Classic Article: "History of the
Notion of Care"
The following article, which appeared in the
second (revised) edition of the Encyclopedia of Bioethics
(1995), was an attempt to capture highlights of the history of care
prior to the advent of feminist thought in the early 1980s. In
two articles immediately following this one, Reich set forth the
history of care in contemporary feminist thought and contemporary
medical and nursing ethics. This article will be re-published
as a “classic article” in the Encyclopedia’s third
by Warren T. Reich
From: Encyclopedia of Bioethics. Revised edition. Edited
by Warren Thomas Reich. 5 Volumes. New York: Simon & Schuster
Macmillan, 1995. Pages 319-331.
Prior to 1982 scarcely anyone spoke of an "ethic of care." The
word "care" had never emerged as a major concept in the history of
mainstream Western ethics as compared, say, with the concepts of
freedom, justice, and love. Yet, starting with the 1982 publication
of a book by Carol Gilligan that spoke of a care perspective in
women's moral development and throughout the 1980s and into the
1990s, an ethic of care emerged very rapidly, questioning earlier
assumptions and setting new directions for bioethics. (These
contemporary publications and discussions will be reviewed in the
third article in this entry.) One characteristic of the literature
on an ethic of care is that it has paid virtually no attention to
the history of the notion of care prior to 1982. Yet one finds in
this history a broad range of meanings and models that both
illuminate and challenge the emerging ethic of care.
The "Cura" tradition of care: Ancient Rome
Ancient literary, mythological, and philosophical sources form
the roots of the "Cura" tradition of care, named after a
mythological figure. The background for this tradition is found in
the ambiguity of the term cura (care) in the Latin literature
of ancient Rome. The term had two fundamental but conflicting
meanings. On the one hand, it meant worries, troubles, or anxieties,
as when one says that a person is "burdened with cares." On the
other hand, care meant providing for the welfare of another; aligned
with this latter meaning was the positive connotation of care as
attentive conscientiousness or devotion (Burdach, 1923).
A literary instance of the first meaning of care -- the care that
is so burdensome that it drags humans down -- is found in the work
of the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 B.C.E.), who placed the personified
"vengeful Cares" (ultrices Curae) before the entrance to the
underworld. The philosopher Seneca (4 B.C.E.-65 C.E.), by contrast,
saw care not so much as a burdensome force that drags humans down as
the power in humans that lifts them up and places them on a level
with God. For Seneca, both humans and God have reasoning powers for
achieving the good; in God, the good is perfected simply by his
nature, but in humans, "the good is perfected by care (cura)"
(Seneca, 1953, pp. 443-444). In this Stoic view, care was the key to
the process of becoming truly human. For Seneca, the word care meant
solicitude; it also had connotations of attentiveness,
conscientiousness, and devotion (Burdach, 1923; Seneca, 1953).
The struggle between the opposing meanings of care--care as
burden and care as solicitude--as well as the radical importance of
care to being human, were elements in an influential Graeco-Roman
myth called "Care," found in a second-century Latin collection of
myths edited by Hyginus (Hyginus, 1976; Grant, 1960). More than any
other single source, this little-known myth, narrated below, has
given shape to the idea of care in literature, philosophy,
psychology, and ethics through the intervening centuries.
As Care (Cura) was crossing a river, she thoughtfully picked up
some mud and began to fashion a human being. While she was pondering
what she had done, Jupiter came along. (Jupiter was the founder
of Olympian society, a society of the major gods and goddesses who
inhabited Mount Olympus after most of the gods had already
appeared.) Care asked him to give the spirit of life to the
human being, and Jupiter readily granted this. Care wanted to name
the human after herself, but Jupiter insisted that his name should
be given to the human instead. While Care and Jupiter were arguing,
Terra arose and said that the human being should be named after her,
since she had given her own body. (Terra, or Earth, the original
life force of the earth, guided Jupiter's rise to power.)
Finally, all three disputants accepted Saturn as judge. (Known
for his devotion to fairness and equality, Saturn was the son of
Terra and the father of Jupiter.) Saturn decided that Jupiter,
who gave spirit to the human, would take back its soul after death;
and since Terra had offered her body to the human, she should
receive it back after death. But, said Saturn, "Since Care first
fashioned the human being, let her have and hold it as long as it
lives." Finally, Jupiter said, "Let it be called homo
(Latin for human being), since it seems to be made from
humus (Latin for earth)" (see Grant, 1960; Shklar,
The meaning of the word "care" in this myth reflects the Stoic
sense of an uplifting, attentive solicitude; it is in light of this
positive side of care that we can understand the deeper meaning of
the Myth of Care. Yet the word "care" is not without tension: The
lifelong care of the human that would be undertaken by Cura entails
both an earthly, bodily element that is pulled down to the ground
(worry) and a spirit-element that strives upward to the divine
(Burdach, 1923; Grant, 1960). The positive side of care dominates in
this story, for the primordial role of Care is to hold the human
together in wholeness while cherishing it. It is significant that a
myth communicates the meaning of care, for one of the major
functions of myths is to offer ancient narratives that make it
possible for people to understand the meaning of their experiences
regarding the basic characteristics of human life (Doty, 1991; Frye,
1971). The Myth of Care conveys an understanding of how care is
central to what it means to be human and to live out a human life.
It also provides a genealogy of care in light of which to rethink
the value of care in human life.
Myths of origins have often been used to question the established
order, both divine and human, and to establish radical moral claims,
including claims about power and the social order (Shklar, 1972).
Although several prominent political philosophies that have shaped
much of modern bioethics are based on myths of origin that emphasize
adversarial struggles as the starting point for human societies, the
Myth of Care offers a subversively different image of human society,
with very different implications for ethics in general and bioethics
in particular (Reich, 1993). Indeed, the Myth of Care presents an
allegorical image of humankind in which the most notable
characteristic of the origins, life, and destiny of humans is that
they are cared for (cf. Grant, 1960). At the same time, this gentle
myth also speaks about the roots of power. Modern psychology teaches
us that those who are cared for from birth (which is the image
conveyed in this myth) develop the nurturing power to care for self
and others. Furthermore, the fact that the myth's first human being
is not named for the most powerful of the gods and goddesses, which
would have been a symbol of being dominated by them, suggests that
truly solicitous care protects humans from oppressive and
manipulative power. The myth also suggests that humankind as a
social totality is brought into the world and sustained by care.
