- Embodied Care: Jane Addams, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Feminist Ethics
When conflicts between universalizing power and diversity dominate the sociopolitical scene, it is often difficult for talk about care and ethics to receive a serious hearing. Claims about the ethical significance of care and dependency are met with queries about lack of political savvy, undue optimism, failure to acknowledge ontological alterity, and feminist wariness, if not derisive scolding, about the effects of playing into damaging stereotypes of femininity. In this context, despite widespread acknowledgment that caregiving and being cared for are crucial to everyone's life, contemporary feminist discussions of care and its ethico-political importance have focused on the social and political conditions in which caregiving relations are enacted, rather than elaboration of the [End Page 210] ethical import of care. Relations that render care negligible and exploitation of (mainly female) caregivers become the center of attention, rather than the ethical nature of relational, affective concrete care itself.
Bucking this trend, Maurice Hamington's Embodied Care, which takes off with fresh insight from the work most influentially forwarded in the 1980s by Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings, is a welcome return to substantive care ethics. Hamington argues eloquently and perceptively that care and its ethical implications are essentially embodied possibilities that can only be fully understood when we take into account their bodily aspects. Where other care theorists have emphasized the affective dimensions of care, Hamington foregrounds the ethical significance of the human body's perceptive, expressive, epistemic, and responsive capacities, showing how our caring responses and responsibilities to others are formed and habituated in our bodily openness to their experience. In a particularly innovative move, he draws on the work of American pragmatist philosopher and activist Jane Addams to make the case that, as well as grounding interpersonal ethics, embodied practices of ethical care provide a transformative approach to social justice.
Embodied care, according to Hamington, relates to the performance of a corporeal potential that encompasses a commitment to the "flourishing and growth of individuals," while also acknowledging our "interconnectedness and interdependence" (3). It refers to a capacity that is ethically and epistemically prior to any moral-theoretical deliberations. Embodied care, therefore, does not present another moral theory, an alternative to consequentialism, deontology, or virtue theory, for example, or a tool that allows us to determine right and wrong; instead, it denotes an approach to morality "that shifts ethical considerations to context, relationships, and affective knowledge" (3). In this way, Hamington also importantly reinvigorates one of the most profound insights of early discussions of care ethics: the connection between care and a grounding ethical concern, in opposition to its appropriation as a theory defined by generalized accounts of the parameters of caring relationships.
This work will not allay the doubts and fears of care skeptics. Those who find exploring the possibilities of care ethics mushy and one-sided, projecting smiling faces all around without taking seriously the entrenched power differences that leave many faces out of the picture and assign the hard work to the subordinate and the glory to the powerful, will be unsatisfied. To this group, "universal body" skeptics can also be added. Hamington's quick advice that we should keep an antiessentialist understanding of the body at the back of our minds (41) will not mollify those who see embodiment as the mark of discriminatory differences rather than the source of positive universal possibilities, or those who are critical of approaches that take bodily capacities, interests, and needs as universal givens rather than being constituted through their sociopolitical relations. However, for all those engaged in exploring and enriching the [End Page 211] ethical nature, possibilities, and practices of their everyday caring relationships the book is a treat, for it unpacks and elucidates the profound and obvious, yet overlooked, ethical significance of the embodied knowledge we gain in our caring relations with others.
The first stage of the argument establishes human bodies as the common ground of care ethics. It is our embodiment that gives us the capacities to care for others...