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Education Standards

3.2 Normative Theories

3.2 Normative Theories


This module presents two resources.  First (in "Section 2"), selections from a textbook that summarize major moral theories; second (in "Section 3"), a link to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Ethics.

[Image source: "Moral Compass" by Paul Downey is licensend under CC BY2.0 ]

Learning Objectives

The material in this module addresses the following Ohio Introduction to Ethics TAG Outcomes:

  • Recognize basic ethical concepts and ethical theories, such as, absolutism, descriptivism, relativism, absolutism, naturalism, intuitionism, utilitarianism, Kantianism, and virtue ethics.
  • Demonstrate exposure to and recognition of philosophical arguments addressing traditional and contemporary ethical and moral issues within the contexts and traditions that inform them.
  • Comprehend, analyze, and evaluate diverse philosophical arguments regarding ethical matters within the contexts and traditions those matters are cast.

Recommended Textbook Resources

Ethics for A-Level

This introductory ethics textbook from the United Kingdom covers normative ethics, applied ethics, and metaethics.  Here are links to the specific sections on normative ethics:


Kantian Ethics

Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

Aquinas' Natural Law Theory

Fletcher's Situation Ethics


Ethics in Law Enforcement 

Chapter 2 presents an overview of the major ethical systems.  It begins by characterizing the differences between normative ethics, metaethics, and applied ethics and then it gives overviews of the major normative theories.  Sections can be navigated to from the "Contents" tab on the page.  Each overview is a few pages in length and contains a summary of the theory, an application of the theory to issues in law enforcement, and a critical discussion of the theory.  Here are direct links to the specific sections for each normative theory covered in the text.



Virtue Ethics

Ethics of Care


Divine Command Theory

Natural Law Theory

Social Contract Theory

Rawls’ Theory of Justice


Supplemental Content/ Resources

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Ethics

This article gives a very dense overview of philosophical ethics.  It contains sections on metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.  The section on metaethics addresses objectivism and relativism as well as psychological issues related to ethics such as the relationship between reason and emotion.  The section on normative ethics covers virtue ethics, deontology, consequentialism, and social contract theory.  The section on applied ethics presents a set of ten principles most often appealed to in discussion ethical issues and also gives a brief overview of topics within applied ethics.

Perspectives from the Margins


“If it were not for some [divine] power that wanted the feminine sex to exist, the birth of a woman would be just another accident, such as that of other monsters [= a dog with two heads, a calf with five legs, etc.]”


“Nisi ergo esset aliqua virtus quae intenderet femineum sexum, generation feminae esset omnino a casu, sicut et aliorum monstrorum”. Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate 5, 9, d. 9.


Normative ethics refers to ethical models that assert claims about what is “normal” for people and human behavior.  When one says that something is normative, one is implicitly operating on some crucial, even if unspoken, assumptions.  If one understands something’s meaning in a normative light, then one embraces certain shoulds and oughts relative to how that meaning is understood. Stated norms both establish and (re)enforce how we understand a thing’s nature as legitimate or suitable or true.   The assumption follows that actions and behaviors should align with the nature of the thing in question.  Since normative assumptions typically pre-exist us and constitute the framework within which our ideas are formed, it can be a challenge to get behind the normative assumptions we hold in order to evaluate whether they are accurate, adequate, or flawed.  In other words, the very criteria we have established to think about “normal” may be a byproduct of already flawed or biased assumptions. 


This problem is in some since like the old question about the chicken and the egg; namely, which came first?   Do normative meanings exist because norms exist in some absolute sense?  Or, are normative meanings produced self-referentially and circularly out of the normative ways we speak, think, and act culturally.  In the latter case, even if there were metaphysical norms, they could not be definitively said to be known.  Restated, norms raise this question: do norms (for both being and action) exist because they describe or relate to something in its valid, given, ontological status OR do norms produce and reinforce a standard way of thinking and speaking about something in spite of and/or detached from and/or in ignorance of and/or even in the absence of something’s valid, given, ontological status?  At a basic level, a responsible discussion of norms should demonstrate a critical awareness of this root tension.


When we begin to treat normative assumptions about being and action with a critical awareness, a range of shifts can occur in the investigator’s perspective.  For example, if one recognizes that dominant cultural attitudes determine perspectives on what is normative, then one can scrutinize whether the persons that enjoy privileged status are the same ones determining standards for what is right or true or good for everyone.  In the critical analysis of norms, one often finds a philosophical bias towards the normativity of privileged people’s experience as well as the reinforcement of that privilege as normative. 