Since it binds humans together, care is the glue of society.
The care of souls tradition
The moral meaning of care is not only shaped by narratives, it is
also historically embedded in practices such as the care of souls
(cura animarum). The care of souls refers to the care of
troubled persons whose difficulties--whether spiritual, mental, or
physical--are approached in the context of the pursuit of the
religious goals of life or, in nonreligious contexts, the search for
ultimate meanings (cf. Clebsch and Jaekle, 1964; Browning, 1983).
The care of souls tradition--the explanations offered in its
literature and the interpretation of its practices--sheds light on
the origins and content of contemporary ideas about care.
The word "care" in the care of souls refers both to the tasks
involved in the care of a person or group and to the inner
experience of solicitude or carefulness concerning the object of
one's care. In the framework of the first meaning of the word, the
care of souls consists of helping acts that are directed principally
toward "healing" and the means by which healing is brought about,
for example, reconciliation (including penitential reconciliation
for those who have sinned), sustaining (including compassionate
consolation), and guiding (spiritual and moral guidance).
The selection of the term "care of souls" to designate these
activities (the word cura in the term "care of souls" is
frequently translated as "cure" of souls) reflects the historical
emphasis on a comprehensive idea of healing in the care of souls
tradition (McNeill, 1951; Clebsch and Jaekle, 1964). Socrates
regarded himself as the physician or healer of the soul, as did
other philosophers (McNeill, 1951); and Gregory of Nazianzus (362
C.E.) said all pastors are physicians of souls, "who must prescribe
medicines, or cautery, or the knife" (McNeill, 1951, p. 108).
The word "soul" in the care of souls can have a variety of
meanings, depending on the philosophical explanation chosen or the
religious tradition in which the term is used. John McNeill calls
the soul "the essence of human personality" (McNeill, 1951, p. vii).
It is spirit intertwined with the body without being a mere
expression of bodily life. The soul is regarded as being susceptible
to disorder and anguish, while being endowed with possibilities for
well-being and blessedness. The care of souls, then, is the healing
treatment of persons in those matters that reach beyond the
requirements of physical life, in pursuit of the "health of
personality" (McNeill, 1951, p. vii). But the welfare of the soul
was not isolated: Caring for the healing of the soul, mind, and body
have often been integrated (May, 1982). Thus, when we speak today of
"the care of the whole person," we are speaking of something
comparable to the ancient idea of the care of souls.
The care of souls conveys the primary message that there is
invariably a hierarchy of values in what it is that humans choose to
care about, and that among those values, care for the spiritual
should be preeminent. Socrates exhorted his hearers in Plato's
Apology "not to care for your bodies or for money above and
beyond your souls and their welfare"; and in the Phaedo he
argued that "the cultivation of the soul is the first concern"
(McNeill, 1951, p. 20). Some scholars believe his exhortation
greatly influenced the emergence of the idea of the care of the soul
in ancient Greece and in Christianity (McNeill, 1951).
Another prominent feature of the care of souls has been the way
in which it calls attention to the subjective experience of those
who are suffering and their need for relief in the form of personal
attention. In the Hebrew scriptures, the Psalmist speaks out of
bitter anguish: "I looked . . . and beheld, but . . . no man cared
for my soul" (Ps. 142:45; McNeill, 1951). The sufferer then appealed
to the Lord to be his refuge in the land of the living. In the care
of souls tradition, God, self, and other humans care for the
troubled soul. The one who gives care must be very attentive to the
needs of the individual sufferer. For example, Gregory the Great,
renowned for his pastoral leadership in the Western church
(590-604), taught that the guide of souls must be a compassionate
neighbor to all, a shrewd observer, and watchful and discerning like
the physician of the body (McNeill, 1951). But one problem remains
constant: whether the sufferer will seek and/or accept care
The contrast between negative and positive care that one finds in
Seneca and the Myth of Care was also presented by Jesus, who
contrasted the heavy burdens (the "yoke") that many people bear--the
worrisome cares of life--with relief or solicitous care (Matt.
11:28-30). He exhorted his followers not to be anxious about the
necessities of life, but instead to trust that they would be cared
for by the heavenly Father who knows their needs (Matt. 6:25-34;
The care of souls tradition produced three major bodies of
literature that are of special historical interest to contemporary
bioethics. First, casuistry arose within the context of the cura
animarum. In contrast to the rigid ethics of the medieval
penitential documents, in which priest-confessors were instructed on
how to deal with various categories of sinners, casuistry had the
objective of bringing the lives of ordinary people under the
influence of religious and moral standards by emphasizing practical,
case-based moral reasoning that avoided excessive abstractions and
complications (McNeill, 1951).
Second, those who cared for souls cared for the sorrows and
anxieties of individuals, partly by writing a body of so-called
Consolation literature. For example, Seneca and Plutarch in the
classical age and Cyprian and Ambrose in the third and fourth
centuries C.E. composed Consolation literature, offering sympathy
for the ills of life, suffering, and persecution (McNeill, 1951).
Third, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when the idea
of death was so vivid, the care of souls tradition produced a vast
Ars moriendi literature, commending the art of dying well
(willingly and joyfully, rather than in despair) and how to help the
dying person (Clebsch and Jaekle, 1964: McNeill, 1951).
Finally, care had the constantly changing function of sustaining
souls through the pitfalls of the earthly pilgrimage of each period
of history. For example, during the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, sustaining the troubled soul became the dominant function
of the care of souls. Because of the Enlightenment, hopes and human
aspirations for this life ran very high, and pastoral sustenance
attempted principally to keep believers mindful of their individual
destinies beyond this life (Clebsch and Jaekle, 1964). This was
precisely the environment in which care (Sorge) appeared in
Goethe: A romanticist portrayal
The mythic idea of care made a major appearance in German
literature in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries--a time
when the meaning and relevance of myth were being rediscovered as
never before--in the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832).
