Care Ethics and Political Repair

Being lecturer at the political theory department of the University of Osnabrück, Germany, Jorma Heier looks at Political Repair. The ethics of care helps to understand its importance. Jorma Heier explains why and how

Where are you working at this moment?

At present, I am a lecturer at the political theory department of the University of Osnabrück, Germany.

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

I currently spend my days trying to understand four subject matters that relate to care theory. I am finally wrapping up a thesis on political repair that tries to spell out what the repair part in the famous Fisher-Tronto-definition of care means. In this work, I draw heavily on Margaret Urban Walker’s concept of reparative justice. I further concern myself with accounts of relational responsibility that draw on care theory’s conceptions thereof and Iris M. Young’s social connection model, foremost to foreground responsibilities to end structural oppression in Euro_American polities. With this comes a related desire to learn how supposedly democratic polities can become more democratic and more caring towards all their diverse citizens, for which I am heavily drawing on Tronto’s democratic caring with. And I am trying to understand white epistemic ignorance of white privilege and structural oppression, a matter that Tronto also concerns herself with in the Charles Wade Mills passages of Caring Democracy. Thanks to Frans Vosman’s concept of fellow travelers I can chalk all my reference authors up as care relations now.

How did you get involved with the ethics of care?

Since the Ethics of Care centers relationality, I will give you a relational account of how I came to be involved with EoC, if I may? It is an almost tragic story with an eventually comic outcome, I think. I read political theory at the University of Göttingen as an undergraduate student where Elisabeth Conradi taught as well. Conradi never gave a class on the ethics of care in all the time I was there. I personally would be highly interested in knowing how many Care Ethicists featured on your site actually teach EoC at their home institutions? At one point, we had an after class discussion about the critique-worthiness of the concept of autonomy and Conradi lent me her book Take Care. Grundlagen einer Ethik der Achtsamkeit. Continuously overwhelmed with my obligatory reading load student that I was, I read exactly the passage where autonomy is deconstructed and not a single page on the EoC and then handed the book back. Big time missed first chance!

Then I decided to take a whole semester of classes for the sheer joy they would bring me before I was supposed to hand in my thesis on the Hybrid Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia in my major cultural anthropology. And it just so happened that Elisabeth Conradi gave a class on Ethics and Politics that term and organized a visiting professorship for Joan Tronto. So I also read Tronto’s introductory lecture to Feminism, and her classes on Care and the World and a plausible alliance between Neo-republicanism and Feminism. I still remember vividly that class session where we read the chapter from Moral Boundaries that ponders how differently the world will look if we looked at politics from a care perspective. Tronto and I stayed long after class ended to discuss this point and I think that is when I experienced my first theoretical paradigm shift. Between Conradi and Tronto and a bunch of equally smitten students I spent the whole summer of 2006 pondering the relationship of care and politics. At some point, Tronto suggested I should read Margaret Urban Walker’s Moral Repair and that made all the difference. I changed my major from cultural anthropology to political science so I could write my thesis about repairing relationships after collective wrongdoing from a care ethical perspective under Conradi’s wings, and that was just the beginning of the rest of my life.

How would you define ethics of care?

After what I just said, I think it comes as no surprise that I am a big subscriber of the Fisher-Tronto definition of care, especially because of its broadness, the possibility of including non-human beings in the life-sustaining web, and for its inclusion of repair. Having said that, I would add that the ethics of care is a lens through which one can see the relationships in and through which human life is maintained, and how these relationships are organized politically in collective settings. The political fabric that sustains life is not structured equally or democratically yet. The ethics of care pays attention to unequal distributions of power, burdens, responsibilities and benefits within those relationships and highlights oppression and epistemic ignorances where these are present. What constitutes morally habitable relationships and sufficiently fulfilling care differs from different positions within the political fabric and is thus fundamentally contested. The ethics of care therefore supports concepts and practices that render polities more democratic and more caring so that all voices within the political fabric will be heard and heeded and get the effective opportunity to co-shape plural understandings of collective wellbeing and the institutions that foster it.

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

To me, the most paradigm shifting aspect of EoC is its focus on relationality. All humans and many other animals are fundamentally dependent upon relationships. Since no one can opt out of dependency and interrelatedness, people are also fundamentally vulnerable towards the actions and omissions of others. That vulnerability in turn begets responsibility. To not fulfill these responsibilities is a wrong, that of moral abandonment (Conradi, Tronto, Walker)
Another crucial understanding for me is care’s insistence that responsiveness to care is an active contribution to the care interaction and that people thusly make important contributions to the community while they are dependent care receivers and hence should be valued as such. (Conradi, Tronto).
From Selma Sevenhuijsen I have learned that care involves head, hands and heart. With Tronto, I have come to understand that there would not be citizens without care- Also, that our current political structures and institutions were never meant to include all people equally and in their specificities. From Narayan I have gathered that if done wrong, care can be a tool of oppression. And I appreciate that care theorists are so adamant that care is both a practice and a theory and that the two are always interwoven.

