Getting Ethics Podcast

Virtue and Care: Moral Frameworks Series

Overview & Shownotes

We’re continuing our moral frameworks series today with a discussion about virtue ethics and care ethics. Instead of breaking down a workplace ethics case, we’re looking behind the scenes and discussing one of the major moral frameworks that Andy uses to think through moral cases. In his moral reasoning workshops, he usually takes participants through six main frameworks used in ethics. Today, he and Kate discuss both virtue and care ethics. Stayed tuned for more discussions about each of the frameworks!


Episodes featuring discussions of intellectual humility:

“Care involves meeting the needs of others who cannot meet their own needs.” -Diemut Bubek

If you want to hear more about the other moral frameworks:

Interested in taking a workshop on moral reasoning led by Getting Ethics to Work’s own Andy Cullison? You can find more information here, or contact him directly at andycullison@depauw.edu

If you have a workplace dilemma you need some help with, send your story to our producer Kate at katherineberry@depauw.edu.

For this episode’s transcript, click here.


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Andy: From the Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, this is Getting Ethics to Work, the podcast that tackles the trickier moral dilemmas that you might face in the workplace. I’m Andy Cullison.

Kate: And I’m Kate Berry. For each episode of Getting Ethics to Work, we discuss a case or issue and unpack the difficult and often hidden ethical tensions that can make it hard to get along with others at work. And by the way, case is just an ethicist word for story.

Andy: Now, before we get started, I want to remind everyone that we are not lawyers and are not offering legal expertise. But as an ethicist, I can tell you why some folks think that everything you learned from us so far is wrong.

Kate: And if you’d like what you’ve been hearing and want to help us out, the best thing you can do is recommend the show to a friend or leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. I hope you’ll consider doing that. So Andy, today we’re actually combining two frameworks. What frameworks are we talking about today?

Andy: We are combining two frameworks. And those frameworks are virtue ethics, the Virtue Framework and the care ethics, or as we like to call it, the Care and Relationships Framework. We’re bringing both of those together.

Kate: Okay, so what are they? And why did we decide to bring them together for this episode?

Andy: Let me answer that in reverse. Almost all the frameworks in some way, shape or form are reactions to the idea that consequences are the only thing that matter, but there are fundamental assumptions about thinking about right and wrong action, that these frameworks are also, kind of, challenging. And so that’s one reason we like putting them together. The other reason is, some people will argue, some care ethicists, for example, argue that care ethics just is a kind of virtue ethics, just an interesting variant. And so they’re also just, sort of, closely related in some important ways. And so I think it’s, kind of, nice to let’s treat them together in a single episode.

Kate: Okay, so especially if care ethics may be, kind of, an offshoot of virtue ethics, how is virtue ethics different than some of the other frameworks we’ve talked about in other episodes?

Andy: One caveat, this is for my care ethicist friends at home who are listening. There’s a dispute in the care ethics tradition about whether or not care ethics should be regarded as a kind of virtue ethics, so I don’t want to offend half of the care ethicists out there who might be listening. I don’t want to give the impression that it’s, like, a settled opinion that care ethics is part of virtue ethics.

Kate: And please email all of your complaints to Andy Cullison and not to Kate Berry.

Andy: That’s right. Okay, so, let’s talk about virtue ethics first, because I think much of what we’ll say can generalize to care ethics when we talk about that. So again, the main thing to get right about virtue ethics is this, kind of, criticism of the way in which the moral theories that informed the previous frameworks, there’s an assumption there that virtue ethicists think those theorists get wrong. And that assumption is, what we’re fundamentally interested in doing, is figuring out the nature of right and wrong action, like, what is it that makes an action morally right? Or what is it that makes an action morally wrong? And virtue ethicists say you’re actually answering the wrong question if you care about living a good life. And the reason they say this is because they basically think, what you should really be concerned about, rather than thinking about individual actions and what makes individual actions right or wrong, you should be thinking about what makes someone a good person, or what makes someone live a good life. And that usually boils down to–what it is to live a good life–is to cultivate a set of virtues. And what virtues are, sort of, deeply ingrained dispositions to behave in certain ways.

Kate: So if you’re focused on Consequences, then it’s on the results of an action, if you’re focused on Inner Thoughts, then it’s whether what’s going on your head matches what you’re doing. If you’re focused on Fundamental Rights, then it’s whether you have the right to be doing something, and if it’s Social Agreements, then it’s whether a group of people have decided that something is okay.

