The Deeply Political Act of Caring

The act of caring may seem like a simple notion, but many choose to reject caring about certain life changing political processes.

  • Each phase of care can be tied to specific moral practices.
    Image by Folotlia/Blend Images
  • Joan C. Tronto, argues in “Who Cares?” that we need to rethink American democracy, as well as our own fundamental values and commitments, from a caring perspective.
    Cover courtesy Cornell University Press

Joan C. Tronto argues in Who Cares? (Cornell University Press, 2015) that Americans are facing a "caring deficit"― that there are simply too many demands on our time to care adequately for children, elderly people, and ourselves ― she asks us to reconsider how we allocate care responsibilities.

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When I say “care,” I don’t mean only healthcare, childcare and caring for the elderly. I don’t mean only finding a babysitter on a website called I mean, as Berenice Fisher and I defined it some time ago, “in the most general sense, care is a species activity that includes everything we do to maintain, continue, and repair our world so that we may live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, ourselves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web.”

Usually, when people hear this definition, they are a little stunned. It is so broad; it seems as if almost everything we do touches upon care. This is true: care shows up everywhere in our lives. Now, we don’t usually think of care on this broad and most general level. Particular care practices — for example, performing brain surgery, teaching middle school, detailing a car — all have different, defining elements. What they have in common, though, is an effort to keep their corners of the world going by doing laundry, planning the financial support of an intellectually disabled adult, preparing children’s lunches, and so forth. Care is about meeting needs, and it is always relational: the skinned knee of a child who fell off his bike isn’t only about scrapes and germs, it is also about creating the conditions for him to feel safe in the world.

Not everyone agrees on the best ways to give or receive care. The standard, “so that we may live in the world as well as possible,” is very flexible. In some caring practices, the requirements are clear. Physicians and engineers are obliged to meet a standard of care that accords with the best scientific evidence. Yet at a more general level, the standards of care accord with society’s values. And these change; what was corporal punishment a generation ago is more often called child abuse now.

If we believe that moral and political issues should have straightforward, principled answers, there is another feature of caring that will seem frustrating. To make caring well a central moral concern presupposes a different kind of moral and political theory because it doesn’t begin from abstract principles and reason down to pronouncements about what is right and wrong. It starts in the middle of things. Care practices don’t suddenly begin; they are already ongoing. Just as in democracy, there are always disagreements, messy distractions, and complications. The trick is to determine the best ways of caring in a particular time and situation. And this depends on establishing a democratic process of assessing and meeting care needs.

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