The Ethics of Care

An ethics of care can help us to re-frame policymaking as a process that builds community. Care can support progress towards gender and racial justice, as well as green, well-being economies.

Oxfam International
5 min readSep 23, 2020
As family breadwinner, Arlene feels COVID-19 has greatly affected her means to provide for her family. Photo: Jed Regala
As family breadwinner, Arlene feels that COVID-19 has greatly affected her means to provide for her family. She is thankful for the help of children. Photo: Jed Regala

By March 2020, a large number of countries adopted lockdown measures as part of their initial response to the coronavirus pandemic.

At the same time, a particularly distinct essay was published in Wired Magazine by Laurie Penny, which reflected on the social and cultural dimensions of this unprecedented health crisis. One of the underlying arguments in the article was how the dire state of global inequality had created an apocalyptic scenario we were neither prepared for, nor even close to imagine.

The dominant extractive capitalist economic system ravaged the public infrastructure — including hospitals, schools, and childcare — of many countries, before the pandemic did. For example, by creating and furthering:

Underfunded, insufficient, and increasingly privatized social infrastructure that reduced or removed access to life-saving public services, such as health clinics, sexual and reproductive health services, unemployment insurances and support schemes and caregiving facilities.

Precarious working conditions for essential workers and across entire guilds, which stripped labour rights and benefits from workers under cost-saving schemes in public and private sectors, while allowing “gig worker” schemes to flourish.

Gender discrimination by deepening the false notion that provision of care is a responsibility that falls in the realm of the private spaces of our lives and not as a public, social responsibility. This binary thinking sustains sexist beliefs, attitudes, and structures that keep women, girls and LGBTIQA+ people from fully exercising their rights: to justice, to a life free from violence, to equal pay, to equal treatment, to health, etc.

Extractive and exploitative industrial arrangements that allow large-scale corporate operations such as oil, gas and mining to profit from the wealth of common natural goods, often without the informed consent of communities, while creating irreversible, damaging, long-term effects to the present and future welfare of local and global communities. Decades of neoliberal economic policy has led to environmental damage that in 2018 cost countries between $1bn to $17bn per weather event, according to Christian Aid.

Coronavirus puts our social contract to the test

More importantly, however, is that the dominant extractive capitalist economic system ravaged our collective worldviews.

At a time where millions of people are simultaneously experiencing a traumatic health crisis, numerous leaders (and their electorates) have not hesitated to justify human loss as a socially acceptable price to pay for continued economic growth. Butchery, as Penny puts it.

Coronavirus puts our social contract to the test, and the stress of it cannot hide the faults in the design. Women and girls have experienced in various countries increased levels of violence in their homes during lockdown periods.

In numerous countries, Black, Indigenous and People of Colour front line workers and LGBTIQA+ people have been disproportionately affected in terms of health, income and housing.

This pandemic has also shone a light on deeper, problematic gendered attitudes towards care and carers. For example, studies carried out around the globe observed that while men report an incremental increase in their domestic and care work responsibilities during the pandemic, women report still carrying out the major bulk of domestic and care responsibilities within the household.

This situation is slowly but surely pushing more women out of the workforce.

The most harrowing lesson from this pandemic is that the virus itself, SARS-CoV-2 has exposed the fragilities of a dying system. A system where violence against women and girls by men has increased substantially, urging the UN to label it “the shadow pandemic”.

A system that exposes low income workers to higher risk of contagion and facilitates the steady exit of women from their jobs. These are all the results from decades of political choices taken to advance policies that did not have wellbeing in mind — the virus has evidenced the devastating preexisting inequalities.

Our biggest, deepest, and most urgent structural problem lies in a longstanding lack of co-responsibility for and towards one another: a broken social contract. It shows that within households, nations, and global systems, we have actively left women, girls, LGBTIQA+ and Black, Indigenous and People of Color people to fare for and among themselves.

Care sustains communities

Nonetheless, there is one particular “silver lining” that Penny’s article mused on that identifies our unexpected saving grace: when the structures start to fail, we finally see what really sustains communities: caring. Or Bakery, as Penny calls it. Her remarks are as daring as they are darling, because in a global context in which individualism, “survival-of-the-richest”, and meritocratic myths are the dominant narratives driving social organization, caring is an undeniably radical act.

Oxfam has engaged extensively with the economic dimension of care work, in order to advocate for gender justice. Especially at a time when care has proven to be an essential force in dealing with a crisis there is a deeper, more philosophical approach to the question of how caring contributes to gender justice.

From an ethical perspective, there is a wealth of feminist thinking on care as a guiding principle for social organization — an ideal that can help give us a moral understanding of social justice based on nurturing fair(er) relationships and holding reciprocal and collective concern for each other as a social good.

What would a future built on an ethics of care look like?

Revisiting care through an ethical lens allows us to shine new light on interdependence and social relations in social, political and economic communities.

We see it as a perspective that carries a call for generosity and acknowledgement of others in the search for justice. It offers a new understanding of the role of care, and care-giving, in political decision-making.

We see care as an element that can guide policy and practice into achieving fair, just and thriving communities, starting with the personal and moving to shape our relation with the environment, addressing the climate crisis and giving space to new economic models.

An ethics of care can help us to re-frame policymaking as a process that builds community. Care, as an attitude held collectively, can support the stride towards gender and racial justice, as well as green, well-being economies.

Read the Oxfam discussion paper: Feminist futures: Caring for people, caring for justice and rights

This entry posted on 23 Sept 2020.

Kim Piaget is a gender professional, social justice advocate, and university lecturer. She is based in Mexico City.
Sebastián Molano is a Senior Gender Advisor for Oxfam America, based in Boston.
Dr. Maria José Moreno Ruiz is Director of Gender Justice at Oxfam International.



Oxfam International

Oxfam is a world-wide development organization that mobilizes the power of people against poverty.