The Intersection of Care Theory and Public Policy By Christopher Carter

This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium,  Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.

Christopher Carter is a Ph.D. student in Religion, Ethics, and Society at Claremont Lincoln University, and the Senior Pastor at Compton First United Methodist Church. His interests include Ecotheology, Critical Race Theory, and Christian Social Ethics.

“George Bush doesn’t care about black people!” Music artist Kanye West made these scathing remarks during the NBC telethon “A Concert for Hurricane Relief.” West’s anger toward George W. Bush was the result of the frustration that many people had regarding the lackluster federal response to Hurricane Katrina. Five days after Katrina West was asked to lend his star power to the relief effort. In those five days West, like many of us, watched the news broadcasts incessantly hoping to hear something positive; believing that our country – the United States of America – would not abandon any citizen in their time of greatest need. With the help of news broadcasts that portrayed the displaced African Americans of New Orleans as scavengers at best and criminals at worst, whatever hope the African American community had in our government had faded away.  Thus we arrive at West’s assertion that “George Bush [i.e. the government] doesn’t care about black people.” As much as I agreed with this statement at the time it was made, reevaluating it in light of Nel Noddings seminal work Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (1984) has caused me to reverse my opinion. Indeed, George W. Bush through the actions of the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) showed the world that he did care about black people.

In Caring, Noddings examines the grounding and development of human moral action. Noddings claims that the process by which ethical decisions are made can be distinguished by gender. She argues that women, “as ones caring, are not so much concerned with the rearrangement of priorities among principles; they are concerned, rather, with maintaining and enhancing caring” (42). In contrast to the Kantian (or masculine) philosophy that moral decision-making must be grounded in a sense of duty rather than love or sentiment in order to maintain consistent application, Noddings admits that an ethics of care is relationally circumstantial – the closer you are to the person she calls the one-caring, the greater amount of care you will receive.

This line of thought pushes us to ask a relevant, albeit speculative question – how “close” was George Bush to the poor African Americans who found themselves stranded in post-Katrina New Orleans? Was he close enough to care? Care as it is expressed in Noddings is not an abstract sentiment: “it involves stepping out of one’s own personal frame of reference into the others. When we care, we consider the other’s point of view, his objective needs, and what he expects of us” (24). When viewed in this light the question of George W. Bush’s “closeness” to the displaced of New Orleans is circumstantial in that his ability to care seems to be dependent upon his relationships (both current and prior) with poor black people. While supporters of George W. Bush may point to his relationships with Gen. Colin Powel and Condoleezza Rice, judging from his remaining cabinet members and known acquaintances it isn’t a stretch to say that he “probably” didn’t have any poor people (let alone poor and black) in his relationship circle.

In this way, FEMA’s tortoise-like response to the Katrina disaster could be directly linked to George Bush’s caring about, rather than caring for, the poor black people in New Orleans. Noddings uses the expression aesthetical caring to describe “caring about” things or ideas. We care about those in Japan who are suffering from the effects of the tsunami, we care about orphans, we care about the poor. But an ethic of care involves limitations, and our obligation to care is “limited and delimited by relation” (86). In this way, “‘caring about’ always involves a certain benign neglect. One is attentive just so far, one affirms, one contributes five dollars and goes on to other things” (112). George Bush and the leaders of FEMA came, they waved to the crowd, they spoke of deploying the assets necessary to get the situation under control, they said they were “gonna help the people who need help” – they gave money, and then they left. Benign neglect may be too soft a description.

Given that our federally elected officials have limited contact (at best) with those who vote them into office, is it fair to even consider the nature of their relationships with citizens when analyzing their policy decisions? Simply put, yes it is. Consider your own relationships and how they affect your moral decision-making. Personally, I only cared about GLBT marriage rights until I cultivated relationships with specific individuals affected by the laws that grant unequal access to marriage. I only cared about homelessness until I started having real homeless persons stop by my church just to talk. I could go on and on, but the point I am trying to make is that Noddings is correct in her assertion that moving from caring about to caring for requires the creation of a relationship with the proximate other, someone who makes their way into our proximity of caring.

