War on Care

In this blog Professor Sandra Laugier (Paris, FR) shares her reflections about the world changing in reaction to the corona pandemic “The war on care continues”.

I still cannot believe it: President Macron has given the acronym CARE (Comité Analyse Recherche et Expertise) to a new committee of scientific authorities, “charged with guiding government decision-making in both medical and societal fields”. Incredible, when we think that care has long been the very name of what has been neglected and despised in France by public policy. It is indeed the lack of attention (of care) paid by governments over the last decade to all sectors in charge of the care and protection of citizens (health first and foremost, but also education, poverty, old age, disability) that makes now the fight against the Coronavirus so difficult. When we think that the very name care, a few years ago, was still vilified by many French intellectuals as the maternalist proposal of a “nanny state”. When we think that not long ago the French Congress stood out for its lack of compassion for the grieving parents, finding that 5 days of leave in case of the loss of a child was already quite enough. This violence, this war on care has been waged for years, systematically, against the institutions that are now taking the brunt of the health disaster, and not only the public hospital.

For here is the transformation. It is not only the recognition, at last, of the work of care or the sudden visibilisation of what was hitherto invisible. The health catastrophe, and the popular support it generates for the heroines, applauded every evening at 8 p.m., shows the radical injustice of the policies pursued against public services and (re)places social protection at the heart of shared concerns, which had dislodged the unequal evidence of the maximisation of financial profits. More than a change, it is an awareness of a reversal of values accepted for decades and originally denounced by the ethics of care: the most genuinely useful professions are the least paid and the least considered. What matters most for our ordinary lives, what makes it possible – carers, cleaners, garbage collectors, cashiers, delivery drivers, truck drivers – is in fact what counts the least in the scale of values that we have collectively validated. It is not only the multiple structural injustices that the epidemic has highlighted, between those who are in the comfort of second homes and those who are at work and so on, that make it possible. It is about the lack of knowledge by an entire society of what makes it live, on a daily basis or in the urgency of the risk of death.

The current epidemic has the power to strip away all the illusions and false promises of advanced capitalism, to make visible to all who really underpin our society. It is almost amusing (tragically) to see so many of the henchmen of capitalism discovering reality and ideas that they used to attribute to dangerous or idealistic leftists: yes, putting profit first, at the expense of the institutions that protect society (public hospitals, schools, transport) is just wrong. Weak beginnings of moral awareness of the inversion of values that our societies operate: what is most really useful, what makes our ordinary life possible, is the least valued.

In the exposure of life forms in a disaster situation, the truth of our dependencies emerges. If this moral revelation is possible, it is precisely because of the situation (unprecedented for many of the present generations) of disaster, which reveals radical vulnerabilities. Vulnerability is at the core of the ethics of care. Vulnerability of persons, institutions, and threats to the human form of life, understood, to borrow a distinction from the great philosopher Stanley Cavell, as both horizontal (social, in links that need to be reconstructed) and vertical (biological, as a globalized and threatened species). Care is never more visible than in those situations where it is the form of life, the “normal” life (such as the uncanny everyday life one represented at the beginning of the catastrophe films) that is shaken.

It is no coincidence that films of the epidemic genre are so much less likely to depict the disaster that strikes us than the apocalyptic genre that actually prepared us for it: I’m thinking rather of the extraordinary The Leftovers (HBO, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, 2014-2017) where in the first episode 2% of the world’s population vanishes from the surface of the Earth (image taken up again, more radically at the end of Avengers: Infinity War) The series describes the life, invisibly destroyed, of the remnants. What is lost is the ordinary that we seek to preserve – in confinement.

For a long time, care was considered (and discredited) as the concern of the close, the near, of the nuclear family, with the mother-child bond as a model. It has now been understood that it is a work that keeps the world going, especially the privileged. It is these scales of care that are revealed today, from the care of loved ones (even when they are far away), to the care provided by cashiers, caretakers, deliverers, to strangers. To the care provided by all those humans on whom we depend. And at the same time, this sudden valorization of care in a catastrophic situation is immediately deadened by patriarchal speeches((1)), an expertise in a smock or a suit, and by a well-ordered heroism, where those who are in the “third line” only accidentally speak out, and whose lives count less and less. The war on care continues.


1)) Gilligan, C and Snider, N. (2018) Why Patriarchy Persists? Polity Press. This is the new book by Carol Gilligan, who introduced the ethics of care in 1982.

Photo: © Pierre Herman, Unsplash

About the author: Sandra Laugier

Sandra Laugier

Sandra Laugier is a French philosopher, working on moral philosophy, political philosophy, philosophy of language, philosophy of action and philosophy of science. She is currently a full professor of philosophy at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, a Senior member of the Institut Universitaire de France, and a scientific deputy director at the Institute for Humanities & Social Sciences (INSHS, Institut des sciences humaines et sociales) at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, after being a professor at the University of Picardie Jules Verne in Amiens until 2010.

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