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For quite a while now, care ethicists like Noddings (Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy) and Held (The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global) have argued that an ethic of care offers a viable supplement - if not alternative - to political theories of justice. These writers have sought to use care ethics to articulate a caring vision of social policy. This has proven to be an uphill battle for a few reasons. First, if care ethicists often acknowledge that care is most powerful and effective the 'closest to home' it is (we care best for those who are close to us, then how can an ethic of care say anything about what we owe to far-off others? Second, as Engster points out, because care ethics celebrates contextuallity and moral pluralism, many of the suggestions for a caring social policy have been vague guidelines rather than concrete policy proposals.
In Heart of Justice, Engster attempts to flesh out a bit more what caring social policy might look like. What is the role and scope of government in a caring world? Is caring most compatible with socialism, market socialism, free markets, or some sort of mixed economy? And even beyond that, can we ground care ethics in something other than the natural emotion that most of us have to care for others (in other words, we have all sorts of natural emotions - from anger to revenge to care - so are there grounds to argue that care, rather than one of these other emotions, is what we should seek to nurture?)
As best I can tell, Engster is a sort of market socialist who believes that markets in care services COULD do a better job in some cases than direct government provisions (allowing, for instance, that a regulated voucher system may lead to better outcomes of people's needs being satisfied than government provision of education). In my view - and my biases are revealed here - there is actually plenty of reason to take the idea that markets can provide caring outcomes better than government services; a simply perusal of decades of public choice economic literature should be sufficient to cast doubt on how responsive government bureaucracies often are to 'consumer' needs, and if decentralized governments are what we want, whether there is reason to think that decentralized governments stay that way for long. I like Engster's treatment; he is very balanced and unlike many care ethicists (see particularly Tronto's recent Caring Democracy: Markets, Equality, and Justice), gives at least some attention to whether markets can produce better outcomes than government provision of services. With proper regulation and state oversight, he suggests, they SOMETIMES can.
Before that is an interesting discussion where Engster tries to offer a rational foundation for an ethic of care, not because we want to turn care ethics into a rationalistic philosophy, but without giving some rational account of why care, we risk not being able to convince those skeptical of adopting a care-based approach. At the risk of simplifying, the argument is this. (a) all of us are where we are today partly because of the care of others, sometimes those close to us, and sometimes from those distant from us; (b) we all probably agree that when we are in need, it is good for others to step in and help us; (c) because of that, if we want to be consistent, we should also hold that when others are in need, it is good for us and others to step in and help when they can. I think this is pretty solid, but my one reservation is that it may only set up a reciprocal obligation to care for those who've cared for us. In other words, why 'pay it forward' when it is clearer that my obligation to help only extends to those who have cared for me (or who I think are likely to return the favor)?
To close the review, my real concern with this book is not whether it's arguments are interesting and good - they are both - but whether Engster's approach departs too radically from most existing accounts of care ethics. So, for one, Engster is more or less a consequentialist - what matters most is whether people get their needs met, not as much whether those meeting the needs do so from caring motive or within caring relationships. Second, while care ethics is often best seen as a communitarian theory, Engster's consequentialism and focus on a theory that satisfies people's needs seems to put him closer to a prioritarian or positive-rights position. Third, Engster does seem to value the idea of autonomy and individualism a bit more than many care ethicists (if one can take care of themselves, they should, often because that means that finite resources can be devoted to those truly in need of care - again, prioritarian.) And lastly, his starting off by offering a rational foundation for care, while I agree with this approach, seems to depart from the care ethics of someone like Nel Noddings.
I guess in a philosophy so comparatively new, this kind of differentiation and modification should be welcomed, but I still wonder whether Engster's philosophy bears too many differences to existing accounts of care ethics that he risks being read as a positive-rights or prioritarian theorist in disguise. (As Engster actually admits, his approach bears a lot of similarity to a capabilities approach, and I suspect he may be closer to that here than to an ethic of care.) But either way, the book fills a needed hole in care ethics research and social policy, and Engster's arguments should evoke a lot of exciting thought and discussion. Recommended for anyone concerned with care ethics and social policy (or finding out why a caring approach can supplement or replace accounts of political justice.)