Was Adam Smith a feminist economist? Care—the essay

By Nicholas Gruen

Tuesday March 19, 2019

Nicholas Gruen explores ways in which economics marginalises care for others and what an ‘economics of care’ might look like. This fills out part of the intellectual context for his proposal for an Evaluator General. 

Late ‘second wave’ feminist Carol Gilligan’s 1982 book In a Different Voice argued that men’s and women’s ethical frames are different. Men tend to foreground justice and abstract duties or obligations; women empathy and compassion defined in concrete relationships.1 This provided a springboard for ‘care ethics’ which is well summarised in this passage from a review of Virginia Held’s ‘The Ethics of Care‘:

First, “the focus of the ethics of care is on the compelling moral salience of attending to and meeting the needs of the particular others for whom we take responsibility”. Second, from an epistemological perspective, the ethics of care  appreciates emotions and relational capabilities that enable morally concerned persons in actual interpersonal contexts to understand what would be best. Third, “the ethics of care rejects the view of the dominant moral theories that the more abstract the reasoning about a moral problem, the better because the more likely [to?] avoid bias and arbitrariness, the more nearly to achieve impartiality. The ethics of care respects rather than removes itself from the claims of particular others with whom we share actual relationships”. Fourth, the ethics of care proposes a novel conceptualization of the distinction between private and public and of their respective importance. Finally, the ethics of care adopts a relational conception of persons, which is in stark contrast to Liberal individualism.

This offers a useful counterpoint to the dominant paradigm, awash, as it is with abstraction, universalism, instrumentalism and so, manipulation.2 So, here are some introductory reflections. We start with Adam Smith whose work is a constant reminder of how few of the intellectual riches he offered grew in modern soil. I then discuss the implications of ‘care ethics’ for what we’re all assured is the ‘market’ in human services. I conclude by asking whether, given the eclipse of this feminine perspective in our culture, feminism might have a role in reasserting it alongside feminism’s legitimate role as an ideological vehicle for women’s interests in a world that’s unfair to them.

Adam Smith and the ethics of care

Adam Smith’s work was built on the ethics of care. He was very urbane and not easily roused to passion. But the two most passionate passages in all his writing are one referring to the tribes of Africa being captured as slaves as “those nations of heroes” and this one:

What are the pangs of a mother, when she hears the moanings of her infant that during the agony of disease cannot express what it feels? In her idea of what it suffers, she joins, to its real helplessness, her own consciousness of that helplessness, and her own terrors for the unknown consequences of its disorder and out of all these, forms, for her own sorrow, the most complete 3 image of misery and distress. The infant, however, feels only the uneasiness of the present instant, which can never be great. With regard to the future, it is perfectly secure, and in its thoughtlessness and want of foresight, possesses an antidote against fear and anxiety, the great tormentors of the human breast, from which reason and philosophy will, in vain, attempt to defend it, when it grows up to a man.4

This is philosophy as homage to care. The baby observes its dependence on its closest relations and from fear and love comes to crave approbation and fear disapprobation. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is built up from reflection on how people care for each other—and how they care most for those closest to them. Their care, their sympathy, radiates from them towards others with an intensity which is inversely proportional to their social proximity.5 Smith built towards universal values via concrete experience. One did not trump the other. But one—the universalist command of principle and policy—trumps the ethics of care today, both in economics and in policy.

The ‘market’ in human services

This perspective helps us see that the whole agenda for opening up human services to competition is built on the metaphor of human services as a ‘market’. And what are markets waiting for if not to be opened up? Of course, those weasel words ‘other things being equal’ are thrown about, and given them, who wouldn’t want services opened up?