Taking the Myth of Care from his teacher Johann Gottfried Herder
(1744-1803)--specifically from Herder's poem titled "The Child of
Care" (Herder, 1990)--Goethe wove the major themes of that myth into
his masterpiece, the dramatic poem Faust (Grant, 1960;
Dr. Faust, passionately committed to the pursuit of reason and
science, also wants to be care-free, that is, free of the disturbing
anxieties of care that the pursuit of his goals would entail in
working with ordinary human resources. He enters into a pact with
Mephistopheles (the devil). In exchange for the knowledge and
magical assistance of Mephistopheles, Faust agrees to be his slave;
it is agreed at the outset that Faust may lose his soul to the devil
in the process (Goethe, 1985).
In the final act of the drama, Faust has become powerful and
wealthy, the ruler of a flourishing land that he has reclaimed from
the sea. He discovers that the deceitful Mephistopheles, working
under orders from Faust, has horribly destroyed by fire the last
cottage destined for demolition in the reclamation project; consumed
by the flames was a peaceful old couple to whom Faust had promised
relocation. Appalled by the horrific consequences of his thoughtless
order, Faust breaks with Mephistopheles and his magic. He wants to
stand before Nature as the "mere" human being he had been before his
pact with the devil. This internal change sets the stage for the
struggle over Faust's character, and for the appearance of Care
(Goethe, 1959; Burdach, 1923).
Care (Sorge), a gray hag calling herself the "eternally
anxious companion" ("Ewig ängstlicher Geselle"), chides Faust
for never having known her: "Have you never known Care?" ("Hast
du die Sorge nie gekannt?"). She denounces the darkness and
ambiguity of Faust's soul--and blinds him because he refuses to
acknowledge her fully. The terrible power of the burdens of Sorge's
care almost overwhelms Faust but fails to conquer his soul. Linked
with Faust's profound horror over his own crime, Sorge's
denunciation has the effect of bringing about Faust's turn from
burdensome care to the uplifting solicitude of positive care. His
"striving," which led him to ruthless acquisition, the oppressive
manipulation of masses of people, and the destruction of the old
couple, is transformed during his blindness into a genuine
solicitude for his people (Jaeger, 1968, pp. 41-43). Faust's
experience of a new and very satisfying solicitude (the greatest
moment of his life) is represented by his vision of millions of free
people living in comfort and freedom on an earth that has been
reconciled with itself through human effort.
Goethe's Faustian narrative demonstrates that striving for one's
own life goals while shutting out a sometimes worrisome and painful
concern for people and institutions results in terrible external and
internal harm. In the pursuit of one's destiny, a human cannot avoid
care. One must first deal with the heavy side of care, rejecting its
power to engulf and destroy, and then convert this care, which is
the root of all human striving, into a positive, solicitous concern
for people and institutions. For Goethe, care becomes
conscientiousness and devotedness (Burdach, 1923). At the same time,
care relates in a fundamental way to the human condition, for it may
be the key to one's moral "salvation," as it was for Faust. In
contrast to today's tendency to associate care exclusively with
interpersonal devotion, Goethe works out the meaning of care in a
political setting; the problem for Faust is whether he will show
solicitous care as a ruler. As a result, Goethe's portrayal of care
has important implications for political philosophy.
Kierkegaard and Heidegger: Existentialist and phenomenological
Kierkegaard. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the Danish
philosopher and religious thinker, was the first major philosopher
to make significant use of the notion of care or concern, albeit in
embryonic fashion. Intimately familiar with the Sorge of
Goethe's Faust (Collins, 1953), Kierkegaard offered creative
philosophical explanations of themes that had appeared both in the
Myth of Care and in Goethe: that care is central to understanding
human life and is the key to human authenticity. The extensive
influence of Kierkegaard's idea of care or concern on subsequent
thought can be seen in the context of his role as father of
existentialism: It was Kierkegaard's idea of the "concerned
thinker," pivotal for his own philosophy, that became the central
theme of existentialist philosophy and theology (Bochenski, 1968).
Concern and care in Kierkegaard's philosophy. Kierkegaard
introduced notions of concern, interest, and care to counteract what
he considered the excessive objectivity of philosophy and theology
as they were formulated in the early nineteenth century. To recover
the sense and significance of individual human existence that he
believed modern philosophy's abstract and universal categories had
obliterated, Kierkegaard called attention to what he saw as the
missing element of concern or care in the kind of philosophical
reflection that those systems utilized (Copleston, 1966).
Kierkegaard distinguished between disinterested reflection, on
the one hand, and consciousness, which entails interest or concern,
on the other. Reflection, he argued, focuses on the objective or
hypothetical; it is a merely disinterested process of classifying
things in opposition to each other (e.g., the ideal and the real,
soul and body); it has "no concern with, or interest in, the knower"
(Kierkegaard, 1958, p. 150), or with what happens to the individual
person as a result of this kind of knowing (Kierkegaard, 1958).
Consciousness is inherently concerned both with the knower and
with the collision of opposites that come to be known through
reflection. Indeed, consciousness brings the merely objective
elements of reflection into a real relationship with the knowing
subject through care or concern (Kierkegaard, 1958). A personal
(i.e., a concerned) relationship to truth is the basis of
Kierkegaard's whole theory of knowledge (Croxall, 1958). For
Kierkegaard the issue of concerned knowledge is a moral issue. To
adopt the stance of the impersonally knowing subject rather than
that of the concerned human being "as a refuge from the chaos and
pain of life," he believes, "is cowardice and escapism" (Rudd, 1993,
Kierkegaard also uses the notion of concern to express the nature
of the human being and its moral choices. Humans are beings whose
greatest interest or concern is in existing; concern or care is
subjectively chosen as an intimate part of the individual's being
(Kierkegaard, 1958; Stack, 1969). The individual gives form and
direction to his or her life, and expresses his or her true self,
not by being caught up in a large social system, but by exercising
free choice and commitment (Kierkegaard, 1940; Copleston, 1966).
