Merleau-Ponty, Maurice Essay

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Care-model ethical theories, in their appreciation for context and their insistence that others should be taken on their own terms, challenge so-called justice-model ethical theories that blindly apply rules or principles to facts without regard to the unique particularity of those facts, and without regard for the alterity of the others affected by the ethical decision. Care-model ethical theories differ from the so-called justice-model theories primarily in focusing on the moral agent’s responsibilities to others, as opposed to the rights of the individual.

On this view, the utilitarian focus on the greatest good for the greatest number, the Kantian focus on duty, and certainly ethical egoism’s focus on the (moral) necessity of prioritizing self all miss a key aspect of a satisfactory approach to morality, and that key aspect is the concept of “care.” Morality, understood according to the care model, involves prioritizing care, that is, a concern for the welfare of the specific moral patient or patients before one, rather than an appeal to abstract principle. What care-model ethical theories have importantly shown is that certain ways of approaching morality and certain values are not a part of the mainstream moral dialogue but should be. These are ways of approaching morality and valuation that have been historically associated in the West with a female principle and include (1) a call to context, (2) attention to the particularity of each moral situation, (3) a reminder that ethics is, or should be, about a concern for others as opposed to a concern or self, and (4) a communitarian sensibility.

For many philosophers who defend an embodied morality—that is, who defend a morality directly informed by the way people live their lives, that is, in bodies—care-model ethical theories are an improvement over justice model theories in that they require on the part of the moral agent an acknowledgement of the uniqueness of concrete individuals. More specifically, care-model ethical theories involve the moral agent’s both wanting and being able to take responsibility for the highly unique character of the phenomenon of need, as generated by the unique embodiment of each moral patient. Moreover, the moral situation— also known as the context of moral choice—is not the abstract, hypothetical space of justice-model ethical theories, but the concrete world of everyday moral decision making. Moral situations are, in other words, highly context-dependent, containing information and guidance regarding the best moral outcome “within the facts of the particular moral situation itself,” rather than in abstract moral principles.

In The Visible and the Invisible, Maurice Merleau-Ponty provides an account of the ways in which each individual is able to access information coming in from their particular bodies through a center of visibility that is noncognitive and not a state of consciousness. Known as Merleau-Ponty’s “philosophy of the flesh,” this account of the role of particularized embodiment in perception adds to care model ethical theories the suggestion that the emotions and perceptions of the caring moral agent are generated from a familiarity with portions of the flesh of the body. It is in virtue of having intimate bodily contact with the concrete realities of the moral situation, on this view, that the caring moral agent is able to appreciate the uniqueness of need. If Merleau-Ponty is correct, then care-model ethical theories can be understood as moving beyond cognitive models of sensory perception and as tapping into the precognitive and visceral origins of people’s ethical decisions instead.

The precognitive, visceral, and embodied ethical decision making described by care-model ethical theories, and confirmed by Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of the flesh, can provide helpful guidance for criminal justice ethics. For example, according to this philosophy, the desire on the part of the criminal justice practitioner that an accused criminal be treated fairly and with due process does not arise cognitively or through consciousness, but empathically.

In addition, there is an awareness on the part of the practitioner not only that the accused is in a particular physical state, but also that the particular physical state involves a unique corporeality that is distinctive and personally felt by the accused. Part of the experience of both the practitioner and the accused, on this account, is a sense of connection with the other. This adds a level of dignity to their interactions that can only be helpful, and provides a promising intellectual foundation for the more compassionate administration of justice.


  1. Brubaker, David. “Care for the Flesh: Gilligan, Merleau-Ponty, and Corporeal Styles.” In Feminist Interpretations of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Dorothea Olkowski and Gail Weiss, eds. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.
  2. Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.
  3. Held, Virginia. The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  4. Held, Virginia and Alison Jaggar, eds. Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995.
  5. Kittay, E. F. Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency. New York: Routledge,
  6. Kittay, E. F. and E. K. Feder. The Subject of Care: Feminist Perspectives on Dependency. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
  7. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Colin Smith, trans. New York: Humanities Press, 1962.
  8. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and the Invisible. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1975.
  9. Noddings, N. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
  10. Noddings, N. Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
  11. Puka, B. “Interpretives Experiments: Probing the Care-Justice Debate in Moral Development.” Human Development, v.34 (1991).

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