Maurice Hamington (Lane Community College)

Care Ethics in the City:
Jane Addams’ Social Morality

Jane Addams came to the city for different reasons than most. She did not seek her fortune, nor was she desperately looking for work. Addams came to the city of Chicago frustrated by the options available to a college educated woman in the late 1800’s but determined to make a positive difference on behalf of others. Addams would come to know the underside of the city better than any of her pragmatist colleagues. The city became her inspiration for activism and philosophy and she has left us a tremendous intellectual legacy because of her urban experience.

In this paper, I will contend that the writings and activism of Jane Addams not only exemplify modern feminist care ethics but also contribute particular practices necessary for a social/political philosophy of caring. Very briefly, care ethics emerged in the 1980’s from the writings of feminist authors such as Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings. It is a morality less concerned with the adjudication of individual acts and more concerned with the maintenance of right relationships in particular contexts. Care is paradoxically both complex, because it is unlike other theories of morality in that it does not delineate universal norms, and it is a common disposition that pervades the human condition. Elsewhere, I argue that care is an embodied notion that obtains much of its resources from corporeal experience. I believe that Jane Addams employed embodied care although the terminology was not available at the time. Given the brevity of this paper, I will not make the argument for the embodied nature of care here nor will I fully address the continuities of care with Addams work. I believe these continuities with care can be seen in Addams’ notion of sympathetic knowledge, relational approach to morality, and her valorization of context and experience. What I will address in this paper is the contribution that Addams makes to care ethics in developing a social/political morality. I will begin with a brief introduction to Addams.

Jane Addams

You are not like the rest of us, who see the truth and try to express it. You inhabit reality.

--William James to Jane Addams

The accomplishments of Jane Addams (1860-1935) would be remarkable under any circumstances, but given that her achievements occurred at a time when the separation of private and public spheres gave few women social leadership opportunities (or even the opportunity to vote), they are truly spectacular. Addams helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Woman’s Peace Party. Her efforts to help poor immigrants, establish child labor laws, on behalf of world peace, and for women’s suffrage brought her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. She is perhaps most closely associated the founding of Hull House (with Ellen Gates Starr) in Chicago in1889.

Hull House was the flagship of the settlement movement that tried to overcome the disconnection created by class and race in large urban areas. While Addams intended Hull House to be a place where the privileged and educated could live and work amongst the poor in a community dedicated to the betterment of the neighborhood, it never was a highly structured organization. Hull House evolved and responded to the needs of the community. One of its important roles was as an epistemological portal into urban life. Addams did not just ‘go to work’ at Hull House, she lived there with a community of college-educated men and women who wanted to make a difference. Visitors included Dewey, Susan B. Anthony, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Richard T. Ely, and a who’s who list of progressive intellectuals and politicians. The intellectual and cultural life created by the Hull House community was much like a university except for its physical location in a working class neighborhood and the free access. Addams’ Hull House experience will be significant as we address her philosophy because it is impossible to separate her experiences and activism from her ideas on morality. Hull House was the vehicle for Addams and her cohort to physically confront the outcast "other" of her day (i.e. the immigrant other, the working class other, the poverty stricken other, the prostitute other). These "others" were the byproducts of the industrial revolution and the commensurate rise of big cities.

What is less well known about Addams’ life is that she wrote 12 books and hundreds of articles that are a well-spring of social philosophy in the American pragmatic tradition. Although modern philosophers have given her little attention, Addams’ contemporaries recognized her intellectual contributions. William James described Addams’ first book, Democracy and Social Ethics as "one of the great books of our time" and John Dewey described her essay on the Pullman strike of 1894, "A Modern Lear," as "one of the greatest things I ever read both as to its form and its ethical philosophy." It is my contention that Addams makes a unique contribution to American philosophical discourse by offering a social-political philosophy of care.