Andy: Exactly. That’s exactly right. And notice, every single one of those is focused on, first and foremost, figuring out is this a morally right action or not? And virtue ethicists say you’re going to miss something important. And one of the ways to, kind of, see this point is if we use this metaphor of, like, a red flag going off when something might be a wrong action and then, you know, we bring our frameworks to the table, and then we figure out if this is a right or wrong action. But if you just sit around and wait for your red flag to go off, and send your brain an ethics signal that something’s not right here, then you’re going to be missing an important dimension of moral life. If you get too caught up into that, you might not be doing things. You’re just sort of checking off boxes. Like, “I did a whole bunch of right actions today or I did a whole lot of wrong actions,” and you might be missing important obligations toward yourself for self-improvement for which, like, no red flag would go off. So you’re missing a huge area of moral development if you’re only narrowly focused on, “Here are all my options today for what to do and what not to do. Let me figure out which ones are right and which ones are wrong and I’ll just do the right ones and I won’t do the wrong ones and I’ve done good today.” They’re saying you are going to miss a lot.

Kate: Well, I can see why one might choose to live that way. It seems easier to check off boxes than to turn yourself into a good person. (laughs) So how do virtue ethicists think that one can even do that? That seems, like, both really vague and like a process that never ends. So it would be hard to say, “And now I am a good person.”

Andy: You’re absolutely right. Focusing on being a good person, you know, it’s, like, there might be no end game, right? You just keep going and going and going. And actually, some virtue theorists say, “Yeah, that’s kind of the point or that’s kind of the deal.” You know, an ideally virtuous person or an ideal good person might be a perfect person, right? And if you think we’ll never achieve perfection in our behavior, then yeah, striving to be a virtuous person is going to basically be striving to be something that you actually deep down think probably isn’t attainable. 

Kate: But I’m sure they don’t mean for it to be entirely hypothetical, right? So what kind of virtues do you think virtue ethicists would think a person would need to attain to be good? And how would you go about practicing even one virtue?

Andy: I’m not even sure virtue theorists are in wide agreement on this, just because the virtues can be so murky. But let’s start with just defining in general terms what a virtue is, at least according to many virtue theorists, is that they’re character traits or they’re deeply entrenched dispositions to behave in a certain way. And we’re actually all familiar with examples of virtues; a lot of the common virtues that philosophers might talk about might be honesty, charity, a kind of generosity, humility. Humility about your own talents and abilities, but also sometimes they even tease out, like, intellectual humility as a kind of virtue as well. But a lot of virtue theorists think, for the virtues, you can take intentional steps to try and develop those over time. That you can get better or worse at it over time. So that’s an example of a virtue. And then I think your second question was, how do virtue theorists think you could go about developing these?

Kate: Yeah. It seems like a really tall order to try to develop all of them. But let’s say if you wanted to just try to develop one virtue. Unless, do they think that this is innate? That you are either born with these virtues or that you’re not?

Andy: I don’t think most virtue theorists would say that. I think most virtue theorists think that these are things that could be developed. Roughly the idea is, whatever it is you think the virtuous thing to do would be, you need to try and make it almost habitual, so that you don’t have to think about what to do, so that you’re not tempted to do the other thing. If you make it a habit, then it’s going to be hard for you not to do because that’s what habits are, they’re things that are hard for you to stop doing, right? And so, you know, practicing the virtues, having opportunities to exercise them. It’s almost like working out a muscle. A lot of virtue theorists think that you can cultivate or lose virtues like you could build or lose muscle mass. They think you have to train yourself to be virtuous.

Kate: Interesting, which is still different than doing what you would normally do, feeling a red flag, maybe when something has already gone awry, and then trying to figure out then what you should be doing.

Andy: And you may never get it perfectly right. A virtuous person is someone who has a disposition to behave in certain ways, but just because you have a disposition to behave in certain ways, is not a guarantee that you’ll do it every single time.

Kate: Well, this sounds like a lifelong project, a very personal project striving for perfection of trying to become a good person. How does this relate to the workplace? Because in some ways it feels like, this is not a project to bring up at work, that it’s maybe something that you do at home and for the good of your community. But that is a little bit personal, like, is this something that we can apply at work?

