Moral Injury and the Ethic of Care: Reframing the Conversation about Differences

This article was originally published in the Journal of Social Philosophy.

         It’s 40 years since John Berger wrote, “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.”  It’s 30 years since In a Different Voice recast the conversation about self and morality as a conversation about voice and relationships. It’s 15 years since Arundhati Roy coined the phrase “Love Laws” for the laws that establish “who should be loved. And how. And how much.”

         Meanwhile, a paradigm shift has been spreading through the human sciences. A growing body of evidence coming from developmental psychology, neurobiology, primatology, and evolutionary anthropology has framed what had been taken as milestones of development in a new light. Rather than signifying healthy forms of maturation, the separation of the self from relationships and the splitting of thought from emotion signal injury or responses to trauma.

         The primatologist Frans de Waal has called for “a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature,” based on the recognition that “empathy is part of our evolution, and not just a recent part, but an innate, ago-old capacity.”  The evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has observed that the capacity for mutual understanding, for “empathy, mind-reading, and cooperation,” was—-and may well be—- key to our survival as a species. The neurobiologist Antonio Damasio reports that our nervous system is wired to connect mind and body, thought and emotion. In our bodies and emotions we pick up the music or the “feeling of what happens,” which then plays in our minds and thoughts. When we separate our thoughts from our emotions, we retain the capacity to solve logical problems but lose the ability to register experience and navigate the human social world. This change in the understanding of who we are was sparked initially by listening to women. The paradigm shift began with the recognition that empathy and caring are human strengths.  The “different voice” had been heard as “feminine” because emotions and relationships were considered attributes of women. But the voice itself sounded different because it joined thought with emotion and the self with relationships, because it was embodied rather than disembodied, located in time and place. What had been considered a problem in women’s development was a problem in the framework of interpretation, “a limitation in the conception of the human condition, an omission of certain truths about life.”

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