the demolition of democracy (and the possibilities to counter that phenomenon). In care ethics: the self-marginalization of care ethics by isolating ourselves from discussions with fellow travelling scholars: together there is more power…

10.  We always welcome new articles. On what topics would you (or your possible students or colleagues) like to contribute?

I hope someone will publish on the wave of interest on empathy and criticize it in an intelligent way: e.g. care in a hospital or in city governance is not about empathy as a feeling or habit but about the competence to engage with the perspective of others and go back to your own position and act more wisely. The issue of empathy however is dangerous because so many other urgent issues pop up…

11.  The ambition of www.ethicsofcare.org is to promote ethics of care internationally and to interconnect care ethicists. Do you have any recommendations or wishes that the editorial board members of the website should pay attention to?

It would be a recommendation to myself as well;-)

(1) I recommend to think about the differences in issues in different countries and the contribution that meticulous research into those particular problems brings to care ethics. The time for using a set of care ethical insights and ‘apply’ them is over. There is a need to think the other way around, from areas and fields to sound theory. Indeed, there is a lot of work to be done for a third generation of care ethicists.

(2) We as an editorial board could think about other types of publications than the website and articles in US journals.


1 In: Spaargaren, G., Weenink, D. and Lamers, M. (editors). Practice theory and reserach, exploring the dynamics of social life (2016). Routledge, New York, London.

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