An unwelcome, disenchanted care ethics

Frans Vosman was PhD supervisor of website editor Jeannet van de Kamp. She reflects on some aspects of what Vosman has put on the agenda as a highly pressing issue: “I believe that it (care ethics) is losing the critical force that has been its distinctive attribute from the start.” (2020: 20)

Shared concerns

In 2011 I entered into the master program care ethics and policy at Tilburg University.
It was there I got to know Frans Vosman. I addressed him as ‘Professor Vosman’ and it has remained that way ever since. Vosman became my thesis supervisor and subsequently, from the end of 2013 onwards, also my PhD supervisor. In addition, we both were part of the editorial team to the website of Ethics of Care.

He spoke and wrote frequently about vulnerability, the bodily, illness, suffering, powerlessness, the irredeemable. And what caring entails in a politico-ethical context. In an era in which it is not done to draw attention to the unpleasant, the disruptive and whatever else may befall people in terms of misery, Frans Vosman explicitly highlighted these matters. In the early 1990s, sociologist Anthony Giddens called this era late modernity or hyper modernity; a hyper phase of modernity within modernity. ((1))

I dedicated my master’s thesis to the American marketing consultant Fred Lee, who caused quite a stir in the Netherlands with his “patient-centered care” business model for hospitals. ((2)) His formula of “creating ultimate experiences” is an early phase of the turn in the Western world towards an experience society and experience economy.

My concerns and attention were focused in particular on the way the patient’s experiences of suffering were being put into terms of modern makeability (poièsis). Vosman and I shared our concerns about the typical late modern concept of having a vital, positive, powerful and attractive grip on human experiences.

Vosman’s way of supervising the thesis, and subsequently the promotion, consisted of conducting in-depth and encouraging conversations. Critical remarks usually had the mild form of “maybe you might look at it like that?” Sometimes it was a resolute: “No, it can’t be that way!” The PhD trajectory was not yet completed when Vosman, seriously ill and weakened, in the beginning of 2020 had to hand over the supervision to the second supervisor.

Conversation broken down

The worst thing about the death of a dear human being, to the Catholic mindset, is that the conversatio breaks down. The community, the communio, changes forever. Vosman spoke about it in this way when no one could have imagined how much that would become a bitter reality concerning his own death. The conversatio is halted, the loss is immense and at the same time a kind of inner conversation continues. Several contributors to this website have already made mention of this experience which I share just as much.

Conversation stagnated, inner conversations continuing, the changed communion; one does not have to be religious to recognize that in one’s own life. These are also core ideas in the work of the Lacanian psychoanalyst Darian Leader, highly esteemed by Vosman. In his book The New Black, Leader speaks poignantly about loss, grief, suffering, mourning, consolation and the community which needs to rearrange itself around emptiness. ((3))
This book is part of my dissertation which focuses on ethics of care and suffering in late modernity. After the terrible illness and death of Frans Vosman, for some time I was barely able to continue working on my dissertation, in which of all things possible suffering was put center stage.

Yet, the urgency of this theme within care ethics was ultimately the deciding factor to carry on.

Concerns about care ethics

The further development of care ethics as an international movement was a highly urgent issue for Vosman. No less than the survival of care ethics as a critical political ethics is at stake. Any critical theory or movement that becomes salonfähig, socially acceptable, is wise to question its success. I would like to draw the attention to some of the issues taken from a broader set of questions which Vosman raised in 2020. ((4))

These are, put into my own words and interpretations, the following questions. Could it be the success of care ethics is ambiguously accompanied by a losing out on care ethics? For example, because parts of it, having been stripped of their critical power, function in distorted and diluted ways in market and marketing settings? As care ethicists, are we sufficiently aware that we are living in a late modern era where the cards meanwhile have been dealt differently? Is the ethics of care still sufficiently “up to par” to be able to meet and evaluate these new developments?

