Interview with Sara Brotto. Brotto’s introductory book on Care Ethics (Etica della Cura, una introduzione) was published in 2013. The Italian philosopher Sara Brotto shares her ideas on care ethics with us.
- Where are you working at this moment?
I am currently working as an English teacher in a Gymnasium in Bassano del Grappa, around 55 km north of Venice in Italy. I have worked in high-schools for 17 years and in the meanwhile I got my second degree in Philosophy.
- Can you tell us about your research and its relation to the ethics of care?
My research was first in human vulnerability with its various definitions, its relations not only with human organs commercialization but also with human guinea pigs and finally with gender. I tried to give answers to questions like: Who are vulnerable people? Is it possible to identify them? Do they have any common aspects? Do they belong to specific ethic groups or social classes? What are the risks they might be exposed to? Reflections on vulnerability starts with life itself. Life is vulnerable and vulnerability travels along for the rest of our lives, even if it has different aspects, ways and risks. Every interaction, every attempt to get in touch with others implies not only to expose our vulnerability but also to recognize that of the others. This may lead to misunderstandings, pains, risks, but also to benefits. Life in itself proves that human beings have always taken the risks connected with the exposure of their vulnerability as benefits coming out of it exceed by far its pains. Moving from vulnerability to care, I wanted to investigate human ways of taking care of vulnerable people and how these people respond. In order to do that, first I mapped the various definitions of the ethics of care. Then, I analysed its relations with other types of ethics and its importance in contemporary ethics. And finally, I proved its existence and practice in education and the public health system.
- How did you get involved in the ethics of care?
I started working with the ethics of care in 2008 as I had a couple of exams in Bioethics at the University of Venice. At that time there wasn’t much literature on this matter in Italian and lots of related books were American. As my Bioethics Professor, Fabrizio Turoldo, knew I already had a Degree in Foreign Languages and Literature and that I attended one year at the Graduate School of Comparative Literature of The University of California- Berkeley, he asked me to work mostly on English Bioethics literature for my thesis on vulnerability. After that we agreed together with Professor Carmelo Vigna to move to the ethics of care as there wasn’t almost any publication in Italy on this type of ethics.
- How would you define ethics of care?
First of all, I think that a good definition of the ethics of care should illustrate goals and virtues of the theoretical as well as of the practical approach in order to embrace a wide range of activities we usually associate with care (see for example parenthood, teaching, nursing). Such goals and virtues should be addressed in cross-cultural way, for a wide range of social groups and societies. Stating that, I do think that the ethics of care has to consider the recognition of the other as a priori of any kind of theoretical as well as of practical approach. The other is there, right in front of us, by our side, he/she holds even our hand. But as long as we do not recognize him/her as another person, with his/her own dignity and value, the caring attitude, typically advocated by the ethics of care simply cannot be. This is to say that the good quality of our intentionality, i.e. in a transcendental sense, that is of our fundamental relation to the world, controls every life practice. We know that the recognition of the other implies empathy, but this has to be regulated by a proper ethics of care because empathy might become too extreme and possibly lead caregivers to denigration of themselves or even to an attempt to control or dominate the other. Fundamentally, I think that the ethics of care should have three characteristics. First, its main goal has to be the satisfaction of primary human needs. In doing that we have to dispose ourselves toward the other with our emotional, physical and rational spheres. Second, it has to help and encourage the other to develop and maintain his/her capacities to feel sensations and emotions, to use imagination, reason and language, to take part in associations, groups and to be educated. I called the above mentioned capacities the fundamentals of a good life. Finally, the third characteristic of my concept of an ethics of care is that it has to prevent damage or pain to others. It has to encourage to relieve others’ sufferings and pains. But I have also to say that our self-care is also important in order be able to be good caregivers. This is because there is a circularity in the ethics of care: it is an ethics of the care of others that instructs our self-care and it is an ethic of self-care in order to care for others. In this virtual circle, i.e. the virtual circle of care, there might be the most hidden sense of human life. This sense blooms only when human beings recognize one another’s caring needs and they care for one another.
- What is the most important thing you learned from the ethics of care?
