Care Ethics and Feminism

Within feminist theory, where care ethics originated, there are many different veins of thought; however, there are some common threads within the theories. Mary Lay listed out some common feminist characteristics in her 1991 article Feminist theory and the redefinition of technical communication. She said the shared characteristics include:

  1. Celebration of difference
  2. Theory activating social change
  3. Acknowledgment of scholars’ backgrounds and values
  4. Inclusion of women’s experiences
  5. Study of gaps and silences in traditional scholarship
  6. New sources of knowledge—perhaps a benefit of the five characteristics above (p. 349–350)

This list of characteristics that traditional feminist scholarship all share is reflected in the care ethics model. For example, the study of gaps in traditional scholarship is precisely what led Carol Gilligan to challenge the justice-based morality measurement system her mentor used. From that, she developed and built up the theory of care ethics.  The inclusion of women’s care-based approaches can also be seen as moral maturity in Gilligan’s theory, where moral maturity was previously measured with a more masculine outlook in the justice-based measurement. Some feminists challenge this care-centered approach, saying that it engenders caring to women. They argue that the different ethical approaches of men and women are a result of societal constructs and that assigning “caring” to women further perpetuates the societal expectation on women to be nurturing. However, care-focused feminists assert that caring is not a woman’s approach, but rather a human approach and that applying relational ethics and care ethics to different moral dilemmas produces a more well-rounded ethical approach to situations and people than the objective and detached justice ethics.

In regards to care ethics and feminist theory in technical and professional communications, Erin Frost, a professor at East Carolina University, asks some very important questions in her 2016 article Apparent feminism as a methodology for technical communication and rhetoric. “How might feminist technical communicators persuasively point out the bias inherent in all worldviews, even those that people often perceive as neutral? How might they intervene in unjust situations, particularly in technical contexts in which objectivity is highly valued? And how might they best decide which situations are most deserving of this sort of attention?” (p. 4). By acknowledging that all communications are built on a worldview and ethical model (or lack thereof), different approaches to ethics can be explored and matched with the model that fits, which, in my opinion, if often care ethics.

Empathy as Rhetoric

Eric Leake wrote an article in 2016 titled Writing Pedagogies of Empathy: As Rhetoric and Disposition. This quote stood out to me as an important way to look at digital writing through an empathetic lens: “Teaching empathy as rhetoric has broad application as a suitable means of more closely examining the personal, social, and rhetorical functions of reason, emotions, and judgments. Empathy can be a means of invention, a heuristic, a way of considering audience and situation, an instrument of revision, and a tool for critical analysis. Teaching empathy as rhetoric attunes us to all of its possible uses and liabilities as a means of persuasion.”

When we look at writing through this lens, it makes it clear that online spaces host the emotions of real, feeling people. Their need to be cared for should influence the approach one takes towards rhetoric in online conversations. The approach to digital writing needs to change from blunt to caring—after all, they are human! Writing in digital forms should look beyond the abstract presence it often presents and consider the audience to see that digital interactions are with people rather than concepts.

For example, when writing in an online classroom, one should take the same level of caring for others that they give in real life. In professional settings, such as with an email campaign, the focus should be on what the audience needs to hear rather than what the company wants to say. By implementing this level of honesty rather than a utilitarian approach, audiences feel cared for, that their needs are met, and that their loyalty to the company is well placed. This, in turn, benefits the reputation of the company and attachment to the brand.