The fundamental question of ethics is: How shall I live?
Objective reasoning plays a part in answering this question; but an
ethical argument is valid only insofar as it articulates a concerned
individual's search for meaning (Rudd, 1993). Thus, ethics starts
with the individual. "As soon as I have to act, interest or concern
is laid upon me, because I take responsibility on myself . . ."
(Kierkegaard, 1958, pp. 116-117, 152-153). Without care or concern,
action would not be possible: Concern is the impetus for the
resolute moral action of the self-reflecting individual who acts
with purpose (Stack, 1969). Always in the process of becoming,
lacking the security of knowledge and facing contradiction, the
human is constrained to mold his or her integrity through decision
and action. One cannot do this without an "unrelieved and unceasing
concern" for the passion and possibility of becoming oneself
(Mackey, 1972, p. 71; Hannay, 1982).
Being burdened with cares; being cared for. Kierkegaard
offers profound insights into the experience of being laden with
cares and being cared for in writings that fall into the category of
care of souls literature. He takes the traditional struggle between
negative and positive care, previously discussed in the Myth of Care
and in Goethe, in a new direction, by turning the subjective
experience of worrisome care into reasons for caring for one's self
and seeking the care of others.
In his writings on a biblical exhortation regarding human
solicitude for material versus spiritual things (Matt. 6:19-34),
Kierkegaard remarks that by contemplating the lilies of the field
and the birds of heaven, who are not neglected, humans realize that
even when they themselves are "outside all human care," neither are
they neglected: They are still cared for by a caring God
(Kierkegaard, 1940, p. 16). Humans must work to fill their needs;
but the human capacity to be weighted down by material care is a
mark of perfection, for it also signals the human capacity to cast
one's care from oneself, find consolers, accept their sympathy, and
choose a caring God (Kierkegaard, 1940). On the other hand, humans
can trap themselves into a care-ridden state of mind by worrying
about future needs, being convinced they need total security against
their anxieties, feeling an exaggerated sense of self-sufficiency,
and comparing themselves unfavorably to others (Kierkegaard, 1940).
For Kierkegaard, a special kind of anxious care is created when,
in the course of an illness, the question arises whether the sick
person is confronting life renewing itself or the looming decay of
death. The pathos of this question, which is more moving than the
prospect of a terrifying death, can move the sick person to reduce
his or her resistance to accepting consolation from others
(Kierkegaard, 1940). Finally, Kierkegaard remarks that caring for
someone is not always a gentle art. When, for example, there is much
that the sick person can do to improve his or her health, stern
demands made by the authoritative doctor--sometimes even at the
request of the patient--are the expression of concern for the
anxious sick person.
Heidegger. For Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), one of the
most original and influential philosophers of the twentieth century,
care was not just one concept among many; it was at the very center
of his philosophical system of thought. Conceptually, Heidegger was
strongly influenced by Kierkegaard's teachings on concern and care;
yet there is a notable difference. Whereas Kierkegaard saw care or
concern always in an individualized, subjective, and psychological
fashion, Heidegger used the word at an abstract, ontological level
to describe the basic structure of the human self. Although
Heidegger insisted that he was not speaking of concrete and
practical aspects of care, such as worry or nurturing, it can also
be argued that his writings on care do have existential moral
significance. He certainly developed some ideas that provide useful
insights for a practical ethic of care (Stack, 1969).
Heidegger's starting point and lifelong interest was the
philosophical question of being--in particular, the question of the
meaning of being. He used the term Dasein, or "being-there,"
to represent the human experience of being in the world through
participation and involvement (Heidegger, 1973, 1985). Heidegger's
interest was to show how care is the central idea for understanding
the meaning of the human self, which is another word for
Dasein. His philosophy explains how, at a deeper level than
the psychological experience of care, care is what accounts for the
unity, authenticity, and totality of the self, that is, of
Dasein. Briefly, Heidegger claims that we are care, and care
is what we call the human being (Gelven, 1989).
Heidegger explains the radical role of care by pointing to the
tendency of the human self to turn away from its own authentic being
to seek security in the crowd. It accommodates itself to what "they"
think and forms its conduct in accordance with the expectations of
public opinion. Care (Sorge) summons the self (Dasein)
back from the feeling of insignificance and anxiety found in this
flight from the self, and instead enables one to be one's own self,
that is, to be authentic (Flynn, 1980; Martinez, 1989).
Heidegger also explains care in the context of openness to future
possibilities. We are not simply "spectators for whom in principle,
nothing would ‘matter'" (Olafson, 1987, p. 104). To say that the
self (Dasein) is care means that we understand and care about
ourselves-in-the-world in terms of being connected with what we can
and cannot do. Because of the connectedness brought about by care,
it matters that we can act, and we must act to choose among our own
possibilities (Olafson, 1987). In so doing, Dasein chooses
itself; and the meaning of its existence unfolds in every resolute
act. This is all implicit in care (Martinez, 1989).
For Heidegger, care has the double meaning of anxiety and
solicitude--the same duality we found among the Romans--and these
two meanings of care represent two conflicting, fundamental
possibilities (Heidegger, 1973). Anxious, worrisome care
(Sorge) represents our struggle for survival and for
favorable standing among our fellow human beings. It continually
drives us to avoid the significance of our finitude, by immersing
ourselves in conventionality and triviality, so as to "conceal from
ourselves the question of the meaning of being, and in the process
truncate our humanity as well" (Ogletree, 1985, p. 23). Yet care
also bears the meaning of solicitude or "caring for"
(Fürsorge): tending to, nurturing, caring for the Earth and
for our fellow human beings as opposed to merely "taking care of"
them. However, anxious care never totally dissolves: In the everyday
world we cannot avoid the dual sense of care-as-anxiety and
care-as-solicitude. Accepting the kinds of beings we are entails
embracing a deep ambiguity in which we know that worrisome cares may
drive us to escape and that solicitous care can open up all our
possibilities for us (Ogletree, 1985).