Some might argue that I am asking too much of our elected officials.  How can they do their jobs effectively if they spend their time creating relationships with their respective communities? My answer to those critics would be, how could they do their jobs if they didn’t?  How could they represent the needs of a particular community if they didn’t even know them? This requires more than visiting a soup kitchen at Thanksgiving. It requires genuine conversation with those who advocate on behalf of the poor and marginalized, it means that our officials must view these people as equals because they share a common commitment to care for their communities. In this sense, justice for the poor and marginalized in our country cannot be granted until our policy makers incorporate an ethic of care into our nations duty based policy making process.

Lastly, someone might argue that once we are adults or circle of relationships tends to shrink rather than expand. We find ourselves surrounded by people who look, think, and act as we do. I accept this criticism, however this doesn’t mean it is impossible to expand our circle of relationships. In an article in GQ Magazine, Devin Friedman wrote extensively about his attempt to find a “black friend” after he realized that his social circle had gotten too white. While it wasn’t easy, it did work. I’m not saying that our President or any other elected official should use Craigslist to create a new relationship. Rather, I am asking us to consider the following question: would you be willing to become a government official’s “poor” (or black/Latino/GLBT/Asian, etc.) friend if it meant they could learn the importance of caring for those whom they normally would not? Perhaps, it might be harder for them to make new friends than I initially thought…

Categories: Activism, Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue, Politics, Race and Ethnicity

Tags: , , , , , ,

10 replies

  1. This is a most wonderful post, combining popular culture, contemporary American politics, and the ethics of care so seamlessly! I don’t think we as a class will hear “care about” so innocently again (after Noddings’ distinction with “caring for” and your application to the Katrina disaster). I particularly liked your question whether it would be appropriate for constituents to want their politicians to care for (not simply care about) the people they serve. While I cannot be sure, I suspect that the answer is both yes and no: the American public would be outraged if all politicians did was pose for “photo ops” with certain peoples but privately held real disdain for them (and, let’s say, if their racist/sexist/homophobic/antiSemitic, etc. remarks ever became public, as per the Nixon tapes), but at the same time, I suspect that most Americans would choose EFFECTIVE “caring about” the masses over just very intense (but partial) “caring for” any day. (What if in fact Bush or the director of FEMA had really “cared for” 5 families in New Orleans – so he medevaced only them and provided only them with shelter and food? The American public would be outraged for sure!)


  2. Chris,

    I appreciate that you advocate for stronger (actual?) caring relationships between politicians and the constituents they represent. You raise an excellent point that they are not able to effectively do what they are elected to do without knowing the needs and desires of those they claim to represent. We so often hear about corruption among politicians, and the caricature of politicians is anything but that of a beneficent being truly invested in the needs of people s/he purports to represent. Rather, we have politicians whose time and energy is often more invested in getting re-elected: the politician is looking for job security, not necessarily the best ways to provide for the people who elected her/him.

    I do not mean to say that politicians have an easy job. Quite the contrary, actually. Some of them work long and hard to achieve goals that they believe will improve the economy, international relations, and a host of other worthy goals. However, due to the elected nature of political offices, we inevitably have candidates who seek to say the right thing, appear in a particular way, whatever is necessary to get elected. Some of those candidates may truly believe that they are the best person for the job from an altruistic standpoint. However, many others use political offices in part to add a feather to their own caps or attain privileges not available to the public (i.e. full pay retirement after serving one term in office, extraordinary healthcare benefits, etc.).

    When it comes to the needs of the people, however, politicians–particularly those in the higher levels of government–often fail to care for their constituents. Your post reminded me of a song by Pink that came out a few years ago, “Dear Mr. President” (for lyrics, see The lyrics in this song capture the failure of those in high government positions (in this case, President George W. Bush) to relate to and even adequately care about the people they represent. As you so powerfully stated, Chris, “Benign neglect may be too soft a description” for the virtual indifference shown by some politicians for the people they have been elected to represent and lead. As you suggest, the caring-about in which politicians engage is often inadequate to the needs of the one who should be cared-for. (This is not to say that the government should be completely selfless, only that the function of the government should be governance in the best interest of the people. Public servants should be precisely that: servants to the needs of the greater community they are elected to serve.)