Different times

In my thesis I partly relate to the loss of critical power of care ethics. Care-ethical reflection on occurring transformations requires more insight into late modernity than is currently available, in my opinion. These transformations foremost have been, at least in part, responses to earlier criticism from care ethicists, among others.

On an individual level, the subject and his experiences are put center stage in late modernity. Experiences are indicated as wishes, needs and preferences. The view of the citizen as an entrepreneurial rational actor is fading into the background. His alter ego, the entrepreneurial emotional actor, comes to the fore. On a social level, the hierarchical structure of society gives way to self reorganizing democratic class society. On a conceptual level, important concepts such as experience, autonomy, empowerment or emancipation are given a new interpretation or are being put into a different register.

All these concepts are being lifted out of the frames of critical collective movements and reduced to individual inner issues. Care ethicist Marian Barnes criticizes this as a form of discourse power.
In very complex and versatile ways in late modernity, dominant culture and economy become intertwined, which in part, at first glance, makes an appearance as a lookalike of care ethics.
A critical, up-to-date care ethics is necessary in order to be able to reflect on whether, and if so, to what extent care ethical innovation is going on.

Uncomfortable conversations

Vosman pleads in “The disenchantment of care ethics” (2020), among other things, to engage in “uncomfortable conversations”. With disenchanting he alludes, I believe, to a work by the American sociologist Georg Ritzer, entitled: Enchanting a disenchanted world. Ritzer critically and analytically describes the transition from the cold, rational culture of modernity to the aesthetically and emotionally enchanting culture of late modernity.

From an economic point of view, this represents the transition from “material” industrial capitalism to “immaterial” capitalism. In other words: the quality of products (functional) makes way for the quality of the experience of products or services (aesthetic-psychophysical).
If I interpret Vosman correctly, critical care ethics is in need of disenchantment on various points, which is unpleasant. I will briefly discuss an uncomfortable conversation care ethics should engage in, if it is to keep its position.

Critical self-reflection of care ethics

Critical self-reflection requires a benevolent listening to and consideration of internal and external criticism. For care ethicists, this implies postponing presumed knowledge and ethical judgment. The question is whether care ethics in being a political ethics is willing, based on minima moralia, to exert a long lasting postponing of ethics.

From within care ethics, Vosman recognizes inside some currents of care ethics a tendency to exchange the unsteady heuristic concept of ethos for fixed concepts such as principles or values. With such a replacement of a searching ethics (ethos, bottom up) by a knowing ethics (top down), care ethics is handing in its modernity-critical, distinct way of practicing ethics.

To Frans Vosman, the early feminist-driven care ethicists were an important source of reorientation. “So very refreshing to reread Gilligan!” he told us. She poses as fundamental question: how are people doing this living and surviving? ((5)) And from several starting points in Tronto’s Moral Boundaries, “we could refresh care ethics,” Vosman said. ((6))

In doing so, he envisioned care ethics as an extremely realistic ethic. A political ethic engaging itself in concerned and involved ways with practices and social movements. Researchers who observe what shows itself and do not shy away from the difficult, ugly and suffering.

For the “primordial mothers”, such a commitment meant fighting for civil rights, categorized under “gender, race, class, power”. These care ethicists strove for a different, caring and inclusive society and in order to achieve this, climbed the barricades, literally and figuratively. Vosman squarely puts the issue on the agenda as to whether the care ethics still ties in with the bitter realities, violence, ugliness and suffering of people. And whether it has the guts to bring up the subject of this multi-faceted misery in a happiness-focused culture where disruptions caused by misfortune are most unwelcome.

In 2016, at the time Donald Trump comes to power in the US, care ethicist Daniel Engster writes a column for our website in our series on Trumpism. Self-critically, he observes care ethicists having completely missed widespread experiences of not being cared for. The shocking fact being, apparently also care-ethicists, without being aware of it, live in cultural bubbles. At the same time, he emphasizes that this longing to being cared for underlines the importance to further develop care ethics. ((7))

Fellow travelers

Another uncomfortable conversation might start off when the ethics of care opens up to outside criticism and through collaboration with fellow travelers from unusual disciplines. As an example of outside criticism, Vosman cites feminist theorists who put dark themes of late modernity into the spotlight. We should be grateful to them, he says, for enabling us to sharpen the care ethics with their insights. They indirectly remind the care ethics of its feminist roots and the motives of “the primordial mothers”. On his advice, in my thesis I pay attention to research by Asma Abbas and Isabell Lorey on respectively suffering and precarity.

