Notes on Care

This post examines the virtue of care. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what others have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.

What do I mean by care?

Care is another one of those words that has a wide range of common uses:

  • You can care about something (be curious or concerned about it) or care for something (be personally invested in it or engaged in promoting its well-being).

  • You can care for things (for example, doing a job carefully or with care, or being the caretaker for a building) as well as e.g. people, but these have different connotations.

  • Care can be an affectionate sentiment (“I really care for you, Jane”), or assistive actions (“I’m caring for Jane as she recovers from the accident”).

  • Care can sometimes be a synonym for caution (be careful, take care).

  • “Care ethics” grew out of a feminist critique of traditional justice-oriented ethics schemes (see appendix below).

The sense of care that I want to explore in this post is the sort of care that is directed toward people (or animals-as-pets, etc., but not mere things or animals-as-livestock) and that takes the form of actions that are meant to promote their well-being. The other meanings of care I’ve either already covered in my posts on compassion and prudence, or may get to later if I get around to writing up virtues like concern, conscientiousness, affection, and kindness.

When I decided to limit the definition of care I was using in this way, I worried at first that I had defined it so narrowly that it was no longer a “virtue” — a habit characteristic of a flourishing human being — and more of a “skill.” I think what I have in mind as a virtue is something like “caring,” as in “Of course Pat pulled the car over and got out to make sure everyone was okay. Pat’s such a caring person.” To have the virtue of caring is to habitually have the inclination to give care to those who need it, the discernment to know when and what care is called for, and the skill to offer care competently.

There’s a lot of overlap between that and compassion as I described it. The way I imagine it, these two virtues blend into each other a bit. Compassion has more to do with feeling moved by another person’s plight; care has more to do with acting to relieve it. But compassion that does not at least sometimes culminate in care can be just a sort of pity, not really compassion. And often the motivation for offering care is a compassionate one, though it’s also possible to offer care dispassionately, without being moved by compassion but by something else, such as duty, filial piety, or professional responsibility. (Part of the key to what makes the television character Dr. Gregory House successfully eyeball-catching is his remarkable cleverness in giving care to the sick combined with his jarring absence of compassion.)

As a further refinement, I suggest that you are offering care when you give people help that is essential on a basic level (definitions of “essential” and “basic” left as an exercise for the reader), and when you help them in a way that they cannot easily do themselves. So it may be part of care to help a very young child tie his shoelaces, or to help a person on crutches to bring in the groceries; but it’s probably something else to help someone organize their Magic cards, or to help someone load the dishwasher who otherwise would do it themselves just fine. If you serve someone a meal who cannot otherwise afford one, you are offering care; if you serve someone a meal because that’s what they ordered off the menu at your restaurant, you’re offering service. Care might in this way be considered a specialized version of “helpfulness” that applies in cases of more urgent humanitarian need. But that’s not to say that it’s only used to respond to crisis, debility, and other things-going-wrong. You can also exercise care in a nurturing way, as when you teach a child to read, or, maybe, if you support a hesitant friend as they quit their dead-end job to follow a dream.

Care also often includes some responsibility or stake in the well-being of whoever you are helping. This distinguishes it from “kindness” which includes more ephemeral, less invested interventions. You can be kind to someone by picking up something they dropped and handing it to them, or by telling them they left their headlights on. “Care” is more involved than that, more of a commitment. Care often includes giving convincing reassurance to whomever you’re caring for that you’re prepared to stick by them until help is no longer needed.

Sometimes a person may simply volunteer to care for someone else who needs it, just because. Other times, a person may take on a professional caring role like that of a paramedic, nurse, hospice worker, or teacher, and be caring as part of their professional obligations. Other times, a person may exhibit care because they are in a personal relationship of a sort in which care is an essential part: the care of parents for young children, or children for old parents for instance. Each of these scenarios calls for the elements of the virtue of care.

Okay, deep breath; that was a lot of defining.

How to be caring

I come from a family of caregivers. My father and brother are both social workers; my mother taught learning-disabled children. But I… became a software engineer and then a technical writer. So I had to hunt around for good remedial advice on how to be caring.