In philosophy classrooms, normative prescriptions for being and behavior may seem to be occasionally troubling but practically harmless thought experiments.  However, out of the classroom, philosophy is more than mere speculation and mental exercising.  In a fundamental sense, philosophy represents both suggestions and more often agreed upon judgments about how we understand the world: what things are, how we know them, and why we should do or not do certain things.  Normative judgments about conduct underlie the whole human life in society, informing models of government, legislation, and the social context within which people live, work, marry, reproduce, educate, recreate, age, and even experience sickness, end-of-life  and funerary events.  The stakes are high, and they are even higher for people whose experiences and voices are diminished or excluded from participation in the development of the normative models that guide and judge their very adequacy as beings and agents in society.


Who is at risk?  The answer is anyone who by ethnicity, creed, sex, gender, ability, sexuality, or any other significant social demarcation has limited access to participate in the philosophical dialogue.  This includes women, minority persons, people of the economic lower classes, and in general all those whose social location prevents them from contributing to the governing assumptions about human being and behavior.  Such sets of people are at risk of having their reality prescribed for them rather than having the space to describe truth as truth for themselves in a way that has socially normative value.


In light of these ideas, when we turn to study normative ethics, it is appropriate to employ what some have called a “hermeneutics of suspicion” as readers.   “Hermeneutics” is a word that refers to critical interpretive awareness about what one is reading, viewing, etc.  It involves an awareness of not only the thing being read or studied but also of oneself as a reader or interpreter.  An example here will be helpful.  In any store or mall or online shopping platform in the state of Ohio, a woman can purchase a pair of slacks or jeans with the intention of wearing them in public, such as to church, to work, to the theater, and so on.  Whereas today it is commonplace for women to wear pants, even as recently as several decades ago, such dress would have been considered unfeminine, and slightly deeper in our history, women in pants were breaking both the moral and civil law.  Given this context, a contemporary Ohioan reading the transcript of the trial and sentencing of Joan of Arc from the fifteenth century will find a great dissonance in her or his own assumptions about normative female dress compared with the charges that were brought against Joan for wearing “men’s” clothing.  A fifteenth century reader of the same text, however, would likely have heartily agreed that Joan should have been in a dress.  Awareness of the possibility of such dissonance can free us from the errors that our own normative assumptions are 1) right, 2) permanent, 3) universal, and 4) natural.  Once aware of this, one may be better able to see and assess assumptions attached to more serious, contemporary claims about normative bodiliness, gender presentation, sexuality, and so on.


The perspectives we bring to reading and analysis reflect personal and social context.  They condition how readers are able to see meaning, what we identify as important when we read and assess, and how we place ourselves within philosophical discourses.  In the same way, personal and social contexts also reflect writers’ assumptions and points of view.  As both writers and readers of texts, it becomes important to be able to pull back from the impression that either the content of our ideas is neutral or that oneself is unbiased as a partner in the conversation.  Normative assumptions can be more successfully analyzed when we methodically ask ourselves questions, such as: 

  • When was this written?
  • What was the context of its origin?
  • How are various people or types being presented?
  • What do I already know that helps me to understand this?
  • If I feel strongly favorable or unfavorable toward this, can I identify why?
  • What aspects of my experience might bias me toward a particular interpretation over another?
  • What biases can I discern in the text?
  • Are there points of view that I can identify as missing here?
  • Can I identify my own limitations related to this topic?


Questions like these engage a methodology of critical “suspicion,” such as a detective might have when examining evidence.  Once we have these questions, reading normative philosophy becomes a richer and more responsible enterprise in dismantling bias as well as advancing inclusion and equity. 


Thus far, we might be able to agree that philosophies have biases and that dominant philosophies tend to lend support and justification to social structures that reinforce privilege.  We might also be able to argue that if we are able to see bias, we can simply sift through biased language or perspectives and recover what’s useful.  The problem we find with this is that much of the world’s most influential literature and particularly the leading works of normative ethics are teeming with biases against people on the basis of sex, race, or social status.  It is not uncommon to find painful racial denouncements of the moral capacity of colonized and enslaved peoples by erudite European philosophers.  It is typical to see the same thinkers speak of women as though they had the intellectual and moral capacity of young children, even while speaking in shockingly democratic terms about the impressive and universal rationality as the key feature of “mankind.”   


Is it possible or responsible to read a document that uses “man” or “men,” and assume the term’s meaning is synonymous with “human,” mentally ignoring or excising biased language against women and “savages” from the same document? The example of the history of American slavery, post-bellum reconstruction, the tortured status of racial tensions, alongside the long outdrawn and still unrealized quest for gender equality, raises this very question about the Constitution of the United States of America.  Can a document that at once contains superlatively inclusive language while at the same time denying black Americans or women full status as human beings, even if amended, ever be delivered from its implicit biases? 


The persistence of the importance of moral theorists such as Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Kant indicates how commonly we ignore overt denouncements of women and non-dominant men as fully human and fully rational, while seeking to accept their general ideas about mankind as though they were otherwise pristine in their egalitarian visions.


