It’s not ‘anything goes’

I would prefer to see Ethics of Care as a developing discipline with a malleable body of knowledge and well-established research methodology. The emphasis on contextual adaptiveness combined with loosely referring to ‘care ethical perspectives’, could easily result in a unfruitful ‘anything goes’, says Andries Baart

1. Where are you working at this moment?

At present I am an extraordinary professor at the North-West University in South-Africa. Furthermore, I am in transition from the University of Humanistic Studies (Utrecht, the Netherlands) to another Dutch university. Previously I have been serving as a professor on two other Dutch Universities. Last but not least I am on a part-time basis staff member of the Presence Foundation, that combines qualitative empirical research with transition programs in Dutch and Flemish welfare and health care organizations.

2. Can you tell us about your research and its relation to the ethics of care? And (3) how did you get involved with the ethics of care?

In first ten years of my professorship (1991-2001) I developed from both long term empirical research and intensive theoretical research the so-called ‘theory of presence’. It has been published in 2001 as an huge monography (more than 900 pages). Apart from its reprints until today, from then on I have tried year after year to further develop that theory in many directions, on different levels. Various capita selecta have been conceived: with regard to both specific theoretical issues and to specific domains such as psychiatry, youth care, people with an addiction. The political and societal setting of issues are fundamental to this approach. If one is interested in these elaborations, please visit my site.

Care ethics and theory of presence

Even in the very early phases of building this theory of presence (1994) I have linked it with specific founding theorists of the ethics of care. Later on, thanks to the collaboration with Prof. Annelies van Heijst and Prof. Frans Vosman, these connections were intensified; from 2007 the theory of presence and care ethics are closely connected, even intertwined. The two approaches have common characteristics, even if the early genesis was different: radical relational and contextual thinking, political-ethical conceptualization of care, a focus on marginalized people and vulnerability, and the central meaning of care and caring in understanding society, power and injustice.
I consider my theory of presence to be a specific but rather well-fletched variety of the ethics of care, with its own emphases. To mention a few: (a) I stick to the idea that the theoretical views of the ethics of care should be empirically grounded, without compromising in the theoretical perspectives or in the ethical rigorousness, and (b) it has no use to think care-ethically about good or appropriate care if one is not deeply involved in the complex care practices on all levels – so, not only in the primary care process of care giver and care receiver, but also in those of accountability, quality, management, professionalization, policy etc. Care is too important to be truncated, pinned down to fine dual interactions, or theoretically elaborated, on the basis of an anthropology, apart from the real existing systemic contexts. Starting with practices of care has its consequences for a an ethics of care that holds water.

4. How would you define ethics of care?

I don’t think that definitions are very helpful. I would prefer – like Wittgenstein’s family resemblances – to sketch a variety of characteristics of which every member has some, none has all, and despite the differences you immediately recognize them: all belong to same family. Before mentioning some of those characteristics, I have to admit that I am struggling with an underlying issue: the ethic of care is what? A theory (or compiled unity of subtheories), a set of related hermeneutic or analytic perspectives on care problems, a frame of (moral) reference, a critical political program, a liberation movement, a necessary emancipatory critique, a growing new discipline, possibly an approach that is rigorously interdisciplinary? Of course, nobody can exclusively proclaim its identity and of course it has – according to its own principles of contextuality – in different contexts a different form. Empirically it is mostly a mixture of the identities just mentioned. But I would prefer to see it as a developing discipline with a malleable body of knowledge and well-established research methodology. The emphasis on contextual adaptiveness combined with loosely referring to ‘care ethical perspectives’, could easily result in a unfruitful ‘anything goes’. It will ruin the ethics of care in the long run. Together with two young colleagues, Klaartje Klaver and Eric van Elst, I wrote an article about this, defending EoC as growing discipline with a firm but flexible core. It is highly problematic to try and define care ethics, without clarifying which challenges for care ethics one assesses. But some couldn’t understand our point. An example: we researched into attentiveness and care and had to answer the question: if you get all your constitutive concepts (about attentiveness) from other disciplines (psychology, philosophy, theology, education, arts etc.) when and under which conditions could you call that research ‘care ethical’? We suggested at least four criteria: relational reasoning, contextual judging, empirical grounding and political-ethical analyzing. Undoubtedly, one may add a few more, but our proposal is: these four are the bottom line. This is the way we are to recognize the family resemblances: they should at least have eyes, noses, ears and a mouth.