Much of what I found is specific to the caring professions and is meant as vocational training. I also found a useful set of short videos at this YouTube channel that teach specific care-giving skills for lay people who need to take care of someone who is sick or disabled or who is losing capabilities due to aging or dementia.

I did not find much about how to develop a caring inclination. Some of the advice on how to develop compassion is probably also applicable to this aspect of caring. To care for someone else can be a big investment of attention and time and sometimes of material resources; you are unlikely to do something like that unless you have a strong motive — either you find caring itself to be rewarding or to be a crucial part of your self-image, you value the well-being of whomever you are caring for, or the care you give is packaged up in something else you value like your profession.

Having that inclination is one part of caring. The two other parts are knowing when care is called for, and giving care competently. For the first of these, being mindfully observant is helpful. The widely-discussed Wang Yue case in China, in which a child was struck by a car and her dying body was ignored by multiple passers-by, may have been an example of the bystander effect causing people to blind themselves to an urgent need for care. Being caring may require being bold and discerning enough to be that one person who breaks through the bystander inertia. Empathy and good communication /​ listening skills also come to your assistance here, both to determine what sort of assistance might be needed, and what would be respectful to offer. For example, fairly or unfairly, in the wake of a suicide people will sometimes wish they had been astute enough to recognize something the victim did ahead of time as a disguised “call for help.”

The third part of caring is to competently give care. For this you need confidence. Part of that confidence is general self-esteem (not thinking of yourself as someone who always mucks things up), and part comes from practical skills that cover the sort of care required. The more caregiving skills and resources you have, the more opportunities you will have to offer care competently, and the more confidence you will have when offering it. You also need prudence — both in the sense of having good decision-making skills, and in being cautious. You can err on the side of over-confidence as well: for example, injuring someone by thinking you know how and when to give CPR because you saw it on TV once.

Another skill that caregivers report as being important is responsibility /​ dependability /​ reliability. When you step up to give care, to do so responsibly means to see it through until the person either no longer needs your help or until someone else can take your place as caregiver. For this reason also, patience can be important, and the flexibility to be able to adjust to someone else’s needs. Another is competence in offering comfort, consolation, encouragement, and reassurance. Being calm and composed can be important for assessing the need for care, for offering it competently, and for being a reassuring presence to the person you are caring for.

So this is another virtue with a lot of moving parts. Any time I have an opportunity to offer care, I am likely to do so with a mixture of relative competence and incompetence. I would be wise to review how I did, and try to identify those areas in which I was weakest so I can work on them. Was I slow to recognize the need? reticent to offer help? did I get flustered or impatient? did I miss a clue I should have noticed?


Is there such a thing as caring for yourself — seeing yourself as a target of your own nurturance, etc. — or is that just speaking metaphorically?

Being in the habit of taking care of yourself rather than “letting yourself go” is certainly important to living a flourishing life, so it’s a virtue of some sort. The question is whether it belongs under the umbrella of “care” or if it’s its own thing that needs its own investigation. I can see arguments either way.

Being-cared-for can be seen as a supplement for taking-care-of-yourself when that fails for whatever reason or has yet to maturely develop. Seen that way, caring is by default taking-care-of-yourself, and taking care of others is what you do when you have a surplus of that ability and they have a deficit.

A surprising amount of the advice for caregivers that I read or viewed had to do with self-care. Apparently it is an occupational hazard for caregivers to neglect their own care while offering care to others, and so they need to remember to give this extra attention. This might suggest that the same mental faculties are used for self-care and care-for-others and that caring for others can absorb or fatigue those faculties to the extent that self-care suffers.

Appendix: “Care ethics”

Some feminist ethicists have suggested that because the discipline of ethical philosophy was male-dominated, this unbalanced the ethical systems developed within it to prioritize impartial, impersonal, justice-based ethics that met the sort of ethical challenges that came up in male-dominated fora (e.g. politics, law, war). To restore the balance and raise the priority of virtues that are more important in traditionally female-dominated spaces, a discipline of “care ethics” was developed.

To oversimplify: Care ethics is more contextual and situation-specific, and less generalizable and abstract than many other varieties of ethical philosophy. In care ethics, people are not seen as interchangeable, essentially equal, and autonomous, but as unique, as validly special in different ways to different people, and as necessarily enmeshed in a variety of crucial relationships.

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