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  • Caring about Care
  • Eva Feder Kittay (bio)

Every ethic, if it is not to be a feather in the wind, needs an epistemology. As we look at epistemologies from Plato's Theaetetus to Kant's First Critique to contemporary virtue epistemology, the question of knowledge is always tethered to an ethics, sometimes tightly, sometimes loosely. To live a good life and act rightly toward others, we need to know what we need to know to do this well; we need to know how to know that what we are doing is what is good or right; and we need to know how we can know what is [End Page 856] good and right. That is, if we wish to know that what we are doing is right, what principles or precepts to follow, we need to reflect on the nature and the possibility of knowledge itself.

What Vrinda Dalmiya has achieved in Caring to Know is nothing less than an epistemology for an ethics of care. This is an amazing and vitally important contribution, both to ethics and to epistemology. The supposition that "She knows most effectively when she knows non-affectively, dispassionately, and impartially" derives from an epistemology for an ethics in which reason, impartiality, and universality guide interactions between independent autonomous rational moral agents. An ethics of care challenges those very assumptions—assumptions about the nature of the self (as independent and ideally autonomous), about the nature of moral deliberation (as dispassionate reasoning), and about what we want from an ethics (namely impartial consideration). Accordingly, an ethics of care needs an epistemology that asks what we need to know if we, as relational selves, are to act as moral agents; we need to ask what constitutes knowledge in an ethics that presumes a relational self and moral interactions as contextually determined. The questions, in other words, are: What are the intellectual virtues that are required given human dependencies, vulnerabilities, and interdependencies? And how are we to deliberate and judge the rightness of an action if we are to be responsive to the particularity of the situation? Furthermore, just as an ethic needs to be grounded in an epistemology, so an ethics must be situated in a politics. The politics gives us a vision of social organization that is justified by values and principles drawn from that ethic. A politics for an ethics of care asks what political power should look like for porous, vulnerable, inevitably dependent, but also inextricably interdependent selves. In her ambitious book, Vrinda Dalmiya attempts to integrate an ethics with a suitable politics, grounded in a virtue epistemology where the central virtue is relational humility.

Humility, Dalmiya claims, is not only an ethical stance, it is also an epistemological one. We are humble in our recognition of our ignorance, and in our acknowledgment that power and standing do not privilege us as knowers. Humility needs to be relational in the sense that we recognize that ignorance can be corrected neither by solitary efforts alone nor by relying solely on the knowledge of the privileged. The central exemplar of this virtue is a figure in the Mahābhārata, Kauśika, the sage who kills a bird in an outburst of anger when interrupted during his meditations. Regretting his violence, he learns that he cannot find the wisdom he seeks in solitary meditation. Acknowledging his arrogance, he seeks knowledge from a butcher and a housewife, who urge him to look after his aging parents.

If we acknowledge that non-Western philosophical traditions are viewed as marginal in American academic philosophy, then Dalmiya's appeal to the Mahābhārata to enrich care ethics is itself a lesson of relational humility for Western feminist philosophers who limit themselves to the Western tradition. [End Page 857] The figures and narrative lines, as well as concepts borrowed from the epic, deepen care ethics by expanding its scope beyond its gendered origins and by adding vital concepts such as ānrśamsya (non-cruelty), dharma āvasthika (a moral contextualism), dvaidha (doubleness of judgment), yukti (balancing as a form of deliberation), and prajñā (an intuitive faculty). One of the greatest contributions is the elucidation of the deliberative process, allowing for the contextuality...