Heidegger also contrasts Besorgen (taking care of, in the
sense of supplying the needs of others) with Fürsorge
(solicitous care). The human self (Dasein), which is
essentially related to others, enters the world of others by way of
care in two ways. On the one hand, we can take care of the "what"
that needs to be done for the other, in a rather functional way.
This sort of minimal taking care (Besorgen) requires few
qualities--principally circumspection, so that the service is done
correctly. Yet other humans are never merely things like equipment
that need to be taken care of in this way; for they, too, are selves
oriented to others. Hence they are not simply objects of service but
of solicitude (Fürsorge). Solicitous care is guided by the
subsidiary qualities of considerateness and forbearance. But
Heidegger insists that when someone nurses the sick body as a mere
social arrangement, that is, without considerateness, the nursing
care should still be regarded as solicitude, albeit a deficient
solicitude, and never as (mere) service-care (Heidegger, 1973).
Heidegger also speaks of two extreme forms of solicitous care.
Intending to show solicitous care, one can "jump in" and take over
for the other, who then is dominated and dependent in the caring
relationship. Doing what the other can do for himself or herself,
the "solicitous" person is actually taking "care" away from the
other. In contrast, Heidegger continues, there is a solicitous care
that "jumps ahead" of the other, anticipating his or her
potentiality--not in order to take away his or her "care" but to
give it back. This kind of solicitude is authentic care, for it
helps the other to know himself or herself in care, and to become
free for care (Heidegger, 1973; Bishop and Scudder, 1991).
Heidegger's substantive development of the notion of care drew
from and contributed to the "Cura" tradition of care. At the
"highpoint" of his inquiry (Heidegger, 1973), Heidegger directly
cited the Myth of Care as a primordial justification of his central
claim that the human self (Dasein) has the stamp of care
(Klonoski, 1984, p. 65). In spite of Heidegger's complexities, some
writers are attempting to develop elements of an ethic of care from
his insights; and some scholars, such as Anne Bishop and John
Scudder, are utilizing Heidegger's ideas in their arguments
regarding the moral practice of health care (Bishop and Scudder,
Rollo May and Erik Erikson: Psychological developments
Rollo May. Rollo May (1909-1994), a pioneer of the
humanistic school of psychology, introduced to U.S. psychology the
views of European existentialists. He made Heidegger's views on care
more accessible to the average reader by pointing to their
psychological and moral implications.
May's 1969 book Love and Will was written in a historical
period in which, he argued, humans were experiencing a general
malaise and depersonalization resulting in cynicism and apathy,
which he regarded as "the psychological illnesses of our day" (May,
1969, p. 306). What the youth of the 1960s were fighting in their
protests, May claimed, was the "creeping conviction that nothing
matters..., that one can't do anything." The threat was apathy. Care
"is a necessary antidote" to apathy, for care "is a state in which
something does matter; care is the opposite of apathy." It is "the
refusal to accept emptiness..., the stubborn assertion of the self
to give content to our activities, routine as these activities may
be" (May, 1969, p. 292). Care, regarded as the capacity to feel that
something matters, is born in the same act as the infant: If the
child is not cared for by its mother, it withers away both
biologically and psychologically (May, 1969).
May was concerned that the idea of care would not be taken
seriously if it were regarded as mere subjective sentiment. To
counteract this attitude, he argued that care is objective. With
care, "we are caught up in our experience of the objective thing or
event we care about" and about which we must do something (May,
1969, p. 291). Following Heidegger and citing the text of the Myth
of Care, May holds that care constitutes the human as human: Care is
"the basic constitutive phenomenon of human existence" (May, 1969,
p. 290). Drawing from these sources the idea that the human being is
constituted in its human attitudes by care, May claimed: "When we do
not care, we lose our being; and care is the way back to being."
This has moral implications: "If I care about being, I will shepherd
it with some attention paid to its welfare..." (May, 1969, p. 290).
We could not will or wish if we did not care to begin with; and
if we do authentically care, we cannot help wishing or willing. Care
makes possible the exercise of will and love; and it is also the
source of conscience: "Conscience is the call of Care" (May, 1969,
p. 290, quoting Heidegger). Care is a state composed of the
recognition of a fellow human being, of the identification of one's
self with the pain or joy of the other . . . and of "the awareness
that we all stand on the base of a common humanity from which we all
stem." Care of self psychologically precedes care of the other, for
care gains its power from the sense of pain; but pain begins with
one's own experience of it. "If we do not care for ourselves, we are
hurt, burned, injured." And this is the source of identification
with the pain of the other (May, 1969, p. 289).
According to May, care must be at the root of ethics, for the
good life comes from what we care about. Ethics has its
psychological base "in the capacities of the human being to
transcend the concrete situation of the immediate self-oriented
desire," and to live and make decisions "in terms of the welfare of
the persons and groups upon whom his own fulfillment intimately
depends" (May, 1969, p. 268).
Erik Erikson. Partly under the influence of Heidegger's
philosophy, Erik Erikson (1902-1994) constructed a richly humanistic
theory of psychosocial development in which care played a major
role. Like May, Erikson made the idea of care more accessible to the
average person; but he went far beyond all his predecessors by
developing a fairly comprehensive psychological account of care that
is relevant to many of the interests of contemporary ethics.
Based on his study of case histories and of life histories,
Erikson developed a theory of psychosocial development in which the
human life cycle has eight stages, each of them characterized by a
developmental crisis or turning point. From the resolution of that
crisis a "specific psychosocial strength" or a "basic virtue"
In the seventh stage, "adulthood," the developmental crisis is
generativity versus self-absorption and stagnation.
Generativity--"the concern with establishing and guiding the next
generation" (Erikson, 1987, p. 607)--encompasses procreativity,
productivity, and creativity. It entails the generation not only of
new human beings but also of new products and new ideas, as well as
a self-generation concerned with further personal development.