If one takes markets as the ‘ground’, the place in the chaos at which one sets intellectual anchor and tries to make sense of things, we end up concluding that, because this market doesn’t meet the preconditions of efficiency, policy should provide them as it opens up service provision. At this point, it’s reasonable to be suspicious that, if the market at the end of our reform efforts will remain profoundly imperfect, reforming the few imperfections we can might not make things better. 6 Perhaps more to the point, empathy is of the essence in caring relationships. It is, as Smith argued, the principle mode of cognition of one human by another and the sentiment that binds both small and large groups together in a shared culture.7 Also, it’s integral to the efficacy of direct caring relationships.

Further, in many human services we don’t really know what we’re doing. Though bureaucrats run up benchmarks against which they can administer programs with every sign of pursuing ‘best practice’ and being ‘evidence based’, the KPIs that emerge tend to meet the needs of those who designed them.

They look good on the ‘dashboard’ that’s shown to the minister, who then brandishes it publicly to demonstrate that they’re delivering on their policy. If it’s an employment program like JobActive there’ll be plenty of data about the activities of the program – helping with interviews and job-readiness. If it’s a child protection program there’ll be lots of data about notifications of children at risk, and activities to detect problems and fix them.

But will the data throw light on critical counterfactuals? If it’s Job Active we need to know what would have happened without JobActive – is it helping or just being given credit for what would have happened anyway? If it’s a child protection program are the children being removed from neglectful or abusive parents doing better once removed? Even data from well-functioning private markets – which are generated between buyer and seller – don’t typically throw light on these kinds of questions relating to system efficacy. Further questions include these: Will the program measure the right things so that it can generate unfolding insights about how to improve its efficacy, whether its metrics are being gamed and if so how, whether the conditions of the program are changing as it unleashes its own incentives or as other developments unfold and so on?

None of this is to defend arrangements as they are. Indeed I’d offer precisely the same critique of the existing system— that it isn’t generating the kind of information that’s necessary to understand how well it’s working and how to improve it. Put differently, the preeminent task is not to configure ‘the market’ as open or closed but to understand what we’re doing and then try to improve it.

Alternatives to ‘market’ thinking in human services

Here is a list of the four ethical elements of care provided by Joan Tronto. From Wikipedia:

  1. Attentiveness
    Attentiveness is crucial to the ethics of care because care requires a recognition of others’ needs in order to respond to them. The question which arises is the distinction between ignorance and inattentiveness. Tronto poses this question as such, “But when is ignorance simply ignorance, and when is it inattentiveness”?
  2. Responsibility
    In order to care, we must take it upon ourselves, thus responsibility. The problem associated with this second ethical element of responsibility is the question of obligation. Obligation is often, if not already, tied to pre-established societal and cultural norms and roles. Tronto makes the effort to differentiate the terms “responsibility” and “obligation” with regards to the ethic of care. Responsibility is ambiguous, whereas obligation refers to situations where action or reaction is due, such as the case of a legal contract. This ambiguity allows for ebb and flow in and between class structures and gender roles, and to other socially constructed roles that would bind responsibility to those only befitting of those roles.
  3. Competence
    To provide care also means competency. One cannot simply acknowledge the need to care, accept the responsibility, but not follow through with enough adequacy – as such action would result in the need of care not being met.
  4. Responsiveness
    This refers to the “responsiveness of the care receiver to the care”. Tronto states, “Responsiveness signals an important moral problem within care: by its nature, care is concerned with conditions of vulnerability and inequality”. She further argues responsiveness does not equal reciprocity. Rather, it is another method to understand vulnerability and inequality by understanding what has been expressed by those in the vulnerable position, as opposed to re-imagining oneself in a similar situation.

This seems to me to be a more promising list of considerations than the list of requirements for market efficiency—which are a lot longer than this list of requirements for perfect competition:

  1. All firms sell an identical product;
  2. All firms are price takers—they cannot control the market price of their product;
  3. All firms have a relatively small market share;
  4. Buyers have complete information about the product being sold and the prices charged by each firm; and
  5. The industry is characterised by freedom of entry and exit. Perfect competition is sometimes referred to as “pure competition”.