Andy: So one place in which it crops up, and I think this causes a lot of problems in workplaces, is organizations tend to have, like, a statement of core values. Usually, those statements of core values can be translated into some kind of virtue or other. And you might think if you lead with a statement of values, as a leader of an organization, you’re going to be under a microscope. And any hint that you’re deviating from those core values is going to rub people the wrong way. Especially since you’re the one calling for it. You might think it’s incumbent upon leadership to seek to cultivate those virtues in themselves to, sort of, really try to make sure that they are living up to what the core values of the company are. So that’s, like, at a broad leadership, like, 30,000 foot kind of view sort of thing. But I actually think at the individual level, we can come up with lots of workplace examples where your life would go better if you decided to be more intentional about cultivating certain kinds of virtues. So let’s start with intellectual humility. We have several episodes on intellectual humility, which we’ll post in the show notes page. Let’s talk about why I think it’s a core virtue and then, sort of, what that looks like in practice in the workplace and why, you know, you might be doing yourself a disservice if you’re not intentional about thinking about it. But intellectual humility, it’s also more about not brazenly assuming that you’re right all the time, right? Being open to the idea that you might not have the right answer. And what that looks like in practice is someone who’s intellectually humble is going to listen quite a bit more, they’re going to be receptive to feedback, particularly negative or critical feedback. They aren’t going to make a lot of assumptions about whether or not their brain is going to be the thing to solve the problem as opposed to someone else in the room, right? And if you set for yourself a goal to be more intellectually humble in the workplace and you start asking yourself, “What does that look like?” You’re going to list off a lot of the things I said, right? You’re going to listen more and it’s going to be active listening. You are not going to assume that you have the right answer all the time. When you have an idea, you’re going to, like, go to other people as a, kind of, sounding board to just sort of make sure that other people think it’s also a good idea, right? You’re not going to assume that you were able to come up with a solution all by your lonesome.

Kate: Right.

Andy: You’ve basically identified some very specific behaviors that you would need to engage in. And those things are, one, time consuming. And they are things that, like, again, red flags aren’t going to go off automatically if you, in a meeting, didn’t listen more closely in that one particular moment, right? These are little micro things.

Kate: Or if you didn’t collaborate or ask another person’s opinion about trying to solve a problem, you wouldn’t necessarily think, “Oh, I have done wrong.”

Andy: Yeah, exactly. This is actually a really good example where you could be misstepping and not realizing it because each individual action taken in isolation would be like, “What was wrong with that? So, I didn’t listen that one time, or so I didn’t get someone’s opinion that one time,” right? And if you get criticized for that one instance, you’re going to think, “Oh, someone’s blowing this out of proportion.” But no, virtues are more about, like, the sum of all your behaviors over a large swath of time. You can’t tell whether or not someone’s virtuous, usually, you can’t tell whether or not someone has a virtue from looking at one single action that they took. That could have been lucky, they could have been doing it for other reasons, even if it looked virtuous. I don’t think you really know the measure of a person until you, sort of, see what their behaviors are like over a broader stretch of time. And a lot of those behaviors are going to seem, the bad ones, so to speak, they’re going to seem completely innocuous if you only look at that one behavior. 

Kate: So I’m imagining an intellectually humble manager would get that reputation over time and not because they did it for just one project: that they were really good about soliciting other opinions and checking to make sure that they just didn’t assume that they had magically hit upon the right way to solve something. But if you did that consistently, that then you would create a reputation and people would know that this is how you approached problems and that would become more of a character trait, rather than, “I did it once and then everyone knew this about me.”

Andy: Yeah. And the idea is, you’re only going to be able to do that if you’re very intentional about making those behaviors habitual.

Kate: Well, I can see why a lot of the philosophical frameworks try not to do this; it sounds really hard.

Andy: It is really hard. And that’s why people are hoping there’s another way to go about, being a better person. It’s hard.

Kate: You mentioned that care is also maybe considered one of the virtues. How did those things relate?

