Thursday, May 24, 2012

Care, Identity and (mis)Recognition 3

5.  Frameworks and Horizons

Giraffes, Dublin Zoo, May 15, 2012
Taylor (1989, 27) argues that my identity is defined by “the commitments and identifications” that I make (also on a daily basis) over the course of my life.   Those “commitments and identifications” provide “the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I can endorse or oppose. In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand.” These are ethical questions about the meaning and value of life in general and of my life in particular. Again, these are questions which every individual has to answer for themselves. Consequently, they are intensely personal, subjective questions, wholly distinct from questions of social category.  One takes a stand, then, on a particular issue within one’s particular set of “commitments and identification,” within the framework of one’s unique set of values.  For instance the father and mother of a special needs child both fight “tooth and nail” to get the best education for their son or daughter.  They fight within a framework of values – the universal right to an education – which itself is set within a greater moral or ethical horizon which some would place ultimately within a religious or at least a spiritual one.  Once again, the “commitments and identifications” people make and the identities they form are shaped within the contexts of communities. Obviously religious beliefs would exercise a not too negligible influence on such communities.[1] 

6.  The Desire to Connect: Towards another Framework: Systems Thinking

          We have already discussed in detail above Gilligan’s (1995) assessment that there has been a paradigm shift in recent years from patriarchy to connection.  If there is one thing that describes the modern thrust in the sciences - both natural and social - it is the gravitation towards interconnectedness.  Capra (1996) argues that there are three strands in ecology, viz., deep ecology, social ecology and feminist ecology (or ecofeminism), each of which "does what it says on the tin."  These schools of thought don't conflict at all - rather they complement one another to give an overall comprehensive vision. When one looks at social ecology, Capra argues, and he is correct in this assertion, one finds that many of our social and economic structures, and indeed their linked technologies, are rooted in domination, patriarchy, capitalism and racism.

Ecofeminists point out that the exploitation of nature, in particular, has gone hand in hand with that of women, who have been identified with nature throughout the ages. This ancient association of woman and nature links women's history and the history of the environment, and is the source of a natural kinship between feminism and ecology.

Capra, in the same work, traces what we know as Systems Thinking today all the way from William Blake through the Romantic Movement, both in England and in Germany, where Immanuel Kant argued that organisms, in contrast to machines, are self-reproducing and self-organizing wholes. Basically, our author argues that systems thinking is all about connectedness, relationships and contexts. According to this type of thinking, the essential properties of any living system or organism are properties which belong to the whole and not to any individual parts as such. In the systems approach, the properties of the parts can be understood only from the organization of the whole.   A good illustration would be, say how a team plays a soccer match – the whole team is more than simply the sum of the skills of individual players.  Systems thinking is contextual, which is the opposite to analytical thinking. Analysis means taking something apart in order to understand it; systems thinking means putting it into the context of the larger whole.

It is my contention here that our feminist theorists of care and our Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor are essential systems thinkers.  For them “the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts.”  Caring simply cannot be done in bits and pieces – it’s a holistic enterprise.  To this extent real caring will rule out such travesties of caring like a “packaged curriculum” or throwing money at a problem instead of approaching it in a holistic manner.  Likewise, in valuing the concept of interconnectedness of things, Lynch, K., Baker, J., and Lyons, M. (2009) advance an ethic which condemns any notions of “fast care” and “care as profit.”    

Bubeck (1995, 135) warns us that we must not confuse care with service.  Care is a far more holistic reality.  Her definition of care is more precise than that advanced by Gilligan as outlined above as she insists that it is “an activity that meets needs that the cared for cannot possibly meet.” (132) However, she also adds interesting considerations such as the fact that care is a subset of human needs. (133)  Also, Bubeck’s concern with caring as an attitude complements its nature as an activity and is steeped in the framework of connectivity, relationality and holism.  In so being, the ethic of care is at once both psychological (attitude) and moral (leads to the action of caring).  The present author was much taken with her assertion that a caring attitude involves what she terms “engrossment,” a term she borrows from Noddings, and which is a movement from the inside of the carer as s/he is “tuned into” and “face-to-face” with the cared-for person. Noddings' term engrossment refers to thinking about someone in order to gain a greater understanding of him or her. Engrossment is necessary for caring because an individual's personal and physical situation must be understood before the one-caring can determine the appropriateness of any action. However, while 'engrossment' need not entail, as the term seems to suggest, a deep fixation on the other, it was intended to reflect the dual nature of care, namely caring as an emotional state and an activity at one and the same time.

Further, Bubeck notes that caring as an activity possesses “an irreducible social nature.” (138) and that as such it is practically never mutually beneficial.  In fact, it is an “asymmetrical transaction,” (139) balanced firmly in the cared-for person’s direction and against the carer.  While caring can certainly be empowering, it can often be a burden that crushes the carer as we witness in these financially-straitened times.  Care is often unremunerated and unreciprocated, and falls all too frequently to the woman’s lot.  Consequently, it is hard to dismiss Bubeck’s claim that the most pressing question with respect to care is why it is mostly women who do this very necessary task. (147)

Lynch, K., Baker, J., and Lyons, M. (2009) argue that our morals begin in everyday life, in the life that we all share, with all its vicissitudes or “ups and downs.”  This is the only place or locus where any morals worth their salt are discovered.  This ethic of care corresponds nicely to the definition of care given by the moral philosopher Agnes Keller (1990, p. 4): “Care for other human beings, this is the universal orientative principle of morals.”

In the midst of everyday life, we encounter then, the moral call.  However, there is also a fundamental twist or darkness in the human soul as we are creatures who are prone to the pull of selfishness as well as the pull to altruism.   It is to that theme we shall now turn briefly.



[1] Alan Ryan, writing on political philosophy in a recent general philosophy compendium edited by A.C. Grayling (1998, 413) situates Charles Taylor within a group of communitarian philosophers who stress that “we can make sense of our lives only with the aid and reassurance of others who share our view of the world and our goals along with it.  Some writers, Charles Taylor perhaps the most prominent of them treat this as something close to a metaphysical claim.”  One might heartily agree with the tenor of this comment, but one intuits a certain negative attitude to metaphysics here.  Also, it is a comment just left hanging without any proper teasing out of the question.

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