Vosman also ranks critical sociologists of everyday life among fellow travelers from other disciplines that have been little in the picture so far. There are various similarities between this form of sociology and the care ethics in terms of method, content and perspective. Again, Vosman pointed me to these sociologists and I am grateful to him for that. They are the main source of my dissertation. There is a fierce debate between feminist theorists and these sociologists.

There are some connections between these sociologists and ethicists of care. Marian Barnes refers to the work of the English sociologist, philosopher Andrew Sayer. Sayer, in turn, refers to feminist theorists and ethicists of care from whom he partly derives his critical insights. However, this does not seem to result in more intensive cooperation and debate.

However much the sociologists of ordinary life differ from one another, they share a modernity-critical approach, which means they confront the positivist error of their discipline. Broadly speaking, they practice a committed form of science that serves urgent social issues. They are aware of a normative stance and perspective on reality and of partial vision and filtered perception.

They put the spotlight on oppressed, misunderstood people whose voice (knowledge) does not count. And they extend that spotlight to the happiness and success of the majority on the stages and media of late modernity. They associate manifestations of bitter misfortune versus performances of happiness with precarious positions in the new class society and common social pathologies.

Vosman brought to the fore in 2018, in his farewell lecture, the “arduous life” of a cultural class of ‘survivors’. ((8)) He subsequently shifted ‘survival’ as a search concept to the new academic middle class pursuing an idealistic bourgeois lifestyle. The mirror function of this argument was not well received by all academic audiences. This could spell the ‘fate’ of a further developed, extremely realistic care ethics which time and again will highlight the unwelcome.

Vosman emphasized that in every care-ethical research, concern and curiosity go hand in hand. No matter how dark the times will become, the future always harbors the unexpected which in turn will feed curiosity.


1 Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and self-identity. Self and society in the late modern age. Cambridge: Polity Press.

2 Kamp, J. van de (2013) “Ziekte als belevenis. Een zorgethische kritiek op Fred Lee’s theaterziekenhuis”. Pdf here

3 Leader, D. (2008). The new black: Mourning, melancholia and depression. London: Penguin Books.

4 Vosman, F. (2020). The disenchantment of care ethics: A critical cartography. In F. Vosman, A. Baart, & J. Hoffman (Eds.), The ethics of care: the state of the art (pp. 17-63). In Ethics of Care Series. Louvain: Peeters Publishers.

5 Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. U.S.: Harvard University Press.

6 Tronto, J. C. (1993). Moral boundaries: A political argument for an ethic of care. London: Routledge.

7 Engster, D. (2016) “Trump’s Election, the Dark Side of Care, and Care’s Potentially Bright Future

8 Vosman, F.J.H. (2018). Overleven als levensvorm. Zorgethiek als kritiek op het ideaal van het ‘geslaagde leven’. Utrecht: Net aan Zet; University of Humanist Studies.
The booklet has recently been translated. Survival as a lifeform is to be published sometime in the future.
English summary by Sabrina Keinemans

Photo by Nicola POWYS on Unsplash

About the author: Jeannet van de Kamp

Jeannet van de Kamp

Jeannet van de Kamp (1957) has master’s degrees in both Theology and Ethics of Care and is currently a PhD-candidate at the VU-University of Amsterdam. In her thesis she examines, from a care-ethical perspective, how citizen-patients are seen in the context of the upcoming experience economy. More specifically, she examines how ‘patient-experience-central’ market models deal with the concepts of vulnerability and suffering. She works as a freelance pastor.

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