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Using Structure to Understand Justice and Care as Different Worlds

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When read as a theory that is supposed to mirror, represent or fit some collection of historical data, critics argue that Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shift in Structure of Scientific Revolutions fails by cherry-picking and underdetermination. When read as the ground for a socio-epistemological conception of rationality, critics argue that Kuhn’s theory fails by either the naturalistic fallacy or underarticulation. This paper suggests that we need not view Structure as a historian’s attempt to accurately depict scientific theory change or a philosopher’s attempt to suggest, more normatively, the factors we ought to consider in theory choice. Instead, we might use Kuhn’s theory as a metaphilosophical frame through which to better understand the limits of otherwise intractable philosophical debates. We can focus on Kuhn’s theory not as a proposition or model to confirm, but as something we might use as a tool for understanding. Philosophers have discussed the justice and care orientations in ethics as two theories for which there will be some common, constraining set of intuitions to confirm one theory over the other, to demonstrate that protecting rights is fundamentally more valuable that fulfilling needs or that fulfilling needs is fundamentally more valuable that protecting rights. Instead of conceptualizing this conversation as a choice between two theories, this paper looks to Ian Hacking’s interpretation of Kuhn’s paradigm concept to suggest that working in the world of justice is very different than working in the world of care, as each orientation is a paradigm with its own cognitive and contextual standards of theory assessment. To start, after Larry Laudan, each has its own ontology, methodology, aims and values. But moreover, after Ian Hacking, each has an even larger, entrenched collection of projectible predicates. Though Carol Gilligan herself uses the metaphor of gestalt shift in a few places to characterize the move from the justice to the care perspective, the insight—that what many assume to be a standard exercise in theory choice is really more of a paradigm shift—has been under theorized by ethicists and ignored by philosophers of science. This paper brings the full resources of Structure and its secondary literature to this metaethical issue, while making the larger point that Structure has an important pragmatic role to play, when it comes to the understanding philosophical debates, even if we cannot secure the truth of Kuhn’s theory.

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    See, for example, Hilary Putnam’s claim that the ability to convey in English other paradigms than one’s own suggests there is some global sense of rationality. See then Richard Rorty’s ensuing critique in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity and Paul Feyerabend’s in Farewell to Reason, pp. 265–272.

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    See especially Sander-Staudt on “Definitions of Care” and “Relations to Other Theories” for a broad summary of the many philosophical niche discussions about how to define and distinguish care ethics from other moral perspectives (Sander-Staudt 2011). Virginia Held, a prominent ethicist of care, writes: “In recent years, the most important discussions have been concerned with how justice and care can appropriately be combined from a feminist point of view (Held 1995: 2).”

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    Laudan (1984) opposes this view about the “integral character” of paradigms.

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    Relations between kinds are also part of any classification system. Because relations are determined partly by the prevailing kinds that exist, relations vary from paradigm to paradigm.

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    The laboratory style of reasoning, for example, is self-vindicating because of this contingent drive toward mutual adjustment. Science is stable because it is usually the case that no one dares to interfere with this coherence once it has been established (Hacking 1992: 55).

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    Note that, for Hacking, kind terms do not organize or fit the world. Communities paste their own kind terms onto a world which has actual, distinct individuals, but no sets, kinds or universals or classes over and above, or prior to, the individuals. On this picture, it is not clear what kind of constraining role the ungrouped world of individuals might play, if any. Given Hacking’s praise of Putnam, one might think the world is there to keep communities from developing more than one scheme of categories at a time. But this does not seem correct to the text. Hacking suggests that, “[t]hanks to nature’s ways,” there are many similarities among individuals to be noticed. However, at any one time, only a small collection of these similarities will resonate with any one community: “[T]he world is a world of individuals; the individuals do not change with a change of paradigm. But … the world in which we work is a world of kinds of things” (Hacking 1993: 277, see also pp. 304 and 306). Does anything within the “real” individual constrain the community’s selection? It doesn’t seem so, for Hacking. The natural state of the individuals—their natural similarities—simply provide us with options.

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    Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice (Gilligan 1982) served as the initial inspiration for the ethics of care. Her book takes issue with a series of classic papers by Lawrence Kohlberg on the stages of moral development. Kohlberg’s papers suggest that women lag behind their male peers, but Gilligan suggests that his rubric, his measuring instrument, is inappropriate. Much has been made of the empirical fact that subsequent studies have shown there to be no gender effect in moral reasoning, contrary to what Gilligan suggests (Gilligan 1982: 156, 160–74). But this is not a mark against care ethics. As many care ethicists—including Gilligan herself—have since emphasized, men are perfectly capable of nurturing caring relationships and of care thinking (Gilligan 1987). The philosophical theory is offered as reasonable, appropriate, and promising/transformative for both genders to embrace, regardless of what psychologists say about the theory’s empirical adequacy to any particular population. Gilligan says in Different Voice that she merely wanted to introduce and highlight for women features and stages of their moral development that were under theorized. Her interest was not in making claims about gender essentialism. As you can see, there is much about this episode that should be of interest to philosophers of science.

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    This is the strategy of articulation Gilligan pursues in Different Voice, where she presents her view primarily through her description of a series of qualitative interviews, designed to uncover participants’ reactions to various moral dilemmas.

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    Given Nodding’s account of the “I must,” in a case of genuine caring, the care is compelled, natural, or otherwise unavoidable; there is no choice, no option to do otherwise. Yet, we might think of the mother as exerting power, in R. E. Hobart’s sense, power that can impress and attract us. Hobart says the following about how determination makes possible the exertion of power: “When I move, I use ligaments … [A]nd a ligament does bind bones together. But I am not bound. I … am rendered possible by the fact that my bones are bound one to another; that is part of the secret of my being able to act, to move about and work my will. If my bones ceased to be bound, I should be undone indeed (Hobart 1934: 13–14).”


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The author would like to acknowledge the helpful comments of an anonymous reviewer on the issue of cherry picking care ethicists and on the concept of understanding.

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Correspondence to Alexandra Bradner.

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Bradner, A. Using Structure to Understand Justice and Care as Different Worlds. Topoi 32, 111–122 (2013).

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  • Care ethics
  • Incommensurability
  • Understanding
  • Entrenchment