In a previous post, I rehearsed some reasons why I think care ethics might be best actualized in society through markets. I will expand on those reasons in a future post. Here, I want to discuss what I think libertarianism could gain from care ethics.
As mentioned in my previous post, care ethics is a moral framework in which the morally salient feature of relations between people as whether the relationship is guided by care – whether people meet each other’s needs attentively and responsively. Care ethicist Nel Noddings articulates this well when she writes that:
In some sense this [care ethics] vision emphasizes something different from – but overlapping with – theories of justice. Rather than arguing about what institutions best satisfy what we collectively owe to each other – respect for natural rights, a certain degree of welfare, etc. – care ethicists discuss what social institutions are most conducive to the formation and maintenance of caring relationships between people.
As a libertarian, I find this care ethics framework very attractive. When I reflect on why I am a libertarian, it is not because I reason that there are individiual rights that ought to be respected (a conversation that always seems to devolve into fruitless speculation about where these rights come from and why we ought to respect them). Nor does my libertarianism come from a belief that liberty (in a small government sense) will produce the best material consequences for all over the long run (though this is closer to right), or that I think libertarian institutions are the ones we’d all agree to if deliberating a social contract. While I don’t deny the importance of either of these, my libertarianism stems most from wanting to see a world where people are as free as possible to form direct caring relations with others, and believing that state action more often impedes than allows this to happen.
Care ethicists are just about uniformly against the sort of minimal state libertarianism I support, which they often equate to a soulless individualism where everyone is expected to be a rational maximizer of their own self-interest, motivated solely or mostly by profit rather than care toward others. There must, they say, be protection by a caring government to either buffer the nasty effects of the market or offer care services directly that would be corrupted if offered on the market.
I, of course, think most of this is false. States do not have a good record of caring very well, humans are often every bit as other-oriented as self-interested (a very tricky dichotomy anyhow) and individual liberty and trade strengthen communities more than state interventions do. Still, the kinds of misunderstandings that care ethicists exhibit about how markets and states compare keep cropping up.
I happen to think that at least part of the reason is that we libertarians need to do better at thinking about and explaining how libertarian institutions not only lead to a more just society (“best satisfy what we collectively owe to each other” in Noddings’s words) but a more caring world (“are most conducive to the formation and maintenance of caring relationships between people”).
Why do this? Because while we are right to care about respecting rights and designing institutions that work for the benefit of all, I’d argue that an equally important concern is whether caring relations between people can develop and flourish. If justice is about ensuring that institutions satisfy our mutual obligations to each other, care is about ensuring that institutions increase the likelihood that people will give and receive care beyond what the minimal obligations demand. Especially if we want the state to cede many of its current ‘welfare’ functions, we need to keep the importance of caring relations between private actors central to theorizing what a libertarian society should look like.
I’m not simply advocating for a shift in libertarian rhetorical emphasis from justice to care. Although showing how libertarianism can speak to various concerns (social justice, care, etc.) is important, I am suggesting that we incorporate concern with care ethics into justice-heavy libertarian theorizing. As Noddings wrote, we might see care ethics as “something different – but overlapping with” justice concerns.
For instance, a project I’m working on now is arguing for private educational markets over public education systems, not on the grounds that the latter violate rights to determine the education of our children or arguments that private schools are superior on consequentialist grounds. Rather, I am concerned that state education leads to less caring results (less allowance for individuals to form communities that adequately meet their needs, for instance) than private schooling. To the degree that I entertain government regulations, it is on the grounds of what regulations (increasing the flow of information in markets, ensuring that everyone have reasonable exit rights from educational contracts) best promote the ability of people to create caring relationships and dissolve uncaring ones.
Like some care ethicists, I think we should view care ethics not as a theory to replace theories of justice, but an approach that should be used alongside theories of justice. Particularly if we want to see an end to, or reduction in, coercive forms of state “aid” to the vulnerable, our theorizing needs to address how a libertarian world will be a more caring one (as well as a more just one).