top of page

Food for Thought and Thought for Food - Thesis Part 2

Chapter Two: Understanding Care Ethics

As illustrated in the previous section we can see that there are numerous problems surrounding our current dietary habits in the United States. How does one even begin to look for a solution when the problems themselves seem insurmountable? I believe the first step lies in adopting a moral theory that encompasses the welfare of all of the players in the food system. A utilitarian approach is often taken when it comes to discussing the ethics of eating. Peter Singer is at the forefront of this argument, particularly when it comes to the ethics of eating animals. Singer argues that we should abstain from eating animals due to their sentient nature: the fact that they have an ability to experience pleasure and pain. We should avoid eating animals altogether because it causes them pain, and pain is certainly not in their best interest. The utilitarian approach aims to achieve the greatest possible outcome for the greatest number of beings, and ethicists like Singer include animals in their realm of consideration.

I agree with Singer that animals do indeed require moral consideration, however not solely due to the fact that they are sentient. The relationship is much more complex than that, and utilitarianism doesn’t factor in other components such as interdependency, vulnerability, and responsibility, which are all very real parts of the overall equation. A care ethic approach takes many of these extraneous variables into consideration when determining how one should act. For this reason, I would argue that adopting an ethic of care in regards to how we eat is the way to go. Using care ethics as a means to dictate how we should be eating can be instrumental in turning many of the problems in our current food system around. What exactly is care? In order to approach the subject of food from a care ethic perspective, we must first establish what care is. Care is deeply embedded in all aspects of our lives, whether we are aware of it or not; it manifests itself in several different ways. In this section we will explore the theoretical components of care ethics and demonstrate why it is an ideal approach to take in regards to food.

Taking Care Of, Caring For, & Caring About:

One way we witness care is as an act of labor. A mother takes care of her child, providing him with a hot meal, helping him bathe and dress, and tucking him into bed at night. A nurse takes care of his sick patient, providing her with medicine and helping her walk through the halls of the hospital. We not only take care of fellow humans, but other things as well. A farmer takes care of his garden, providing adequate water and sunlight, so that the vegetables he has planted will flourish. Taking care of is one variation of care commonly noted by care ethicists, including Eva Feder Kittay. Care as labor, Kittay asserts, “is the work of maintaining others and ourselves when we are in a condition of need… It is most noticed in its absence, most appreciated when it can be least reciprocated” (Kittay p.52). A lack of care would be quite evident in the aforementioned examples. A neglected child would grow hungry and show visible signs of a lack of care. The ailing patient could grow even sicker, or perhaps even die without a caretaker there to aid her. The garden would become overrun with weeds, and the vegetables would slowly decay without the skillful care of the farmer. An absence of care in the form of labor can have devastating consequences, particularly for those who are in need of the care in the first place. Care is not only a necessary component for the sustenance of life, but it also has the capacity to enable flourishing to the fullest degree. It is important to note that in regards to taking care of, there is generally some degree of dependency. Often one party is reliant upon the care of another in order to thrive; it is this dependency that obligates us to care.

Just because an individual takes care of something, it does not necessarily mean that they care for that thing. The attitude of care is very different than the act of care, and it is possible to have one with out the other. Kittay elaborates further:

As an attitude, care denotes a positive affective bond and investment in another’s well being. The labor can be done without the appropriate attitude. Yet without the attitude of care, the open responsiveness to another that is so essential to understanding what another requires is not possible. That is, the labor unaccompanied by the attitude of care will not be good care. (Kittay p.52)

Mark Timmons refers to the attitude of care as caring for something. When you like something, or are attracted to it, it can be said that you care for it. There is however a great variance between the degrees of caring for things. At the deepest end of the spectrum, caring about revolves around a sincere concern for that individual’s well being. A husband cares for his wife; not only is he attracted to her, and enjoys her company, but he has a genuine concern for her life and interests. Her well being is generally at the forefront of his concern. This type of concern demonstrates caring about to the fullest extent. Like the labor of care, the attitude of care need not apply solely to the realm of living subjects; we can care for things like the environment or sports or even specific objects. We can also care about things simply in the sense that we like them; but we need not necessarily care about something in order to like it, or like it in order to care about it. For example, I could care quite a bit about the environment in general, but find a certain tree to be particularly hideous, and therefore dislike that aspect of it.