What Addams Adds to Care: A Politics of Active Connection

An ethic of care relies on experiences of the other and habits of caring to provide the corporeal resources for the possibility of empathy and action. In Democracy and Social Ethics, Addams refers to the moral necessity of social experience in a manner that perhaps exceeds the use by modern care ethicists. Addams views a diverse experience of others as essential for actualizing the sympathy needed in the democratic impulse. The citations in support of Addams’ belief in the power of experience are numerous. Addams refuses to privilege scientific data over direct human experience: "We do not believe that genuine experience can lead us astray any more than scientific data can." Addams goes so far as to state that consciously choosing an insular life is somehow shirking our social ethical responsibility.

We have learned as common knowledge that much of the insensibility and hardness of the world is due to the lack of imagination which prevents a realization of the experiences of other people. Already, there is a conviction that we are under a moral obligation in choosing our experiences, since the result of those experiences must ultimately determine our understanding of life. We know instinctively that if we grow contemptuous of other fellows, and consciously limit our intercourse to certain kinds of people whom we have previously decided to respect, we not only tremendously circumscribe our range of live, but limit the scope of our ethics.

Here Addams presents what I believe is her most important addition to an ethic of care in developing a social/political understanding. While care ethicists share Addams’ belief that experience is a necessary condition of empathetic caring, Addams goes further by claiming that avoiding the experiences of others violates the democratic spirit and ultimately our own nature because we all posses, "the natural outgoing of human love and sympathy." This is a very demanding moral imperative--to choose to experience others in diverse social conditions, including when others are in pain and misery, for the expressed purpose of learning and caring about them. The choice to care means summoning the energy necessary to enter a relationship that may require emotional, material, and time involvement. Noddings refers to the depth of our caring relationships as forming concentric circles with the proximate relationships (family) calling forth the greatest care. For Noddings, there is an ambivalence about meeting unknown others whose new found relationship may make new requirements of care: "Indeed, the caring person, one who in this way is prepared to care, dreads the proximate stranger, for she cannot easily reject the claim he has on her." Addams contributes a proactive bias to care in asking that we reign in our caring circles and seek out the unknown other.

Addams is clearly defying the traditional notions of rugged individualism and the self-centered material concerns of capitalism. While sometimes criticized for being moderate, Addams knows that what she is calling for is radical and challenges people to take risks in the meeting and experiencing of unknown others. In a moment of literary eloquence, Addams revels in the idea of diving into the murky waters of human experience:

Thus the identification with the common lot which is the essential idea of Democracy becomes the source and expression of social ethics. It is as though we thirsted to drink at the great wells of human experience, because we knew that a daintier or less potent draught would not carry us to the end of the journey, going forward as we must in the heat and jostle of the crowd.

While care ethicists have been careful not to mirror justice approaches by attaching absolute principles to care ethics, Addams’ mandate to experience others seems fitting if care is to be anything more than parochial. The claim is neither universal nor absolute. As a pragmatist, Addams would not ask that we experience everybody or even all categories of people. Yet, if we are to have the necessary internal resources to work for each other, to vote for representatives and bills that impact each other, to care for each other, we will need to know each other in a more direct way. Addams’ claim seems even more imperative today given how technology and transportation gives us a greater capacity for isolation than ever before.

In what follows, I will address some of the specific practices that Addams writes about as well as the practices she modeled that support or extend her call for a wider experience of each other in the creation of her social ethic. These practices include active listening, participation, and connected leadership. I believe these practices provide the contours of a social/political ethic of care.

I. Active Listening

In her community activism at Hull House, Addams modeled an essential practice of care: active listening. For Addams, listening was much more than a passive, polite act between civilized individuals. Listening was the starting point for political action. Listening was how members of the Hull House community came to understand their neighbors and their needs. By not presestablishing the parameters of their involvement, the Hull House community made a commitment to listen and learn. The paternalism of institutional charitable organizations that Addams criticized did not afford the kind of listening that made Hull House flexible and trusted in the neighborhood. It was not a passive listening—waiting until the neighbors had something to say. The settlement house provided for active listening by assertively crossing class and race boundaries to be physically present. This physical presence makes a crucial difference in the quality of listening and the associated care.

