Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Evening Note for Wednesday, December 18

Thought for the Evening: Caring About and Caring For

Now that grading has been turned in and I no longer have to deal with (e.g.) students asking why they got an F on an assignment when they did almost half the work that was required, or demanding that I reassess every assignment they have done in the course so that they get the grade they wanted, or begging for extensions on something they literally had the entire term to do, I've been reading, among other things, Sandrine Berges's A Feminist Perspective on Virtue Ethics. I was particularly interested in some of the discussion of the relation between ethics of care and virtue ethics. One of the especially interesting parts is the discussion of the distinction between 'caring about' and 'caring for'. Ethics of care is based on 'caring for'; at least some care ethicists, like Nel Noddings, have been insistent on a sharp distinction between this and 'caring about'. Berges considers a number of aspects of this distinction, one of which is linguistic: is not clear that caring for and caring about should share a name; indeed, in some languages, they don't. If, for example, we try to translate care ethics into French, we can't. The French refer to it as "le care." And yet, there are French words to describe everything else that can be described as "care" in English. The word for care in "health care," "emergency care" or "first care" is soin. A "soin" is something that is given to someone who is hurt or requires attention. The verb soigner can mean to administer medical care or to pay particular attention to a task, as in "soigner son écriture" which means to write neatly. On the other hand, to say in French that we care about someone or something is to refer to one's emotional state:"avoir de l'affection," "tenir à coeur," "se sentir concerné" (to have affection for, t hold something close to one's heart, to feel concern for). These expressions cannot be substituted by the noun soin or the verb soigner. (pp. 155-156)

Berges notes that this is suggestive, not determinative, but if 'caring about' indicates an emotional response and 'caring for' indicates an engagement with a person, it would explain why Noddings makes the distinction in the way she does. On the other side, seeing it this way would explain how the two could be seen as related: in at least some kinds of virtue ethics, character is developed by training and educating our passions, so if 'caring about' is an emotional response, then it could be the kind of thing that needs to be trained into 'caring for'; caring about someone, we learn more about them so that we are able to care for them.

This is quite plausible, but there is another aspect to both that perhaps strengthens the point. 'Caring' always has a relation to attention. This is true etymologically ('care' historically has often indicated a kind of anxiousness), and sometimes in translating it into Romance languages one translates it by cognates of 'attention' or words that can also translate 'attention'. The connection to attention is found in care ethics, as well; Noddings takes caring for someone to involve three elements, engrossment, motivational displacement, and response. Engrossment is close, careful attention to the needs and wants of another person. So one could think of 'caring about' as covering various kinds of incipient attentiveness (some of which are surely those arising from certain emotional responses), which, when the 'caring about' involves caring about a person, can be developed into the kind of engrossment that leads to motivational displacement, their motivations becoming in a sense part of your own.

This also suggests a possible way in which a virtue ethics could 'locate' care in virtue ethics. In Western virtue ethics, there is an important virtue that is also closely connected with attention, prudence, which has solicitude as one of its acts. (See, for example, Aquinas, ST 2-2.47.9). Solicitude is discerning alertness to details relevant to acting; prudence, in its aspect of solicitude, pays attention to the things that tell one what needs to be done. Thus 'caring about' seems to be the kind of attention or vigilance of which prudence is the trained, excellent form; 'caring for' arises when one cares about someone in a deep way such as to make their response possible, and thus likewise is trained into prudence. ('Prudent' is after all related to 'provident' in the sense of 'making provision'.) That's at least one possibility, anyway.


Sandrine Berges, A Feminist Perspective on Virtue Ethics, Palgrave Macmillan (New York: 2015).

Various Links of Interest

* An interesting interview on French symbolism and the origins of analytic philosophy.

* Bill Vallicella on five grades of agnosticism.

* Mark Satta on sorites authoritarianism.

* Sandrine Berges, Sophie de Grouchy, at the SEP.

* Christina Lamb, When Courts Constrain Conscience

* Tony Christie discusses the centering of the medical field on physicians in the early modern period.

* Natasha Frost looks at the one-pot meal campaign of Nazi Germany.

* Gil Student on the miracle of Jewish history.

* Andrew Fiala, The Importance of Gratitude

* kaomoji

* Eve Tushnet reviews Sharon Leon's An Image of God: The Catholic Struggle with Eugenics

* An interview with Alexander Stoddart on public art

* A number of documents have come to light showing ways in which deception, disorganization, and corruption played a role in the U.S.'s handling of Afghanistan. Richard Hanania had a good breakdown on Twitter of some of the highlights, which you can find in a more readable form here. In effect, the U.S. established a kleptocracy and then did the worst possible thing -- we incentivized its corruption by throwing an immense amount of money at it. And except for occasional pushback from military personnel, almost everyone involved was more interested in symbolic victories than real solutions to problems. And it is, I am afraid, a concentrated epitome of everything that is currently wrong with the American political approach today.

* Gary Larson has put The Far Side on the Internet.

* Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry looks at our serious problem with pornography.

* Shawn Regan discusses why environmentalists don't usually try to protect land in the U.S. by buying it (short answer: for many of the kinds of land they want to protect, you are only allowed to have it if you agree to use it for resources).

* Nicolas Bommarito on modesty.

* I've been thinking about replacing one of the readings in my Ethics courses, and have had some difficulty coming up with something useful. But this is an interesting resource I came across in looking: Teaching Ethics with Short Stories.

* Maya Kosoff, Big Calculator: How Texas Instruments Monopolized Math Class

* An interview with Jared Ortiz on deification in the Latin tradition.

* John Brungardt, Those Two Roads: How a Natural Philosophical Solution to a Difficulty about Motion Serves Thomistic Theology

Currently Reading

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Sandrine Berges, A Feminist Perspective on Virtue Ethics
Michael J. Gilmour, Animals in the Writings of C. S. Lewis
Lisa Coutras, Tolkien's Theology of Beauty
Alexander Green, The Virtue Ethics of Levi Gersonides

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