Relational responsibility : a matter of care towards past and future

In Relationale Verantwortung (2016), Jorma Heier reexamines and enriches the care ethical concept of relational responsibility to reframe the political entanglement of harmful structural actions of citizens and institutions in the global North that bear down upon the conditions and migrations of people in the global South. 

The ethics of care as an academic endeavor concurs with the uncovering of a “different moral voice”, that of a “morality of responsibility” (Gilligan 1982a, 98). The foundation of both care and responsibility is the web of human relationships in which humans find themselves entangled, and in which they act together with others to determine and fulfill needs, and to found institutions that see to the common well-being. The main work that concepts of responsibility do is to draw connecting lines between concrete practices and their broader effects, especially where the consequences of an action are perceived as harmful. The main work that the concept of care does is to establish that there is a responsibility to be attentive to existing grievances and needs, and to care about and for their abolishment together with others. An important theoretical tool that care ethics employs in this context is the responsibility to respond to the voicing of grievances within relationships, whether these relationships will be intimate or structural.

Members of refuged people’s and migrant’s movements in Germany and other European countries have long organized politically around the slogan “We are here because you destroy our countries”. With this assertion, connecting lines are drawn between colonial harmdoing and neocolonial global economic structures, between the actions of citizens and governments in Germany, France, and Great Britain and the suffering of the consequences of these actions in Namibia, Togo, and Afghanistan. At present, it is politically and theoretically contested, across which geographical and structural distances connecting lines of responsibility for global exploitative economic structures and political institutions ought to be drawn, and European politics are well-defended against demands of migrants to right the wrongs that move them to migrate.

Heier’s paper argues that the care ethical concept of relational responsibility can lead out of this impasse because the responsibility it advocates is neither globally unrestricted, nor reduced to individual actors. But care ethics’ full potential to do so is only realized if we enrich the well-founded bedrock of relationality with conceptual elements from fellow travelers. 1) The web of human relationships specifies the basis for responsibility as well as its object. 2) An understanding of caring responsibility as an expressive-collaborative negotiation in real time spells out the type of practice that relational responsibility is. 3) Speaking-with instead of speaking about safeguards that all affected parties will be heard and are co-authors of political remedies to common issues. 4) Highlighting that the ethico-political baseline of present polities is faulty renders visible that much harm is caused by acting according to presently accepted standards. 5) Including a concept of epistemic ignorance explicates why one’s structural connection to harmdoing is so hard to see and why societies are well-defended against their acknowledgement. 6) The acknowledgement of moral abandonment as a form of wrongdoing establishes why failing to respond to harm and grievances is not just doing nothing but committing another wrong. 7) Judging background conditions enables one to identify accepted norms and institutions that generate structural harm. 8) Defining relational responsibility as both backward- and forward-looking takes care of past harmdoing, as well as present and future relationships. Taken together, these elements back the assertion of refuged persons that there are indeed relations of responsibility between their coming to Germany and the actions of German citizens, governments, institutions and organizations.

Jorma Heier, Relationale Verantwortung. Vergangenheitszugewandte und zukunftsbezogene Sorge,
In: Elisabeth Conradi, Frans Vosman (Hg.), Praxis der Achtsamkeit. Schlüsselbegriffe der Care-Ethik, Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 2016, pp. 369-387.

About the author: Jorma Heier