It is quite common to say “I don’t care for that,” meaning we do not have a preference for something. A child might care for ice cream but not care for brussel sprouts. A husband will undoubtedly care for his wife on a different level than a child cares for an ice cream cone. While the child enjoys the flavor of the treat, the scope of that care is quite small. A scoop of ice cream does not have interests (although the cow that produced it might, but we will touch on this later), thus it would be somewhat ridiculous to care for it on any level other than appreciating it for what it is. Perhaps it makes more sense then, to refer to the child’s preference for ice cream as “liking” rather than “caring.” When it comes to the doting husband, the nature of care is different. He not only cares for his wife in the sense that he likes her, but he cares about her. He has concern for her, and is emotionally invested in her well being. Human beings all have different dispositions, thus the things that we like and care for will vary from person to person. Certainly then, there are varying degrees of caring attitudes.

Timmons identifies three core components of caring about: intellectual, affective, and motivational-behavioral. The intellectual component is what allows us to recognize the needs of and what is good for others. The affective component encompasses our feelings for others; we are able to feel empathize with them, feeling joy when they succeed and sorrow when they experience hardships. The motivational-behavioral component relates to the welfare of those that we care about. Timmons asserts that “caring about others typically involves a non-self-interested desire to help them- one is disposed to act on someone’s behalf out of a direct regard for that person’s welfare. Caring about oneself involves wanting to do those things that will best promote one’s well-being and wanting to avoid what will be detrimental to one’s well-being” (Timmons p.228). On Timmons’ view, an individual who is caring will possess these three core components.

It is not necessarily easy to pinpoint a clear cut distinction between caring for and caring about. While Timmons considers them to be two separate categories, under Kittay’s definitions they both appear to fall under the realm of caring attitudes. For the purposes of this paper, we will consider caring about to be a more heightened attitude of care. In caring about something, we acknowledge, along the lines of Kittay, the fact that the subject has interests that are worthy of moral consideration. The degree for which we care about other subjects often will vary based on our relationships with them; “Normally, one’s level of care directed toward casual acquaintances is of a lower degree than the sort one has for loved ones, though higher in degree than the level of care one has toward strangers” (Timmons p.227). It makes sense that a man would care more about his wife than he does his friend, more about his friend than he does his co-worker, and more about his co-worker than he does a random person that he walks by on his way to work. However, many care ethicists argue that we should begin to care more about those individuals with whom we have less intimate relationships. Taking the time to care more about others can, over time, foster a more compassionate and fulfilled society. This is the stance taken by Robert Goodin, who suggests that we have not only a personal responsibility, but a collective responsibility to take care of the most vulnerable members of our society. As we will see later on, this point becomes critical when it comes to making changes within our food system.

Dependency & Interrelatedness:

Care holds a critical place in society. This is due largely to the fact that we are intimately connected to one another. It is virtually impossible for a person to exist in this world and have no exposure to or contact of any kind with other people. A key component of a care-based ethic is a dependency on human interrelatedness. Not only are we dependent upon one another, but we are also unavoidably interconnected to one another because of this fact. Humans are social creatures; we rely on one another on a daily basis. We depend on our families and friends for comfort and companionship. We depend on doctors to help heal us when we fall ill. We depend on the farmers who grow our food, the mechanics who fix our cars, the teachers who educate our children. Like care itself, there are varying degrees of dependence. A newborn baby is unavoidably dependent upon others, primarily its parents, when it is born into this world. Unable to care for itself on even the most basic level, the child is wholly dependent on others to fulfill its needs. Other dependencies have evolved over time; they are not primal in nature. For example, the dependency on a mechanic to fix my car when it is not functioning properly is more a result of the division of labor. I can’t fix the car myself simply because I don’t know how, so I turn to someone who is specialized in that facet of labor to help get the job done. While I am reliant on the mechanic to a certain degree, my life will not be doomed if I can’t get my car fixed. Indeed it’s quite possible to survive without a car, however inconvenient it might be. In the case of the newborn baby, an inability to receive care in terms of food, shelter, and nurturing would be entirely detrimental. An infant cannot survive without those basic needs being fulfilled, thus it is critical that someone respond to their needs. The same goes for individuals who are physically or mentally disabled, or those who are elderly and incapacitated. Their special needs require attentiveness and care.

