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An Existential Foundation for an Ethics of Care in Heidegger’s Being and Time


Martin Heidegger’s existential account of care in Being and Time (2010) provides us with an opportunity to reimagine what the proper theoretical grounding of an ethic of care might be. Heidegger’s account of care serves to deconstruct the two primary foundations that an ethic of care is often based upon. Namely, that we are inevitably interdependent upon one another and/or possess an innate disposition to care for fellow humans in need. Heidegger’s account reveals that both positions are founded upon an ontic (meaning factual existence), as opposed to an ontological (which refers to the nature of being), understanding of care. The distinctions between an ontic and ontological understanding of care are significant. Yet, I maintain that they are not completely incompatible. Both Heidegger and care ethicists contend that our existence with others is understood through a relational ontology. Furthermore, there are certain ontological structures from Heidegger which resonate with an ethic of care. Two key existential structures are leaping-ahead and being-guilty. These existential structures are latent in care ethics, and by explicitly revealing them I reinforce the connection between Heidegger’s account and care theory. Lastly, I develop the theoretical foundations of care ethics by proposing an existential ethic of care.

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  1. There exists extreme heterogeneity within the care ethics literature regarding the specification of what care ought to mean, but there is also considerable agreement amongst authors regarding the tenets of care ethics.

  2. This is explicitly an existential as opposed to an essentialist conception of human beings.

  3. Despite the reluctance of Heidegger (1927 [2010]) to acknowledge any coherent ethic from Being and Time, his account of human existence nevertheless invites us to consider what an existential ethic might look like. I agree with Heidegger’s concern that any discussion of ethics will necessarily pull us towards ontic considerations. However, I submit that any compelling ethical theory must account for the ontological structures that establish the conditions of possibility for ontic considerations, and that ethical theory need not be entirely removed from ontological structures in the pursuit of ontic considerations. Heidegger’s perspective provides a necessary ontological component to complete an ethical theory of care.

  4. Heidegger proposes that the word Dasein be used to represent the experience of being that is unique to us as human beings, “Dasein is a being that does not simply occur among other beings. Rather it is ontically distinguished by the fact that in its being this being is concerned about its very being… Understanding of being is itself a determination of being of Dasein… The ontic distinction of Dasein lies in the fact that it is ontological” (2010: 11).

  5. I would like to thank the anonymous reviewer who suggested I clarify that caring for ourselves and caring for others is an ontologically simultaneous phenomenon (Gleichursprünglich), and not a sequential one in which we first care for ourselves alone and then learn to care for others based upon that.

  6. Held (2006: 42) ultimately submits that care should be understood as a practice and value.

  7. Gilligan’s study analyzed the moral development of boys and girls. She found that the girls in her sample focused far more on matters of care and relationships than the boys who tended to be concerned with more traditional notions of justice. This finding prompted theorists to consider care as an alternative moral framework to justice. Although some like Held (2006: 74) contend that they are not mutually exclusive but should be interwoven to provide a complete and nuanced morality.

  8. Existentiell is a stand-in that Heidegger uses for the word ontic in order to help frame his argument in terms of the ontic-ontological divide with the word existential essentially serving as the ontological equivalent of existentiell as it relates to Dasein (Heidegger 1927 [2010]: 14).

  9. It is worth noting that our relational ontology pressures us to understand ourselves as not purely individuals but members of groups. Political groups are one of, if not the most, powerful forms of association that exist due to their extreme pressure on members to conform to an expansive list of behaviors and attitudes. For a discussion on politics with special relation to Heidegger’s account of care see Czobor-Lupp (2010) and Dungey (2007).

  10. Another account of this position is provided by Engster (2007: 40) who argues, “We may all be said to have obligations to care for others not so much because others are vulnerable to us, but rather because we are (and have been and will be) dependent upon others. It is our dependency on others rather than their vulnerability to us that ultimately grounds our obligation to care for them”.

  11. Heidegger (1927 [2010]: 270) writes that, “This ‘being guilty’ as ‘having debts’ [‘Schulden haben’] is a way of being-with with others in the field of taking care of things, as in providing something or bringing it along. Further modes of taking care of things are depriving, borrowing, withholding, taking, robbing; that is, in some way not doing justice to the claims that others have made as to their possessions. This kind of being guilty is related to things that can be take care of”. Of particular importance from this passage is that Heidegger limits this kind of being guilty to things and not fellow Dasein.

  12. For Heidegger guilt must not be understood ontically, but instead it should be understood ontologically and then in turn existentially.

  13. Nearly four decades ago Charles Sherover (1981: 223) remarked,

    “if one remains impressed by [Heidegger’s] analysis of the nature of human existence and of the presumptions it reveals, and is also concerned with the continuing problematic nature of contemporary existential situations, one is bound to consider the implications, suggested or mandated, for a coherent existential ethic”.

    The emergence of care ethics has presented us with a compelling supplemental theory to Heidegger’s ontological account of human existence, and Sherover’s assertion continue to ring true.


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Stevens, R. An Existential Foundation for an Ethics of Care in Heidegger’s Being and Time. J Ethics (2022).

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  • Care ethics
  • Being and time
  • Existentialism
  • Heidegger