Jessica Benjamin: Seen as a demarcation case

The keynote address delivered by Jessica Benjamin during a conference which took place in Utrecht recently, offers an interesting case to reflect about the demarcation of the ethics of care as a discipline (1). Her lecture was based on an in-depth article that is available as a public seminar (2).

At first I recognized her foregrounding of the importance of the acknowledgement of suffering, something I was acquainted with owing to my familiarity with presence theory (3). She was using concepts (the moral third; (de)humanization; reconciliation and moving beyond self-interest) that seemed to present theory and practice of normative professionalization as a self-evident framework of reference with respect to her work as a psychoanalytical theorist and practitioner. She did not hide her normative ideals in a seemingly neutral social-scientific discourse and that made me feel encouraged.

Parallels and differences

After the conference I began to reflect more seriously about the eventual convergence between her approach and that of ethics of care as a discipline. That issue proved to be rather complicated. At first sight there seem to be some striking parallels. Benjamin speaks about the interdependence of the social whole. She puts the relevance of having mere generalizable knowledge of what is “right and wrong” into perspective. She also makes use of Honneth’s recognition theory. Besides her normative ideal of active witnessing is rooted in primary embodied relations. Finally she seems to take notice of context-bound and situation-specific factors by bringing in her own experience with dialogue in the Middle East. [pullquote]In her theorizing she links such processes to the role of identifications in view of the repair of ‘the Moral Third’.[/pullquote]

Yet in my view there are crucial differences to be noticed. She doesn’t refer to any political-ethical context. But here I will focus on another difference that I have in mind. It is not the use of concepts like repairing, restoring, healing and mental health work that automatically makes the difference which I have in mind. In his book No future without forgiveness the archbishop Desmond Tutu, who had been appointed to head the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, also uses terms like ‘healing truth’ and ‘therapeutic effect’ . The way I see it, his use of such terms however does not change his fundamental care ethical perspective. In my view his Ubuntu-based approach seems to represent relational reasoning in a care ethical way.

I think the crucial difference is to be searched for in Benjamin’s theoretical endeavour. It is her effort to grasp deep psychological structures within both individual and collective processes that affect reactions to suffering in making them either reactions of giving or denying acknowledgement. In her theorizing she links such processes to the role of identifications in view of the repair of ‘the Moral Third’. By way of a ‘third position’ binaries can be transcended, a position that is perceived as the ability to hold opposites at a personal or societal level. In that way Benjamin applies psychoanalytically derived concepts to analyze what is needed for active witnessing and giving acknowledgement.

Psychoanalytical reasoning versus ethical emphasis

For people who can follow her kind of analysing, her theory can be said to offer an explanation for situations of care in which professionals do or do, in fact, not prove capable to acknowledge suffering. This can be the outcome of an intra-psychic condition, but also of  social psychological processes in a team, an institution or a professional group. From a care analytical point of view, the relationship is the place where one receives recognition and care (4). According to that view Benjamin can be said to offer a theory about the conditions that are to be met in the psychological structure of professionals to be able to take part in work of care that is programmed relationship-based. Therefore her theory and the therapy that goes with it might be combined with relationship-based programming in care, one of the features that are called necessary to speak of an ethics of care (5).

As a theorist however, Benjamin herself focuses first and foremost on psychoanalytical reasoning with regard to relationships instead of care ethically focussing on an ethical emphasis. Hence my view that there is an important difference to be noticed when we take Benjamin’s approach as a case in the thinking about care ethics as a discipline. I am curious to know whether other people  share my position.

By Brecht Molenaar


  1. The conference ‘Psychoanalysis, Witnesssing and Repair’ was organised by the University for Humanistic Studies and the Foundation for Psychiatry and Philosophy. It took place on April 21st, 2015 in Utrecht.
  2. Benjamin, Jessica. ‘The discarded and the dignified. From the failed witness to ‘You are the eyes of the world’.’ Retrieved at 10-6-2015 from
  3. Baart, Andries. ‘The Presence approach, an Introductory Sketch of a Practice’. Retrieved at 16-6-2015 from
  4. Klaver, Klaartje, Eric van Elst & Andries Baart (22 October 2013). ‘Demarcation of the ethics of care as a discipline: Discussion article.’ Nursing Ethics, page 4. 
  5. Idem, page 3.

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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