- Book Reviews
In Connected Lives: Human Nature and an Ethics of Care, Ruth Groenhout acknowledges that central components of her project—the notions of human nature and human flourishing and the idea of an ethics of care—are "suspect . . . in certain sectors of feminist thought" (2). The Western philosophical tradition has too often had recourse to the idea of a fixed human nature in [End Page 224] justifying women's treatment as second-class citizens for appeals to human nature to sit easily with contemporary feminists (105). Likewise, the ethics of care has been criticized almost from its inception on the grounds that it pays too much attention to the emotional dimension of interpersonal relationships and too little to the social and political institutions that construct and constrain those same emotions and relations (106). Despite this anticipated double resistance, Groenhout argues that care theory cannot function without an ideal of human flourishing that requires the theorist to develop a picture of human nature. The picture Groenhout paints is one in which human embodiment and finitude lead us to see human lives as inescapably structured by dependence on other human beings and to see the fundamental moral response to this dependence as care. Along the way, the author enlists the aid of Augustine and Emmanuel Levinas to show that care theory is not (and never has been) an ethics for "women only" but is central to what it means to be a human being and to live a distinctively human life. At the end of the book, armed with an ideal of "natural" human flourishing that borrows as much from Aristotle as anyone, Groenhout looks at the practices of assisted reproduction and human cloning from the moral perspective of care.
The core chapters of the book are devoted to articulating the theory of human nature and human flourishing that Groenhout argues is already implicit in the works of such canonical care-theory authors as Nel Noddings, Sara Ruddick, Virginia Held, and Joan Tronto. Groenhout endorses a four-fold view of human beings in which care, embodiment (and hence particularity), finitude (and hence interdependency), and sociality take pride of place. She defines care as "the emotion involved in tending to the physical needs of others" (24) and, like Noddings and Hume, inclines to the view that we come by caring attitudes naturally: humans have "natural tendencies to offer and receive care from one another" (27). Further, she supports Noddings's claim that a moral imperative to care would not arise if not for this natural foundation. Where Groenhout goes beyond Noddings is in developing an account of the "origins" of "that initial and basic caring response" (73). She invokes an Augustinian picture of "the fundamental goodness of creation" to provide an "explanation for why humans are naturally created to care" (75). This theistic framework—which equally drives the reading of Levinas—purportedly saves care theory from the relativistic conclusion that "we care because we care" (75).
In her readings of Augustine and Levinas in chapters 2 and 3, Groenhout is careful to distance her employment of these thinkers from the objectionable stereotypes of women each has served up even as she discovers insights in their work that can be applied to care theory and arguments useful in defending the care perspective against its critics. Conversely, she emphasizes ways in which care theory offers a corrective to Augustine's naturalized social hierarchy and Levinas's inadequate development of the political implications of an ethics [End Page 225] sensitive to difference. To the extent that feminism in general has something of a "blind spot" when it comes to religious transcendence, Groenhout finds Augustine and Levinas companionable fellow travelers that "encourage us to recognize that human life is lived in the presence of sacredness" (130). Though Levinas explicitly rejected the notion of the sacred, this does not undermine Groenhout's claim that both philosophers teach us that "God is recognized in the other person" (130). This is an appealing idea for the author since it combines recognition of a transcendent (nonsubjective) and...