Aristotle, in the fourth century BCE, throughout his History of Animals and Generation of Animals, judges differences in male and female bodies as defects of women’s humanity.  He asserts variously that the male is superior in origin over the female on the basis of claims that females are “moister,” “cooler,” and “monstrosities” resulting from inferior gestational conditions, and therefore closer to matter than spirit.  In essence, though a natural necessity, females are akin to animals. 


Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, appropriates these same ideas as he tries to merge Aristotle’s pre-Christian era philosophy with the normative worldview of medieval Christian Europe.  Here, ideal humanity was defined through the lens of clerical, celibate monastic experience, rigorously fearful of “sin,” “heresy” in all its permutations, and sex.  Thomas Aquinas, known as Doctor of the Church, has been considered essential reading for ministers and priests-in-training for over eight hundred years, yet he carried over Aristotle’s bias against women’s full humanity, appropriating the language of monstrosity to explain the defect of women’s generation.  Aquinas expresses confusion over the purpose of women’s being at all, attributing it ultimately to some inexplicable necessity in God’s design.


Immanuel Kant, the quintessential Enlightenment thinker, renowned for this critical work on both reason and religion, easily dismisses the moral capacity of indigenous peoples suffering under European colonial agendas, just as he restricts the moral faculty in females to a matter of taste/aversion over the immaculate function of reason.  Even in Kant’s critique of the superstitious overreach of religious truth claims, he uses Christianity as moral criterion and justification for the supposed superiority of European persons and ways of being.


These are but three examples of perennially “important” theorists, whose difficult passages are often overlooked in light of the presumed virtue and applicability of their ideas.  The work only holds if their biases can be ignored or dismissed as though the biases do not infect their systems with persistent assumptions about the normativity and objectivity of privilege and power. 


When seeking to be responsible to perspectives from the margins, we are left with several challenges.  First, we need to become attentive interpreters and readers of texts.  Then, we need to discern whether individual thinkers, books, and well-respected ethics models can be successfully saved from the biases of their authors and the authors’ contexts.  Next, it is important to consider the adequacy of typical criteria for ethical norms.  Criteria such as universality, the preservation of natural rights, and respect for the command of God are often postulated as the most important considerations in determining whether something is ethical or not.  However, these criteria are derived from systems that privilege abstract constructions of universal mankind, special revelation, and/or the illusion of pure objectivity. 


By contrast, it might be wise to consider moral judgments derived from the reality of human intersectional experiences.  We might benefit from a greater sensitivity to particularity in general as itself a normative criterion for ethical adequacy.  Tolerance for a genuine plurality and ambiguity in competing social goods might prove itself to be a better standard for ethics than universality.  Aesthetic and emotional knowing perhaps could be elevated to balance and counterweight the faulty confidence in reason’s omnicompetence.  Moral norms might be driven not by a commitment to human uniqueness in the animal kingdom but rather to human placement on the continuum of animal being, with a prioritized norm of ecological awareness and connection as the highest moral standard.  Revisions in our criteria such as these here suggested help to remind responsible students of ethics to seek out omissions and to challenge assumptions in and about even the most seemingly benevolent normative theories.


To achieve a working understanding of ethical perspectives from the margins, one needs ultimately to read treatments of ethics from people who have experienced marginalization and who write from that perspective.  Feminist writers, African-American women and men writers, indigenous American philosophers, Asian-American thinkers, laborers, survivors of violence, incarcerated persons, and so on – it is these perspectives that can help to disrupt normative assumptions handed down from tradition and thereby to create more responsible dialogue about human being, behavior, character, and conduct.


Feminist Ethics Link

Womanist Ethics Links

Mujerista Ethics Link

African Ethics Link

Latin American Philosophy Link

Care Ethics


Care Ethics


Background: Early Feminist Philosophy

 Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy, influenced by the Enlightenment (also called the Age of Reason), heralded reason as the source of moral duty. Kant’s Categorical Imperative is thought to be derived from reason and binding on us as rational (not just moral) beings. For Kant, however admirable or laudable we may find an individual’s actions when they are motivated by empathy, kindness, or other fellow feeling, we act morally only when our actions are motived by a sense of duty, which itself is the product of rational thought. Kant’s Categorical Imperative is to be applied impartially—without regard for the interests of particular individuals, including our own—and the moral principles it justifies are applicable universally, that is, they hold for everyone at all times, regardless of circumstances. While other moral theories, such as Utilitarianism, treat the consequences of action as the mark of morally good action rather than duty or intention, Utilitarians share with Kant the idea that we should make moral decisions impartially, that is, not privileging our own interests or the interests of those we care most about. The Greatest Happiness Principle, developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, is to be applied across the board when we are deciding what to do, and correct application of this principle requires treating each individual’s good or happiness the same. The morally right action is the action that that creates the greatest good or utility for the greatest number of people, not the action that advances our own interests or the interests of those we care about.  