Generativity struggles with a sense of self-absorption or
stagnation, "the potential core pathology of this stage" that might
manifest itself through regression to an obsessive need for
pseudo-intimacy (Erikson, 1982, pp. 67-68; 1963, pp. 266-268). The
virtue or "basic strength" that emerges from this crisis is care.
Adult caring is "the generational task of cultivating strength in
the next generation" (Erikson, 1982, pp. 55, 67-68; 1963, p. 274;
1978, p. 22); that task may be parental, didactic, productive, or
curative (Erikson, 1982). For Erikson, care is "the concrete concern
for what has been generated by love, necessity, or accident"; it is
"a widening commitment to take care of the persons, the
products, and the ideas one has learned to care for"
(Erikson, 1978, pp. 27-28.)
The impetus to care has instinctual roots in the "impulse to
'cherish' and to 'caress' that which in its helplessness emits
signals of despair" (Erikson, 1982, pp. 59-60). The infant's
demeanor awakens in adults a strength that they need to have
confirmed in the experience of care; conversely, maternal care
enables the infant to trust rather than mistrust and to develop hope
rather than a sense of abandonment (Erikson, 1987, p. 600).
The tasks of taking care of new generations must be given
continuity by institutions such as extended households and divided
labor (Erikson, 1987). "[A] man and a woman must [define] for
themselves what and whom they have come to care for, what they care
to do well, and how they plan to take care of what they have started
and created" (Erikson, 1969, p. 395). Even if individuals choose not
to have children, they have a relationship to "care for the
creatures of this world" through participation in those institutions
that safeguard and reinforce generative succession (Erikson, 1963,
pp. 267-268). Some, like Gandhi, choose, as an expression of their
care, to become "father and mother, brother and sister, son and
daughter, to all creation..." (Erikson, 1969, 399). The task of
taking care of the new generation also falls to organized human
communities (Erikson, 1987); social and political leadership often
entails giving direction to people's capacity to care (Erikson,
The framework for Erikson's ethic of care is one of dialectic
dynamics, that is, it depends on a process of development and change
through the conflict of two opposing forces; the moral task is to
see to it that a new strength emerges. The negative aspect of
adulthood (self-absorption) continues to interact dynamically with
the positive aspects (generativity) throughout life (Erikson, 1963).
Personal growth and the strength of care emerge from this conflict
through an active adaptation that requires that one change the
environment, including social mores and institutions, while making
selective use of its opportunities (Erikson, 1978).
For Erikson, part of the ethics of care involves the struggle
between the willingness to embrace persons or groups in one's
generative concerns (a sympathic strength, which is the
virtue of care) and the unwillingness to include specified persons
or groups in one's generative concern (an antipathic
inclination, which Erikson calls rejectivity). With rejectivity,
"one does not care to care for" certain individuals or groups, or
may even express hostility toward them (Erikson, 1982, p. 68).
Because care must be selective, some rejectivity is unavoidable.
"Ethics, law, and insight" must define the allowable extent of
rejectivity in any given group. With the purpose of reducing
rejectivity among humans, "religious and ideological belief systems
must continue to advocate a more universal principle of care for
specified wider units of communities" (Erikson, 1982, p. 69).
Consequently, for Erikson, the ethics of care expresses itself in
both "small but significant gestures" (Erikson, 1978, p. 15) and in
global struggles against uncaring attitudes that contribute to the
destruction of public and private morals.
Milton Mayeroff: A personalist vision
The 1971 book On Caring by American philosopher Milton
Mayeroff (1925-1979) provides a detailed description and explanation
of the experiences of caring and being cared for. Although he drew
on several major themes from the history of the notion of care, he
took the idea of care in new, personalist directions. Mayeroff's
book is a philosophical essay that at the same time shares some of
the characteristics of the care of souls tradition, inasmuch as
Mayeroff's purpose was to show how care could help us understand and
integrate our lives more effectively.
To care for another, according to Mayeroff, is to help the other
grow, whether the other is a person, an idea, an ideal, a work of
art, or a community; for example, the basic caring stance of a
parent is to respect the child as striving to grow in his or her own
right. Helping other persons to grow also entails encouraging and
assisting them to care for something or someone other than
themselves, as well as for themselves (Mayeroff, 1971).
The caring relationship is mutual: The parent feels needed by the
child and helps him or her grow by responding to the child's need to
grow; at the same time, the parent feels the child's growth as bound
up with his or her own sense of well-being. Caring, Mayeroff says,
is primarily a process, not a series of goal-oriented services. For
example, if the psychotherapist regards treatment as a mere means to
a future product (the cure), and the present process of therapeutic
interaction is not taken seriously for its own sake, caring becomes
impossible (Mayeroff, 1971).
According to Mayeroff, caring entails devotion, trust, patience,
humility, honesty, knowing the other, respecting the primacy of the
process, hope, and courage. Knowledge, for example, means being able
to sense "from inside" what the other person or the self experiences
and requires to grow. Devotion, which gives substance and a
particular character to caring for a particular person, involves
being "there" for the other courageously and with consistency. But
caring does not entail "being with" the other constantly: That is a
phase within the rhythm of caring, followed by a phase of relative
detachment (Mayeroff, 1971).
Caring involves trusting the other to grow in his or her own time
and way. There is a lack of trust when guarantees are required
regarding the outcome of our caring, or when one cares "too much."
One who "cares" too much is not showing excessive care for the other
so much as deficient trust in the other's process of growing
In Mayeroff's vision, moral values are inherent in the process of
caring and growth. When cared for, one grows by becoming more
self-determining and by choosing one's own values and ideals
grounded in one's own experience, instead of simply conforming to
prevailing values. Mayeroff's moral approach to care is that of an
ethic of response: He emphasizes the values and goods that are
discovered in caring, and the fitting sort of human responsiveness
to self and other that these engender. Care-related responsibilities
and obligations--such as those that derive from devotion to one's
children--arise more from internal sources related to character and
relational commitments than from external rules (Mayeroff, 1971).