Andy: We started this episode by noting that these are frameworks that, sort of, buck the norm. We’ve done our thinking about ethics with some fundamentally misguided assumptions. Virtue ethicists think you’re focused too much on analyzing the nature of right and wrong action; you’re going to miss something important about the moral domain if you’re narrowly focused on that. So if care ethics is a species of virtue ethics, then a care ethicist would say, “We agree. You are missing important dimensions if care is a virtue.” But care ethicists buck traditional ethics, or what you might call classical ethics, in another way. So the care ethics tradition actually came out of the rise of feminist philosophy. To understand some of the basics behind the care and relationships framework, it’s sort of, like, two important things to do. One is just to define what we mean by care. Because that’s one of the core principles of care ethics is you ought to look to prioritize duties of care. And the idea that specific things about your relationships might impact what is or is not okay in terms of how you prioritize those duties of care. And then the next thing you have to do is, sort of, identify what you might call the elements of care. So first up, we just want to define what care means. Now, this is again, there’s a philosophical dispute about how you would define care. So I’m just going to give, kind of, one common way that some folks would define care. “Care involves meeting the needs of others who cannot meet their own needs,” is one way that one might define care. And so if you were prioritizing duties of care, you’d, sort of, be on the lookout for, like, “Well, who are the people here who can’t meet their own needs in this moment,” right? Maybe cannot is too harsh, but the idea is like, you’re looking to see who has needs and you’re looking to see who has the hardest time meeting those needs and that’s where you should be focusing your efforts. And so that’s one way to think about what care is. And so if that’s what care is, what are some of the elements? Well, there’s five. One, you have to be attentive, right? You have to look at your relationships, think about the needs of the folks whom you have some kind of relation to, pretty much anyone in your vicinity whom you might be able to impact the lives of, and be attentive to what those needs are. You have to be willing to do it. That’s the second element, right? You have to be willing to meet those needs. You also have to be competent to do this, right? Like, someone might have a need, but if you’re not the person for the job, if you’re not competent to do that, that might be one of what sometimes people call an abuse of care. You’re not really being caring if you’re meeting a need, but you’re not the one competent to do it. You also have to have a, kind of, relational awareness, because that’s one of the elements of care ethics is the idea that our relationships can significantly impact the rightness or wrongness of an action.

Kate: So, if you’re a really good therapist, but you are having therapy sessions with your own kid, you are probably not doing an ethical thing.

Andy: Right. That’s right. That’s a really good example, right? Doing therapy with your own kid, right, that relationship…You might be super competent, you might be really attentive to their needs, you might be willing to do it. But, like, there might be something wrong there.

Kate: Yeah.

Andy: And then the last, you have to be worried about just thinking about potential abuses of care. And largely abuses of care are these situations where it looks like you’re checking off all the other boxes in terms of this being a caring thing to do, but maybe something about your lack of competence or the relationships aren’t quite right. And you could be doing something that according to any of the other frameworks would say, “totally fine.” But care ethicists are like, “No, there’s more and there are some other important moral dimensions to moral life that you’re missing if you’re not attentive to these things.” And so, the abuses of care are, I think, important to be on the lookout for. 

Kate: Okay, well, the workplace is certainly full of relationships, although, I don’t know that they would all be categorized as care relationships. How might we use care or relationship ethics at work?

Andy: Let’s think about it with virtues, we thought about it at the leadership level, let’s think about it at the leadership level and then the individual level. I think people in high levels of authority in organizations could benefit significantly from thinking carefully about what care ethics would have to say about the way they conduct their business. So just for one example, think about the general idea of, like, meeting the needs of people who have a difficult time meeting their own needs, right? If you’re prioritizing duties of care, as a leader of an organization, you would be thinking about your workforce very differently; you’d be thinking about, “Okay, who in my organization has significant needs? And who among those, who have those needs, are having a hard time meeting those needs for themselves,” right? And you are in an enormous position of power to get movement in that area. So you might think that’s just a really good way to think about how a person who has an enormous amount of power in an organization should be thinking about how they divvy up their precious time, right? So right there that just seems like a good general strategy from a CEO or a VP level; it’s like, “What should I be doing? I should be focused most closely on who has needs that they have a hard time meeting. And then I should be figuring out how I can use the tools at my disposal to help meet those needs.” What does that look like in practice? Well, you need to be attentive to needs, if you’re in a large organization, you’re going to have to do a lot of information gathering, there’s going to have to be constantly, like, I don’t know if that’s surveying the workforce, or like, getting out on the floor and just talking to people and just, sort of, figuring out what the pain points are for various people at all levels of an organization. That’s behavior that doesn’t always strike people as very “boss-like.” But that would be important if you wanted to prioritize duties of care, in terms of being attentive. You’d also need to be really intentional about, if you thought they were needs, what are the best ways to go about meeting those needs? You know, are you competent to meet those needs? Do you need to bring other people on who might be more competent to meet those needs? Does your relationship with the people whose need you’re trying to meet impact the best approach for how to go about meeting those needs? So all these things require an enormous amount of thought, I think, an enormous amount of planning and discipline and preparation. So I think, if someone wanted to prioritize duties of care at the leadership level, then a) it would be a good idea. But it might ask you to, sort of, rethink a lot about what you think a normal leader looks like. 