Care ethics takes a different approach in which caring for other specific individuals with whom we have a relationship, nurturing these relationships and developing empathy, compassion, and other virtuous character traits important to fostering close personal relationships are relevant to our moral lives. For care ethicists, partiality towards those with whom we have a special relationship is an important feature of the moral life. Care ethics is typically classified as a feminist theory in ethics. In Doing Ethics, Lewis Vaughn notes, “feminist ethics is not a moral theory so much as an alternative way of looking at the concepts and concerns of the moral life. It is an approach focused on women’s interests and experiences and devoted to supporting the moral equality of women and men” (2016, 142). Some of the goals of feminist ethics include seeking to uncover and correct gender biases and stereotypes, social, political, and moral equality for women, and revealing social and political practices that are implicitly and explicitly oppressive and harmful to women and other minority groups. These goals overlap, generally, with some of the central goals of care ethics, which aims to provide a broader understanding of the moral life to include women’s unique way of thinking about moral matters in terms of personal relationships and the character traits necessary for fostering them. 

While care ethics falls under the category of feminist ethics, it differs from earlier discussions in feminist philosophy on the topic of moral thinking, which centered on defending women’s capacity to engage in rational thought. Unfortunately, many philosophers in the history of western philosophy have thought that women aren’t capable of rational thought, or at least, that they are intellectually inferior to men. According to Charlotte Whitt and Lisa Shapiro, “from Aristotle to Hume, from Plato to Sartre, reason is associated with maleness” (2018). And indeed, many philosophers explicitly argued as such, including Hegel, who holds that women aren’t fit for higher abstract universal thinking, such as in the sciences and philosophy (Ibid). 

Interestingly, John Stuart Mill is an exception to the prevailing views of women in the history of philosophy, arguing in The Subjection of Women that women’s seeming inferiority to men is due to oppressive laws, inferior education and socialization. Women lack the authority and independence of men and are inculcated early in their upbringing to believe that they are made to please men, and in fact, if their actions indicate a lack of virtue in reasoning, it is due to their inferior social standing and need to attain power through marriage. Thus, if women’s rational faculties haven’t been as developed as men’s rational faculties, it is because their education is focused, not on developing such faculties, but on acquiring submissive and other character traits for the purpose of attracting and “keeping” a man (Melchert 2002, 537 - 538).  

Similarly, early feminists, such as Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 - 1797) argued that women aren’t deficient in reason, which she believed to be the source of morality, but that their inferior place in society (including an inferior education) are to be blamed for women’s inferior rational capacities.  Women do not receive the education and socialization men receive but are treated in such a way that they don’t have a chance to develop their rational capacities. Contending that women’s dispositions are largely the result of social training rather than inborn temperament, Wollstonecraft argues that women ought to be educated similarly to men to acquire similar virtues (Wollstonecraft, 71). Similar to Mill, Wollstonecraft argues that women should be equal to men under the law, and should have a real education to develop their rational faculties (Melchert 2002, 539). Wollstonecraft, in particular, argued that virtue or moral goodness are human virtues, applying equally to men and women (Ibid). Interestingly, Wollstonecraft privileged masculine thought as the mark of moral maturity. Citing Rosemarie Tong, Kathryn Norlock writes, “Wollstonecraft, for example, argued against perceptions that women lacked men’s capacities for morality, but praised rationality and “masculinity” as preconditions for morality” (Norlack, 2019).  

Care Ethics: Differences in Moral Thinking Between Men and Women 

Carol Gilligan’s work in In a Different Voice (1982)  takes a different approach, as she argued that women do exhibit different thinking patterns than men and that they approach moral problems differently. However, she argued, this approach is not inferior to that of men, nor is the approach of men inferior to women, hence the different voices of men and women in moral thinking. Gilligan’s view stems in part from her criticisms of psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s work on moral development. 

Kohlberg conducted studies in which he tracked moral thinking in children from adolescence into adulthood (around their mid-twenties), developing distinct stages of moral thinking and growth during this period. According to Kohlberg’s work, in the pre-conventional stage (ages 4 to 10), moral thinking centers around the individual’s self-interest, good behavior being determined largely by the prospect of reward and punishment, including physical consequences. In the second or conventional stage (ages 11 to later teens), children uphold established social roles, obeying parents because they are one’s parents, and performing as good girls and boys, or good citizens, etc. In the post conventional stage (early to late twenties), the highest stage of moral maturity, Kohlberg notes that there is a “major thrust toward autonomous moral principles which have validity and application apart from authority of the groups or persons who hold them and apart from the individual's identification with those persons or groups” (Kohlberg). Within each of these stages, there are two stages, which can be found in this link:   

Gilligan takes issue with the fact that Kohblerg derived the stages of moral maturity from work done primarily on boys and young men, yet generalized the stages to moral maturity, to girls and women as well. Carol Gilligan took up this point, doing her own studies, and concluding that Kohlberg’s stages do not fit moral maturity in girls.

