Interview with dr. Sophie Bourgault, director of the axis Ethics of Care and Associate Professor, School of Political Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ottawa.
1. Where are you working at this moment?
I teach political theory at the University of Ottawa, Canada.
2. Can you tell us about your research and its relation to the ethics of care?
Some of my recent publications have considered the ethics of hospitality (whether articulated in some ancient Greek political thought, in French Enlightenment sources or in contemporary political theory). In all three cases, I was struck by the affinities between the ethics of care and the ethics of hospitality (both attach great importance to empathy, openness to alterity, attentiveness, etc.).
But rather than claim that both ethics are more or less about the same thing, I have argued that the ethics of care is a powerful critical tool with which to reexamine accounts of hospitality ethics (too many are insufficiently attentive to the heavily gendered dimensions of hospitality).
Also, much of my work in the last three years has concerned itself with the political thought of Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt, two thinkers who are often invoked in the literature on care as you know.
3. How did you get involved into the ethics of care?
During my doctoral studies, I had already spent some time writing on the question of whether an ethics of care could be a truly feminist ethics (I answered in the affirmative then and I am still convinced that this answer was the correct one). But then I largely put that literature aside as I wrote my doctoral thesis. It is only five years later, at the University of Ottawa, that I returned to care ethics. What largely drew me back was my work on Simone Weil (and more specifically, her understanding of love/compassion and her account of human needs and political obligations).
4. How would you define ethics of care?
If I had to define it most simply, I would say that it is an ethics that gives pride of place to the fundamental vulnerability and interdependence that are constitutive of the human being. It is also an ethics that attaches great weight to particulars, contexts, and relationships in moral and political judgment. It is an ethics that places human needs (rather then rights) at the forefront of its account of socio-political life, and it is an ethics that is primarily concerned (as Carol Gilligan’s early work showed well) with answering the following question: “how should I respond?” (instead of ‘what is right?’).
5. What is the most important thing you learned from the ethics of care?
I think that one of the most important things the ethics of care have offered since Gilligan is a rich and original conception of voice. It is a highly relational account that attaches a great deal of importance to attentive listening, to hearing. As I argued last year in a talk on care, I think that the ethics of care profoundly challenges our logocentric, Aristotelian tradition—a tradition that has assigned great importance to speaking, and almost none to genuine listening.
Here is one of the chief ideas of Simone Weil, who insisted repeatedly during her short life that social justice and a decent, meaningful civic life was impossible without genuine, active listening. While this might strike some as a platitude, I would suggest that theorizing listening and making listening central to democratic life today is really far from obvious and that it is a great challenge.
6. Whom do you consider to be your most important teacher(s) in this area?
There have been so many. To name a few: I’ve learned a great deal from Fiona Robinson, Patricia Paperman, Pascale Molinier, Sandra Laugier, Fabienne Brugère, Carol Gilligan, Elena Pulcini and Joan Tronto. More recently, I’ve also taken a great deal of interest in the work of Marie Garrau and Alice LeGoff, who have, as you know, worked on orchestrating an exciting (if not entirely unproblematic) dialogue between neo-republicanism and care ethics.
7. What works in the ethics of care do you see as the most important?
Like countless others, I think that Gilligan’s In a Different Voice was the pivotal work in the development of the ethics of care. And so was Joan Tronto’s Moral Boundaries. It is unfortunate that Sara Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking has fallen off the radar (I think it is a book that has been misunderstood and that it would be worth revisiting).
8. Which of your own books/articles should we read?
I suppose that in order to understand why I’m convinced that care theorists should return to Simone Weil (not for her concept of attention but for her account of human needs and her critique of rights discourse), they should read my piece ‘Beyond the saint and the red virgin: Simone Weil as feminist theorist of care’ ((Sophie Bourgault. (2014). Beyond the Saint and the Red Virgin: Simone Weil as Feminist Theorist of Care. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 35(2), 1-27. )). I also have a forthcoming (2015) edited volume on the ethics and politics of care (co-edited with Julie Perreault), which would allow you to appreciate the wonderful and diverse work done on care in French-speaking Canada.
9. What are important issues for the ethics of care in the future?
As I have argued a few times in the past, I think that care theorists should take a much closer look at the question of institutions -including bureaucratic ones. My colleague Julie Perreault is involved in a great project which I also think would be worthy of a lot more attention by care theorists all over the world; establishing a conversation between care feminism and aboriginal feminism.
10. Our ambition is to promote ethics of care nationally and internationally. Do you have any recommendations or wishes?
I think that this is a wonderful project! I will admit that I’m particularly excited about the fact that your network will likely overcome the linguistic divides that have affected care research in Europe and North American. Hopefully, your network and University will manage to bring together, on a fairly regular basis, researchers from all over the world.