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Why Care?

Sakes and Stakes in the Justice/Care Debate

by David Foss

There are those who would have us believe that morality is nothing other than conformity with a small set of law-like propositions, religiously or scientifically grounded as fact in the nature of the species person. A moral proposition is (or so they contend) either true or false, and this on the basis of some spiritual or empirical derivation from the structure of proprietary agency. We are good, bad, or indifferent according to the degree to which our actions conform with, or issue from, the appropriate propositional motivation, when conditions fall within the jurisdiction of given moral rules. Accordingly, moral commitments are those held with respect to these rules and the class of propositions they rationally entail.

The fundamental task of ethical analysis is thereby taken as twofold: First, analysis requires a clear articulation of the (natural) rules; and second, it requires a systematic regime for the particularization of the demands and privileges entailed by these general principles (a process necessary for behavioral relevance). The development (or education) of moral sense, as the principle object of study for any proper moral theory, can be measured according to the manner and degree to which the self is able to formulate (and hold) propositional commitments with respect to general rules of proprietary behavior, applied across the membership class of moral actors (arriving at these rules according to the content of ‘moral presence’). In a round about manner, according to any naturalistic rule-based moral theory, I am moral to the degree that I conform with my nature as a member of the class or species person. Within this picture, the (morally) relevant content of my nature is a cluster of propositional generalities, in virtue of which I may rightly lay claim to belonging to the moral community.

TThe reader shall be excused for finding it strange that such philosophers consider morality first a matter of commitment to “propositions”, and only indirectly a matter of commitment to any particular person or persons. When I do wrong, according to this view, it is only by violation of a principle, a rule, or a law. These rules may ultimately appeal to some logic of interpersonal relatedness, or differential calculus cast across morally relevant populations, as the grounding of their legitimacy. However, this does not alter the fact that once obtained, the matter of moral commitment belongs entirely to the relationship between the agent (or moral actor) and the rule. Unfortunately, the displacement of persons by wholly linguistic entities (within the primitive content of moral commitment) is not an entirely benign reformulation of our moral lives in accord with some new language of analysis. By the exile of the concrete Other[1] from the realm of ethical analysis, the nature of moral development, moral education, and moral maturity, are each articulated in a manner which only suspiciously tolerates feelings of partisanship with respect to friends, loved ones, or comrades.

There are good reasons for supposing that at least some portion of our moral judgment is essentially rule-governed. Some moral ties are best viewed in terms of propositional commitment. Trouble arises, however, wherever propositional commitment is taken as the only valid form (or the only valid analysis of the primitive content) of moral commitment. Too much partisanship in our moral deliberation may be a bad thing; but too little, and there begins to appear in our moral judgment something suspiciously inhuman, callous, arrogant, or even malevolent (even where the outcomes are effectively beneficent). Reading moral judgment strictly in terms of propositional commitment (commitment to specific rules, laws, or contractual obligations), seeks to either reject partisanship altogether (calling it “domestic,” or even dangerous), or to reduce the peculiar duties and demands of particular friendships (or whatever moral content we ascribe to them) to an awkward array of rules sensitive to social proximity. Either move suggests that whatever is morally legitimate with respect to bonds of partisanship, must be reducible to carefully crafted universal principles. What is morally significant within person-specific proprietary behavior (if anything is morally significant) is no longer the specific relationship between the self and the other, but the mere fact of being related.

Such comments are not meant to condemn any particular moral theory as yet. A reduction of personal commitments to propositional commitments is often highly illuminating, and may at times reveal a great deal about the structure of moral motivation. However, an analysis of moral development which understands moral agency strictly in terms of such a reductive process (where moral deliberation is identified as the discernment and principled application of general rules), not only obscures those aspects of moral deliberation concerned with specific or special relationships, but mistakes the skilled use of speculative reason for ethical prowess in the definition of moral maturity. This is an error which bears political (as well as theoretical) consequences; and no where so dramatic as in the appreciation of gendered moral development. Men and women have, for whatever reasons, been given (and been held accountable to) distinct proprietary roles, in which the “universal” (or public) is coded masculine and the “particular” (or domestic) feminine.