In this vein, the UK Institute for Government offers a list with some family resemblance to the abstract list from the economics textbook here:

To support effective market stewardship, government departments and other commissioning organisations should:

  1. Clarify roles, responsibilities and accountability arrangements
  2. Be more considered, open and flexible in design
  3. Focus on competition, market structure and market dynamics
  4. Increase transparency.

The (masculine) psychopathology of economics and management

What’s going on here has its analogues in psychology. The book Love at Goon Park tells the story of Harry Harlow of the ‘terry towelling’ monkey experiments which rescued Adam Smith’s point from the scientism of mid 20th-century behaviourist psychology:

Professor Harlow has already been asked to correct his language: He’s been instructed on the correct term for a close relationship. Why can’t he just say “proximity” like everyone else? Somehow the word “love” just keeps springing to his lips when he talks about parents and children, friends and partners. He’s been known to lose his temper when discussing it. “Perhaps all you’ve known in life is proximity,” he once snapped at a visitor to his lab at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “I thank God I’ve known more.” … Who wouldn’t believe that love was, at its best, a safe harbor — a parent’s arm scooping up a frightened child, holding it heart to heart? It’s hard to believe, in retrospect, how many powerful scientists opposed this idea.

What (the hell!) was driving this? Clearly not science, but a kind of scientism, in which ‘love’ was somehow tainted – to be ruled out by the framework itself – peremptorily, not on its merits. I had a milder, but similar frisson of resistance myself when I came across the centrality of the idea of empathy in design, but on understanding it, came to support the idea.

Technologies of empathy

What we need to deliver care are technologies of empathy.8 There’s little empathy in the existing system which is an unpromising foundation on which to open it up or otherwise marketise it. Opening these systems up to competition might make things better. It might make them worse.9

What we do know is that we’re not focusing on what matters. And what matters is whether we can become properly intentional (or to adapt the term above, attentional) towards the caring role when it is not being provided organically within the society.

In this regard, there’s a deep lacuna in our ideologies. If you’ll permit these ideal types, to liberalism (and its mathematisation – neoclassical economics) the problem is largely invisible. To socialism or social democracy it’s a task for government to be overseen by a bureaucracy (rather than a task looking for institutions that might learn to perform it). Only in (Burkean) conservatism does what is provided by families and civil society come into full focus as a foundational quality of a functioning society. But, having made the giving of care in families and the maintenance of traditions of social concern, cooperation and coordination central to a functioning society, it has nothing to say about how to build such things where they’re damaged or require development in some way.

And it seems to me that the ethics of care offers some resources for developing that – for conceiving, developing, proving and resourcing technologies of empathy with which we can tackle those issues intentionally, rather than ignore them (as liberalism does) or assume governments can deliver them (as social democracy does by default) or consign them to a private sphere which is then effectively shunted off the stage of public concern.

The feminist roots of the ethics of care

In this regard, it seems that feminism’s relation to what I call technologies of empathy has been a little like conservatism’s relation to family and civil society. It acknowledges their centrality. Unlike conservatism, it stresses the marginalisation of care from political and economic life (this might be expressed in critiques of the low wages going to the ‘feminised’ jobs in our economy). But where conservatism then offers nostalgia for the good old days when Big Government hadn’t damaged family life coupled with reticence towards any political project focused on using the resources of the state to rebuild and maintain it, feminism offers naturalism and culture war (I’m offering a caricature to make the point clear).10

Feminist care ethicist Folbre puts it this way:

Liberal feminism has demanded greater individual rights for women. Social feminism has demanded greater social obligations, especially for men.… Women know they can benefit economically by becoming achievers rather than caregivers. They also know, however, that if all women adopt this strategy, society as a whole will become oriented more toward achievement than care.

