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  • The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global
  • Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee
The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global. By Virginia Held. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. viii + 211.

Virginia Held's latest work, The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global, is another important contribution to the ongoing reconstruction and strengthening of care ethics in the face of continuous criticism, especially from liberal Kantian theorists in both the feminist and non-feminist communities. In Held's book what is of interest to the community of Asian and comparative philosophy is, first, that the struggle of feminist theories in comparison with established canons is reflective of the struggle of Asian and comparative philosophy in finding ways to fit into the mainstream philosophical (Western) discourse; and, second, that Held's advocacy of care ethics is reminiscent of the Confucian ren. However, Held is not particularly aware of the first resemblance and rather boldly dismisses the second in her brief reflection on the merits of Confucianism (pp. 21–22). Despite shortcomings in her attempt to extend the field of feminist discourse beyond the canonic Western traditions, Held's latest reconstruction of care ethics clears new ground for a fruitful dialogue between the feminist and non-feminist communities concerning the ideal way of being in the world, which takes caring relations at home as paradigmatic of one's moral thinking. Although it takes private, unchosen relations as its starting point, Held's care ethics extends far beyond the domestic into the political and the global, as a way of re-orienting humanity away from the abstract neutrality of liberal universalism toward a concrete, caring way of being in the world of co-dependent relations.

Held divides the book into two sections: "Care and Moral Theory" and "Care and Society." The first section aims at clarifying care ethics as a moral theory—its theoretical foundation and its relation to other moral theories, such as liberalism, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics, and other religious/intellectual traditions, including Confucianism. Tracing the genealogical roots of care ethics back to Sarah Ruddick's "Maternal Thinking" in 1980, Held insists on retaining the centrality of women's caring experiences in the formation of a care ethics in order to set it apart from what she calls the "non-feminist" form of care ethics. Confucianism, according to Held, is one of the unacceptable candidates calling itself care ethics: "A traditional Confucian ethic, if seen as an ethic of care, would be a form of care ethics unacceptable to feminists" (p. 22). Citing Daniel Star and Lijun Yuan's objection to Chanyang Li's comparative study of feminist care ethics and Confucian ren, Held implies that Confucianism is fundamentally incompatible with a feminist ethics of care due to its role-based categories of relationships and its inherently patriarchal nature (p. 21). Held's quick dismissal of the viability of Confucianism, in my view, is unfortunate, since, as it will become clear in the following analysis, it constitutes a major impediment to fostering a genuine cross-cultural dialogue and to forming an inclusive feminism. [End Page 403]

However, to incorporate other non-feminist forms of care, be they Western or non-Western, into a care ethics, according to Held, "is to disregard the history of care ethics as a history of recent feminist progress" (p. 22). Compared to all other feminist and non-feminist alternatives to traditional ethical theories, for Held it is much more fitting that care ethics calls itself feminist, since it explores what all others fail to take notice of—that is, the assigning of moral weight to women's experience in caring activities such as mothering—and, consequently, exposes the patriarchal root of all other moral theories, be they virtue ethics or liberal universalism (p. 26). As Held puts it, the "Man of Virtue" is really a disguise for the "Man of Reason" from his patriarchal past, for whom the work of care has never been adequately attended to (p. 20). In short, unlike all other moral theories, care ethics stresses the work and practice of care originating in the private realm, differing from the cultivation of character of the Man of Virtue, or the...