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Towards an empirical ethics in care: relations with technologies in health care

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This paper describes the approach of empirical ethics, a form of ethics that integrates non-positivist ethnographic empirical research and philosophy. Empirical ethics as it is discussed here builds on the ‘empirical turn’ in epistemology. It radicalizes the relational approach that care ethics introduced to think about care between people by drawing in relations between people and technologies as things people relate to. Empirical ethics studies care practices by analysing their intra-normativity, or the ways of living together the actors within these practices strive for or bring about as good practices. Different from care ethics, what care is and if it is good is not defined beforehand. A care practice may be contested by comparing it to alternative practices with different notions of good care. By contrasting practices as different ways of living together that are normatively oriented, suggestions for the best possible care may be argued for. Whether these suggestions will actually be put to practice is, however, again a relational question; new actors need to re-localize suggestions, to make them work in new practices and fit them in with local intra-normativities with their particular routines, material infrastructures, know-how and strivings.

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  1. The classic reference is to Beauchamp and Childress (2002).

  2. Some care ethics take the mother-child relation as exemplary (Noddings 1984). Other kinds of caring relations have dynamics that differ from the professional caring relation. See for instance studies in care for animals (Folker et al. 2009), for the dynamics of care at home rather than in the hospital (Milligan 2009); for older people Ceci et al. (2011); care for patients in combination with training doctors (Wallenburg et al. 2013); and care by managers (Grit 2004) or for science (Puig de la Bellacasa 2011).

  3. There are other forms of empirical ethics, see Willems and Pols (2010), Molewijk et al. (2004).

  4. See for the empirical turn in epistemology: Latour (1987a, b), Law (1999), Mol (2002), and for the empirical turn in ethics: Mol (2010), Pols (2008, 2012, 2013), López and Domènech (2009), Willems (2010), Winance (2010), Willems and Pols (2010).

  5. This is the fruit of two 3 year projects. The research started in 2005 with a grant from NWO, The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, from the program Ethics, Research and Policy: Care at a distance. A normative investigation into telecare. The second project was called EFORTT, a research program funded by the European Community, seventh Framework program: Ethical Frameworks for Telecare Technologies for older people at home.

  6. This is a good example of the re-scribing of one’s object of research right away. By turning the stories and practices of many into two narratives, I hope to bring the cases to life for the reader, at the cost of particular nuances and perspectives, and at the favour of others.

  7. Different from Schicktanz et al. (2012) I do not see this as a correction of a lack of epistemological grounds for ‘making ethicists speak’, but as a way of showing the complexity of making weak voices heard.


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A word of thanks to the ‘Philosophy of Care’ group for their comments and suggestions, and to the two anonymous reviewers for the journal for their constructive feedback. The work on empirical ethics in care is a collective project, for which I thank Dick Willems, Ingunn Moser, Hilde Thygesen, Annemarie Mol, Daniël Lopez, Juan Carlos Aceros, Miquel Domenech, Christine Ceci and Mary Ellen Purkis.

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Correspondence to Jeannette Pols.

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This paper is the journal version of Pols (2013). This bookchapter is restructured into a journal paper and got a new introduction and structure. The analysis is updated, but the argument is largely the same as in the book.

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Pols, J. Towards an empirical ethics in care: relations with technologies in health care. Med Health Care and Philos 18, 81–90 (2015).

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