Although it is not addressed a great deal in the literature on care, listening is a significant component of caring. Authentic, active listening is a necessary condition for the attention (or Noddings’ "engrossment") inherent in a caring relationship. If one is not open to understanding what the other has to say, it is difficult to characterize that relationship as caring. Physical presence enhances the caring in immeasurable ways. Much of what is communicated between people is found in the subtleties of facial expressions, hand gestures, posture, inflection, and eye contact. When one is actively attending to someone else’s communication in person, all of these subtleties can be absorbed consciously and subconsciously through the body. Hull House allowed Addams to be physically present to actively listen to the stories of the poor and oppressed in a way that an outside visitor would have a difficult time replicating. Addams makes use of what she learned through listening to people’s stories to inform her writing and activism.

Addams was not interested in listening to create objective ethnographies of the neighborhood inhabitants. She used what she learned to help meet the needs of the neighborhood. It is clear that Addams can not stray far from what she learned by listening to others’ experiences at Hull House because in most of her books and articles she uses anecdotes and recollections from people she has met. For example, in The Long Road of Women’s Memory, Addams finds a social organizing function and present day lessons in the stories told by the elderly. On several occasions, the story tellers express gratification at the opportunity to have someone listen to them. They obviously felt comfortable sharing their tales with Addams. In Peace and Bread in Time of War, Addams credits listening to the immigrant community of Hull House during the conscription for World War I in shaping her commitment to peace.

Addams listened to the unheard and oppressed of society, not at a safe distance, but face to face. She chose to enter caring relationships that were mutually beneficial, but she also used the knowledge gained in a fashion consistent with the instrumentality of pragmatism to successfully advocate on behalf of the plight of people in the neighborhood. Addams demonstrated that actively listening to people is an important practice in the social/political ethics of care.

II. Participation

In chapter 5 of Democracy and Social Ethics, Addams recounts a historical event, the Pullman strike of 1894, to make a point about the need for participation in social organization. One practice of Addams’ political understanding of care is participation. Addams is not just interested in the quantity of relationships, although this is important to insure diverse experience, but the quality of those relationships is significant as well. In discussing the Pullman strike, Addams invokes the democratic ideal as one that calls for "representation in the administration of industry." Addams views the new democratic spirit as one that mandates participation throughout society including the management of businesses. She couched the conflict in terms of more traditional "individual or aristocratic management" versus democratic management. Although removed from Marxist analysis in many ways, Addams does share a belief that a more socialistic form of organization is an inevitable part of social progress.

Addams views traditional business organizations as anything but the free associations that they claim to be. The reality is that economic conditions pressure people into entering the "undemocratic conditions of the factory organization." For example, in A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil, Addams lays partial blame for the rise of prostitution and white slavery on an economic system that lacks an effective support system and pays women low wages. Addams claims that industrial life is much less free than social life and that the traditional of autocratic management is flawed and contributes to workers’ oppression. "The man who disassociates his ambition, however, disinterested, from the cooperation of his fellows, always takes this risk of ultimate failure." George Pullman was that man.

What Addams accomplishes in chapter 5 of Democracy and Social Ethics is a critique of capitalism that attempts to implode its underlying premises from within the structure of relationships created by the economic system rather than attack its external manifestations. Instead of confronting issues of the distribution of wealth, private property, or even worker rights, Addams questions the types of relationships capitalism creates. She is concerned that it is easy for the capitalist to make decisions on behalf of many that have no voice in the strict contractual nature of the marketplace. The focus is not on abstract theories of economic operation, but on the real experience of people in a business organization as they relate to other people within that organization as exhibited by Addams’ use of the Pullman strike. In her later treatment of this incident, "A Modern Lear" Addams chastises those who focus on freeing wage workers from oppression without considering the full impact of "human affection" and "social justice" upon those in power. By connecting her economic critique to notions of democratic participation, Addams taps into values within the American tradition making it difficult to marginalize her views as that of an outsider or imposing views antithetical to the American ethos.