    Government officials would do well to learn about and incorporate aspects of Nel Noddings’ theory on caring-for and caring-about. While large-scale caring-for is an admitted impossibility, politicians adopting a more conscious and engaged ethic of care for the purpose of public service rather than individual political gain would be more capable of making leadership decisions based on the needs of the community they represent.

    Thanks so much for your post. It really made me think about some of the political implications of the ethics of care on a larger scale than my immediate environment.


  3. Chris,
    What an amazing post.

    In a world where the divide between the extremely rich and poor is growing and there does not seem to and end in site, we have to reexamine the ways in which our elected officials “care for” or “care about” the people that ultimately elect them.

    In your discussion of FEMA and Katrina, we have to go back and think about how/if the President really did care about the people that were hurt/killed/displaced by the Hurricane. When I think about this I constantly go back to Kanye West’s saying, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

    When we are examining care ethics, does this statement hold true in regards tot he way Bush reacted to the situation? Did he really not care? While we can debate the issue, and even mention how this moment in Bush’s Decision Points, was mentioned as one of the “most upsetting” moments in his Presidency, an ethic of care needs to be addressed on the political level.

    In a world where politicians seem to care more and more about the people who fund their campaign or the rich people who they rub elbows with, we have to ask, “Where are the little people?”

    Are our problems not worthy of our politicians or are we seeing a world, in a post Citizens United political landscape, where only the $$$ that you can contribute equates to the amount of “care” you receive when disasters strike?

    I don’t know the answers to these questions but I believe that you post, truly opens up this discussion in a way we have no thought/talked about care ethics before.

    Amazing post!


  4. Great post Mr. Carter. Especially in contrast to Kanye West’s comments, politics and the distinction between “caring about” and “caring for,” that Nodding makes! I’ll RT tomorrow.

    Dr. Coleman


  5. Chris,
    Your post reminds me of the interaction between then presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and Cezar Chavez. Kennedy had no working knowledge about the plight of the non-documented laborer in California. Through introductions Kennedy met Chavez and was introduced to Catholic Social Teaching, an arm of the Catholic church little talked about or understood in its political nature. Additionally, Chavez introduced (literally) Kennedy to The United Farm Workers, giving him first hand experience with the human rights violations faced by the laborers. A close relationship was formed, giving Kennedy a unique entry point into a justice issue as well as response from his own Catholic church.

    I can’t say those days and politicians are past, but the climate and tone of both political parties has forgotten an ethic of care for the other. Great post!


    • Cynthie,
      Thank you so much for your comments! As I wrote this piece I wondered how (or if) the political response to disasters of social justice issues has evolved over time in our country. Your story about Kennedy is fascinating, and no doubt his experience with Chavez effected his decision making in policy areas connected to immigration and worker rights. I do wonder if it is even possible for our political leaders in higher offices to even do something like that anymore. There are three elected officials that attend the church I serve; each of them serve in Compton’s local government. They spend a great deal of time out in the community, but even within the small city government of Compton, they are the exception and not the rule. Has our political system evolved to the point where sincere personal care is no longer expected from our representatives? On the state (at least in California) and national levels I believe it has. Some solutions have been tossed around to address this issue, such as campaign finance reform so people can no longer “buy” elections, and while this could help, it would not solve the problem. Ultimately citizens need to start taking elections seriously, starting at the local level. We can not demand that our elected officials care about us if we are unable to show them that we care about what happens in our own communities. I just hope that one day we are able to change the some of the laws regarding who can vote (i.e. only voting one day a week when many working people can’t take time off, voting on weekdays, people with felonies being unable to vote, etc.) so we can show our leaders that many of us do care.