According to ethicist Joan C. Tronto, we are constantly and perpetually involved in caring relationships with others: “Care requires that humans pay attention to one another, take responsibility for one another, engage in physical processes of care giving, and respond to those who have received care” (Tronto p.145). Because we are undeniably and intrinsically linked to one another, we should care about one another; indeed we must care about one another. Our existence is dependent upon cultivating interdependent relationships, without them, we would be no more; thus it is imperative that we provide for others when they are in need, and allow them to provide for us when we are. Tronto argues that caring about others is a good in and of itself, and that by virtue of being human, we should work towards establishing a high quality of care in our society. Similarly, Virginia Held, another well-respected ethicist proposes that when it comes to the interrelatedness of social groups, care is arguably the best guarding value a society can possess. Caring relations lead to mutual respect amongst individuals, and this is critical to societal progress. These interactions can shape the world in which we live immensely.

Responding to Justice-Based Theories:

In many westernized societies, the United States in particular, care does not carry much weight as a prevailing ethical principle. In societies that praise autonomy above all else, it is easy for care to get pushed aside. From a young age, it is impressed upon Americans that they are the authors of their own lives. Independence is praised, and often heavily rewarded. Dependency, on the other hand, is viewed as weakness. Dependency, however, in some shape or form, is generally unavoidable. There are certain things that we need in our lives that we are incapable of providing for ourselves. Thus it seems unwise to label it in a negative fashion, rather than just accepting it for what it is. It is not weak to depend on others; I would argue, it is merely a fact of life. Despite our desire to place autonomy above all else, we need not only to acknowledge a dependency on human interrelatedness, but embrace it as well. “Rather than seeing people as rational actors pursuing their own goals and maximizing their interests, we must instead see people as constantly enmeshed in relationships of care,” urges Tronto (p.142). When we put autonomy and independence on a pedestal, making those the characteristics to strive for above all else, we are setting ourselves up for failure. It is an illusion that we can be completely independent from one another; this is completely outside of human reality. We are constantly involved in relationships, interacting with others throughout our lives, and to suggest otherwise would be absurd. When we do this we begin to see ourselves as active participants within these relationships, we can see that the decisions we make on a daily basis have an impact on those around us, not simply on our own lives.

Ethicist Carol Gilligan takes a looks at how care ethics are contrasted with theories of justice in our society. From a justice perspective, we tend to see things in terms of equality and fairness; this is the typical stance taken in the United States. Gilligan argues that shifting the perspective from one of justice to one of care can ultimately change the way in which we view society: “To organize relationships in terms of attachment rather than in terms of equality changes the way human connection is imagined, so that the images or metaphors of relationship shift from hierarchy or balance to network or web” (Gilligan p.22). Viewing our interactions as being part of a web acknowledges the fact that we are all interconnected, rather than viewing us as being in competition with one another. It urges us to consider the ripple effects of our actions, as they are not isolated occurrences. It also encourages us to communicate more openly with those around us. When we shift from a perspective that it is wholly focused on rights and respect to one that is more focused on mutual understanding amongst individuals, our capacity to empathize with those around us is heightened. Adopting a perspective that has concern only for the individual can pose significant hazards:

As a framework for moral decision care is grounded in the assumption that self and other are interdependent, an assumption reflected in a view of action as responsive and therefore, as arising in relationship rather than the view of action as emanating from within the self and, therefore, “self-governed.” Seen as responsive, the self is by definition connected to others, responding to perceptions, interpreting events, and governed by the organizing tendencies of human interaction and human language. Within this framework, detachment, whether from self or from others, is morally problematic, since it breeds moral blindness or indifference- a failure to discern or respond to need. (Gilligan p.24)

We are all intertwined, and it would best serve us to act in a manner that fosters the well-being of us all. If we choose to see ourselves as being separate, disconnected, or detached, we are ignoring a huge part of what makes us truly human. Viewing ourselves as interdependent encourages us, rightly so, to act in a manner that is conducive to us all. Only thinking of oneself, or what is it in your own best interest, can lead to acting in a manner that is detrimental to the well-being of others.

