[Editor’s Note: Kevin Currie-Knight is a PhD Candidate at University of Delaware’s School of Education. He specializes in the history and philosophy of education. His dissertation, From Laissez-Faire to Vouchers, is an intellectual history of (market) libertarian thought pertaining to American education.]
In my field of philosophy of education, it is difficult not to come across the ethical theory of care ethics, a position to which I’ve grown pretty sympathetic. But neither folks in education nor care ethicists are usually sympathetic to markets (at least not for things like educational services or other “basic needs”). Now, to me, some of the things markets do best – like encourage people who may not otherwise cooperate to meet each other’s needs – jibe pretty well with an ethic of care. Let me explain.
For those not familiar, care ethics is a theory (or maybe a set of similar theories) arguing that the morally important feature of any act between people (or sometimes, between people and things, like the environment) is whether they create or nurture caring relationships between parties. While care ethicists differ regarding whether care is more about intent (Michael Slote), achieving a “caring” result (Daniel Engster), or some of both (Virginia Held), one thing that isn’t (very) controversial among care ethicists is that we care most directly and effectively for those who are close to us such as family and friends. The more we attempt to extend care outward to distant others, the more a stronger “caring for” becomes a weaker “caring about.” This becomes a problem when care ethicists argue that care ethics can extend from a theory about personal relations to one about social justice.
Because care is most effective the “closer to home” it is, care ethicists tend to argue for decentralized systems of governance: that local community members are in the best position to assess and respond to the needs of other community members. Sadly, this enthusiasm for decentralization does not generally extend to the idea that markets might offer care more effectively than governments. I think it should, and here’s why.
Care Ethics + Markets
First, if care ethicists generally recognize that we are partial in caring most naturally for those close to us, then markets may offer a way to get folks cooperating in a caring way toward unknown others. This is a similar position to Adam Smith’s, who several care ethicists argue developed a sentimentalist moral position that is a forerunner to care ethics (without paying much attention to Smith’s market liberalism as an extension of his moral theory). . Smith took very seriously the idea that humans’ sympathy for others is limited the farther removed the person is from us (geographically or otherwise), and that if this is so, markets may offer a way to align our interests in a way that allows people to satisfy others’ needs without solely depending on people taking on the difficult task of extending their sympathies farther and farther outward. (This might be controversial with those care ethicists for whom the purity of caring motive matters more than producing results that meet people’s needs. But as I’ve said, care ethicists differ on whether and how much intent or result matters more.)
Second, there is reason to believe that, by inducing people to cooperate who may not otherwise, markets may well create genuinely caring relations that wouldn’t arise otherwise. There is increasing evidence that markets are actually quite good at creating and nurturing caring and empathic relations between people, the expressed goal of many care ethicists. Also, while markets are often criticized by care ethicists and others for being impersonal, markets may be best described as impersonal when they need to be, and personal when they need to be. If consumers value the ‘personal touch’ as part of what they are buying – as they do in rewarding companies with good customer service, and will likely demand when shopping for things like education or medical care – then the most successful companies will likely be those who cater to that demand. (This point warrants more elaboration than I can give in this post; I will return to it in a future post.)
Lastly, governments are often less likely to be responsive and attentive to needs than private actors in markets. One reason I think care ethicists would do well to take markets more seriously is because, as a student of public choice economics, I am well aware of the many instances and reasons why government services often tend to serve the interests of the providers before the recipients and become more bureaucratic and inflexible over time. (In my field of Education, Myron Lieberman, E.G. West, and Arthur Seldon have provided vivid examples of this tendency and the reasons for them.) If care ethicists value attentiveness and responsiveness to needs on the part of the carer, it may not be the best idea to put care into the political realm, stripping it of price signals (to let providers know how they are doing in serving consumers) and risking the bureaucratizing of care.
Those are just a few reasons why I think that taking care ethics seriously (as a theory that has something to offer as a framework for thinking about political and social institutions) means taking markets seriously. As I see it, the big takeaway here is that markets may not only achieve a more socially just world, but engender a more caring world where people are driven to attend to others’ needs not via coercive governmental policies, but reciprocal and positive-sum transactions that can help forge caring relations between people.