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

I must start by saying that so far, I have only been able to read care literature in German and English, which has significantly circumscribed the haveable works in care I have noted. So if anyone knows of a care ethical exchange program that fosters learning to read care works in languages new to the participants, please sign me up!

That said, Conradi’s and Tronto’s political accounts of care have been important to me as a political theorist who continuously struggles to understand what the political is and ought to be. For that reason, I have also mightily enjoyed Engster and Hammington’s edited book Care and Political Theory.
Furthermore, Conradi’s Take Care is still the most comprehensive work that I have come across that traces the different strands of first generation care thinking and discusses the critiques that care ethics challenged dominant moral theories with.
Patricia Hill Collins’ concept of community flourishing and Stanlie James’ othermothering are the most radical and revolutionary first generation care thinkers to me for they did not model care relationships on heterosexual biological nuclear families, but included the political and community dimension of care right from the start.

It blew my mind when Fiona Robinson took a care approach to international relations, a field that to my mind had not been suspect of being susceptible to feminist political ethics before.
Uma Narayan’s critique of the colonial, oppressive dimension of care discourses taught me to always consider the oppressive and unjust elements I am invoking every time I posit care as the solution to oppression and exclusion.

I am heartily grateful to all our revolutionary and inspiring colleagues who spell out how existing institutions can become more caring, and I count Marian Barnes, Sophie Bourgault, Daniel Engster, Helena Stensöta, Petr Urban, and Lizzie Ward among them.
I wished that care theory dipped their toes_wheelie_crutch deeper into poststructuralism. Though I have yet to finish reading it, María Puig de la Bellacasa’s Matters of Care gives me high hopes that care theory is moving in that direction. I assume that if I could read Particia Paperman, Elsa Dorlin, Fabienne Brugère, Sophie Bourgault [Sophie, can we please establish Ranceirè as a fellow traveler in care together?] and Sandra Laugier, I would find the poststructural accounts of care that I wish to read?

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

In my own thinking and writing, I personally rely most heavily on Conradi, Tronto and Walker, and interweaving them with treads I borrow from Arendt and Young. So I would have to go with Elisabeth Conradi (2000) Take Care; Uma Narayan (1988) Working Together across Difference: Some Considerations on Emotions and Political Practice and (1995) Colonialism and Its Others: Considerations on Rights and Care Discourse; Joan Tronto (1993) Moral Boundaries and (2013) Caring Democracy; Margaret Urban Walker (2006) Moral Repair and (2011) What is Reparative Justice.

And fellow travelers Hannah Arendt (1958) The Human Condition; Jacques Rancière (1999) Disagreement; Iris Marion Young (1990) Justice and the Politics of Difference, (2000) Inclusion and Democracy, and (2011) Responsibility for Justice.

Which of your own books/articles should we read?

If you would like to find out about my employment of care in democratic theory and practice, you could turn to Disabling Constraints on Democratic Participation (2015) and Democratic ‘Caring With’ against structural-political Carelessness (2019). For a glimpse into my work on relational resposnibility, you could refer to Relationale Verantwortung- Vergangenheitszugewandte- und zukunftsbezogene Sorge (2016). For a first glimpse at my forthcoming thesis on political repair, you might take a look at A Modest Proposal for Transnational Justice and Political Responsibility (2014) and Political Repair in relation to Tronto’s political ethics of care (2018).

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

Again, epistemic modesty requires me to premise that so far I can only read care ethical works in English and German, so I am sure I have missed a whole library full of texts that already address the issues I will mention in a second that I am simply not aware of. With that in mind, I would like to bring up ten points.

1. First of all, what I miss in more recent care publications is a debate about which conception of care our writings underlie. In the first generation of care writing, there was a lot of open discussion about the conceptual differences between, say, Tronto’s and Held’s and Ruddick’s and Jaggar’s and Nodding’s and Gilligan’s accounts of care. In the second generation writings, the internal differences got somewhat backgrounded in favor of presenting a united front in defending care theory against outside charges that claimed we should come back into the Kant-Heidegger-Habermas fold, who had already said anything there is to say about care or ethics. On the one hand, I like the self-confidence it attests to when care writers no longer need to unfold the whole history of care ideas when writing. On the other hand, sometimes I wonder if it is just me who did not get the memo that “we” now have agreed upon what care is, and therefore no longer need internal debates about it or spell out from which strand we are speaking? I think Elisabeth Conradi and Frans Vosman’s handbook Praxis der Achtsamkeit is a step in the direction of negotiating what we mean when we say “care”.

