Overview of topic: Feminist Ethics of Care

After reading Chapter 4, you should be familiar with the concepts that were introduced relating to different approaches to ethics and morality. You are advised to consult this chapter if you have not done so already as the contents will not be repeated here in-depth. This case study will ask why a politics of care is necessary, discussing the rejection by some scholars of the prioritization of economic logics and concerns in society, to the neglect of wider understandings of ethical relations.

Some feminist critics of dominant approaches to moral theory in Western philosophy argue that influential disciplinary fields such as deontology and utilitarianism have overly focused on narrowly defined conceptions of justice. The focus on care ethics emerged as an alternative position from which to theorize on questions of morality. One aspect of this critique involved questioning the binary between public and private spheres, the former associated with the “natural” domain of women rather than a legitimate subject of moral inquiry and so largely unaddressed within dominant moral theory (Tronto, 1993).

From this perspective, the moral world needed to be expanded so that aspects of the private realm, such as care for the sick, for children, or for elderly people, could be recognized as important structuring life experiences and therefore also subject to moral debate. The conditions of dependence and interdependence could be brought into the foreground of human experience. This foregrounding of an analytics of care as an integral dimension of social relations highlighted the need for different kinds of moral reasoning to that predominating in moral theories that centred on questions of justice.

The interest in interdependence is a departure from assumptions within strands of philosophical and political thought about the autonomy of the self. Within feminist thinking on ethics of care, the individual cannot be abstracted from their environment or operate independently from the social and moral worlds in they act. This emphasizes relationality as constituting selfhood and therefore also the individual’s position as a moral actor in relation to others. Jean Keller and Eva Feder Kittay explain the significance of relationality for moral agency in the following quote.

Case Study Box 4.1

“Care ethicists see this dependence and interdependence of persons as a central aspect of human experience that requires a new model of moral agency. Thus care ethicists not only conceive the self as constituted through and situated in relationships with others, but they also insist that the full range of human experience, from dependence and vulnerability at birth to frail old age, be considered when conceiving human agency and interactions.” Jean Keller and Eva Feder (2017) “Feminist Ethics of Care”. In: The Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy. (New York and London: Routledge) 541.

By taking the relations among individuals or groups and their wider environment as central to understanding the self, the idea of autonomy can be reimagined as existing within this relational structure. Rather than others hampering our autonomy, we act as independent agents through our interactions with others. These networked relations are not an impediment to individuality, but a framework within which this emerges and takes on meaning.

Section 1: Care under capitalism


More recently, feminists have centred care in thinking about implications of the inequalities that proliferate under neoliberal capitalism, including policies of austerity that saw marginalized social groups suffer from economic restructuring and rendered increasingly vulnerable to deprivation. Under the individualizing and autonomizing logics of neoliberalism, to need care, including the reliance on welfare benefits, is stigmatized. To need care is to lack autonomy and fail to live up to one’s potential as an economically rational actor (Brown, 2005).

If ethical relationality is absent within neoliberal logics of governance, how might ordinary people create their own ways of being together and caring for each other? The answer, for a group of feminist scholars called The Care Collective, is in the prioritization of “a sense of universal care,” which “is necessary for the cultivation of both a caring politics and fulfilling lives” (2020: 26). They suggest a new “ethics of promiscuous care” (33), described as “an ethics that proliferates outwards to redefine caring relations from the most intimate to the most distant. It means caring more and in ways that remain experimental and extensive by current standards.” This involves extending notions of kinship beyond the atomized notion of immediate family so that the expanded network of social relationships distributes an ethic of care beyond the remit of the state or “the nuclear family.”

1) The commodification of care

Some feminist scholars argue that capitalism creates a social world in which care is largely absent (see Farris and Marchetti, 2017; The Care Collective, 2020; Vaittinen et al., 2018), except for in private spaces and institutions where it can be purchased as a private transaction. In other words, they point to the commodification and commercialization of care – it is increasingly beyond the responsibility of the state, left to the private individual or family, distributed according to ability to pay, not according to need. The wealthy rely on others to care for them in many ways, as nannies, gardeners, and housekeepers or cleaners, to name some domestic examples. As discussed above, feminist ethics is understood as ethical orientation to others where care becomes central to the organization of social and economic relations. This section will reflect on some of the implications of the commodification of care for both those in need of it and workers who are paid a wage to provide it.

With cuts to social welfare and benefits, to health, social care, and education, questions have been posed regarding who has access to these aspects of wellbeing. For critics of the current system, the answer to these problems is the creation of a politics of care. One dimension that the latter aims to subvert is the failure to acknowledge paid (or unpaid) domestic work as important work since it is associated with the kind of work that is “natural” to women in the private sphere (Pateman, 1988). It is seen as low skilled and remains a low paid role. In economically developed countries, it is often migrants who are employed to provide this service. Migrant workers in this industry are exposed to extremely exploitative conditions, indicative of the need for a different kind of politics where everyone deserves equal access to care.

2) Domestic workers and exploitation of care

According to The Care Collective (2020), some affluent women, to facilitate and compensate for being in the workforce and needing support for domestic servicing, are able to rely on the labour of women from the Global South to perform care in their homes. Domestic workers are responsible for tasks such as caring for children and elderly people in the household and cleaning the house. The case of migrant domestic workers illustrates the intersection of the commodification of care with exploitation of labour along the lines of gender and race (Degani, 2022). A significant proportion of domestic workers are women from the Philippines who are often forced to leave their own children to earn a wage by caring for the families of others.

