What’s Gender Got to Do with it: The Politics and Morality of an Ethic of Care


In her important argument for an ethic of care, Joan Tronto attempts to detach gender from a morality of care. She begins by reviewing the historical and philosophical basis for an ethic of care, derived from the Scottish Enlightenment, which she claims originally knew no gender basis.Then, she chronicles how social, economic, and political developments in the eighteenth century began to limit the development of a universal ethic of care to a more specific ethic situated in women. This effort is significant because the morality of an ethic of care is, or should be, a universal political and philosophical subject for our fellow human beings. In addition, recent feminist work in philosophy, psychology, sociology, education, and law has claimed a particular explanatory role for gender in its development. Tronto also attempts to describe and define the contents of an ethic of care, thus making a very valuable contribution to both of these inquiries.

I write this review as someone who has associated the ethic of care in both legal practice and in legal ethics with gender, and, therefore, I want to explore more fully the relationship of gender to those issues which engage Tronto – care, morality, ethics, politics, and epistemology. Unlike Tronto, however, I am reluctant to detach gender from an ethic of care. While I understand that this detachment is politically and strategically motivated in order to make care a universal, moral imperative, I think that an ethic of care’s gendered aspects must be addressed before it can emerge asa fully humanist and political philosophy.

In writing this important book, Joan Tronto has raised several significant questions for political and moral philosophy, which apply to both legal theory and practice. The questions that I will address in this review are:

1) What are the moral and political bases for an ethic of care? How is an ethic of care articulated as a moral value in political, legal, and philosophical debate? In short, do we, should we, and, if so, why do we care about care?

2) Is an ethic of care gendered? Is caring itself gendered? How is the actual practice of care related to how we might articulate a morality or ethic of care? In short, what are the gendered aspects of the theory and practice of care, and does gender have different influences in each sphere?

3) Why does Tronto seek to detach gender from care in her “political argument for an ethic of care.” Does she succeed? How is Tronto’s work situated in the context of feminist theorists who, on the one hand, share her goal of degendering some feminist arguments, and on the other, who are explicitly using gender as a theoretical wedge with which to dislodge conventional categories?

4) What does it take to reconstruct the values we take seriously in order to make a persuasive argument that they should be redirected or reconceived? Can ethics, morality, or values be reconfigured by argument and theory or are events, experiences, and physical and emotional states required to alter our personal, social, political, and ethical ordering? How do arguments and experiences work at individual, social, and societal levels?

5) How might our behavior in the world be affected by a value system that takes an ethic of care seriously? In relation to Tronto’s reconstruction of liberalism, what are Tronto’s contributions, not only to political and moral theory, but also to social organization and the practice of being a good and moral person?

6) What is the significance of Tronto’s description of an ethic of care for the legal system? How does Tronto’s description of care illuminate how the law and legal practice should be structured?

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Panel I: Defund Means Defund Andrea Ritchie (she/her) is a Black lesbian immigrant whose writing, litigation, and advocacy has focused on policing of women and LGBT people of color for the past two decades. She is currently a researcher with