2. Which brings me to the second issue, care’s contestedness. In both care theories and care practices, there are many different notions of what constitutes care, respectful and responsible relationships, human flourishing, democratic caring, and so forth. If we all agree that care as an ethic should be, in Walker’s words, an expressive- collaborative practice, then where are those expressions of disagreement in our writings? I wish we would find a way to write and talk about care that would render its contestedness more visible. How would we redefine our definitions of care to make room for contestedness within them?

3. Maybe this is more of a European problem, but when I look at publications or attend conferences on Care, EoC still seems to be predominantly a white middleclass feminists academic event. I am grateful to Petr Urban for organizing the Prague conference in November 2017, for that was the first EoC conference I attended were there were actually two BIPOC speakers and two Asian speakers in a sea of otherwise white Euro_Americans. I take it that two of the genealogical strands of the EoC stem from BIPOCs, Patricia Hill Collins’ community flourishing and Stanlie James’ othermothering, but you would not usually know from attending care conferences. To my mind, the EoC has an inclusion problem, then. Do we not take sufficient care to hear and amplify and represent BIPOC voices in the EoC scientific community? Are we excluding BIPOC? Or has care theorizing taken a turn were we lost our BIPOC kin due to conceptual differences? And if it should be the latter, how would we need to practice and think care to render it an academic field were BIPOC scholars and practitioners felt at home? Kanchana Mahadevan makes some
helpful suggestions for repairing this omission in her interview.

4. Which brings me to the fourth issue, the incorporation of postcolonial critique of care into out care theorizing and practices. There is a growing number of insightful publications that critique care’s fundamental concepts such as responsibility, relatedness, vulnerability, and even care. I think the responsiveness to this critique by care ethicists who are not also postcolonial theorists could still be stronger.

5. A related issue is that to my knowledge, there are only a few publications on care that draw on indigenous or non-Western concepts and practices such as ubuntu, mitakuye oyasin, or tikkun olam, as of now. I would further love to see care theory becoming more inclusive of decolonial conceptions of interrelatedness and interdependency.

6. Which dovetails finely with the sixth issue I would like to raise: the epistemic dimension of care. Granted, thanks to our colleagues in qualitative empirical research on care, epistemic issues concerning differences of perception between mentally ill and not ill people, receivers of institutionalized care and those who have no firsthand experience with it, as well as dis_abled and presumably able-bodied people have long been addressed in care theorizing alongside gendered knowledge and perception. But the role of racializations in care epistemology has not sufficiently been addressed ´to my mind, as of yet.

7. I would like to hear more about the paradoxes and aporias constitutive of care such as the care paradox that to include all citizens in the deliberation and distribution of political care needs and responsibilities, their care needs must first be met more comprehensively than they currently are. I wish I could read French because I assume that our French colleagues tackle care’s paradoxes more prominently?

8. This brings me to my eighth wish that care theory would dice deeper into postmodernity. I apologize to all the works I haven’t read due to my language incapabilities. But where are the care ethical works that address e.g. the epistemic violence of ethics? Where are the works that think care beyond human relationships? High on my reading wish list is María Puig de la Bellacasa’s Matters of Care, which looks like a very promising move in that direction?

9. My ninth issue is one that has been raised by other interviewees as well. It concerns ideas how we can arrive at caring democracies and institutions under capitalism and neo_liberalism and bureaucratic rule?

10. And finally, not an issue, more of a wish: I would love to see care writing include more discussions of movies, series, novels and the likes from a care ethical point of view. Though I disagree with her overall conclusion, I enjoyed reading Inge van Nistelrooij’s discussion of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and John Bayley’s Iris and Her Friends from a care perspective immensely.

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

If someone gave me the time and a room of my own to sit down and do the research right now, I would like to contribute articles on the following subjects:
1. A care theoretical account of repair for slavery, Jim Crow, the prison-industrial complex and settler colonialism.
2. A piece on what an ethics of care that heeds postcolonial critiques of care and that includes indigenous and non-western concepts of care might look like.
3. An article on the conceptions of the public good that plural caring democratic citizens have.
4. A piece on a genealogy of the ethics of care.
5. An article on care’s contested points and a more contestedness-friendly definition of care.

The ambition of 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 am very grateful for all the good work you do! Nowhere else have I encountered people more willing to think together and engage in genuine exchange of ideas than in the meetings that you have organized through this forum. I am constantly humbled by your multilingualism and empirical underpinnings and the wide range of researchers and works that you are mindful of and bring to my attention! I wish we all could act in concert to bring more Black and Brown and Indigenous, dis_abled, lesbian, gay, trans*, intersex, non-binary, queer, working-class and postcolonial researchers and scholars to the table and into our home libraries. And I love your fostering of discourse about the differences in care practices and politics within our different polities. More of all of that without cease please.

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