It should be noted that Constant Holstein’s empirical studies, published prior to Gilligan’s work and cited by Gilligan in In a Different Voice, found that women’s moral judgments differ than men’s, and thus already indicated problems with Kohlberg’s studies. (Gilligan, 70). [1]  As well, Norma Haan’s research, which Gilligan also cites, indicated gender bias in Kohlberg’s studies (Ibid). All of these studies suggest that when the stages of moral development are derived from studies on boys and men, the divergent moral thinking of women will appear immature. Gilligan notes, “as long as the categories by which development is assessed are derived from research on men, divergence from the masculine standard can be seen only as a failure of development. As a result, the thinking of women is often classified with that of children” (Gilligan, 70 - 71). 

According to Gilligan’s work in which she studied research on perceptions of morality and self in a rights and responsibilities study, girls’ ways of thinking differ than boys’ ways of thinking, but there is no evidence that they are less mature than their male counterparts. In order to understand the differences Gilligan discusses, let’s take a look at one well-known moral dilemma posed to the children in the research Gilligan studied and look at differences in boys’ and girls’ responses. This scenario involves Heinz, whose wife is dying from cancer, and who cannot afford the medicine needed to treat his wife, due to the exorbitant price placed on the drug by the druggist. Here is a version of the story, a video of which can be found at the link cited below: 

                  “Heinz’s wife was dying from a particular type of cancer. Doctors said a 

                  new drug might save her. The drug had been discovered by a local chemist, 

                  and the Heinz tried desperately to buy some, but the chemist was charging 

                  ten times the money it cost to make the drug, and this was much more than 

                  the Heinz could afford. Heinz could only raise half the money, even after help 

                  from family and friends. He explained to the chemist that his wife was dying 

                  and asked if he could have the drug cheaper or pay the rest of the money later. 

                 The chemist refused, saying that he had discovered the drug and was going

                 to make money from it. The husband was desperate to save his wife, so later

                that night he broke into the chemist’s and stole the drug.”       (

According to Kohlberg’s work, morally mature individuals engaged in more abstract moral thinking than less mature individuals, applying abstract principles to moral dilemmas, such as, ‘Human lives are more valuable than money,’ or ‘Stealing is always wrong.’ 

For example, in Gilligan’s studies of responses to this dilemma, Jake, an eleven year old boy, who answers the dilemma of Heinz, views the issue as a conflict between the values of property and life, justifying his belief that Heinz should steal the drug by logically deducing the priority of life to justify his decision (Gilligan 1982, 26). Jake says, in part, “For one thing, a human life is worth more than money, and if the druggist only makes $1,000, he is still going to live, but if Heinz doesn’t steal the drug, his wife is going to die” (Ibid). He further reasons that stealing the drug is the right thing to do even if it goes against the law because “’the laws have mistakes, and you can’t go writing up a law for everything that you can imagine’” (Ibid). His response is cast in terms of a logical progression towards the conclusion that Heinz should steal the money, and exhibiting as it does evidence of abstract thinking, seems to be clearly at the higher end of the conventional stage, if not in the early post-conventional stage in Kohlberg’s stages.  

In contrast, according to the researcher, Amy, also eleven, seems “’evasive and unsure’” and less morally mature than Jake on Kohlberg’s scale (Ibid, 28). She says in response to the question about stealing the drug: 

         “’Well, I don’t think so. I think there might be other ways besides stealing it, like

         if he could borrow the money or make a loan or something, but he really shouldn’t

         steal the drug—but his wife shouldn’t die either’” (Ibid). 

Asked why he shouldn’t steal the drug, Gilligan notes that Amy looks at the dilemma in terms of the effect of theft on the relationship between Heinz and his wife: 

         “’If he stole the drug, he might save his wife then, but if he did, he might be able to

         Go to jail, and then his wife might get sicker again and he couldn’t get more of the drug,

         And it might not be good. So, they should really just talk it out and find some other

         Way to make the money’” (Ibid).           

Given the importance of and focus on preserving conventional social relationships, such as the relationship between spouses, Amy seems to be lower on Kohlberg’s scale, roughly stage 3, in which maintenance of conventional social relationships and the social order is important, the lower levels of this stage being referred to by Kohlberg as the “Good-boy-good-girl” orientation ( According to Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, Amy’s response is less morally mature than Jake’s response.