III. Connected Leadership

. . . the real leaders of the people are part of the entire life of the community which they control, and so far as they are representative at all, are giving a social express to democracy.

Addams battled the political machine in Chicago for many years. While she recognized the inherent corruption in this system, she came to appreciate what made many political bosses so popular: their connection to people’s lives. In Chapter 7 "Political Reform" Addams provides a surprising assessment of her political surroundings. Granting that Chicago aldermen are "corrupt and often do their work badly" Addams provides example after example of how these politicians maintained strong local connections to provide assistance when needs arose.

Men living near to the masses of voters, and knowing them intimately, recognize this and act upon it; they minister directly to life and to social needs.

The motives of these politicians may not have been pure, but voters were willing to ignore excesses if they believed their leaders were listening to them and cared enough to act on their behalf. Addams sought political reform, but she believed the only way to achieve it was if the reformers were grounded in the experience of the people to the extent that the corrupt local aldermen had been.

These local officials were perceived as having a tangible relationship with their constituency. Addams argues that their physical presence in the community--their connection to the community--was an act of moral responsiveness in their relationship that outweighed abstract theoretical notions of social political ethics.

Ethics as well as political opinions may be discussed and disseminated among the sophisticated by lectures and printed pages, but to the common people they can only come through example--through a personality which seizes the popular imagination.

The success of the Chicago aldermen was the antithesis of what Addams found in the leadership of George Pullman. Although he had provided his workers with many services, Pullman failed to maintain contact with their lives and needs. Pullman’s benevolence was derived from an abstract knowledge of his workers, not a direct relationship that could have created better understanding.

Just as the settlement movement broke down the physical distance that accompanied the gap between classes, Addams sought a social morality that breaks down the social psychology of the power distance between leaders and non-leaders.

In this effort toward a higher morality in our social relations, we must demand that the individual shall be willing to lose the sense of personal achievement, and shall be content to realize his activity only in connection with the activity of the many.

Addams exemplified this belief in her own leadership of Hull House. Addams was pragmatic enough to recognize that Hull House and its many projects needed bold leadership despite the criticisms of some who believed the settlement should exemplify a utopian vision of leader-less equality. Nevertheless, Addams leadership was clearly grounded in the neighborhood that she lived in and the community that surrounded her. Rather than a rigid plan of what services it would provide, Hull House consistently attempted to meet the needs that arose around them.

The End-in-View: Lateral Progress

A careful analysis of Addams’ writing reveals that what was too often dismissed as sentimentality was indeed a politics of connection that gives care ethics a viable social political dimension. The city is often a place where people can lose themselves or get left behind. Addams’ social ethic held a vision of a democratic spirit that refused to let people get lost in the city. She offered a means for instantiating the value of care at the social level. Addams began with interpersonal relationships, listening and understanding the plights of those in the Chicago neighborhood around Hull House. She took that knowledge and experience and developed a series of practices that placed direct physical interpersonal involvement at the forefront of changing society for the better. The caring society Addams envisioned was not a clear utopian image, but a less well defined "end-in-view." This very tentative telos is not out of reach yet remains a great social challenge. Addams’ end-in-view is comprehensible given the moral imagination and the embodied resources derived from experience. Addams had experienced the closeness of community and the attending affective responses of reciprocal caring. She knew that such caring could make an appreciable difference in the lives of people both psychologically and materially. Addams wished to extend this caring to society in what has been called "lateral progress." Lateral progress is the notion of the whole of society advancing materially, intellectually, and spiritually rather than a select few who are the best and brightest (as supported by social Darwinism). For Addams, an outgrowth of a social politics of care and connection would be a lateral progress that leaves no one behind.