Paper Review: “Global Care Ethics: Beyond Distribution, Beyond Justice”


The article “Global Care Ethics: Beyond Distribution, Beyond Justice,” published in the Journal of Global Ethics (2013), by Fiona Robinson, sets out to critique theories of distributive justice and the workings of hegemonic masculinities, and replace it with an ethics of care approach which would actually work towards diminishing unequal power relations between individuals and groups. Robinson introduces a new model of thinking about global justice, not in terms of currently existing theories, which assume autonomous and impartial subjects, but in terms of an ethics of care approach that starts with an ontology of the subject as embodied and relational.

Robinson’s article begins with the question of ethics itself and lays out definitions of central concepts of ethics of care and distributive justice. She points out that this ideal theory that talks about ethics as if it came before lived experiences is deeply problematic and should not become an abstracted principle in a systematised manner. She takes care to define terms like theory and justice, by analysing the concept of global justice. Care is at the very core of global justice, and is not the same as distributive justice. She reiterates that distribution of primary goods is not the issue, and by revealing the causes of injustices, for which she provides empirical data, following a bottom-up approach, the issue could perhaps be solved. Thus in the first part, she present a critique of the global distribution by providing empirical accounts of injustices, and draws attention to the fact that justice theories have narrow focus and only concerned about primary goods when there is a whole economy of care that needs to be talked about. She clears her position and makes a shift from ideal theory to embodied subjects in relation with one another.

In the second part of the article she presents empirical data. She discusses the effects of Neoliberalism, which is a myopic idea, on those who do not even have access to it, like working women from poor nations who migrate to the global north in search of work. She also discusses the idea of hegemonic masculinity which leads to care work being ascribed only to women.

In the final section, she talks about all discourses intersecting at an individual, national, and international scale. The same injustice is perpetuated when women in income-rich countries who want to work outside of home, hire women from poorer nations to do care-work in their place, do not care about their well being and relegate that responsibility to the state.

Critique of Hegemonic Masculinity and Neo-liberalist Conceptions of Individuals’ Autonomy

She states that when we think of distributive justice, we only think of it terms of people having unequal access to the same material things and their financial disparities are the cause of the problem. She does not deny that this issue does not exist, but she points out that this is not the root cause of the problem. She then presents an alternative approach, that should be the core approach, which is that people’s lived lives have problems, not because of lack of money, but because their lived relations are not how they ought to be.

She argues that one of the reasons for this is hegemonic masculinity that lets care work fall on women, more specifically on racially identifiable women who due to the stigma attached to their kind of work, continue to be marginalised and underprivileged. This marginalisation has a flip side as well, for example there is a heroic status instituted by the Philippine state to these migrant workers who bring back foreign currency.

Another way in which hegemonic masculinity perpetuates injustice is when poor people who are forced to take care of their sick children lose wages and become poorer still. If men and women were equally responsible for children the they wouldn’t need to outsource domestic help that leaves those women underprivileged. It could be argued why the global north feels the need to help the impoverished global south in the first place, when really it creates more problems than it probably solves. It praises accomplishments that happen in confined spaces but tosses out care and increases global injustices for which solutions exist, solutions that have been employed by countries like Honduras, Vietnam, and Mexico. Moreover, the labour of care itself is undervalued. Since all household work is unpaid work, it is not seen as valuable.

Thus critiquing the idea of distributive justice, Robinson clears her position, which is a very embodied idea of ethics emerging from people’s lived realities, and not ethics as an abstract discipline. Campbell and Shapiro differentiate between ethics as a noun and ethics as an adjective, that is, ethics as an abstract discipline as opposed to the ethical. The ethics-first approach is different from the literature on global justice.

Further, Robinson critiques Rawls’ distributive paradigm since his theory of justice restricts the meaning of social justice to “benefits and burdens.” Rawls focussed on the state while, as previously mentioned, care should be at the core of every idea of society. Care is often dismissed because it is subsumed by the larger liberal distributive paradigm. This is why Robinson takes a completely different starting point: the ontology of subjects / groups rather than abstract top-down model. This means that we need to critically analyse institutions and structures to find out the root cause that gives rise to these injustices. This is also where she brings in a feminist ethics of care that is inherently critical of the analytic, top-down approach and always takes the embodied lived experiences of women into account.

Existing theories of distributive justice are also primarily procedural and neutral, while Robinson is of the view that nothing is neutral. The distributive justice model is a rational model that advocates a theory where people’s vulnerabilities are not to be concealed, and are instead the source of this alternative theoretical paradigm. From this vulnerability emerges ethics of care and shows problems of distributive justice. This of course, goes back to Enlightenment project where the focus was on hiding and concealing vulnerability and only speaking of its extreme — human potential.

Robinson explains that the heart of care ethics is that people do care, it constitutes us, makes us who we are. She is also cognisant of the fact that caring activities and labour are not evenly distributed, that carers are flawed.

The last paragraph of this section which talks about the need for descriptive and empirical analysis, for thinking about actual lived realities, is a summary of the section which clearly underlines her points.

She talks about Simon Caney’s work on global justice that ignores the issues a global political theory should address. Her approach provides a critical lens and a “weak normative basis” for policy making. Her position is that, the moment you become prescriptive, you move away from realities, from the “contingencies and complexities of the ethical.”

A defining feature of global political economy is that care is commodified and is transnational. She states: “The rise of the ‘competition state’ and the opening up of financial markets for foreign investment has led to a dramatically altered environment for work and care.” This means that if cheaper labour is not found, factories will move elsewhere, which will force workers to accept low paying jobs, which in turn would lead to job insecurity and informal work culture. This also means that the social spending of already impoverished families’ conditions will worsen. All these intersecting issues affect the other.

Another negative effect of this is that individuals in income-rich countries that outsource their own care-work, lose the ability to focus attention on others, thus proving that morality is not about actions. Without engaging in care-work, the moral fabric is harmed in some way.

Further, globalisation’s face becomes masculine when all care-work becomes feminised. The public private dichotomy always remains the same because care-work is still understood as feminine, it is only the women who remove themselves from that a masculinised work space.

Lastly, Robinson argues that morality is experienced relationally, which means that we always already care, it is part of our moral being. She writes “the way we think and act morally emerges out of the thick context of our relations and responsibilities for others,” which points to the fact that it is a rich context. She discusses how unjust structures and institutions exist and power operates on intersecting basis.

Robinson, in her conclusion writes “[c]are ethics continues to be widely resisted by the ‘global justice industry,” wherein she seems to use the word “industry” ironically. She also introduces the term “emotional imperialism” for the first time here which may throw the reader off-balance. What she means here is that migration from global south to global north is kind of an imperialism whereby people’s emotion becomes a commodity— emotional labour for which they are not paid extra.

Towards the end, Robinson says that “neoliberalism ignores and de-politicises care” which is now changing with the actual realisation that caring is not a sign of weakness.

She also uses the words “natural features of human social life and emphasizes the moral importance of the values and practices of care in the effort to achieve greater well-being across the globe,” which can be critiqued and may her be replaced with the word “naturalised.”


This paper noted how Robinson critiques the theories of distributive justice and the workings of Neo-liberal and hegemonic masculinities, and replaces it with an ethics of care approach, which is a bottom-up approach, which would help rectify the unequal power relations between groups. This ethics of care approach allows for a more nuanced understanding of rights and duties, by changing the paradigm in which we think about duties. Duties are not about distributive justice (“benefits and burdens”) but about accounting for people’s vulnerabilities and the need for giving and receiving care.

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