In an effort to effect some sort of equity, some modern theorists, Lawrence Kohlberg among them, have considered it appropriate to hold women to the standard traditionally held only to men; rather than admit that the old masculine standard is itself a peculiar child of gendered moral development. A standard by which men could ignore aspects of the moral field (such as the raising of the young, or the maintenance of intimate relationships, which concern proprietary behavior between persons of unequal power or status) precisely because women could not. That is, in the rather laudable effort to develop a universal conception of moral development and reasoning (universal in the sense of applying to persons as such), post-Victorian efforts have focused on evaluating women according to an updated reading of the old masculine ethic. There has been a push, which I cautiously embrace, to treat moral agency in a rather generic fashion; a push to view all persons as capable moral actors (regardless of the “accident” of gender), and moral agency a matter for universal respect and concern. But the race to include all persons within the fold of our theoretical appreciation of moral agency has had the rather unfortunate tendency to dismiss as no longer “moral” those categories of ethical judgment historically reserved for women.

Why should we care? Kohlberg’s work on the development of moral judgment, and his treatment of moral maturity in general, offers many powerful insights into the emergence of full moral agency in children and young adults. His conception of mature moral reasoning, firmly grounded in the theoretical convictions of moral philosophers since time immemorial, appears perfectly benign: the highest, and the most difficult, form of moral analysis requires of the agent a dispassionate and selfless appreciation of relevant facts, and a weighing of options according to the demands of equity. If his studies have revealed that women, commonly “mature” faster than men, and then “regress” to a lower stage of moral development after a certain age, so much the worse for women. Notice that it need not be anything about women (physiologically or biologically) which explains the regression. Such a decline in moral maturity among women, far from being a sign of genetic moral weakness or a biological tendency toward impropriety in the feminine countenance (although I sometimes wonder whether there is such a tendency in homo sapiens et al.), would seem more readily attributable to some failure in our cultural institutions of moral education.

‘Why should we care,’ indeed. Carol Gilligan, a student of Kohlberg’s, has found a more troubling aspect of his analysis; more troubling than the possibility that the moral maturity of women is being subverted by our cultural training. Far from merely regressing, the women who fare poorly in Kohlberg’s studies often appear to be thinking in accord with a starkly different model of proprietary agency. It would appear that they not only fail to strictly obey Kohlberg’s rules; they appear to play a different moral game entirely. Citing evidence that gendered moral development has generated two distinct frames of ethical analysis, she proposes that these two frames represent something of a categorical division of the total moral field.

Gilligan identifies these two frames as “the ethic of justice” and “the ethic of care.” But why should we suppose that the division of the moral field into the masculine and the feminine perfectly mirrors such natural categories (that is, between Justice and Care properly understood)? Even if we accept Gilligan’s basic observation, and read the masculine ethic according to a deep “justice” orientation, and the feminine ethic according to a deep “care” orientation, it does not seem as though justice and care are (or need be) themselves so distinct or independent as perspectives on the full moral field. Justice and care hardly seem to mark categorically distinct alternatives for moral judgment. We want “Justice with a human face” — Justice with compassion (anything less would seem unjust). Less obviously, but no less real, we demand (morally) that compassion be Just — that we are not arbitrary in the added weight we attach to our commitments to friends and loved ones (demanding that some added weight ought to brought to such relationships).

Gilligan’s use of the terms “justice” and “care” is therefore somewhat unfortunate. There are good reasons for viewing each of the two moral frames in light of Justice and Care respectively; but the frames should not be confused with the tendency each has to favor one or the other aspect of moral reasoning. The task of this paper, in what follows, is two-fold: first, by examining Gilligan’s basic insight, to understand the content of the “Justice/Care” distinction; and second, to expose the phenomenological origins of this distinction, far deeper than anyone might have imagined, within proprietary agency itself. It will be this second step which shall reveal why the failure of some women to mature “properly” within Kohlberg’s model of moral development is not a mere failure of public policy or cultural education, nor some unavoidable weakness of the feminine physiology; but is representative of a fundamental error in our conception of what it is to be a moral agent.