Gilligan points out that individuals might have very different conceptions of what care is. What might be a necessary act of care in the eyes of one person could be completely unnecessary in the eyes of another. Thus Gilligan argues that “justice in this context becomes understood as respect for people in their own terms”(Gilligan p.24). We should still view people as individuals and respect their personal desires and preferences, just not consider them as being isolated creatures that can, and ideally should, function independently of one another. People should certainly still be allowed to decide what a good life looks like for them, and to pursue that, just not to the detriment of others. The principles of justice that the United States was built upon are clearly important, and I am not arguing that we abandon them. I am simply arguing along the lines of Gilligan that we allow for care to take an equally important stance alongside them. Indeed, the two are intrinsically connected, as Gilligan argues can be demonstrated even by our nation’s children; “Through the experience of inequality, of being in the less powerful position, children learn what it means to depend on the authority and good will of others… The child’s vulnerability to oppression and to abandonment thus can be seen to lay the groundwork for the moral visions of justice and care, conceived as ideals of human relationship and defining the ways in which people ‘should’ act toward one another” (Gilligan p.28). Thus an ideal society would embrace both care and justice as prevailing principles to be revered.

Care as a Virtue:

Another way we can view care is as a virtue, in and of itself. I would argue that there is great virtue in caring for oneself and others. Virtue ethics were originally developed by the ancient Greeks, with much of the credit going to Aristotle. In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle developed a table of virtues and corresponding vices, which were the result of there being either an excess or deficiency of the action or feeling that composed the virtue. The virtues themselves were akin to traits of character, and they struck a perfect balance between their linked excessive and deficient vices. According to Rosalind Hursthouse, “the concept of a virtue is the concept of something that makes its possessor good: a virtuous person is a morally good, excellent, or admirable person who acts and feels well, rightly, as she should” (Hursthouse). While care itself was not one of Aristotle’s original virtues, it is not much of a stretch to make the assertion that care can certainly be considered one. Indeed both Kittay and Tronto view care as being a virtue. Many of the traits surrounding care are virtuous in nature; care often requires attentiveness, responsiveness, compassion, and empathy, among other things. These traits can be demonstrated in how we care for others, by way of our actions. When we tend to the needs of those who require our care, certainly we are helping them. However I would argue that the individual is only virtuous if they care about the subject they are tending to. Simply going through the motions of taking care of something is not enough to make someone virtuous. The emotional component of concern for the well being of the subject is critical. Action without this component is merely a habit, albeit a good one.

A person who is kind and compassionate, and who acts in a caring matter, is an admirable individual. I believe that possessing a caring disposition, and demonstrating care though one’s actions can certainly be considered moral goods. A virtuous individual will demonstrate care both by way of their actions and their thoughts and feelings. They will act in a caring manner not because it’s what they are supposed to do, but because it’s what they want to do. They will possess the traits that enable them to fully embody care.

Why Care Ethics?:

Now that we have established the basic theoretical components of care theory, we can take a look at why it’s the best approach to take when it comes to dealing with American dietary habits. The qualities of interrelatedness and dependency in care ethics can also be seen in our food system. The entire food system is an interconnected web, from producer, to supplier, to consumer. The consumer is dependent upon both the producer and supplier in order to get food onto the dinner table. The relationship is a mutually dependent one, as the consumer will dictate the demands that both the producers and suppliers need to meet, and the producers will market products that incite demand. The three groups are undeniably interconnected, and crucial to one another. But these three groups are not abstractions; they are concrete, often living, beings that generally have some sort of interests. I would argue that the farmers, animals, and eaters of the subsequent food products all have welfare interests that should be acknowledged and addressed. Because we are all intrinsically entwined, it would serve us well to adopt a care ethic perspective when it comes to how we eat, as the ripple effects of the choices being made impact our lives on many levels. A care perspective pushes us to consider the nature of our relationships, as well as the broader implications that those relationships entail. In the following chapter, I will discuss how we can apply care theory to the aforementioned problems in the previous chapter. I will demonstrate how the adoption of care ethics can help remedy many of the major problems surrounding our personal health and that of our families, the well being of the other vulnerable people in our society, and the welfare of non-human sentient beings and the environment.

Recent Posts

See All


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page