The Ethic of Care

 “Is it a law that I can’t hit my brother?” my son asks.

“No, of course not,” I answered, “but in our family we take care of each other, we don’t hurt each other.”

“But, I won’t go to jail, right? I’ll just go on time out?” he prods.

“No, you won’t go to jail. But hitting your brother just isn’t right. If you want people to be kind to you, to take care of you, you have to be kind and take care of them,” I argue.

So goes most any ethical debate. Is it legal? Yes. Is it ethical? No. It seems everywhere in this country that debate is being waged. In some cases the recession has brought people to a whole new ethic of care. Compassion, empathy, kindness, all glorious things that have come out of what could be viewed as tragic. Someone loses a job and the village around her rallies to her emotional and physical aide. Down goes another, and the village shifts accordingly. We’re working together and caring for one another in truly beautiful ways. Are we mandated by law to this ethic of care? No. Is it the right thing to do? Without question.

And yet, the recession has turned others into little more than survivalists. Deal brokering and backstabbing, terse communication and intolerant acts of passive aggression, people who once were friends and colleagues, once joined together in a community of work that most considered more vocation than labor, are all now seething in desperation. Educators, people who in theory and in practice know better and for all the years we’ve been under fire have done better, now can’t seem to get out of their own way. A district office once renowned for its support of teachers and what is best for kids is now making decisions that have not even a hue of that former commitment. It’s more than just being stressed out and therefore a little nasty, it swings between thoughtless and visionless to sometimes just plain mean. It isn’t against the law, but it surely isn’t right.

And then last fall the California Supreme Court, reputed to be among the most liberal and activist in the country, denied the opportunity to overturn our state’s ban on same-sex marriage. The 6-1 majority opinion said it didn’t reflect their “personal beliefs” of what was right nor did they even say that the ban didn’t fly in the face of equal protection; what it did say was that the vote and ensuing strip of fundamental freedoms was, under California law, legal. Legal? Yes. Right? Absolutely not.

In one of the articles I read a prop 8 supporter, emboldened by today’s decision said, “I’m a Christian, I just don’t think gays should marry because I believe in the bible.” This is as outrageous a claim as the Klan’s claim that they are Christians, so they don’t think any other race should exist because they believe in the bible. If you know your history you know that Gay Americans are now subject to the same ignorance about segregation and inferior citizenship as African Americans once were. It’s almost funny, really, that if you take a quote from a segregationist in the 50’s and replace the word nigger (or Negro, for those who had manners) with fag (or homosexual, for those who have manners) the justifications are identical.

When we work to take the rights of others away, be it the right to a workplace that is free from hostility, the right for all kids–regardless of their neighborhood–to get a good education, or the right to fundamental freedoms as guaranteed by the United States Constitution, we are hurting all of us. How can promoting the hurt of others ever be ok? It may be legal but it’s morally reprehensible. The connectedness among living things binds us to one another; hurting another does little more than hurt all of us. Actively dismantling the ethic of care, the moral and emotional and spiritual “right thing to do” as we care for others as we would ourselves, is as inexcusable in the present as it is for our future.

For my own experience, I can only pray that those with the ethic of care will stand up and say, “Enough.” I am a Christian who believes in the bible, and I am an educator who believes in public schools. To both those worlds today I shout it from the roof-tops:


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