Before beginning in earnest, we should bear in mind that there is a certain (quite serious) game we must play in the analysis of moral judgment. As moral philosophers, we must endeavour to balance the articulation of both the scientific and the normative aspects of the enterprise. It is not merely a study of how we ought to behave, but also a study of how we actually reason with respect to the determination of proprietary action. We can not simply claim that we are all morally deficient if it turns out that our favorite moral theory prescribes a style of thinking we only occasionally adopt in matters moral. Nor must we admit as moral all that current proprietary reason dictates. It will not be enough to simply claim that moral deliberation must (at times perhaps) involve the dissociation of one’s “interests” from one’s “self”; we must show how such deliberation is possible. Likewise, it will not be enough to simply observe that many people (women in particular) appeal to a forgotten sort of moral logic; we must show why this appeal is appropriate and how the logic is truly moral.

The Justice/Care Distinction

The dispute between Kohlberg and Gilligan, over the problem of whether we ought to conceptualize moral development according to a model of moral reasoning offered by John Rawls and the dominant philosophical tradition (characterized deeply by an attention to hypothetical syllogism, linear reasoning, and rational self-interest), or according to a model in which two distinct frames of analysis compete for our moral attention (called respectively by Gilligan the ‘ethic of justice’ and the ‘ethic of care’), has led to some rather vitriolic exchanges among psychologists, philosophers, and educators. Battle lines have been drawn over the particular issues of empirical relevance and confirmation (or disconfirmation), and the appropriateness of finding a deep distinction between “Justice” and “Care” properly understood. I do not believe efforts to dismiss Gilligan according to either empirical “counterevidence” or conceptual challenges linked to her particular use of the terms “Justice” and “Care” substantially threaten her basic observation.

There is something missed by a reading of “moral reasoning” which considers self-interest and reciprocity to be the central concepts of all things moral. In particular, modes of moral reasoning which emphasize benevolence, a “genuine regard for others” (oft called “altruism”), and so on, receive a rather cynical dismissal by any ethical theory which considers such expressions of “selflessness” unreliable, temperamental, or outright irrational. Often it has been the apparent selflessness of such modes of reasoning itself which renders their presence in ethical analysis, and theories of moral development, suspect. If our preferred motivational psychology has no room for other-regarding actions, then we can hardly expect our moral theory to demand that we develop such an absurd capacity. Again, if it appears that women have historically tended to develop such a capacity, in spite of a prevailing psychological pessimism, then it has been taken as either evidence of feminine irrationality, or widespread self-deception. Fortunately, we need not fear that such fundamentally other-regarding moral sentiments are motivationally absurd. Such motivations do occur. More importantly, we commonly praise the resulting actions morally.

That Kohlberg and his philosophical predecessors have missed an important aspect of our moral lives becomes increasingly obvious if we attend to some rather simple cases of emergent moral behavior. Michael Pritchard notes:

... if a young child rescues a bird from an attack by the family cat, it is difficult to see how this behavior might fit within Kohlberg’s account. We need not suppose the child has even implicitly considered what justice, duty, or the rights of others require of him; and it is implausible to read some form of reciprocity into the situation. Furthermore, since such behavior is not a response to a moral dilemma and is typically nonverbal, most likely it would be ignored by Kohlbergians. Yet, insofar as such early manifestations of generalized benevolence are precursors of valued adult benevolence, they should be noticed and supported.[2]

Gilligan’s insight is that there is a bona fide moral perspective, a moral frame of analysis, which has long been considered irrational or unintelligible by traditional Western conceptions of justice and rational morality. This perspective, emphasizing, as it does, notions of attachment over equality, relatedness over individuality, commitment over autonomy, and so on, represents an important shift in the language of moral anatomy, while remaining essentially concerned with inter-personal proprietary agency. The broad theoretical function of this “perspective” is to provide a substantive basis for claiming that reasoning according to such a model of interpersonal relationships is not motivationally aberrant. The self may have a real stake in acting for the sake of others; a stake which is not merely a function of reciprocity among equals. I may act, when guided by the ethic of care, for the benefit of my sister, where my motivation for acting in such a manner is the benefit I thereby effect in her. This act, motivated by the good I do my sister, may still (and frequently will) count as a morally praiseworthy action.

Gilligan is able to locate the viability of such motivations in the basic vocabulary of the care perspective as a moral orientation. Each orientation, that of care and of justice, represents a fundamental “organization of the basic elements of moral judgment: self, others, and the relationship between them.”[3] Organizationally, the care perspective renders relationships in terms of widespread interpersonal dependence or personal interdependence (rather than sovereignty or self-sufficiency), and views the self as occupying the various positions of benefactor and dependent (instead of colleague or fellow citizen). The adoption of either the care perspective, or the justice perspective, when faced with a moral dilemma (or when considering whether current circumstances demand moral action at all), involves more than the choice of analytic frames, it involves a choice of one’s moral role; indeed, one’s moral identity.

The role of the self in moral judgment thus includes the choice of moral standpoint, and this decision, whether implicit of explicit, may become linked with self-respect and self-definition.[4]

The actual content of each perspective is, at this stage, less important than the fact that a moral agent, when adopting a coherent perspective on the moral landscape, comes to identify herself (or her self worth) with the flourishing of her agency thus construed. But it is the content of each perspective which indicates the manner and extent to which traditional approaches to moral agency have disproportionately emphasized the relevance of some moral traits at the expense of others. Indeed, it is the substantive content of the ethic of justice, as well as the substantive content of the ethic of care, which indicates how it is that these are the categories of moral thinking open to us.

As organized by Gilligan, and by a number of moral philosophers following her, the ethic of justice is characterized by a fundamental commitment, on the part of the moral agent, to a set of universal propositions or rules. Noting the sense in which there is a nominal overlap between an ethic of justice and an ethic of care, Marilyn Friedman tells us,

... the ‘justice perspective’ might be said to rest, at bottom, on the assumption that the best way to care for persons is to respect their rights, and to accord them their due, both in distribution of the burdens and benefits of social cooperation, and in the rectification of wrongs done.[5]

Conversely, the ethic of care involves a fundamental commitment to persons [individually], often even at the expense of strict obedience to rules.

... the so-called ‘ethic of care’ stresses an ongoing responsiveness. [... The ethic of care] is about the nature of relationships to particular persons grasped as such. The key issue is the sensitivity and responsiveness to another person’s emotional states, individuating differences, specific uniqueness, and whole particularity. The ‘care’ orientation focuses on whole persons and de-emphasizes adherence to moral rules.[6]

It would seem, then, that there are two ways (at least) in which the moral field may be articulated. The first (the ‘ethic of justice’) is done in terms of a general conception of moral presence or agency, in virtue of which we may unveil or identify the class of conceptual commitments which form the basis of moral judgment. The second (the ‘ethic of care’) is in terms of a special or specific conception of moral presence or agency, in virtue of which we may unveil or identify the class of personal commitments which form the basis of moral motivation and responsibility. Is there a third or fourth possible perspective or orientation? There is a sense in which the list of possible orientations now feels complete. It is certainly true that, in the literature at least, the work inspired by Gilligan’s challenge to Kohlberg has predominantly sought to read every procedural dichotomy of moral reasoning in terms of her two orientations. But as two ways of articulating the field, why do they seem individually necessary (though insufficient) and jointly sufficient?

Seyla Benhabib has contributed a powerful conceptual reading of Gilligan’s two orientations, which moves us in the direction of understanding why these are the orientations we may choose between when considering matters moral. Rather than attend to the manner in which the totality of the moral realm is reinterpreted according to each orientation, Benhabib begins by examining the particular conceptualizations of the Other. And it is through the lens of the Other, the proper object of moral concern generally, that she explores the form of moral reasoning endemic to each perspective.

Closely following Gilligan’s ethic of justice, Benhabib identifies a “standpoint of the generalized other”:

The standpoint of the generalized other requires us to view each and every individual as a rational being entitled to the same rights and duties we would want to ascribe to ourselves. ... what constitutes moral dignity is not what differentiates us from each other, but rather what we, as speaking and acting rational agents, have in common. Our relation to the other is governed by the norms of formal equality and reciprocity: each is entitled to expect and assume from us what we can expect and assume from him or her. The norms of our interactions are primarily public and institutional ones.[7]

Likewise, following Gilligan’s ethic of care, she identifies a “standpoint of the concrete other”:

The standpoint of the concrete other, by contrast, requires us to view each and every rational being as an individual with a concrete history, identity, and affective-emotional constitution. ... We seek to comprehend the needs of the other. Our relation to the other is governed by the norms of equity and complimentary reciprocity: each is entitled to expect and to assume from the other forms of behavior through which the other feels recognized and confirmed as a concrete, individual being with specific needs, talents, and capacities. ... The norms of our interaction are usually private, noninstitutional ones. They are norms of friendship, love, and care. ... [And by these] I confirm not only your humanity but your human individuality.[8]

Although her reading of the alternatives suggested by Gilligan occasionally leads to rather disgenerous reductions of the ethic of justice, Benhabib offers an analysis which simultaneously locates at least one principle (and unifying) conceptual distinction between the two perspectives, while firmly establishing the moral salience of the ethic of care. There are many facets of this conceptual distinction, conveniently introduced by the nomenclature of the concrete and the generalized other, which ultimately converge on the identification of two distinct notions of identity: That is, from an analysis of the other, under the two perspectives proposed by Gilligan, Benhabib arrives at a distinction between two moral conceptions of the self.

Again, although she possesses the unfortunate habit of reducing the ethic of justice (and its present analogue) to a hapless caricature of moral reasoning, she locates a critical distinction between the two approaches to proprietary judgment. Offering a theory of “need interpretations” as the regulative ideal within the ethic of care (analogous to the role “Justice” plays in the alternative orientation), she states:

A relational-interactive theory of identity [native to the ethic of care] assumes that inner nature, while being unique, is not an immutable given. Individual need interpretations and motives carry within them the traces of [the lived-character] of the person. The grammatical logic of the word “I” reveals the unique structure of ego identity: every subject who uses this concept in relation to herself knows that all other subjects are likewise “I”s. In this respect, the self only becomes an “I” in a community of other selves who are also “I”s. Every act of self-reference expresses simultaneously the uniqueness and difference of the self as well as the commonality among selves.... [In contrast, the] nonrelational theory of the self [native to the ethic of justice], which is privileged in contemporary universalist moral theory,..., removes such need interpretations from the domain of moral discourse. They become “private,” nonformalizable, nonanalyzable, and amorphous aspects of our conceptions of the good life.[9]

Even if we strengthen the picture offered of identity under the ethic of justice, a problem remains; and it is a problem for the analysis of identity under the ethic of care as well (although less obviously). It is not clear why we should come to be motivated by both (or either) of the frames of ethical analysis. Or more precisely, why are we motivated by moral frames organized according to the conceptual distinctions and regularities observed by Gilligan, and explored by Benhabib?

Whereas Benhabib emphasizes the treatment of the “other”, let us emphasize the “self” in order to examine more closely the motivational link between each perspective and the feeling we have of being at stake in our moral deliberation.

A Logic of the Self

If identification of the self involves an object-relation of the self to some “I” (through a reflexive attribution of identity), then the primitive character of personal identification is an experience of Self as Other. The Other, then, emerges logically (and perhaps phenomenologically) prior to the self as an “I”. The self, as an object of predication, must stand to consciousness as Other to itself. But this otherness would be empty, and useless, if not for the presence (to consciousness) of a variety of [foreign] powers, in whose character there may be found distinction or similitude, harmony and dissonance, each with the next, and all with the emergent self. In this way, it is the Other, as friend or enemy, who stands at the gate of self-consciousness, and enables us to find not only that we are, but who we are.