When caring engages one's powers sufficiently, it has a way of
ordering the other values and activities of life around itself,
resulting in an integration of the self with the surrounding world.
The conviction that life has meaning corresponds with the feeling
of being uniquely needed by something or someone and of being
understood and cared for. Mayeroff concludes that the more deeply we
understand the central role of caring in our own life, the more we
realize it is central to the human condition (Mayeroff, 1971).
Mayeroff's idea that care is central to the human condition reaches
back through several philosophers to the Myth of Care, while his
rich descriptions of the nature and effects of care set the stage
for an ethic of care in the contemporary health-care setting.
Sympathy. The history of the ethics of sympathy provides
useful insights for the developing notion and ethics of care. A
number of philosophers writing between the end of the seventeenth
century and the beginning of the twentieth--principally Joseph
Butler (1692-1752), David Hume (1711-1776), Adam Smith (1723-1790),
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), and Max Scheler
(1874-1928)--developed an ethic of sympathy. Taken from the Greek
word sympatheia, meaning "feeling with," sympathy referred to
a "felt concern for other people's welfare" (Solomon, 1985, p. 552).
There are several reasons for considering some highlights of an
ethic of sympathy in the context of this article. First, there are
some links between care and sympathy: Some of the authors who have
developed the notion of care include sympathy, empathy, or
compassion as elements of care, for example, Rollo May and Milton
Mayeroff; yet sympathy differs from care, for care has a deeper role
in human life, is broader than sympathy in its tasks, and entails a
more committed role with other people and projects. Second, the
ethics of sympathy offers sustained philosophical examination of
issues that are of interest to the ethics of care, which has been
subjected to relatively little systematic philosophical inquiry. In
particular, an ethics of care has much to learn from an ethics of
sympathy regarding its most distinctive formal feature: It is based
on a fundamental human emotion that is viewed as the central feature
of the moral life and the basis of an ethic--a fundamental
characteristic that it shares with the ethics of sympathy.
Accordingly, there are questions significant for an ethic of care
that could be examined in the context of the ethics of sympathy. For
example, there is the question regarding justification for the use
of a passion or emotion such as care as the starting point or
central point in ethics. Joseph Butler, writing in the sympathy
tradition, argued against the view of psychological egoism, which
asserted that we cannot be motivated simply by a concern for others,
for human psychology is such that we cannot help but act in our own
interests when we act on emotion. Against this, Butler argued that
passions and affections, which are "instances of our Maker's care
and love," contribute to public as well as private good and
naturally lead us to regulate our behavior. Benevolence for others
and the self-love that prompts care of the self are distinct; they
are not in conflict; and they are both governed by moral reflection
or conscience. David Hume went much further: Passions, or moral
emotions, are primary, for they alone move humans to action; reason
must serve the passions by providing the means for achieving the
ends that sentiment selects. Consequently, moral judgments, which
are the motives moving us to action, must be based primarily on
moral sentiments or feelings, not on reason (Hume, 1983; Raphael,
Another question is whether an altruistic virtue traditionally
regarded as soft could have much effect on the ethics of the
practice of medicine, which emphasizes principles and objectivity. A
comparable issue arose particularly in the writings of John Gregory
(1724-1773), a prominent Scottish physician-philosopher, who applied
the ethics of "sympathy" and "humanity" (the paired terms were taken
from David Hume) to the medical care of the sick. Gregory held that
the chief moral quality "peculiarly required in the character of a
physician" is humanity, namely "that sensibility of heart which
makes us feel for the distresses of our fellow creatures, and which,
of consequence, incites us in the most powerful manner to relieve
them" (Gregory, 1817, p. 22). The moral quality paired with humanity
is sympathy, which "produces an anxious attention to a thousand
little circumstances that may tend to relieve the patient" and
"naturally engages the affection and confidence of a patient, which,
in many cases, is of the utmost consequence to his recovery"
(Gregory, 1817, p. 22).
Gregory speaks of the development of a balanced skill of medical
compassion in the clinician: Physicians who are truly compassionate,
"by being daily conversant with scenes of distress, acquire in
process of time that composure and firmness of mind so necessary in
the practice of physic. They can feel whatever is amiable in pity,
without suffering it to enervate or unman them" (Gregory, 1817, p.
23). In this way, Gregory closely tied the virtue of sympathy to the
art of medicine and to medical benefit, while answering the
objection that sympathy causes an emotional imbalance in the
Not only does Gregory defend the role of the "soft" altruistic
virtue in medicine; he pointedly identifies the core of the
objection against them. Rejecting as "malignant and false" the view
that compassion is associated with weakness, Gregory argues that
rough manners are "frequently affected by men void of magnanimity
and personal courage" in order to conceal their defects (Gregory,
1817, pp. 22-24). Men can gain from women both "humanity" and
"sentiment," qualities that are at the very core of the moral life
Attention. Attention (or heed or regard) has, for
centuries, been one of the meanings of care; it remains an element
of care today. To care for someone is to pay solicitous attention to
him or her and to have a disposition of attentiveness. To take good
(conscientious) care of a patient means to be attentive both to the
needs of the patient and to the duties of proper care. The
"attending physician" is one who has primary responsibility for the
care of, and is ready for service to, the patient. Thus, the notion
of attention is not only a concept parallel to care; it is an
ingredient in care. The philosopher Gilbert Ryle says, "To care is
to pay attention to something..." (Ryle, 1949, p. 135).
The most significant and stimulating thinker on the topic of
attention was Simone Weil (1909-1943), a French philosopher and
mystic who makes attention the central image for ethics. Attention,
she explains, is a negative effort consisting of suspending one's
thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to receive the being
one is looking at, "just as he is, in all his truth" (Weil, 1977, p.
