Interview with Joan Tronto, Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
1. Where are you working at this moment?
At the University of Minnesota.
2. Can you tell us about your research and its relation to care ethics?
I’ve been writing about care ethics for about thirty years. My current research involves thinking about care from a global perspective.
3. How did you get involved in care ethics?
Two ways. As a feminist scholar, I kept thinking about the political cost if women decided that they should join “the mainstream of American society” in “equal partnership with men” (as the National Organization for Women’s founding document put it). What would we lose as a society if middle-class women became just like middle-class men?
I began talking to my students about my “feminist nightmare” when women, no longer constrained by the caste barriers that had kept them out of some occupations and professions, passed the caring work in society over to poorer women and men and people of color. So I was paying attention to care as work.
On a more philosophical level, and I am trained as a political theorist, I was part of a feminist faculty development seminar at Hunter College in 1983. When we read Carol Gilligan’s just-published book, In a Different Voice, I was struck that the care-justice distinction there seemed parallel to a different philosophical moment. I was struck by the similarity between this difference and the one between Scottish Enlightenment philosophies and Kantian ethics. This parallel led me to think more systematically about care, as Gilligan and others were describing it, and non-Kantian models of ethics.
4. How would you describe care ethics?
Care ethics is both a moral and political concept that emphasizes the centrality of care in human life. Democracies should support democratic care.
5. What is the most important thing you learned from care ethics?
Oh my gosh, there is so much to say here.
First, that ethics comes out of daily life, not in huge pronouncements of right and wrong from the sky.
Second, that one must look at all care activities from various perspectives, from the standpoint of receivers as well as givers of care.
Third, that there are not singular but plural answers to questions about what it means to care well.
Fourth that bad forms of care can deceive us into thinking unjust things are OK.
6. Whom would you consider to be your most important teacher(s) and collaborators?
My most important teacher in political theory was my dissertation adviser, Sheldon Wolin, whose work on the important of theory in an age in which thought becomes increasingly dessicated remains with me everyday.
I have learned immensely from Hannah Arendt, and Simone Weil, and my dear friend Mary Dietz, who is a scholar of their thought. Carol Gilligan, Sara Ruddick, Virginia Held, Nel Noddings, and Eva Kittay have taught me so much.
My first most important collaborator was Berenice Fisher. It took us two years to write the essay ‘Toward a Feminist Theory of Care’, in which we defined care and discussed the first four phases of care. Selma Sevenhuijsen was my close interlocutor for decades and raised basic questions and brought insights to the study of care that are with me everyday.
Henk Manschot taught me to think about care from the perspective of the care-receiver. Guy Widdershoven has kept me well educated about developments of care ethics in bioethics. Fiona Robinson’s application of care in international relations helps me to think more globally. Fiona Williams’s fantastic work on social policy is so insightful. Olena Hankivsky’s way to reorganizing care was important to me, as is her critique of care from an intersectional perspective.
Truthfully, I have learned so much from my graduate students and younger colleagues, too. Among graduate students with whom I have worked on care ethics, Dan Skinner, Jocelyn Boryczka and Vivienne Bozalek have taught me so much. And I keep meeting scholars from whom I learn so much all the time. I’m afraid I’ve left some people out…
7. What publications do you consider the most important with regard to care ethics?
I’ll leave my own work off this list; Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice. I learn something new every time I re-read Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking. Held, An Ethic of Care Kittay, Love’s Labor. Sevenhuijsen’s Citizenship and the Ethics of Care (though I like the Dutch title, “Judging with Care” better). Dan Engster’s The Heart of Justice. Among recent books, I am fond of Stephanie Collins, The Core of Care Ethics.
8. Which of your own books/articles/projects should we learn from?
Even though it is over twenty years old, Moral Boundaries is still worth reading in its entirety; and Caring Democracy shows what care should look like in a more democratic society.
9. What are important issues for care ethics in the future?
In the most immediate future, there are a couple of key issues, all of which have to do with expanding the arena of care:
- Recognizing the connection between care and the struggles of disabled people, indigenous people, and others who are not fully included in society.
- Overcoming the parochialism and tribalism of the recent turn to the right in Europe, the USA, and elsewhere, which, of course, can be expressed as a care discourse.
- Recognizing the danger to care givers and receivers everywhere (that is, all of us) from neoliberal economic orders.
- Understanding how care operates to meet need differently everywhere in the world and trying to be attentive to all such forms of care.
- Finally, perhaps most importantly, our need to care for the earth.
10. How may care ethics contribute to society as a whole, do you think?
By reorienting us towards the things that really matter.
11. Do you know of any research-based projects in local communities, institutions or on national levels, where ‘care’ is central?
There are movements growing up everywhere, to improve the conditions of care workers, to strengthen the voice and rights of disabled people, indigenous people, to stop religious persecution, to make all feel welcome. Many of my undergraduate students have become more politically aware in recent months; we can hope that this continues.
12. The aim of the consortium is to further develop care ethics internationally by creating connections between people who are involved in this interdisciplinary field, both in scientific and societal realms. Do you have any recommendations or wishes yourself?
I am an optimistic person by nature. I hope that the Consortium can reach an international audience at both the scholarly and political level.
Earlier, in 2009 we interviewed Joan Tronto on similar topics.