  6. The ethic of care as is posited does not consider empathy. Empathy is the reaction we feel when others are in distress. Not so much a reaction as an action. For some it could be a knee-jerk response to seeing others in such distress. Their distress is our distress. Their pain is our pain. Though we do not know these people, those with empathy can replace them with you. However, even in empathy there are degrees of care. Some of us respond viscerally to other’s plight, while others seem to understand, but can objectify the situation–sympathy.


  7. Chris, you’ve done an excellent job of connecting the issues of care raised in our class readings with the U.S. government’s great failure to respond and flat-out smack in the face that residents of the Gulf Coast were forced to endure during Hurricane Katrina and in the tragic aftermath that followed.

    Your post took me right back to January 2008. With newfound health insurance (without which I was unable to volunteer the year prior), I signed up for Hunter College Hillel and Rebuilding Together’s week of service, helping to restore houses damaged by the Deluge and over a year of neglect during the period of Exile experienced by many of New Orleans’ displaced inhabitants.
    I had no experience in construction or contracting, but I thought that I was doing something good, an act of caring for people. Going down south with a bunch of other well-meaning Jewish college students and doing some pretty shoddy carpentry did a great job of putting THAT delusion to bed. When I saw a picture of the house we’d been working on in a local newspaper, showing the exact same siding that I had worked so hard to gut and replace not a day before, I felt a great sense of disappointment.
    How was I caring for somebody by merely painting and nailing some boards if that didn’t actualize their dream of returning home? And how did I know that was their dream at all? I’d never met the woman who owned that house in Treme, so there was no way I could listen to her concerns let alone address them. Here was what I perceived as a problem that needed to be solved. Maybe the trauma – of the Flood, of destruction to her home, of becoming a refugee seeking asylum in her own nation – was enough to make her never want to step foot in that shotgun shack ever again.
    I could not listen to her voice. I could not respond to her needs. I had no idea what they might be.
    I cared enough about the people of New Orleans to do some feel-good works righteousness, but the whole endeavor left me reflecting upon my effort as something worse than benign neglect and bordering on benign damage.
    In August of 2008 I was back in New York City visiting my father in the hospital. One night while I was going home, I happened to meet a woman seeing her ailing mother. As it turns out, her entire family had come up from New Orleans because they had lost their home. She’d also lost her cleaning business along with all its lucrative corporate contracts in the wake of Katrina.
    That night in the waiting room at Lenox Hill, she talked. I listened. I can’t for the life of me remember her name, but I’ll never forget the release of the Flood she’d barely dammed up behind her eyes and the hug we shared before parting ways.
    We want to care, we uplift it as a moral value, but often we fail to meet those in need on their own terms according to their immediate needs. Our nation has a long way to go before we fully embrace an ethics of justice (in which all citizens genuinely have equal rights), let alone an ethics of care. In the meantime, it’s up to everyday folks doing the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt. Sometimes we will fail, our humanity guarantees it. However, let us never fail for lack of caring lest we, as islands in separation, watch others drown without thinking to toss out an inner tube.


    • Ben,
      Thanks for your comments. I chose this topic because it is fairly personal; I have a lot of family that live in the greater New Orleans area. Trust me, your volunteer work in New Orleans meant a great deal to the people down there that I have talked with. But, your point is well taken. The difficulty with your situation speaks to a problem with the alleged “solution” of fixing the homes in New Orleans – we needed to asses whether or not the owners desire to return at all. It seems odd to me that you didn’t know the story of the homeowner. When I was in high school I did a lot of work with Habitat for Humanity, and they do an excellent job of informing the volunteers about the family that is going to live in the house. For me, it made my volunteering much more personal, and I know it influenced me to care about the quality of my work even more because I “knew” who was going to be living in that space.


  8. Chris: Just clicked on the GQ article link and couldn’t stop laughing at this line: “Admitting that you count your black friends is a violation of the Unracist White Person Magna Carta…” I think a version of that line is worthy of this website:


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: