Expanding the Ethics of Care In Philanthropy


children gathered around a grandmotherAs an undergraduate studying philosophy, my absolute least favorite class was Introduction to Ethics — a requirement, of course, to earn my degree. I am a bit ashamed to admit that I spent most of the class eye-rolling my way through all of the reading and discussions. Moral philosophy was never my thing.

So it has since struck me as a little funny that in the eight years that followed there has been one chapter, from one book, from that one despised Ethics class, that I find myself thinking back to repeatedly. And with the launch of Firelight’s new online strategy, I am reminded of it once again.

The book was James Rachels’ “The Elements of Moral Philosophy.” The chapter: Feminism and the Ethics of Care. I appreciate feminism and its values, but what stuck with me was this “ethics of care” notion.

Historically, ethics has primarily been about discovering objective moral principles to guide us in decision-making. These principles, like “people have intrinsic worth” and “suffering is bad,” help create moral standards that we are meant to uphold equally and without personal bias.

But the ethics of care introduces the idea that maybe there’s more to ethics than just objective, abstract principles. Maybe things like caring and personal relationships ought to be used to inform our moral compasses as well. Consider the following example:

A woman sees three children struggling in the ocean. Two are close and could easily be rescued together. The third is farther; if she attempts to rescue him first the other two are sure to drown. Objective moral principles would dictate that she ought to rescue the two first, because she could save more lives. It’s a horrible decision to make but, all things being equal, most would agree.

Now consider that the third child is actually her son. Suddenly many of us (though certainly not all) would flip our response in this scenario. Our gut reaction: She must save her son! But what objective moral principle can account for this?

It’s the ethics of care that allows the mother to save her son first. The mother-child relationship becomes a legitimate factor in deciding which is the morally correct action.

For me, the ethics of care was the best way to explain these natural tendencies that we have to raise our duties to friends and family above our duties to strangers. It lets us say that caring relationships matter and are good, and toss out ideas like John Stuart Mill’s notion that a moral person must be “as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator.” It resonated with me in a way that purely abstract rules about what is “right” and “wrong” never did.

So what does this have to do with Firelight’s new strategy? It turns out that adopting a moral philosophy that values relationships on level with duty has some interesting implications for international development. Rachels references the work of Ned Noddings to shed some light on the issue:

The caring relation can exist only if the “cared-for” can interact with the “one-caring,” at a minimum by receiving and acknowledging the care in a personal, one-to-one encounter… For this reason, Noddings concludes that we have no obligation to help ‘the needy in the far regions of the earth.’

As someone who’s day to day is focused on supporting “the needy in the far regions of the earth,” this is where things become challenging.

You see, I am one of the rare few at Firelight who has never been to Africa. I initially found my way to Firelight because I loved the job (Grants Administrator — I’m a sucker for database management and legal compliance), rather than because I was drawn to Firelight’s mission. Before joining Firelight, I never really thought much about children in Africa. If you’d asked me, I would have said, “Yes I want to help children in Africa,” but more immediately I would have been thinking about helping children in my own community, and before them the children in my own family.

Traditional ethics would say that the severity of the suffering caused by poverty in Africa should have made it a priority over the less severe suffering of underprivileged children in my own community. But the ethics of care brings in a new factor that counterbalances that idea. My son’s grumbling tummy when he needs a snack between his three square meals becomes my first priority. I prioritize it over feeding the neighbor-child who’s living on two meals a day, and that before the child on another continent who’s lucky if he gets one. According to the ethics of care, this is morally acceptable behavior.

Of course this is where many people find themselves rejecting the ethics of care. Yet I find it to be true for most of us in our daily lives. Those we see and care for the most get our immediate attention, and then with distance grows detachment.

So what changed for me? I had the opportunity to bridge that distance by experiencing some aspect of the “one-on-one encounter” by proxy — sometimes through emails with grantee partners, sometimes from reading their beneficiary stories, and often through anecdotes from my colleagues about their own personal experiences of Africa. Despite the distance, I’ve managed to develop a caring relationship to people I’ve never even met.

Now I find myself struggling with ways to help others bridge that gap. How do I get family and friends who have also never visited Africa to care as much as I do now? Harder still, how can I instill in strangers that feeling of care for individuals they’ve never met in places they’ve never seen?

I wish it was so easy to say “these communities need your help,” and have support flood in. But recalling the ethics of care reminds me that we need to do more than that. We need to bring our communities closer together. We need to help individuals feel that one-on-one connection. It’s this challenge that makes me so excited for Firelight’s new strategy, which focuses on bringing people closer to our grantees and our work.

It’s with this new strategy that those of us at Firelight hope to help others care, through us, as well as through our grantee-partners.

I’m excited to start seeing others engage with our grantees in a way that helps them to develop their own relationship of care, both to the grassroots organizations we fund and to the communities they support.

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