Gilligan argues that Amy’s response in terms of better communication in the relationship is no less confident or mature than Jake’s response in terms of logic and abstract reasoning. Yet, the frustration with the interview is apparent in the researcher’s repetition of questions and other verbal cues (Ibid, 30). While Jake considers the law to “’have mistakes,’” Amy just as confidently asserts, “’if Heinz and the druggist had talked it out long enough, they could reach something besides stealing’” (Ibid, 29). According to Gilligan, “Both children thus recognize the need for agreement but see it as mediated in different ways—he impersonally through systems of logic and law, she personally through communication in relationship. Just as he relies on the conventions of logic to deduce the solution to this dilemma, assuming these conventions to be shared, so she relies on a process of communication, assuming connection and believing that her voice will be heard” (Ibid). Developing this point further, Gilligan argues that Jake and Amy see two different moral problems in the moral dilemma posed. While Jake sees a conflict between life and property that can be resolved through logical deduction, Amy sees “a fracture of human relationship that must be mended with its own thread” (Ibid, 31). 

From her research into interviews with girls and women, and through her studies of women in literature, Gilligan argued that women and men tend to focus on different factors in facing moral dilemmas.  Women tend to ascribe to an ethic of care in which personal relationships are paramount. They are also more context sensitive, viewing the world through a more personal and emotional lens (Boss, 95). Gilligan says of this orientation, “The moral imperative that emerges [from interviews with women] is an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate the ‘real and recognizable trouble’ of this world” (Gilligan, 100).  Finally, in an ethic of care, one exhibits a partiality towards those with whom one has a personal relationship, nurturing the other person and attempting to grow the relationship. Care, concern, and empathy are important virtues which can helps us nurture relationships and help others develop and grow. Empathy gives us insight into others’ emotional lives, and their concerns. Caring and concern for maintaining personal relationships can also be thought of as virtues in care ethics.  

In contrast, an ethic of justice, to which men ascribe, is concerned with individual rights, impartial duties, and the application of abstract moral principles. “The moral imperative [of the interviews with men] appears rather as an injunction to respect the rights of others and thus to protect from interference the rights to life and self-fulfillment” (Ibid). One perspective isn’t better than another, according to Gilligan, and the two orientations complement each other, both playing a role in full moral development (ibid). 

Gilligan also developed moral stages that she believes are more accurate to the stages of moral reasoning in women. See the chart in this link for Gilligan’s stages of the ethics of care:  (  

Gilligan is a psychologist and her goal has largely been to discuss patterns of moral thinking in men and women. She further does not argue that all women exhibit the tendencies discussed, nor that all men exhibit a particular form of moral thinking, but that these are general tendencies. Further research on male and female thinking patterns has been mixed. Some studies have suggested that Gilligan’s view is largely correct, while others have not confirmed her thesis, thus arguing that there aren’t significant differences in moral thinking between men and women. [2]  And, we should consider, even if Gilligan is right, is the difference inborn or an effect of socialization, and if the latter, to what extent is it helpful to continue socializing girls this way? For example, some studies have suggested that girls are encouraged equally with boys in math and science up to a certain grade level, but that later, girls are not equally encouraged in these areas. [3] If girls end up deficient in these areas, or uninterested in them, they will not choose professions that utilize these disciplines, such as engineering and research.  Since these may be higher paying fields, women will continue to have less economic power than men. 

Many feminist ethicists have argued that we ought to take more seriously the care perspective as the primary moral perspective. According to these theorists, we ought to abandon the ideals of universality and impartiality, and  instead, focus on taking care of otherrs with whom we have personal relationship rather than concern ourselves with humanity in general (Rachels 2007, 164). For example, Nel Noddings identifies the primary moral orientation in terms of personal relationships in which obligations grow out of relationships with specific other individuals, in particular, between what she calls ‘one-caring’ and ‘one who is cared-for.’ Obligations grow out of experiences of natural caring between those who care for others, and those who are cared for (Noddings 2003; Rachels, 164). And Annette Baier, influenced by eighteenth century philosopher David Hume’s sentimentalist morality, argues that ethics should emphasize and encourage the development of virtuous character traits important to personal relationships, such as compassion, empathy, and gentleness. She also emphasizes the importance of trust, which forms a basic relationship between individuals (Sander-Staudt, “Care Ethics”). 

 In summary, what are some of the elements of care ethics that distinguish it from other moral theories: (1) attention to specific individuals’ needs and the development of personal relationships over application of abstract universal moral principles (2) Advocating partiality (perhaps through loyalty and fidelity and other relevant virtues) to those with whom we have relationships and focusing on their needs (3) deemphasizing impartial decision making and attention to abstract generalizable features of moral dilemmas (4) bringing emotions such as empathy and compassion, as well as the attitude of caring, into the realm of morality rather than (like Kant) treating emotions as irrelevant to, or even distracting from, doing the right thing (4) deemphasizing duty or “ought” statements that may have little motivating power and (5) emphasizing attentiveness to the immediate demands of a situation and responding to people’s specific needs through empathy and compassion, in ways that promote their well-being and foster interpersonal relationships. Finally, given the emphasis of many care ethicists on the development of character traits important for developing and fostering personal relationships, theorists such as James Rachels treats care ethics as a species of virtue ethics (Rachels 2007, 172).  

Application of Care Ethics and Advantages Over Traditional Moral Theories 

One mark of an adequate moral theory is its ability to be applied to moral dilemmas. Application of the theory can also help us determine whether the theory squares with our intuitions about what morality demands. This does not mean that we cannot utilize a theory that doesn’t square with our intuitions about what morality demands, as we often seek help from moral theories when our intuitions about what to do are unhelpful or inadequate. Even so, if the theory goes so far afield of what seems to be demanded, this certainly counts against that theory. At any rate, let’s look at several applications of care ethics by way of providing a critical analysis of the view and how it is best utilized. 

First, I want to discuss James Rachels’s application of care ethics in The Elements of Moral Philosophy, which he believes to be helpful in some respects but wrong-headed when it comes to other moral matters. In the area of family and friends, Rachels argues that care ethics squares better with our intuitions about giving priority to those with whom we have personal and close relationships than moral theories that emphasize impartiality in moral matters.  John Stuart Mill believed that a moral agent must be “as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator” (Mill, 16). However, as Rachels points out, this isn’t how we approach our friends and family as compared to the general population. We do treat them differently, taking care of their needs in a way we do not take care of the needs with strangers and acquaintances. Suppose that I could create greater happiness in the world if I gave up more of my time with my children to devote to helping feed hungry children around the world or working to benefit them in another way. Most of us believe that I would be justified in setting this project aside for the sake of my own children’s well-being. According to utilitarianism, I should devote my time to projects and causes that create the greatest good for the greatest number. 

Now, utilitarians have a response to this criticism of their view. Rule utilitarians, who believe that we should follow rules that promote the general welfare, might argue that it is better for society to have people taking care of their children, as fostering the development of each child in society ultimately benefits the general welfare. If we all produce physically and psychologically healthier adults, we will be more likely to foster a society of well-developed individuals who can go on to do great things later. While we can grant utilitarians this reply, it is a little beside the point. Do I take care of my children and foster their development because, on balance, I promote the general welfare? Of course not. I do so because I have a special bond with them through the parenting relationship and because I love them so deeply and passionately. Utilitarians likely could further agree that my actions are justified under their moral theory since the consequences of our actions determine whether our action was morally right or wrong rather than motives. But even if they aren’t motivated by utilitarian-type considerations or reasons, but even so, care ethics is certainly better poised to explain our ordinary experience of this aspect of our moral life. 

These issues can be applied to Kant, as well. If you have studied Kant’s moral theory, you know that he believes our actions have moral worth only if they are motivated by a sense of duty and he has a low opinion of actions motivated by emotion, even love, caring, empathy, and compassion. Parents sacrifice a great deal of time and energy for those they love over eighteen or more years, as do others in loving relationships when they take care of a sick parent or nurture a spouse’s or friend’s needs. We do not treat people under our care with special concern strictly because it is our duty. Broadly speaking, aren’t such lives morally good lives? Do not such lives differ from a moral point of view than lives in which people tell the truth, keep their promises, and stay out of others’ way, but that do not include such self-sacrifice and devotion to others? The moral life seems to encompass much more than Kant allows. 

Application of Care Ethics and Criticisms of the Theory as a Complete Theory

 Let’s turn things around a bit to see how well care ethics squares with obligations to people more generally.  In his chapter on care ethics, Rachels discusses the case of UNICEF, an organization that does important work to help over two million children each year who might otherwise die of preventable diseases (Rachels, 168). Organizations like UNICEF always need more money, and of course, most of us have limited financial resources. According to Rachels, it seems that care ethics justifies ignoring all such good causes for the sake of putting more into those with whom we have a caring relationship, such as our children and families. But is it okay to ignore the plight of those we don’t know, but who are suffering? Utilitarianism would support providing resources to these organizations, arguing that we should sacrifice some luxuries to bring others up to an even level of health and well-being, and most of us would likely agree that we should pay more attention to those outside our immediate circle, especially when we have met most of our needs and even many of our wants. Perhaps, Rachels says, the answer is a more inclusive approach: “A more sensible approach might be to say that the ethical life includes both caring personal relationships and a benevolent concern for people generally” (Rachels, 169). While he further admits that this idea isn’t outside the scope of care ethicists’ own views, it must be determined when we should narrow our focus to our closest relationships and when our interest in ourselves and those nearest and dearest to us has become too limiting from a moral perspective.  

