The Covid-19 pandemic has tragically reminded us of our shared vulnerability and our need of care, and as a result, calls for care have been widespread since the pandemic began. Some of these calls to care, as well as celebrations of essential care workers, have appeared disingenuous when coming from governments and parties with a long history of carelessness. It is precisely this carelessness, which ranges from cuts to public health services to a general lack of concern for the fate of the most vulnerable in society, that has been deemed responsible for many of the difficulties and the failures in facing Covid-19. Many calls to care have been motivated precisely by this critique as well as the idea that care should be central in our societies. How, then, should we conceive of a caring society? In what follows, I address this issue by reflecting on the ambivalence of care and the idea of communities of care.

Proponents of the ethics of care have long discussed the concept of care and its potential, many arguing that care should also play a central role in our social and political arrangements. For them, care is not just an emotional state or a disposition but instead should be understood as a set of actions, a practice that requires one to be attentive and responsive to the needs of others. Further, care should be conceived in a capacious way: it does not only encompass forms of care in the context of intimate relationships or hands-on care that takes place in hospital, schools and care homes, but a broader set of practices that people are involved in. Further, the range of those who are cared for is also often conceived of broadly by these thinkers: not only those traditionally regarded as needy or dependent but rather all human beings, as all are in need of care and, even further, not just human beings, but also non-human animals and the environment.

Despite the many promises that an ethics of care holds, some are worried about these kinds of proposals in part because care appears to them inherently ambivalent. On the one hand, there is an ambivalence between care understood as destiny and what we might call care as an experiment. In all patriarchal societies – though to different extents in different societies and to varying degrees for differently positioned women – care is women’s nearly inescapable destiny. Furthermore, care, whether paid or unpaid, is undervalued, and those who provide care often do so in precarious and exploitative circumstances. Some feminist philosophers and activists have also pointed out that women’s emotions towards care are themselves often ambivalent. If care tends to render women less free and more vulnerable , care is often enmeshed with love, which is itself two-faced, as it is (also) a tool of women’s oppression. Further, care is also enmeshed with women’s power insofar as some women regard their caring role as their only or main way to exert power. For all these reasons, care is sometimes regarded with suspicion, and the proposal to think of it as the building block for a new just society is accordingly dismissed. Nonetheless, many proponents of the ethics of care start precisely from a critique of the ways in which care is distributed and conceived, and the conditions in which caring work is carried out, in order to reconceptualise care. First, they defend a model in which all, rather than only women, are conceived as care-givers, and care activities, and their providers and recipients, are appropriately valued. Further, some conceive of care as a kind of experiment. By experiment, I mean that practicing certain kinds of care of each other can help to bring about patterns of interpersonal and social relations which are different from, and better than, currently predominant ones. It involves practicing care in a freer way, in manners other than those dictated by patriarchal and capitalist norms. These new kinds of relationships would allow for the meeting of each others’ needs to a fuller extent and constitute richer ways to relate to each other. Concretely, this mainly means expanding our circles of care and practicing what has been called promiscuous care. First, relationships of care should be extended to other domains beyond that of the family and close loved ones: we should seek to multiply our relationships of care to include other members of our community. Examples of such practices are diffuse practices of mothering in Black communities in the US, families of choice in LGBT communities in the 1980s and the ’90s, and experiments in collective childcare by second-wave feminists. In recent decades, as societies become less traditional, various alternative kinship structures, such as groups of friends who take care of each other while also often living together, have emerged. Interestingly, in the difficult months of the pandemic, in various countries there have been experiments in that sense, from mutual support groups between neighbours to online groups aimed at meeting social needs and sharing knowledge, some with a clear political intent and project. These kinds of relationships are characterised by a form of mutuality which goes beyond the logic of exchange and narrow reciprocity, according to which my efforts on your behalf will eventually be met by similar ones done by you. Such care happens against the backdrop of a web of relationships as a response to others’ needs and the care they have themselves practiced towards others.

If the first ambivalence of care can potentially be addressed by re-imagining our practices of care, there is a second ambivalence of care: that between care as work and labour and care as gift. As many feminists have rightly pointed out, care necessarily involves work, sometimes physically and psychologically exhausting labour and activities that put one in close contact with the most frail and intimate, and also sometimes uncomfortable, aspects of others’ bodies and minds. This is often obscured by the close connection between love and care, especially in the family. The fact that care is, often, done out of love, in a sense as love’s gift, should not, however, mystify the reality of care as work. The reality of care as work has, as hinted earlier, a variety of implications for the ways it should be seen and compensated, in monetary and other terms, but also poses a challenge to the idea of communities of care. The process of building such communities should not be understood as the voluntaristic undertaking of citizens and activists, their gift to the community. Instead, thinking about care as work should bring into focus the fact that, like other care workers, community care workers, as we might call them, also need to be provided with the resources that can support their caring activities. In the same way in which parents should have access to flexible working conditions and state-provided quality childcare that actively support their role as carers, it is important to think about which conditions need to be in place for people to be able to be community carers. Among the resources that should be available there are shared spaces, which are often, but not necessarily, publicly owned. Further, time plays a crucial role. A society in which people are left with time which is not consumed by (paid) work and other caring responsibilities, including to themselves, is one in which there is room to re-imagine our communities and embark in the experiment of new forms of care. In trying to imagine communities of care, it is then important not only to reflect on the nature of relationships and practices of promiscuous care, but also the conditions that need to be in place for people to be (good) community carers.

Costanza Porro

Costanza is a postdoctoral fellow at the department of philosophy of the University of Hamburg, having completed a PhD in Law at King’s College London in 2019. Her research interests lie at the intersection of moral philosophy, political and social philosophy and the philosophy of criminal punishment. Her current research explores the relationship between vulnerability, the justification of moral equality and relational equality.