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Developing an Ethics of Care

A design of two arms outstretched, one holding out the Earth in its palm and the other reaching towards it.

To address the questions of community-building and collective responsibility, Ethics of Care, an ethical theory originally proposed by Carol Gilligan, offers a dynamic approach towards understanding how we might build social relations and collectives through concern and care for other members in a group. It involves an empathy-based approach, rather than one that merely emphasises logic, reason, or consequences of our actions as proposed by traditional ethical theories such as Deontology and Utilitarianism. Due to the origin and close link of Ethics of Care to the feminist movement, it is all the more pertinent in guiding how we think about gender and sexuality, and the roles we imagine and assign to ourselves in building safe and inclusive spaces for the expressions and actions of those who are marginalised.  

Ethics of Care offers a normative paradigm that goes beyond the neat distinctions of morally guided ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ actions to incorporate social responsibility, wherein we learn how to shape our responses on the basis of the needs of a community’s members, by extending the tenet of “do no harm” and going beyond only the legal responsibilities one is required to adhere to. Relational in nature, it emphasises cultivating interdependence and intersubjectivity, rather than on virtues that an individual needs to possess in order to lead a just life, as formulated within the model of Virtue Ethics. It encompasses the idea of taking social responsibility to uphold personal morality. For example, it is not enough for one to believe lying or stealing is morally wrong, but one needs to also analyse the situations within which a person may be compelled to lie or to steal, and then respond in a way that aims to eliminate the adversities within which such acts may be born. In the context of gender and sexuality, it requires us to be attentive to the needs of different groups to be able to justly respond to them. Thus, constant engagement with marginalised communities and educating individuals about the ways in which support structures can be developed within the private/public sphere(s) becomes a more nuanced exercise. It requires constant action on the part of society to (un)learn and build its own capacities to be able to meet the needs of the diverse individuals comprising it. Such engagement tempers the emotional labour that members of non-conforming and non-normative communities are required or even demanded to do. It lessens their burden of having to revisit trauma, face triggers, and go through a harrowing ordeal in constantly (re)asserting their identity. Thus, an Ethics of Care calls for allies to become responsive by enhancing their own competency in small as well as big ways – by learning about preferred pronouns, transcending binaries by rejecting the female/male distinction as being ‘natural or being able to understand that one can identify as non-binary, knowing how queer theory allows for reformulating popular culture through a new lens and how it allows identities to be dynamic and hybrid, noticing the heteronormative ideals that govern not only our daily lives but also media representation and our very own thought processes, and recognising architectural inadequacies in accessibility. Allyship thus becomes not only about educating oneself, but about using one’s privileges to make others around one aware of power structures and their unequal manifestations. It becomes about placing the community at the centre and thinking of reform strategies from there, and inverting the top-bottom approach to break away from the ‘saviour complex’.


Community building following Ethics of Care also calls for analysing the impact and consequences of our choices, where community members’ voices are given due recognition in decision-making (be it in the larger legislative processes, or social contracts which are derived through common understanding) and thus, are attentively listened to for further cultivating trust and solidarity. Side by side, we need to learn to contextualise our approach to meet the needs of specific communities, and mutually consider the questions of safety, consent, expression, and acceptance, to foster safe, inclusive, and affirming spaces. Thus, we are required to make an effort to learn about different expressions of gender and sexuality, their exclusion from mainstream discourse(s), and thereby develop an inclusive and adequate vocabulary – because language is action and our speech isn’t a string of mere assertions but carries a performative force behind it. An Ethics of Care also consciously calls for a moral obligation to care for those who are rendered vulnerable because they are marginalised, reiterates the need to help others, and to live a life of caring beyond one’s own needs. This ethical model can be applied to our lives in many ways. We can start by challenging queer-negativity or sexist remarks whenever encountered, question our own privileges and biases, pass the mic for voices that have been silenced for too long, believe the accounts of those who have faced violence, and increase our own awareness and that of those around us regarding the ways in which our actions might be deepening and reinforcing the values of oppressive structures.

Therefore, recognising the interdependence of persons on one another, gauging the impact of our own choices, considering the interests of individuals in relation to their vulnerability, and developing a response mechanism which is tailor-made to address the needs of those marginalised due to their gender and sexual identity and expression, offer a unique way of imagining how we relate to those around us and how we imagine communities to develop and grow. An Ethics of Care asks us to imagine alternative ways of being to make our support systems resilient and to redress historical and systemic marginalisation and oppression. In emphasising caring for others, an Ethics of Care also advocates for caring for oneself and striking a balance between personal and community growth. Self-care thus subsumes how we relate to each other, how sensitively we understand and are understood, and care and are cared for in an interdependent society. By nurturing positive relations with those around us, we are also able to learn about ourselves in the process and attach meaning to our actions.



Gilligan, Carol. In A Different Voice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.


Gilligan, Carol. “Moral Orientation and Moral Development.” In Alison Bailey and Chris J. Cuomo (Eds.). The Feminist Philosophy Reader. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008.

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