 Interestingly, while care ethics may be somewhat limiting in its focus on close personal relationships, care ethicists do have a unique response to Rachels’s complaint open to them. Even if we agree with Rachels that we should do something to help those around the world who are in need, our recognition of this fact may not motivate us to do anything. But moral judgments should be motivating, for even if we believe that we ought to do something to help another person, our moral convictions seem to have failed us if the judgments do not translate into action. This is probably one of the greatest advantages of care ethics: bringing emotions back into the realm of morality and discussing the special role they may play in cognizing and motivating moral responses. In Principles of Biomedical Ethics, Tom L. Beauchamp and James F. Childress discuss the important role of care ethics in the medical profession, noting that the role of emotion in the development of ethical principles and rules for human research:  

                      “In the history of human experimentation, those who first recognized that some

                     subjects of research were being brutalized, subjected to misery, or place 

                     at unjustifiable risk were persons who were able to feel sympathy, 

                     compassion, disgust, and outrage through insight into the situation of 

                     these research subjects. They exhibited perceptions of and sensitivity to 

                     the feelings of subjects, where others lacked comparable perceptions, 

                     sensitivities, and responses…Caring itself has a cognitive dimension

                     and requires a range of moral skills, because it involves insight into and  

                     understanding of another’s circumstances, needs, and feelings” 

                     (Beauchamp and Childress, 38). 

When viewed this way, emotions can be important elements for perceiving a moral need, albeit by way of direct experience of those needs rather than through the development of elaborate moral theories. Thus, care ethics may have a unique response to issues of taking care of those in need. Rather than focus on society at large or the general welfare, care ethics meets those same needs through direct interaction with specific individuals and directly experiencing the pull to help others that we may not feel when we logically deduce an obligation to others through careful philosophical argumentation. This idea still needs to be supplemented with a moral theory that can help us tease out the further moral obligations that direct moral experience may highlight, but it does provide an important insight about the role of interaction with others in developing our moral responses. [4]

 Specifically, we need moral theory to help us determine when our emotions are helping us “see” more clearly and when they may be clouding our judgment. Beauchamp and Childress also discuss the importance of compassion in dealing with sick and frail patients, but also note that compassion may cloud a health professional’s judgment about which actions are morally justified. Thus, Rachels is correct to note that care ethics works best as a complement to moral theories that emphasize a benevolent concern for others more generally, but rather than working as separate elements, the emotions that care ethicists emphasizes may provide a key factor that mediates our closest personal relationships and a generalized sense of obligation to the rest of the world.  

 Of course, as Beauchamp and Childress recognize, even in the health field, where a lack of compassion towards sick and frail patients and families is a moral failing, health care professionals have to be careful not to let compassion cloud their judgment. When dealing with families losing loved ones, it may be tempting to push futile or useless medical treatment too far in order to provide (false) hope to families who want to “do everything” for their loved one. Some level of detachment is needed and one may even need to fall back on protocol and rules in to make sure the patient’s best interests are served. But when should compassion dictate action, that is, when does it more clearly help one “see” a moral need, and when does it cloud moral judgment? We likely need to fall back on moral theory and balance the ethic of care with an ethic that emphasizes duties and rights in order to counter the distorting effect of emotion.

 For Further Thought 

Finally, here is a further scenario to help you reflect on the connection between care ethics and other theories that emphasize a more impartial account of obligation to those with whom we do not have a personal relationship. 

Peter Singer, a well-known utilitarian philosopher, argues that we should devote more time and/or money to worthy causes. According to Singer, we should sacrifice some of our material items, especially luxury items, in order to help those who do not have enough food, shelter, and other necessities. Singer is likely right that many of us have material items we could sacrifice without sacrificing much by way of our own happiness. We could live in smaller homes and buy less stuff, donating our extra money and time to worthwhile causes. Singer has made this argument for years, but in a recent Ted Talk, he discusses organizations that can help us donate to causes that engage in effective altruism in which we can be certain our money will go to people who are strangers to us, but who need our help. Is he right? Before you cast his position aside too quickly, you may wish to view his Ted Talk on effective altruism, which students in my classes often find both rationally and emotionally compelling. ( 


Questions to consider: if you find Singer’s Ted Talk compelling, is it rationally compelling, emotionally compelling, or a mixture of both? What does your response suggest about care ethics as compared to Utilitarianism or other traditional moral theories? 


[1] See the following website for further discussion of the connection between Gilligan’s work and Hollstein’s work, which was published in Child Development in 1976. 

[2]  For evidence suggesting differences in women’s and men’s moral thinking, see Lyons and Gilligan and Attanucci. For evidence suggesting problems with Gilligan’s thesis, see Walker and Rest. For a brief discussion of the mixed research, see 

[3] See Joshua Legewie and Thomas A DiPrete for a review of research on this topic. 

[4] It should be noted that lurking in the background of Kant’s view about morality is a sharp demarcation between cognitive mental states, such as beliefs, and non-cognitive mental states, such as passions, inclinations, and emotions. Recent work in psychology and philosophy (in some cases influenced by ancient work) has argued for blurring these lines, suggesting that emotions are akin to beliefs or other perceptual states through which we cognize (possible) reasons for action. If so, then an ethic of care and an ethic of justice may be complementary to each other, as Gilligan suggests (though not for the reasons she argues, of course). 



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