Tove Pettersen

Interview on December 12, 2011

1. Where are you working at this moment?

I am professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo.

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

I work within the field of moral philosophy, and I focus on the ethics of care in particular. I am interested in exploring the ethics of care along various dimensions: the history of care ethics; the structure, justification and meta-ethical foundation of a normative, feminist ethics of care; and also in the application of care ethics. My Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy, and also my book Comprehending Care focus primarily on the problems and possibilities related to developing a normative ethical theory based on care.

Recently, I have been working together with the Norwegian researcher and psychiatric nurse Marit Helene Hem. We have applied the concept of mature care to real life cases taken from the field of acute psychiatry in order to demonstrate how mature care can grasp and conceptualize tacit and reciprocal aspects of caring in acute psychiatry. Currently, I am investigating the moral ontology of care – both its philosophical roots, as well as its implications for our understandings of key terms in moral philosophy.

3. How did you get involved into the ethics of care?

Several years ago, the women of my Department –The Department of philosophy at the University of Oslo – formed a reading group. One of the books we read and discussed was Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice. This book articulated ethical aspects, values and experiences that I hitherto only had a vague sense of, and I was very taken by this book. At the same time, the book raised several fundamental and critical questions aimed at traditional moral philosophy. These unanswered questions triggered my philosophical curiosity. I have been addressing issues concerning the interface between women’s moral experiences and moral philosophy ever since.

4. How would you define ethics of care?

The ethics of care can be understood as a normative theory that identifies and judges which actions and attitudes are right or wrong, good or evil, and it provides arguments for why this is so. The ethics of care differs from other ethical theories with the strong ethical significance it attaches to elements such as relationships, vulnerability, attentiveness, context and care.

These elements play a major role while determining which actions are right, wrong, good or evil. Also, it is based on a different moral ontology and a different moral epistemology. There are, one should note, diversities among care ethicists on how to define the ethics of care – differences often related to how care is understood. Before defining ethics of care further, it is therefore useful to articulate what is meant by “care”. If, for example, one understands “care” as a virtue, then “ethics of care” is likely to be defined along the lines of virtue ethics. If “care” is seen as the practical task of nursing the sick, then “ethics of care” probably will be defined as a professional ethics. In my work, I have tried to conceptualize care in a way that is compatible with a feminist ethics of care.

Among other things, I see care as a reciprocal activity; hence an ethics of care must take into account the vulnerabilities and interests of both parties to the caring relationship. Furthermore I believe an agent’s capability, understanding and motivation, as well as the need for care, are influenced by the situation. An ethics of care must therefore always attend to the embeddedness of care in a wider cultural and political context.

5. What is the most important thing you learned from the ethics of care?

Philosophically, one of my most important realizations has been that the (often unarticulated) traditional moral ontology of an ethical theory has been shaped by a certain culture, and need not be approved of. The ethics of care has revealed how the basis of many supposedly impartial and universal ethical theories is founded on cultural and historical assumptions regarding gender, race, sexuality, the nature of human interactions, etc., and how this bias results in favoring the interests of some while neglecting others.

The ethics of care demonstrate that other perspectives are possible. The new relational ontology for example, developed within the ethics of care, has paved the way for a necessary re-conceptualization of many key notions in moral philosophy, e.g., autonomy, agency, justice and responsibility. This re-conceptualizing has enabled us to improve our theories as well as our practice. Also, by studying the ethics of care’s maturation, I have learned how thoughts and ideas – previously deemed as irrelevant to mainstream moral philosophy – can be developed into a new, influential and innovative school of thought.

6. Whom do you consider to be your most important teacher(s) in this area?

There are six feminist care ethicists who have deeply influenced and inspired my own work: Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings, Sara Ruddick, Joan Tronto, Virginia Held and Eva Kittay. Among these scholars there are some important differences, but seen together, each has contributed substantively in displaying the ethics of care’s complexities, and how care affects multiple aspects of our private, social and political life. All six of these scholars have advanced the ethics of care, while shaping my understanding of the ethics of care and moral philosophy in general.

Also, I am strongly influenced by Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist ethics, and by Margaret Urban Walker’s meta-ethics. These additional influences critically explore the interactions between our moral understandings and judgments on the one hand, and historical and social practices on the other. I must also mention my former supervisor Thomas Pogge, who’s work on global justice I deeply admire, and who lead me to the realization of how important justice is to care –and vice versa. Through the influence of all these scholars, I have learned to question whose voices are being heard, esteemed, muted or ignored – in the research of others as well as in my own.

7. What works in the ethics of care do you see as the most important?

In my view, Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, Nodding’s Caring, Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking, Tronto’s Moral Boundaries, Held’s Feminist Ethics and Kittay’s Love’s Labour are among the most important. I consider them to be canonical works in feminist ethics of care, and recent work needs to relate to them.

8. Which of your own books/articles should we read?

For the English reading audience, I would recommend my book Comprehending Care, as well as two recent articles:

  • “Conceptions of Care, Altruism, Feminism, and Mature Care” (2011) forthcoming in Hypatia
  • “The Ethics of Care: Normative Structures and Empirical Implications” (2011) in Health Care Analysis, Vol.19, No 1, pp 51-64, available.

They give an account of my view on the ethics of care, and the philosophical aspects I am particularly interested in. Also, I would recommend an article I coauthored with Marit Helene Hem: “Mature Care and Reciprocity. Two Cases from Acute Psychiatry” (2011), Nursing Ethics, 18(2), pp. 217-231. where we apply care ethics.

9. What are important issues for the ethics of care in the future?

In my opinion, it is important that care ethicists continue to provide arguments supporting care as a fundamental normative value that is equal in importance to freedom and justice, while articulating and demonstrating why it is essential that care be nurtured and valued as part of intimate, social and global relationships.

10. In Tilburg our ambition is to promote ethics of care nationally and internationally. Do you have any recommendations or wishes?

I fully support that ambition, and your website is a great contribution! Organizing an international conference, where care ethicists could meet, discuss and present their work, would also be of great value.

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