Frans Vosman and the concept of care ethics

The passing of Frans Vosman this past summer has been a loss for the editorial staff of this website. Editor Brecht Molenaar dwells upon his intellectual heritage and gives serious thought to a crucial concept in it: the concept of care ethics itself.

In my remembrance, the year 2020 will not only be determined by the pain of the coming of covid-19, but also by that of the passing away of Frans Vosman. Now I want to pursue on the latter. For me it is as if mourning the loss of him has taken the form of an ongoing inner conversation with him. Care ethics is one of the topics in this form of inner speaking. I was accustomed to ask him a lot of questions about it. Often these were related to the use – or his use – of the concept “care ethics” itself. This basic concept is still a puzzling matter to me, but out of necessity his input in our exchange is imaginary above all else.

When I decided to embark on the adventure of the Master Care Ethics and Policy in 2013, I expected to be educated in care ethics on the one hand and policy on the other. Being a professional in a Dutch hospital my aim was to contribute to providing good care. I associated ethics in general, including care ethics, with individual acting and so I thought that a certain amount of freedom was required to work in a care ethical way. At the same time, I presumed that late modern factors of (neoliberal) policy were influencing, hampering, or even hindering good care provision to occur. I hoped to gain more insight into what was at stake at this very moment in accordance with policy. It took me quite a while to realize that one can also speak about “political ethics” on the level of policy. It took me even more time to discover that the connection between care ethics and political issues was much more complicated than I would ever have thought.

In 2014 I became a member of the editorial staff of the website with Frans Vosman as the driving force of our team. This heralded the beginning of what I would call a key stage in my study of care ethics and policy. Taking part in the editorial staff was not only very enjoyable with regard to the relational atmosphere, it was extremely educational as well. As a result of the informal “lectures” of Frans Vosman, I gradually began to see what it meant to deal with care ethics and policy. I would not call those lessons “enjoyable” in the first place. Instead, a term like “shocking” was much more appropriate. Time and time again I had to leave my intellectual comfort zone. Since his words almost always forced a mind shift in an unknown and unusual direction, I often got completely out of my depth. This process was both shocking and liberating, for I could break free from prevalent but unpolitical types of discourse that had been determining my mindset. Even regarding ethics of care itself.

The Meaning of Care Ethics, a Puzzle

The most striking example concerns this concept of care ethics itself. To tell the truth, even after getting my Masters, questions of what it really means to speak of “care ethics” and “care ethicist” actually had remained largely unresolved. Especially during the meetings of the editorial staff, however, I slowly began to grasp the problems accompanied by using the concept of care ethics. Along the way, I only got a clue about the meaning of the concept. That is to say, care ethics in the interpretation of persons like Frans Vosman. This variant has been called “critical care ethics” and it has its place in the broader context of the Foundation Critical Ethics of Care, the foundation owning and promoting our website.

Gradually I found out what other concepts and general thoughts were related to this variant of ethics of care. My thoughts circled around concepts like care (as a matter of course), practices, critical insights, burning issues, (depoliticized) institutions, (surviving as a) life form, (not) having voice, and the great feminist concerns of color, gender, and class. Surely no idealistic romanticism was involved in this, no doubt about that. And “minima moralia,” a thought borrowed from Adorno, seemed to be an important advice.
Furthermore, I thought, all this should have something to do with ethos as lived morality (including relief and tension) and with the political as the actual ordering of living together in social life. For that reason, the focus on politically located phenomenology (a first-person point of view related to societal positions) was understandable to me.

But how to think about the specific connection between all these and other related concepts and ideas? Even now this is still is a real puzzle to me, alas without the possibility to talk to Frans Vosman in person. Fortunately there are texts of his hand that offer solace, in particular his introductory piece “Disenchantment of Care Ethics,” published in 2020 in tome 8 of the Ethics of Care Series. Let me make an effort to elucidate care ethics as he intended it to be on the basis of this intellectual heritage. And besides, in this case I deliberately do not speak of critical ethics of care, because for him it is evident that care ethics has to be a critical enterprise (p. 23) and that care ethicists do reflect critically on ethics, epistemology, and care (p. 21). It would be a pleonasm.

Frans Vosman in “Disenchantment of Care Ethics”

First of all, I would like to bring up that Frans Vosman describes care ethics as an approach, elucidated by him as follows:

“When I use the word “approach,” I refer to a movement of groups and people who approach care as a politicum which is connected with interdisciplinary scholarship, in the sense of inquiry. Care ethics is both a political movement and a scholarly discipline.” (p. 53)

Thus, for being a movement and an inquiry at the same time, ethics of care is and should be a critical enterprise indeed. In my interpretation of the text, this approach seems to be based on three pillars: ethics (1), political theory (2), and epistemology (3).