This much I take to be shared by both moral frameworks. But there is more logical complexity to the self or the other than such a simple reading might indicate. I would like to offer a pseudo-grammarian’s logic of self identification, as it reveals two forms of self-awareness (and self-valuation) closely related to the ethic of justice and the ethic care. For the sake of brevity, I have found it convenient to use the terms “extensional identification” and “intensional identification” to stand for two categorically distinct methods of individuating an object (in this case the self). I say a thing is identified extensionally if it is successfully individuated by the set of object relations of which it is a part.[10] For example, (in set theory) the number two is identified extensionally if we say it is the set of all pairs. I take the relational self to be the extensional identification of “I”. I say a thing is identified intensionally if it is successfully individuated by some “in-itself” attribution.[11] For example, (again in set theory) the number two is identified intensionally if we say it is the generic pair <x,y> such that x is not equal to y. I take the intentional self to be the intensional identification of “I”. The terms, and their set-theoretic consequences, are not intended to be taken too literally in the present context. If they prove excessively confusing or misleading, I will readily adopt another terminology. However, I do believe their immanent use is illuminating in matters of agent identification.

Intensionally, then, I am one by the unity of consciousness; the logical simplicity of intentional being. Extensionally I am many by the ostension of conscious aboutness; the logical complexity of relational being revealed by and revealing of consciousness. I stand revealed by my attachments. I grow and change, play, work, love, and through these know my self by the reflection offered in others, and in particular by those I love and respect. I am in their eyes. Without the responsiveness of others, without the connections I affect and inspire, without feeling a proprietary standing in their company, I am nothing. Absolute exile, for such a self, is murder. No man is an island, should he also wish to live.

But such a self cannot fully appreciate the intensional unity of the I. I am not merely the commitments I facilitate, but the focus of a myriad of spontaneities, of reachings, of wishings, of willings. These are not the reachings, the wishings, or the willings of those who remind me of the character of I. These are the reachings (possibly exposed by their relational impact) of the absolute I of consciousness.

There are, therefore, two essential forms of identification <sub personae>: intensional and extensional. Under intensional identification, the self is characterized according to the unity of intentional being. Under extensional identification, the self is characterized according to the complexity of relational being. Identified intensionally, the intentional I emerges within the subjectivity of object perception. Identified extensionally, the relational I emerges within the fold of substantive inter-subjectivity. At issue for divergent modes of moral reasoning is the status of the other under intensional versus extensional identification.

From intensional identification we may derive duties on self for others, reflexively on others for self, and vicariously on others for others. All such duties, however, are formal, and not context-sensitive or substantively responsive to the extensional identity of self or any particular other. For this reason, vicarious assessments of moral obligation or commitment may be made monologically, by a hypothetical substitution of the (intensionally identified) self on the participant agents. From extensional identification we may derive duties on self for the “others” of extensional dependence, and on such “others” for the self (in terms of intimate duties and commitments). Where a condition of extensional dependence does not exist with respect to the self, either in a particular other with respect to the self (under conditions of partial dependence), or in a particular other with respect to a third party (under conditions of hypothetical, partial, or the absence of dependence), context-sensitive duties are extended hypothetically or vicariously by a dialogical (dialectical) immersion in the extensional “life” (dynamic locatedness) of the agent whose duty or commitment is under examination.

Intensional identification of the self has traditionally been thought to be the only reliable foundation upon which to place substantive duties, obligations, rights, etc., across all of the members of the moral community. The nature of my agency, understood in terms of the intensional object of the “I”, is a perfectly general concept, divorced from the relational peculiarities of my situatedness (in terms of embodiment, or socio-spatial location generally). Such an abstracted self provides an ideal frame for the articulation of perfectly general concepts of duty, obligation, and virtue, which might be said to constrain rational agency as such (or such agency as is characterized purely by the intensional content of the “I”). The resulting duties, obligations, and virtues should not be dependent upon the unique pride or prejudice of any particular player in the moral game. The promise of a sort of moral objectivism, in terms of providing an absolute foundation for correct moral judgment, has long motivated the almost exclusive attention to a model of agency tied to the pointilistic (and relationally empty) “I” of intensional identification.