Kate: I think what I’m hearing you say with care ethics are some of the things that seemed a little vague and abstract with applying virtue ethics to one’s life, care ethics actually has a roadmap for how one could use this. And it seems to give a more prescriptive set of things that one could do to actually achieve care and to improve the relationships they have with other people.

Andy: I think that’s a fair point; I think you’re absolutely right. Because I mean, if you think about it, if care ethics really is a species of virtue ethics, we’re zeroed on one specific potential virtue. And then yes, when you unpack what it looks like to live out that virtue, you do start to see very specific concrete things that one could do if they wanted to prioritize duties of care, if they wanted to be disposed to being a caring person in the sense that what you do in the workplace is try to meet the needs of those, you know, wherever you can, who can’t meet their own needs. And the one thing I’ll say that I think is important to keep in mind about both virtue and care ethics, is it will ask a lot of you. One, it’s going to require thinking about coming up with strategies to cultivate habits. And you’re going to have to be intentional about consistently doing the same kinds of things over and over. And each time it will be tempting to not do that thing because in one isolated moment you think, “Ah, what’s the big deal if I don’t do it here?” I mean, the difference between a virtuous and a vicious person is basically how many times they’ve said that in the course of their life, right? “What’s the big deal if I don’t do it here?” Right? Eventually, not doing those things over a long period of time, if you’re striving to be a virtuous person, you’re not being the sort of person you’re striving to be.

Kate: This feels different than our other episodes. We usually talk about trying to create an environment that is conducive to ethical thinking and behavior. And this one just doesn’t feel like that.

Andy: That’s right. And I think that’s in part because these frameworks are focused not necessarily on keeping an eye out for which actions are right or wrong, but they’re more focused on almost like personal development. Our whole show has basically been, “What do you do when you find yourself in this kind of situation.” The whole show basically presuppose that what we should be thinking about with workplace ethics is making sure you don’t do the wrong thing or making sure you do the right thing. The first four frameworks are very conducive to that. This is more a kind of look in the mirror, right? Look at the person in the mirror and think about what you need to be doing for yourself to make sure that you’re living a good life in the workplace. So it’s not like we have a specific concrete what do you do in this situation kind of formula that we do with our other episodes, this is much more about there is a completely different approach that these frameworks recommend you take. And I don’t think these have to be in tension with the frameworks, I don’t think you have to, like, not worry about the right or wrong thing. I happen to think we shouldn’t prioritize any of the frameworks more than the others. But they’re basically saying, here’s an important dimension that asks you to think about a very different set of questions than like, “What do I do when I find myself in this particular kind of situation?” That’s the, kind of, focus on right and wrong action. And this is saying you need to focus on yourself, what is it to make sure that you have a good character so that you are a positive force in the lives of people whom you interact with rather than a negative one. And it’s a lot of personal work. And it’s a lot of focusing on doing things that you wouldn’t normally think you have to be focused on if your only concern was making sure you always do the right thing and never do the wrong thing. Thanks so much for joining us as we try to Get Ethics to Work. I’m Andy Cullison.

Kate: And I’m Kate Berry. If you have a dilemma or tension that you’re dealing with in the workplace, email me at katherineberry@depauw.edu. And maybe we’ll talk through your issue on the air.

Andy: I really hope you take Kate up on that. I also hope you take some of what we discussed here and get it to work.

Kate: If you want to learn more about what we talked about on the show today, check out our show notes page at prindleinstitute.org/getethicstowork. That’s all one word, getethicstowork. Remember to subscribe to get new episodes of the show wherever you get your podcasts. But regardless of where you subscribe, please be sure to rate us on Apple Podcasts. It is still the best place for us to meet new listeners. Getting Ethics to Work is hosted by the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Our logo was created by Small Box. Our music is by Blue Dot Sessions and can be found online at www.sessions.blue. Our show was made possible with the generous support of DePauw alumni, friends of the Prindle Institute, and, you, the listeners. Thank you for your support. The views expressed here are the opinions of the individual speakers alone. They do not represent the position of DePauw University or the Prindle Institute for Ethics.

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