Care and Obedience (Mormonism and Feminist Theory)

The care perspective was first identified by Carol Gilligan who argued that there are two moral voices: justice and care. Justice, the masculine approach to morality, focuses on universal abstract principles such as equality, impartiality, and universality. Within a Mormon context, I think the principle of agency, as well as obedience would be added to this list.

The classic justice perspective is Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. The categorical imperative asserts that we should act according to principles that we would want to be followed as universal laws. In other words, when I identify the principle of a given act, I must ask whether I would want all people to follow that principle in all cases. If the answer is in the affirmative, then that is a morally justified act. If the answer is negative, then I should not act upon such principles.

The categorical imperative in not particularly sexist (sexism violates the “humanity as an ends” principle of the categorical imperative), but it represents a type of abstraction which removes moral judgments from real world relationships and conditions. This is of interest to feminists because women not only value relationships but also because they often are burden with responsibilities which do not allow them to ignore those relationships. These are primarily dependency relationships where some children, the disabled, and other rely on the other for survival.

Additionally, and most problematic for feminists, Kant views actions driven by feelings or inclination as insufficient. In order for actions to be considered moral, they must be based on abstract principle. Yet, in dependency relationships, whether it is caring for a child or an elderly parent, the obligation to care is often driven by emotional sentiment such as love or even pity and not so much “out of principle.”

This marginalization of emotion in moral decision making is picked up by Lawrence Kohlberg in his psychological analysis of moral decision making. In his hierarchy of moral approaches, Kohlberg favors those that fit the Kantian model of impartiality and places decisions that take relationships and emotions into account lower on the hierarchy. Gilligan responds to Kohlberg, and indirectly to Kant, by claiming that the care perspective is a different (and equally valid) approach to morality. Care is not a lesser approach to morality.

Marilyn Friedman argues that Gilligan makes a mistake in accepting the care/justice dichotomy. For Friedman, care and justice are essentially the same things. They are not expressing different moral perspectives, but instead they both are expressing a deep commitment to other individuals. While they may at times be expressed in different vocabularies and styles, they represent the same moral perspective. While I feel that there may be a distinct concepts of justice and care, I agree with Friedman that Gilligan mistakenly sets the two concepts up as opposing forces. Instead they should be viewed as going hand in hand because they are both key to social cooperation at any number of levels.

Nel Noddings is among the first to introduce care as a “feminine” approach to moral theory. For Noddings, care involves two aspects: caring for others and being cared for. Not only should we care for others (a deontological obligation) but we need to be cared for. In this way, care is a central, rather than peripheral, component of moral life. Noddings, a philosopher of education, uses the idea of care to place focus on caring relationships between adults (parents and teachers) and young children. Joan Tronto is critical of Noddings for placing too much emphasis on the family as the site of care by ignoring institutional forms of care and the need for rights protections within both familial and institutional care relationships.

Both Virginia Held and Michael Slote advance the ethic of care as a viable stand alone alternative to deontology, utilitarianism, and social contract theory. In both of their approaches, they take a rather Aristotelian direction. In many ways the ethic of care has a certain affinity for Aristotelian virtue ethics because both value emotional feeling and life experience. Held and Slote diverge from both Gilligan and Noddings by rejecting the gender-based usage of the care concept. Where Gilligan and Noddings treat the concept of care as a predominantly feminine attribute. While traditionally women have been viewed as the caring and the care-givers, Slote tries to break care from this secondary role by arguing that the ethic of care is actually preferable to the other approaches. Tronto’s political conception of care likewise argues that care is a sound basis for egalitarian politics and not just a feminist approach to ethics.


Noddings highlights the story of Abraham and Isaac as an example of how the justice perspective, particularly the emphasis on obedience to abstract rules, can blind us to lived morality. In this case, Abraham obeys an unseen and abstracted God and places said god above his son and wife. Isn’t great that Abraham loved God so much that he would even sacrifice his son? Well, from the ethic of care the answer would be: heck no.

Now one may say that I am unfairly condemning Abraham, but keep in mind that I do not think the story actually took place. It is a figurative story meant to teach obedience…a rather problematic conception of obedience.

From a care perspective, nationalism and religion are not a problem…unless they lead us to violate the obligations which we have within our caring relationships. In the case of the Abraham native, Isaac is not only Abraham’s dependent, he is also the product of a long and meaningful relationship with Sarah. These relationships should carry greater moral import because they are rooted in our actual moral relationships. We do not that moral relationship with God or our nation-state. Now, nation-states do provide the conditions that make it possible to have caring relationships. Additionally, faith and religion may reinforce our commitment to caring relationships. But, in both of these cases religion and nation are secondary goods because they are good to the extent to which they enhance our primary moral relationships.

The ethic of care provides us a paradigm for understanding how ancient and modern have failed us in the pursuit of moral life. I hope the further investigate how Mormonism, a theological tradition rooted in the ancient and the modern, and particularly Mormon feminism can benefit from perspectives that adapt and reconsider our traditional moral assumptions.

4 Replies to “Care and Obedience (Mormonism and Feminist Theory)”

  1. Chris H., I always appreciate your introducing me to new philosophy, but I need some help understanding:

    What if our primary moral relationships obligate us to do something bad — like if your family was mafia? That is to say, are obligations to God and nation-state always secondary?

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