Weil says that solving a philosophical problem (including one
dealing with morality) requires a kind of caring contemplation:
"clearly conceiving the insoluble problems in all their
insolubility, ...simply contemplating them, fixedly and tirelessly,
...patiently waiting" (Weil, 1970, p. 335). Being attentive is being
open to illumination (Weil, 1978, p. 92); we should look at these
problems "until the light suddenly dawns" (Weil, 1952, p. 174). What
we sometimes fail to see is what Weil perceives: that solving moral
problems sometimes entails facing mystery. Thus, to discover what is
causing a person's suffering and how to respond to it, the caring
nurse may need to employ Weil's contemplative attention to all
details; and even that exercise of attention is itself a caring act.
Attention offers a powerful approach to ethics. For example,
Simone Weil thinks of equality and justice not as abstract concepts
or principles that serve the well-ordered society; she conceives of
them as virtues that can only be illuminated and developed through
attentive knowledge. Thus, for Weil, equality is a certain kind of
attention, "a way of looking at ourselves and others" (Teuber, 1982,
p. 223). Respect for another person is not respect insofar as the
other has a rational nature or is a person: Weil states bluntly that
she could put out a man's eyes without touching his person or
personality. Rather, we show respect for individuals in their
concrete specificity: "There is something sacred in every man, but
it is not his person [nor] the human personality. It is this man. .
. . The whole of him. The arms, the eyes, the thoughts, everything .
. ." (Weil, 1981, p. 13). Respect for others is based more in
compassion than in awe for personhood, and compassion does not
depend on familiarity: We can and should foster compassion for
individuals who are very different from ourselves (Teuber, p. 225).
Attention is also a key part of the practice of compassion. Weil
explained that those who are suffering "have no need for anything in
this world but people capable of giving them their attention." She
contended that the capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is
a very rare and difficult thing; "it is almost a miracle; it is a
miracle . . ." (Weil, 1977, p. 51).
Attention and the equality it discovers do not suffice for all
problems in ethics: They do not in themselves define any principles
for adjudicating conflicts; but they can and do convey certain
attitudes and forms of conduct without which we would lose sight of
the meaning and substance of our obligations and rights (Teuber, p.
228). In addition, Weil's sort of attention can show us duties we
did not see before (Nelson, 1992, p. 13) and can instruct us in the
skills required for caring.
In a variety of settings--mythological,
religious, philosophical, psychological, theological, moral, and
practical--the notion of care has developed throughout history,
influencing moral orientations and behaviors. The tasks for the
future will be to more fully understand the richness and complexity
of the history of the idea of care, do justice to the texts that
have imaginatively portrayed it and the thinkers who have made this
idea central to their work, and enter into dialogue with them.
This history reveals, not a unified idea of care, but a family of
notions of care. Yet it is a fairly closely related family, for the
ideas of care are united by a few basic sentiments, some formative
narratives whose influence stretches over time, and several
recurring themes. Furthermore, in the history of the English word
"care," this single word serves a range of meanings but with a
The meanings of the word "care" fall into four clusters. The
basic meaning is associated with the origins of the word, which are
found in the Middle High German word kar and more remotely in
the Common Teutonic word caru, meaning "trouble" or "grief"
(Simpson and Weiner, 1989, pp. 893-894). Correspondingly, the
primary meaning of the word "care" is anxiety, anguish, or mental
suffering. A second meaning of "care" is a basic concern for people,
ideas, institutions, and the like --the idea that something matters
to the one who is concerned. Two other meanings of care, sometimes
in conflict, are found at a more practical level. One is a
solicitous, responsible attention to tasks--taking care of the needs
of people and one's own responsibilities; and the other is caring
about, having a regard for, or showing attentive care for a person,
for his or her growth, and so forth. In a sense, all the meanings of
"care" share to some extent a basic element: One can scarcely be
said to care about someone or something if one is not at least
prepared to worry about him, her, or it. The truly caring health
professional is one who worries about--is concerned about--his or
her patients, especially the patients who cannot take care of
Several distinctive features stand out in this history of care.
The metaphysical and religious dimensions of care appear forcefully
and repeatedly in history, emphasizing that care is essential to
understanding humans and the human condition. The history of care
shows that, at one level, care is a precondition for the whole moral
life. It also manifests various frameworks for an ethic of care,
including evolutionary ethics, virtue ethics, an ethic of growth, an
ethic of response, and duty ethics, yet one does not find a formal
and systematic ethics of care in the sources examined.
Repeatedly in this history one encounters a dialectical element
in which pairs of ideas of care struggle against each other: care as
worry or anxiety versus care as solicitude; the care that enables
growth versus the effort to care that robs a person of self-care; or
taking technical care of the other versus caring about the other.
There is much to learn from history about the dark side of care and
how humans might deal with it.
A key historical puzzle is why the notion of care has not become
better known and has not exerted more influence in ethics, in view
of its highly significant, if somewhat limited, history. The answer
lies, in part, in the fact that care has always been a minority
tradition of thought and practice. As this survey exemplifies, care
is a deeply engaging emotion/idea that has confronted and challenged
rationalist, abstract, and impersonal systems of thought, with
far-reaching social, political, ethical, and religious implications.
In this sense, care has had a countercultural role.
More recently, care may be acquiring a "mainstream" importance,
especially in the area of the ethics of health care. The following
two articles will show how some elements in the history of the idea
of care have become ingredients in an emerging ethic of care in the
context of health care, while other historical elements have been
All ethics assumes a vision of the human condition. The ethics of
care rests on a vision of the capacity to care or be concerned about
things, persons, a whole life-course, a society, one's self. The
history certainly is not compatible with reducing care to
caregiving. The Myth of Care suggestively offers a care-based
genealogy of morals that is deeply ingrained in human psychology,
anthropology, religion, and altruistic service. The philosophical
and psychological developments in the idea of care have built on
this basic vision of being well cared for. That the history of the
idea of care also suggests many practical ideas--for example, the
call and the limits of taking care of others; dealing with the
negative side of care; and the intergenerational function of
care--makes it all the more useful for a contemporary ethic of care.
-- Warren Thomas Reich
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