N.B. — This article is first of a several-part series outlining the pros and cons of various ethical paradigms when they occupy the commanding heights of a given workplace.
People naturally fall along one of several different major ethical paradigms. They emphasize duty, or outcomes, or God’s will, or natural law, or whatever, or whatever. For some, their preferred paradigm serves as an all-encompassing worldview; for others, paradigm choice resembles a buffet insofar as they pick what seems right in context — one moment a consequentialist, the next an enforcer of duty.
Companies that understand that each employee presents a complex ethical portrait, and that success as an enterprise derives from respecting and leveraging these perspectives, tend to do well at fostering a positive corporate culture. Particularly regarding workplace communication, companies that demonstrate high ethical competence often communicate in ways that speak to several different ethical paradigms simultaneously.
Some industries disproportionally favor one paradigm above others. The United States Marine Corps, for example, provides a case study in duty ethics, and Steve Jobs focused Apple’s culture on outcomes despite concerns about plant operations in China. Overwhelmingly, though, most American companies or non-profits aren’t possessed of a specific ethical culture. They muddle through, largely without thinking.
One exception: Health care. Hospitals, doctor’s offices, nursing homes, clinics — they trend in favor of care ethics, at least on the lower rungs of the institutional hierarchy. Many nursing programs employ care ethics as part of its core curriculum and because the industry is female-dominated, care ethics often plugs in naturally.
Defining care ethics presents some interesting category questions for philosophers, but a few points seem well-accepted:
- Care ethics emphasizes the preservation of relationships — often between caregiver and care receiver, but more generally among the participants to a dispute — as a presumptive good, outranking duty or consequence as a value proposition.
- A disciple of care ethics remains genuinely interested in the well-being of others, particularly the weak or vulnerable or dependent, and values emotional response and inductive reasoning (i.e., moving from particulars to a general rule) over dispassionate syllogistic logic.
- The praxis of care defies simple definition but is often (pace Joan Tronto) parsed to include attentiveness to identify need, responsibility to attend to the need, competence in addressing the need, and responsiveness to others who have a stake in the matter. For Tronto, “care” constitutes activity that promotes human flourishing, although some theorists take a broader approach and classify “care” as the social aspect of benevolence/beneficence or even as empathy within a situated moral argument that promotes compassion.
On its face, care ethics does some things very well. It helps bring people together to overcome the root emotional barriers that poison the well. There’s a preferential option for the weak and dependent that helps soften the blow of a purely consequentialist perspective; in hospitals, it often represents the voice of the patient in non-clinical settings. Celebrating the social impact of moral choices encourages teamwork and facilitates communication about complex problems. You’ll often see people going to great lengths to ensure that “we’re on the same page” or asking “are we ok?”
However, when care ethics becomes the dominant moral paradigm within the workplace, some risks thereby result:
- The theoretical risk of “proximity” tends to become manifest. Because the tendency among care ethics practitioners is to negotiate among disputants directly involved in a dispute, there’s a greater risk that second-order disputants will get chucked under the bus or lack a voice in the final decision. This tendency occurs most often in leadership settings, where saving face with peers sometimes leads to choices that result in suboptimal outcomes for employees. For example, a manager under fire from peers may commit her resources to squelch the immediate disagreement and preserve the equal footing with the peer group, even though the resources may not represent the most important work those resources could be addressing.
- People who don’t subscribe to care ethics may find themselves marginalized. If a person who believes strongly in, e.g., a duty-based approach to problem solving declines to compromise his position for the sake of group consensus, he will tend to be marginalized as an “outsider” and lose social and moral standing with the group — sometimes to the point of being labeled as a “difficult person to work with” or “arrogant and inflexible.”
- Care ethics promotes “queen bee syndrome,” or the aggregation of considerable social or political power in one strong female leader (or close-knit clique), who then behaves in a softly authoritarian manner. The development of this power then shifts “consensus” in the rest of the group away from a negotiation among equals to a jockeying for influence with the queen.
Care ethics brings a valuable perspective to the workplace; its emphasis on consensus and empathy help to smooth over the rough spots that other ethical paradigms cannot address from within their respective systems. However, when care ethics becomes the dominant model, the risk increases that the environment will transform into a “royal court politics” model whereby social connection within vertical relationships determine’s a person’s reputation and opportunities for advancement, irrespective of merits.
There’s no such thing as a perfect workplace. There’s no such thing as a perfect ethical theory. The relative benefits of an ethics of care must be balanced against the abuses that this system tolerates. Effective managers will ensure that even if care ethics serves as the dominant paradigm, that administrative structures will protect those who favor other ethical approaches from being unfairly marginalized.
For a more detailed breakdown of Care Ethics — including its sources, major themes and primary critiques — review the entry on this subject in the well-regarded Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.