They face exploitative conditions regarding labour rights, and since they often live in employers’ home, the exploitation becomes invisible (Gordolan and Lalani, 2009). In Britain, the government changed the visa regulations for domestic workers, linking the visa to the employer to whom the worker went to work when initially entering the country, and put a six-month limit on the visa. Domestic workers became dependent on their employers for the visas, creating the conditions in which they could more easily be exploited. There have been reports of some employers taking workers’ identity papers so that if they leave, they have no evidence of having rights to work in Britain (Pearce, 2003). This leaves people in a vulnerable position as they may have to accept exploitative work conditions in order to survive.

Migrant activists have led campaigns for better conditions for those in care roles, which have led to some minor improvements. In June 2011, the first international treaty was created, the Domestic Workers Convention, to enshrine and protect rights of these workers (ILO, 2011). In 2016, the British government amended policy so that migrant domestic workers had the right to change employer during the six-month period of the visa; however, they did not have the opportunity to extend their visa (Mantouvalou and Sedacca, 2022). Given the inability to renew their documents, if leaving a job, the worker had a very short time in which to secure further work.

The consequences of the marketization of care is demonstrated in the exploitation of migrant care workers. As outlined above, activists call for an alternative relational model, in which care is central to social and ethical ways of being. Feminist theorists have also debated whether an ethics of care can be rooted in empathy alone. Even positive emotions, such as empathy and compassion, are produced within the context of power relations and hierarchies. Carolyn Pedwell (2014), writing about empathy within neoliberalism, asks whether empathy can be individualizing and therefore depoliticizing, a point echoed by Brigitte Bargetz below.

Case Study Box 4.2

Affective politics of empathy or compassion do not necessarily create political solidarity. They may also indicate a new mode of governing or enhance (neo-)liberal politics through moralization, individualization and privatization. In this way, politics of empathy can privilege the individual over the social; feelings of political empathy at home over an articulation of political anger in public; or private donations over struggles over distribution. Brigitte Bargetz. Mapping Affect: Challenges of (Un)Timely Politics (2014) in: Timing of Affect: Epistemologies, Aesthetics, Politics (Diaphanes) 4.

3) Limitations to care as commodity

When we have economic and social systems that do not prioritize care and take a narrow view of ethics, the way is paved for carers to become workers vulnerable to exploitation. It becomes transactional, rather than located within contexts of embedded social relations.

The commodification of care leads not only to exploitation of workers in a capitalist economy, but to troubling effects for those in greater need of care, such as chronic health conditions or the elderly, some of whom are forced to find ways to fund their own care. In this example, we see how care becomes a form of feminist praxis that foregrounds interdependence as part of the human condition. For example, rather than relying on the market to provide care, the Care Collective argues for an ethics imagined as promiscuous care. This is an understanding of community or kinship expanded beyond the family, placing care at the centre of the organization of everyday social and political roles and functions – as a social value rather than commodity that facilitates exploitation of those at the bottom of the global labour ladder.


Bargetz, Brigitte Mapping Affect: Challenges of (Un)Timely Politics. In: Angerer, Marie-Luise, Bösel, Bernd, & Michaela Ott (2014) Timing of Affect: Epistemologies, Aesthetics, Politics. Diaphanes, 289–302.

Brown, Wendy (2005) Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Degani Paola (2022) Domestic/Care Work and Severe Exploitation. The Limits of Italian Migrant Regularization Schemes. Frontiers in Human Dynamics. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fhumd.2022.818351/full#h3

Farris, Sara and Sabrina Marchetti (2017) From the Commodification to the Corporatization of Care: European Perspectives and Debates. Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society 24(2): 109–131.

Gordolan, Lourdes and Lalani, Mumtaz (2009) Care and Immigration. Migrant Care Workers in Private Households. Kalayaan.

International Labour Organisation (2011) “Decent Work for Domestic Workers Convention 189 Recommendation 201.” International Labour Office Geneva. Available online: https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@ed_protect/@protrav/@travail/documents/publication/wcms_168266.pdf.

Keller, Jean and Kittay, Eva Feder (2017) Feminist Ethics of Care. In: Garry, Ann, Khader, Serene J, and Alison Stone (Eds.) The Routledge Companion to Feminist Philosophy. New York and London: Routledge, pp: 540-555.

Mantouvalou, Virginia and Sedacca, Natalie (2022) Trapped in Cycles of Exploitation: The UK Overseas Domestic Worker Visa 10 Years On. UK Labour Law. Available online: https://uklabourlawblog.com/2022/04/06/trapped-in-cycles-of-exploitation-the-uk-overseas-domestic-worker-visa-10-years-on-by-virginia-mantouvalou-and-natalie-sedacca/

Pateman, Carole (1988) The Sexual Contract

Pearce, Natasha (2003) Migrant Workers’ Rights. The Passport Issue. Kalayaan. Available online: http://www.kalayaan.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/kalyaan-passport-report2.pdf.

Pedwell, Carolyn (2014) Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Empathy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

The Care Collective (2020) The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence. London and New York: Verso.

Vaittinen, Tiina, Hoppania, Hanna-Kaisa & Olli Karsio (2018) Marketization, Commodification and Privatization Of Care Services. In: Elias, Juanita and Adrienne Roberts (Eds.) The Handbook of International Political Economy and Gender. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, pp: 379–391