The Ethics of Caring

by Gill Matthews

Caring is a living expression of God’s character of love and should be highly valued. People who need care should be seen as an asset to the community rather than dismissed as a burden.

‘If caring were enough, anyone could be a nurse’ read a 1990’s American nurse recruitment advertisement. It promoted nursing as an intellectual, science-based profession rather than a caring-based profession. The implication is that caring is no longer valued within our society.

But if that really is the case, why do politicians want to be seen caring for people? For the matter, why did commentators praise Princess Diana for being a ‘caring’ person?

Why care?

Caring is seen as something all healthcare professionals do. But young people appear to be increasingly reluctant to enter these careers, partly because they lack glamour and excitement and because they are also often poorly paid.

This could eventually lead to a growing disregard for the weak and helpless who are unable to contribute to a nation’s wealth and productivity.

Unless caring becomes important we could end up in a society where we fear old age or sickness, because we know we won’t be cared for. The question ‘Why care?’ is worth asking because it reveals the different ways that people approach ethical issues.

CMF Files 1 gave a range of ethical frameworks. With these in mind, let’s look at possible ways to complete the sentence:

It’s right to care for people because…

All the options look alright at first, but a closer examination reveals some potential problems.

… it’s a natural human instinct

This suggest that caring comes from a combination of hormones and the memory of being cared for as a child. The most obvious example of this is the natural protective instinct most parents feel towards their children.

The American feminist philosopher Nel Noddings is so convinced of the existence of this natural instinct, particularly among women, that she has argued for a complete ethical system based upon it. She proposes a feminine emotion-based approach to morality, as opposed to the masculine reason-based approach(1). The problem is that simply being natural does not necessarily make a feeling right. A doctor may have a ‘natural instinct’ to ignore a rude smelly patient, though if she cares, she will still respond to the patient’s needs.

… I’m a naturally caring person

This suggests that while you feel drawn to care, you don’t think that others necessarily need to share your feeling. In fact, this argument is more often run from the opposite viewpoint: ‘It’s right for them – they have naturally caring personalities’.

Most of the people who care for the sick in hospital and at home are women. Can men legitimately argue that they are let off the hook because they are not naturally caring?

… it ensures human survival

This says that caring is driven by a sense of evolutionary self-interest. Human survival is the primary ethical value and we control and work out our own evolution (2). What does this say to the mother who devotes years to the care of her severely handicapped child? This act of caring will not further the human race. So was her care misplaced? Surely, the best way to promote the survival of the human race is to look after healthy people and not to care for the sick or dependent at all?

At its extreme, this could lead to the extermination or enforced sterilisation of any with apparently ‘faulty’ genes, to control our own evolution as a race.

… it gives me satisfaction

This is another self-centred view of the caring. The person does it because they gain satisfaction.

For many the satisfaction comes from a sense of personal development. Nursing training often has a maturing effect on student as they learn to respond to serious real-life situations, and many nurses say that their jobs are satisfying.

However, this lacks any compulsion to care. You could claim that if you don’t want the satisfaction of caring, you don’t have to do it.

And what of the person who has to provide the point of exhaustion? Isn’t this caring, even if it could hardly be called satisfying?

… it could be me one day

This motivation to care comes from our anxiety that we could be in a similar situation ourselves one day and would want to be cared for. So it is in our best interests to perpetuate the ethic of caring.

However, this does not provide us with any moral imperative to care for those who are in situations we are highly unlikely to end up in ourselves. For example, why care for drug addicts if you are not a drug addict yourself? Why bother caring for someone who has an inherited disorder you have not inherited?

… it express God’s love

It’s easy to say, ‘it’s right to care for other people, just because it’s right’. But where does this assumption come from? Could this moral instinct have come from the God who created you?

The Bible says that God is good. For example, ‘Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, his love endures forever'(3). But what then is love?

At the heart of the Judaeo-Christian religion is the belief that God shows his love for people by caring for them. People are then encouraged to care for each other as an expression of God’s love.

All people are made in the image of God – in many ways we are like Him. This applies even to people who are easily dismissed either through gross disability or age. On top of this the Bible shows that God’s son Jesus died for all human beings, even the most unlovely. If God cares for every human being, and if we are made to be like God, then we are made to care for each other.

The father of British medicine, Thomas Sydenham, also pointed out that: ‘(a doctor) must remember that it is no mean or ignoble animal that he deals with. We may ascertain the worth of the human race, since for its sake God’s only begotten Son became man and thereby enobled the nature that he took upon him.'(4)

Here we find a consistent ethical basis for caring. The act of caring is ‘right’ in all circumstances, because the moral imperative and the equipping come from an external authority, God.

Read more: The Ethics of Caring (part 2)


  1. Noddings N. Caring; a Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley and Los Angeles; University of California Press. 1984.
  2. Simpson GG. Meaning of Evolution. New York Mento Books. 1951, p149.
  3. Psalm 106:1
  4. Sydenham T (1668). See Ideals in Medicine. Ed. Edmunds V, Scorer CG, Tyndale Press, London, 1958. p155.

Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) Files No. 5, 1999