Feminist care ethics: Contributions to peace theory

Tove Pettersen


Feminist thinking about care and peace are deeply intertwined, and this chapter will examine some important care ethical contributions to peace theory’. Although care ethics has a long history in European thinking,1 contemporary feminist care ethics is often said to have originated in the 1970s and 1980s and to have been deeply influenced by the women’s movements in Western Europe and the United States (Held, 1993; Jaggar, 2000; Friedman, 2000). Since the way we understand and handle care is closely linked to economic structures, to colonial history, and to traditional conceptions of women, the working class, and people of colour, this background may have caused certain biases and limitations in the ethics of care.

I argue, nevertheless, that contemporary’ feminist care ethics provides us with a powerful normative perspective that disentangles care from these structures and reveals that care is morally and politically significant for the attainment of peace. Fostering and practicing care may prevent or reduce harm and conflicts, appealing to care might change a decision-maker’s narrow, self-centred perspective, and prioritising care in order to ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met contributes to peace and stability. These transformations could take place when care is considered a universal value, not a local practice, subjective emotion, or feminine inclination.

I sustain my argument by presenting some selected contributions of care ethics to peace theory, structured with an eye to the theory’s expansion from the private domain to the public and global level. 1 also discuss some controversies and criticisms and introduce certain key philosophical features in order to explain how and why care ethics has the potential to inform feminist peace theory'. Philosophically significant in the first phase is the theory’s relational ontology and epistemological situatedness, while viewing care as work is transformative in the second phase. In the third phase, understanding care as a normative value that contributes to peace and stability in the same way as justice, freedom, and equality' is significant for the theory’s expansion.

The personal is political

Carol Gilligan’s seminal work, In a Different Voice (1982), sparked the first phase of contemporary' feminist care ethics. In this book based on empirical findings, Gilligan presents gender differences in moral reasoning; women typically hold “the perspective of care”, while men typically use “the perspective of justice”.2 Gilligan criticises dominant ethical and psychological theories because they systematically neglect and devalue the care perspective at the expense of the perspective of justice.

Conflict resolution

One of Gilligan’s contributions is the identification of a strategy for conflict resolution which is highly relevant in peacemaking. According to this strategy, embedded in the care perspective, women approach moral dilemmas with the intention of reducing hann, preventing escalation, attending to the needs of vulnerable and significant others, and preserving and repairing endangered relational bonds. This is an alternative to the dominant perspective of justice, where individual rights and rale-following are the focal points when approaching conflicts. Moreover, women’s perceptions of harm and violence include not only a violation of rights but also indifference, exclusion, and neglect. From the perspective of care, some of the most serious harms people experience are the fracturing of central relationships (Kittay, 2009, p. 64). Hence, care ethics identifies types of hann that are easily overlooked by adherents of traditional theories of justice but nevertheless essential in identifying and understanding conflicts, violence, and peace.

The methods for identifying harm and solving conflicts rely on dialogue and con-textualisation, not just on deduction from abstract principles (Gilligan, 1982, pp. 125—131). From the perspective of care, peacebuilding includes “an aspect of keeping, mending or restoring” relationships (Selzner, 2010, p. 6). However, as Birgit Brock-Utne (1985, ix) remarks, the fact that girls are trained to care and repair “does not help the world very much as long as girls and women remain universally oppressed”. This is precisely why care ethicists argued in the first phase that care is not only a private issue, but highly ethical and political as well.

This point is demonstrated by Sara Ruddick (1989) who analyses a particular type of care involving maternal work and maternal thinking. Ruddick claims, in accordance with Gilligan, that mothers’3 caring experiences and insights are neglected in mainstream ethics but especially relevant in conflict resolution and peacekeeping. The goal of all maternal work, Ruddick maintains, is preservation, growth, and social acceptability.4 To be a mother is to work for the fulfilment of these goals through preservative love, nurturance, and training (Ruddick, 1989, p. 17). One obvious reason that maternal ethics does not stop at the doorstep is that the fulfilment of these goals depends on the surroundings. In order to preserve their children and to create an environment in which they can flourish, mothers also work for, among other things, affordable and accessible health care. They fight against pollution, crime, drugs, and gun violence, and they resolve conflicts and work for peaceful interaction. Maternal skills, such as integrity, attentiveness, compassion, and the ability to listen to others, to work in teams, and to resolve conflicts, are particularly useful in the process of making and sustaining peace. “Maternal thinking”, Ruddick claims, “is a committed and visionary standpoint, from which war’s destructive nature can be criticised” (1989, p. 141).

Additionally, it is through maternal work that new moral and political agents develop. Children can become self-centred or caring, and they can develop into war mongers or peacemakers. If mothers train children to care for themselves and others, they lay the foundation for rejecting the blind obedience of authority that marks military-based thinking (Ruddick, 1989, p. 150). Echoing Virginia Woolf and also the feminist slogan that the personal is political, Ruddick insists that war is a reflection of the culture from where it arises (2000, p. 586). Care ethics work for the prevention of harm by cultivating care. Cultivating care is fostering peace.

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