*) Klaver, Klaartje; Eric van Elst and Andries J Baart, “Demarcation of the ethics of care as a discipline: Discussion article.” Nursing Ethics, 22 Oct. 2013 / DOI: 10.1177/0969733013500162

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

I would answer (a) the political ethical interpretation of care and (b) the care ethical analysis of power structures. (ad a) In too many cases colleagues who are interested in care base themselves on short-sighted or rather romantic conceptualizations of care: care as the beautiful, authentic, empathic and human relation between two people, controllable and feasible. The theories of Levinas, Buber, Rogers and e.g. Yalom are ‘misused’ and become part of a naïve life world orientation that is rather blind for the systemic and political steering of care. It is not a good idea to promote sentimental or feel good care concepts that fail to meet the real world’s reality of caring (not seldom for very difficult, challenging, hardly understandable and violent clients – at least these are my domains of research). (ad b) If I had more time, I would love to further explore the ideas of for instance Virginia Held and Fiona Robinson (and Judith Butler) who try to think about international conflicts and violence in terms of care policy. It makes me remind of Avishai Margalit who has launched decency as an alternative for justice when reflecting upon conflicts such as between Israel and Palestina. Isn’t that somehow similar to what French care ethicist Marie Garrau tries to do while drawing on neorepublicanism of Philip Pettit: installing a zone (in thought) of non-arbitrariness so that care does get its lower boundary, which in itself is already very challenging and directive.

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

I don’t want to mention just one of our famous international colleagues –it would do more injustice than justice. But for me personally the joint venture in past 10-15 years with Frans Vosman here in the Netherlands was extremely fruitful, broadened my horizon and meant a further boost in the development of the theory of presence. I think he is by far one of the finest care ethics in Europe, and at least in the Netherlands.

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

Of course we have explicitly or tacitly a well-known canon of books of our founding mothers and fathers in the ethics of care – and that canon is fundamental for me too. By the way, a good, affordable reader of the – say: 50 – most fundamental international texts is badly missed.
I am very much orientated to (South) Africa and its native philosophies – not seldom in the tradition of Ubuntu – and from that point of view it strikes me how little the ethics of care is interculturally developed and how strongly it is dominated by western philosophers. Even here in Europe the voices from France, Germany, the Netherlands and for instance Scandinavia are hardly seriously heard in the international choir of the anglophone ethics of care.

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

Accordingly to the overview of my publications, I have published approximately than 30 scientific books, of which about 12 are about the theory of presence. You should read the ones that meet your needs – some are rather general and others are on specific issues (attentiveness, transitions, hospital care, emotions, poverty, learning etc.). The most essential is The theory of presence, but is a monster and written in Dutch. Actually a postdoc, dr. Guus Timmerman, and I are working on an English monograph introducing the theory of presence in a nutshell. It is based on the original book already mentioned (2001) and all the books subsequently published. We aim at publishing the book in 2018 – it cannot summarize the whole theory of presence in all its details, but it should be an adequate introduction for the international readership.

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

It depends from which point of view I look at the question. In our western world I am very much intrigued and worried by the rise of varieties of populism. There are many explications of the phenomenon but one of most striking causes seems to be the lack of care or at least the experience by the populist electorate of a lack of care. They feel that their deplorable situation, their fate, their poverty, their marginalization, their worries, their feelings of being set back and being threatened, their insecurity etc. do not count and are of no real interest. In my theory of presence, there is a minor tenet about ‘social redundancy’, the continuous feeling – realistic or not – that you are a burden, rather worthless, a cost item, and that we as society would be better off without you. That kind of carelessness as many feel it, is strongly reinforced by the political ideology that you should be self-reliant, that you are ‘autonomous’ and that social solidarity is a left winged hobby. It makes people sensitive to populist views – that paradoxically even worsen their situation. The kind of care that is missed, has deep roots in (theories about) recognition, honor, dignity and participation, and it urges a radical political view on care and care provision.
When I look from South-Africa quite different topics arise as burning issues. Perhaps the most problematic one is the rather gradual, tacit decline of the traditional care cultures (based on communal philosophies) while the official ideologies mostly deny that fact and are not able to create new, appropriate alternatives. The strong dominance of western (white, traditional, colonial) theories of care is not very helpful. Studies on decolonization, even of concepts, however is quite challenging. In those ‘young nations’ with the focus on making progress on the world market, caring about the vulnerable, old, crippled or addicted ones seems to be unaffordable and has no priority. In some countries the essential structure of social rights is totally absent and care is not even a category in the politics. How to take care in the next decades for those vulnerable people is a haunting problem.
On a more global level the connection of care and ecological stewardship is very urgent and underdeveloped.

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

Of course, about the issues mentioned earlier: the theory of presence, empirical research in order to contribute to further development of the ethics of care, politically ethical analysis of care and the social lack of care, and the necessity of radical relational thinking as a building block for a humane society. If I have the time to live, I would like to write about art and care – for instance about novelist like Marlene Van Niekerk, a sculptor like Berlinde De Bruyckere or painters such as Marlene Dumas. to name just a few.

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?

I hope there is interest in the Sub Saharan Africa!

Nieuwegein, 25-5-2017

About the author: Webteam