Caring about Boundaries

‘Caring about’ means, according to Joan Tronto, ‘noticing the need to care in the first place.’ And what she cared about in her 1993 work Moral Boundaries, are the boundaries of moral and political discourse. What she noticed was that not enough attention to them had been paid, resulting in the reproduction of existing injustices in society. Moral Boundaries is a great book, I would trade several bookcases filled with mainstream ethical theory for it. No, that is a silly thing to say – it is an indispensable book, and cannot be traded for anything. Of course one might criticize the work – I would, for instance, have loved it to be more systematic in its reasoning. But all the same it is rare that someone writes an original contribution to the body of philosophy, and any imperfections of it should not diminish the wonder this inspires (as one would not want to miss Kant’s works because his distinction between analytical and synthetical propositions is not really convincing).

For some time I owed a post to Joan Tronto, since the motto I chose when I first started blogging consists of a combination of expressions of Ludwig Feuerbach and of her. My first post was dedicated to Feuerbach, while I remained silent of Tronto. Why? Did I think that, as she is alive and active, she could take care of spreading her thought on her own? Or did I unknowingly fell victim to this unfeministic tendency (I suspect it exists in many women, as well as men) to cite the works of men more often than those of women? Anyhow, there is the more reason to give attention to her old work now – in the year that she finally, after twenty years, published another original book – on the failing of democracy (especially in the USA, but I suspect the results of her analysis will be of wider applicability), and its relation to not caring about care enough. This book I still have to read, but Moral Boundaries I have read and studied for a long period of time, and used parts of it in my ethics classes almost every year.

It is a work in the tradition of Critical Theory, and she makes clear where her approach diverges from the older German colleagues, especially Habermas in his eighties work on Communicative Action: ‘The Frankfurt School framework, blaming our understanding of reason […] provides only part of the answer. It is not enough to call attention to the formal problems in our current thought processes. The more serieus aspect of inattentiveness is the unwillingness of people to direct their attention to others’ particular concerns.’ When I reread these lines I smiled and thought: ‘oh, that’s what was wrong with the leftwingers of my student days – endlessly talking about highly theoretical stuff in smoke filled rooms – they wanted change, and were sincere about this, but connecting (practically and theoretically) with the powerless, the speechless, the mute, didn’t come very easy. They, we, needed Joan Tronto: ‘care implies reaching out to something other than the self: it is neither self-referring nor self-absorbing.’ And it is inherently directed to some kind of action.

The greatness of Tronto’s book consists in the fact that it showed that the soft force of care needs to have its place in the hard worlds of power and normativity – in politics and in ethics. When Kant searched for the essence of the good will he wrote that, instead of being driven by some interest, it takes an interest in something. Habermas broadened the importance of interest, and placed it, whether as drive or as motivation, behind every form of knowledge. Tronto’s criticsm goes further – it is attentive towards the boundaries of standard political and ethical discourse – the discourse that has relegated care, taking an interest in the problems of actual others, to something supererogatory, something beyond what morality can ask from a person, and something outside the arena of political trading. It is left to those who want to practice ‘charity’. But while modern political and ethical theory is based on the Enlightenment idea that all ‘men’ are equal – this makes it avoid, says Tronto, ‘the difficult questions that arise when we recognize that not all humans are equal.’ Taking no interest in this factuality is, she rightly states, ‘a moral failing’.

Therefore she was very right in focusing, in 1993, in the era of late modern thinking, on the ‘boundaries’ that have excluded care from public space. For reflecting on boundaries is what philosophy since Kant was supposed to do to be taken seriously. Not mindlessly enjoying the fun of metaphysics, but asking what preconditions our thought and experience. Care ethics, however, does not halt at contributing to critically outlining the limits of modern ethics and politics – it has in mind actual practice, from which it also springs – thus it makes sense that Tronto’s new book is still more focused on the actual political situation in which we live – this is where practical reasoning should have been directed at from the start anyway.

Joan Tronto is professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. The titles of the books of her I mentioned are below. I cited from the 1993 one.

I admire not only her work, but also that she succesfully withstood one of the perversities of present academic life, namely the pressure to ‘publish (very much) or perish’.

Moral Boundaries. A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care, Routledge, 1993

Caring Democracy. Markets, Equality, and Justice, new York University Press, 2013

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