Our economy, and arguably our society more broadly rewards care more poorly than self-assertion.11  This is a dilemma indeed, shared by all men and women with an interest in living in a more balanced society, but particularly by women who are more often expected to make the necessary sacrifices. By contrast, finding ways to inject the ethics and the technologies of care and empathy into government funded social programs (not least by paying proper attention which includes building and honouring the evidence) carries only benefits: Benefits to those delivering the services, those who receive them and to the economies and societies of which they are a part.


  1. From Wikipedia: Subsequent research suggests that the discrepancy in being oriented towards care-based or justice-based ethical approaches may be based on gender differences, or on differences in actual current life situations of the genders.
  2. I note parenthetically, or footnotically, that care ethics seems to make a lot better sense of the ethics of our ethical responsibilities to animals, than Peter Singer’s claimed utilitarianism which I can’t make head or tail of.
  3. At this point Grammerly helpfully highlights the last three words indicating that there’s a “qualifier before non-gradable adjective” – I suggest Grammerly take it up with Adam Smith.
  4. It seems reasonable to speculate that the passage is really about his own mother. Smith was a sickly child whose mother feared for his life as an infant.
  5. Smith’s simpatico with care ethics has been noticed in the literature—indeed Annette Baier dubbing Smith’s friend and mentor David Hume the “women’s moral theorist.” Baier argues that Hume denies “that morality consists in obedience to a universal law, emphasizing rather the importance of cultivating virtuous sentimental character traits, including gentleness, agreeability, compassion, sympathy, and good-temperedness”. These ideas about Smith as a ‘proto’ care ethicist have been pointed out since the early 2000s and dealt with in this plodding essay. Incidentally, Annette Baier married Kurt Baier, Dunera Boy and my Dad’s closest friend, confidant and mentor in the camps and in Melbourne after the war – at least until he met my mother.
  6. The ‘theory of the second best’ tells us to be suspicious that addressing any one source of market failure improves things if one doesn’t address all the sources of market failure. But since that’s generally impossible, I think this is a reasonable way to proceed so long as you keep your wits about you and understand, as Hicks did in a different context, that you’re taking a dangerous step. But here there will remain numerous profound imperfections in the market after any reform we can manage. In any event there are more compelling, commonsensical reasons for being suspicious of this approach to which I now turn.
  7. He used the word ‘sympathy’ as the singular fulcrum or engine of society aspiring to the ‘Newtonian method’ of rhetoric in which “an immense chain of the most important and sublime truths, all closely connected together” were explained “by one capital fact, of the reality of which we have daily experience”.
  8. I note here, by way of aside that empathy can’t ‘scale’ mechanically, it has to be grown. I suspect one attraction of ‘contracting out’ is the idea that it scales.
  9. Folbre offers this point about empathy and choice: Choice is a funny thing, affected by both moral values and by social pressures. Often what we choose depends on what we think other people will choose. It’s harder to stay honest if we see other people cheating. It’s harder to engage in teamwork if other team members are shirking. It’s harder to take on responsibilities for the care of other people if those responsibilities don’t seem to be shared. This is why too much choice—or too little social coordination of choice—can lead to outcomes that can be just as problematic as having no choice at all.
  10. My definition of culture war here consists of these elements: 1) the world is separated into goodies, or those on whose behalf the culture war is waged (in this case woman) and baddies, those standing in its way (in this case men and established structures of power and patriarchy); and 2) the benefits we seek will be delivered by the goodies winning. Any transformations that are necessary to delivering the benefits are either not considered, or assumed simply to follow from the goodies’ success. (At its crudest and most pronounced we see this in the sentimentalisation of revolution. A more prosaic example is the idea that we’ll have more and/or better innovation by sending more money to universities and hiring more STEM teachers).
  11. This article offers an empirical illustration of the association of self-assertion with the masculine, something which marginalises the feminine and the ethics of care in our culture. Here’s a chart of the extent to which Hillary Clinton adopted ‘masculine’ opposed to ‘feminine’ mannerisms of language. Those years in which she campaigned her language became more ‘masculine’.

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