The most important thing I have learned from the ethics of care is that no matter how many definitions human beings can give to care and no matter how many practices of care it may address, it is always in relation with something that is unique. This is our practical to-be- for- others and, at the same time, to leave others be in their greatness. Our aim is to protect them from the negative that might occur to them as well as to keep them in the positive that holds and ties together our lives. This is the caring mutual relation that is the essence of our being human among other human beings.
- Whom do you consider to be your most important teacher(s) is this area?
I have had two inspiring Professors: Fabrizio Turoldo , Professor of Bioethics, and Carmelo Vigna, Professor of Moral Philosophy, now emeritus. Professor Turoldo, a previous student of Professor Vigna, is the one who started teaching Bioethics at the University of Venice. His interests are both on theoretical and practical aspects of Bioethics. Professor Vigna, a previous student of Emanuele Severino, taught Moral Philosophy, Ethics and Onto ethics at the University of Venice. He retired a couple of years ago but he is still active in some seminars and meetings. They both taught me what I call “the accuracy of thought”, which means the rigor and precision of research, investigation and use of language.
- What works in the ethics of care do you see as the most important?
I worked mostly with North-American authors. I would say that the most important ones have been Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings, Virginia Held, Sara Ruddick and Joan Tronto. As I said before, at that time there wasn’t much published about the ethics of care in Italy. I was curious to investigate its presence and role in education, therefore my goal was mainly educational. I wanted to work on a book that could be used as an introduction to the ethics of care. Someone could be surprised about the fact that all these names are female, but I discovered myself that the first caring voices have been women’s voices. They were able to build a legitimate alternative to the perspective of justice of the liberal theory of human rights. This doesn’t mean that the ethics of care is a synonym of female or feministic ethics, even though a lot has been written by women about topics related to women, i.e. motherhood or care for children with special needs. I found that in their writings there was a true emotional, rational and practical participation in what they were writing about. This was what I wanted to prove: the theoretical approach to the ethics of care that each of them has developed, each of their voices gives a personal contribution to the practical development of the ethics of care. I wanted to see if this was also the case in some domains in my country, i.e. the fields of education and public health service. Each of the above mentioned authors helped me in my investigation and contributed to build up my own definition. But, if I have to choose the most important one, I will say Virginia Held as she focuses on the ethics of care as the core of human relations. According to her, caring relations have an essential role in social relations as they hold and maintain them through practices and values. These caring relations can be practiced by every single person just because of his/her status of being a person among other people. Together with Held I hope that a globalization of caring relations will contribute and make it possible for people of different states and cultures to live together in peace.
- Which of your own books/articles should we read?
I can tell what I have seen so far. My book has been included in the reading list of some ethics and moral philosophy courses as well as in some courses of law. As a high school teacher who is often asked to present the book to my students, I usually start with the reading the final interviews, included in the book, with teacher for children with special needs and with a couple of physicians who work with people with an addiction. In this way I can show immediately that what I worked on not only truly exists but is also practised daily, even if people do not know it is called the ethics of care. This was the case for both the teacher and the doctors.
- What are the burning issues for the ethics of care in the future?
According to my personal experience as a teacher in a high school, I do think that every school curriculum should include some module on the ethics of care. I state this because I have noticed that young generations are getting used to what I called “the show of everything” as technology allows them to access information in an easy manner. This constant use and exposition to any kind of video, picture, language takes place without any filters. We have to teach young generations to care about themselves and others even on the virtual world because that world for some people can become even more real than the real one and this can lead to tragedies. The other is always the other we have to care for, no matter how distant or no matter under by means he/she comes to us. People migrating from poverty, wars or terroristic attacks are not far away from us, they are right here and they deserve caring responses. People of whom we shoot videos become extremely vulnerable or they can be even in danger because of our actions. It is our duty as teachers and caregivers to make young generations conscious of the possible negative consequences of some of their daily behaviour.
- Our ambition is to promote ethics of care nationally and internationally. Do you have any recommendations or wishes?
I would like to contribute to spread the ethics of care as a practical kind of ethics that we can constantly practice everywhere and with everybody as its final aim is to be with others and for others in a good manner, because only in this right way we can be fully ourselves, i.e. we can be well. This is proved by the fact that we are well when also the others are well, i.e. when we share our being well with others.