The ethical pillar

1) To the extent that care ethics is ethics, it offers a completely different voice compared to mainstream forms of ethics. Important in this regard is the notion that reflection on care takes practices of care as its starting point instead of “desired normativity” (pp. 23-24) and “high morality” (p. 36). So the point of departure is the “pre-moral” (p. 36), that is the “pre-normative actuality” (p. 23) shown in actual and concrete practices. Therefore ethics of care is not concerned with principles, consequences of action or virtuousness. It is an ethics of ethos.
Besides it regards itself as political ethics, whereby – in line with the programme of Joan Tronto in Moral Boundaries – in ethical thinking no binary divisions are made between personal and political ethics, between a subjective and an objectivizing approach, and between private and public life (p. 26).

The theoretical pillar

2) To the extent that care ethics has a position as political theory of care, it can offer critical insights in providing care and being cared for. Examples are: relationality, contextuality, and responsibility. These should emphatically be considered as core ideas or key concepts, for the ethics of care conceptually does not permit them to be interpreted as a value. Analyses of care should be performed in analytical or, even better, heuristic terms.

Because giving and receiving care is considered to be constitutive of society, ethics of care should be suited to be a theory for political change by making heard “the voice of those who are suppressed” (p. 44). At least if that is safe enough for the people concerned. According to Frans Vosman a dark part should be added to care ethics, namely “an ethics of powerlessness” (p. 32). In any case, it should call attention to power-related questions, like which groups’ knowledge does not count as important knowledge. The aim is to provide policy support by “saying out loud what care as a society-constituting practice implies” (p. 31).

The observation of ordinary life, which is considered to be deeply political in its nature, is at the heart of care ethical inquiry. Relationships are seen as the place where normativity emerges. So in observing practices you will observe emerging moral aspects. There is relief in ethos. However, practices will be marked by physical, technical, material, and institutional aspects as well. Besides friction, violence, and multi-vocal meanings will inevitably appear on the scene. There is also tension in ethos.

I think the concept of the political was a decisive concept for Frans Vosman. It has to do with the political nature of giving and receiving care. Inevitably care comes into being in a context of practices, collectives, and institutions. Once I heard him say that he actually had his mind on theory of the political instead of political theory of care. He writes about the political:

“It is perhaps a good idea to think again about responsiveness, with, as a subsequent step, not morally charged responsibility, but schooling in more refined observation and in how to begin and maintain relationships, amid friction, violence, and multivocal meanings, and this always on the basis of practices. This context can also be designated as “the political” (p. 36).

The epistemological pillar

3) Finally more about the pillar of epistemology, which in my interpretation is meant to be a third pillar in its own right. Pre-political, seemingly universal or seemingly existential ideas about who and what people are, are seen through by him as being only “historically, socially, and culturally determined discourse” (p. 49). Experience-based knowledge of or insight into what is good, does count as existing and important knowledge. This implies that considerations and decisions which are customarily seen as irrational – for they are not easily communicable and codifiable – nevertheless are entitled to the validity of a care ethical perspective. Thus, the normative importance of emotions in observation and appreciation can be one of the insights or core ideas of care ethics.

Pursuing the Care Ethical Road

When I think of care ethics at the moment, I do feel enthusiasm to pursue the care ethical road mapped by Frans Vosman in his critical cartography, as he did as a matter of fact. I have all three pillars in mind – ethical, theoretical, and epistemological – and I try to see them in connection. Yet, to be honest, I am still not really sure what it precisely involves to continue on this road. The most puzzling issue concerns care ethics as political theory of care, or rather, theory of the political. Broadly speaking I think I have a clue, but there remain a lot of questions.

I remember the last meetings of the editorial staff in which Frans Vosman took part. In the face of the course of our website, he was teaching us what it means to observe ordinary life like care ethicists would do. So one day, we all jsu went outside and sought a place to sit on the sidewalk, a rather busy street with stores, cafés, restaurants, a lot of people walking around and quite a lot of traffic (see the featured image), to observe what we saw. We wrote down our observations. This was meant to be the start of our care ethical inquiry. We intended to proceed along those lines, as described above, but it turned out that due to his illness Frans Vosman was no longer capable of mentoring us in the follow-up.

Now I think we need to build on the existence of his intellectual legacy. There is plenty to set to work on. I wish he was still here to help us.

Here you can find other contributions of staff members about the intellectual legacy of Frans Vosman.


Publication used (also posted on our website with the same page numbers, see The disenchantment of care ethics. A critical cartography | Ethics of care):

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.

About the author: Brecht Molenaar

Brecht Molenaar

Brecht Molenaar (1965) has master’s degrees in Ethics of Care, Humanistic Studies and Dutch Linguistics and Literature. She has been working as a humanistic spiritual counsellor for twenty years in the domain of healthcare. Developments in the field and her profession became a matter of concern to her. Ethics of care became her primary interest, in particular the presence approach as a care ethical way of approaching people in giving care, social work and education. She is involved in a foundation that aims at contributing to this kind of practices (Dutch: Stichting Presentie). Her focus is on teaching people in such care giving and in leading such practices. She also writes and gives lectures about (religious) humanism, critical ethics of care, relational care giving and caring policies.

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