The recognition that we, as players in the moral game, in fact reason morally according to (at least) one model which does not fit any ‘perfectly general’ model, does not in itself provide an objection to the ‘universalist’ project. However, the recognition that we do reason morally according to a distinct ethic of care, does become a threat when its phenomenological origin (as an expression of extensional identity), and the necessity that such an identity flourish in the good life, suggests that many of the presuppositions which had buttressed the viability of a perfectly ‘general’ consciousness must lie beyond the self of purely intensional identification. In short, the intentional self (the self of intensional identification) presupposes a relational self (the self of extensional identification), even though these two models of self truly do inform different aspects of our moral language.

This is not to say that the relational self is a more primitive concept or experience (either logically or genetically in the development of moral consciousness), and I suspect that we may ultimately conclude that the two concepts of self possess a sort of mutual dependence relation in which they must arrive together, or not at all. In the end, we might wonder why intensional identification of the self is necessary? It would seem that, to the extent that it is important at all, the pointilistic self is a notion derivative to the “I” of extensional identification. This is, at any rate, the spirit of Benhabib’s analysis.

Benhabib therefore might be seen as representing something of a threat to the coherence of the intentional “I” (the self under intensional identification). In the first instance, however, we have already turned our gaze to the other under intensional identification, the coherence of which should not effect the viability of the self so identified. Identifying the self in perfectly generic terms is only “a problem” from the third person perspective. It would certainly be incoherent to suppose that the self could emerge to itself in light of universal principles of agency. As Benhabib points out, rather sarcastically, but no less truthfully,

... noumenal selves cannot be individuated. If all that belongs to them as embodied, affective, suffering creatures, their memory and history, their ties and relations to others, are to be subsumed under the phenomenal realm, then what are we left with is an empty mask that is everyone and no one.[12]

Unfortunately, the observation turns sour as we look to the reflexive identification of the self by the self.

At this point we might ask whether the identity of any human self can be defined with reference to its capacity for agency alone. Identity does not refer to my potential for choice alone, but to the actuality of my choices, namely, to how I, as a finite, concrete, embodied individual, shape and fashion the circumstances of my birth and family, linguistic, cultural, and gender identity into a coherent narrative that stands as my life’s story.[13]

There is certainly some sense of identity I perceive through my capacity to act as myself. And this does seem to be a sense of identity quite distinct from the substantive characterization of my habits, past, commitments, etc., all of which individuate me, in some detached sense, but none of which touch upon my being me. Extensionally I learn who I am; but intensionally I learn that I am. If I have either one without the other, I am lost.

But what of the Other in all of this? If, as I have said above, identification of the self involves an object relation to the self (where the act would be a sort of reflexive attribution of identity) then the primitive character of personal identification is other (i.e. the other emerges logically prior to, and enabling of, the self). The self, as object of predication, must stand to consciousness (the self as subject) as other. The sense of “other” most directly attributable to a generic other will be the “I” under intensional identification. In other words, it would seem that the experience of foreign agency will be at least as primitive to the self as is self-awareness, at least in terms of the self-conscious experience of intentionality. As a brief phenomenological account of the self’s emergence by the intensional identification of the other as an “I”, this should be sufficient to show that the self cannot be without the other, experienced as a self.

How might this help us understand the moral landscape? I want to claim that justice, as it is currently conceived (along the lines of Rawls and Kohlberg), derives its force from the shared “humanity” of the indiscernibility of selves by the content of intensional identification. Furthermore, the moral salience of the ethics of care, as conceived by Gilligan and others, derives its force from a kind of phenomenological stake the extensionally identified self has in the flourishing of its object relations (whether with other selves extensionally identified, or with a responsive ecology in general) in terms of a reflective sensitivity to the presence and peculiarity (extensional uniqueness) of the self.

If this is right, then we might be able to view the two forms of identification as two sides of the same coin: just as Gilligan views the two moral orientations as two takes on a common vocabulary. Better still, we will have some reason to suppose that both orientations represent aspects of proprietary agency critical for the flourishing of whole persons. And it will be clear that acting purely for the sake of friends or loved ones need not be considered “self-less”.

Moral Psychology
PHIL-720-01, Georgetown University
Spring 1992
(© David Foss, August 30, 1994)

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Last modified June 13, 1998

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