The Intersection between Carol Gilligan’s Ethics of Care and Women’s Experiences of Epistemic Injustice in Public Discourse

by Chloe Davies

Phrases such as “you need to calm down,” “you’re not looking at this objectively,” and “you’re too emotionally invested,” are just some of the many phrases that are commonly used to discredit women in public discourse at all levels, from discussions in government to arguments on the internet. In this essay, I argue that the general public’s lack of awareness of an ethics of care framework serves to explain some of the hermeneutical injustices suffered by women in public discourse. This in turn leads me to examine the impacts that a misunderstanding of a care framework has on equality in discursive spaces.

It should first be acknowledged that while the ethics of care framework is utilised overwhelmingly by women, it is not solely a woman’s framework, nor is it utilised by all women. This essay is focused on discussing the injustices faced by those who do use it, framed in terms of women here, but that is not to say that the conclusions reached are only applicable to women. Additionally, because this framework has already been empirically demonstrated to be utilised by a real percentage of the population (as I discuss below), I will not be debating its merits in this essay, but I will instead focus on the effects of its usage.[i] 

To begin, we must briefly establish what an ethics of care framework is. First articulated by psychologist Carol Gilligan, the care framework is an alternative moral perspective to the more commonly understood justice framework. Through an analysis of men’s and women’s language, logic, and focus when presented with moral problems, Gilligan depicts the care perspective as one that centres interpersonal connection, attachment, and relationality.[ii] In contrast, a justice perspective reflects a kind of individualism, and is more concerned with equality, the application of principles and rules, and the division between self and other.[iii] This leads to differences in what is considered a legitimate issue, worthy of moral consideration. Furthermore, once an issue is designated as worthy of this moral consideration, the differences in these frameworks also lead to discrepancies in approaches to ethics, and thus, how these approaches are valued. For instance, when approaching a problem from a justice perspective, objectivity is highly regarded, yet from a care perspective, it is seen as the source of moral problems and is not always part of the solution to them. This is because a person who solely privileges objectivity above all else can be ignorant of the emotional relations and connections that exist between people.[iv] One could further develop this point of view and question whether a person can ever be truly impartial, therefore suggesting that we are all susceptible to internalising cultural biases and prejudices.

Gilligan takes care to establish that these two perspectives are not polar opposites, nor are they necessarily better or worse ways of approaching moral problems; instead, they are simply frameworks that may be utilised by different people when approaching the same situation.[v] To demonstrate the gendered nature of the two frameworks we can look to one of the many experiments that Gilligan ran. Participants were asked to describe a moral conflict they had faced, following which Gilligan found that approximately two-thirds of each gender utilised just one framework, rather than giving balanced points from both a care and justice perspective. Of the two-thirds of men who used solely one framework, all bar one used a justice perspective. In contrast, out of the women who only used one framework, approximately half focussed on care and half focussed on justice.[vi] This serves to illustrate my earlier point, that the discussion surrounding care ethics and hermeneutical injustice is not solely a feminine issue, nor is it one that will affect all women, although it is biased towards them.

When we consider Gilligan’s theory, we can see that Western approaches to ethics favour the use of a justice framework, both historically and in the modern discursive context. Since the period of Enlightenment, Western philosophical discourse has historically privileged reason above other methods of knowing, to the degree that some people in public discourse refuse to recognise other ways of knowing as valuable.[vii] For instance, public figures such as Ben Shapiro often use phrases such as “facts don’t care about your feelings,” which is characteristic of the divide we are taught should exist between rational argument and emotions.[viii] Education can also contribute to this belief. For example, subjects such as English and philosophy advocate that a “good” argument is one that is necessarily objective and lacking in emotion, to the degree that students lose marks for failing to meet these criteria. As Susan Dieleman points out, the favoured style of argument discussed in these subjects is reflected in institutions such as parliaments and courtrooms, which are both systems that have historically only been open to members who identify with a certain class, race and gender.[ix] The historic privileging of the justice framework has set many of us up to look down on those who do not remain impartial in their argument, or those who would rather focus on addressing the people involved and the relationships that exist in moral problems, rather than applying rigid rules in favour of principles such as equality.

This then leads us to the concept of hermeneutical injustice. Most forcefully articulated by Miranda Fricker, hermeneutical injustice occurs when the collective’s interpretative tools are insufficient, leading some individuals to be at a disadvantage when communicating their thoughts and experiences.[x] Dieleman builds upon Fricker’s work, integrating her concept of hermeneutical injustice as a particular type of the broader concept of epistemic injustice, a type of injustice suffered when there is a systematic distortion or misrepresentation of an individual’s or a group’s contributions.[xi] Through Dieleman’s account of Fricker’s concept we can see that, at a societal level, the groups in power are able to skew the collective “toolkit” of interpretative resources available in such a way that the members of these groups are rarely unable to find the words needed to express themselves, while those who exist outside of these groups are forced to make do with the same resources, regardless of any inadequacies when interpreting and communicating their experiences.[xii] Dieleman goes on to examine epistemic injustice in the context of discursive spaces, arguing that without openly and explicitly confronting the root causes of epistemic injustice we can never achieve true equality in these spaces, despite any formal commitments to inclusion. In the case of hermeneutical injustice, through no fault of their own, those who suffer this particular injustice may be systematically vulnerable to having their voices and perspectives misunderstood or silenced. For those discontent with being silenced, one of the only avenues available is to attempt to restructure their perspective in a way that is palatable to spaces that have limited hermeneutical resources; however, this then creates the risk of sharing an idea that does not ring true to the original.

It is evident, then, that the concept of hermeneutical injustice allows us to begin to articulate how the justice framework has been privileged within discursive spaces. This privileging of one framework has resulted in a lack of awareness of care ethics as a valid alternative approach to moral problems, one which is used by a significant proportion of the population. The unspoken focus on a justice framework means that facets of society such as politics, public discourse and legal proceedings can be said to lack the hermeneutical resources needed to adequately understand a care-based approach to a moral problem, thus causing those who use it to suffer through instances of hermeneutical injustice. An individual’s utilisation of a care framework, regardless of whether they consciously articulate their position as stemming from the said framework, can lead to the prejudiced hearing of their perspectives by others who are poorly equipped to understand their discursive contribution in its entirety. As I discussed earlier, Gilligan found that the sole use of a care ethics perspective was much more common among women than it was among men, making this prejudiced hearing a gendered issue. This then feeds into aspects of what both Dieleman and Fricker discuss, in that prejudice against the group a speaker belongs to can result in yet another form of epistemic injustice, wherein the hearer judges the speaker based on their group membership, forming judgements about the quality of their perspective prior to even hearing it.[xiii] This prejudiced hearing serves to distort the idea that there is a “correct” approach to moral problems, skewing it in favour of those who dominate discursive spaces, a process that can result in a self-perpetuating cycle. The effects of this justice perspective are wide-ranging, making their way into areas of life outside of political discourse, such as the work sector. Caring centred careers such as nursing and teaching, which are predominantly performed by women, are notoriously lower paid and undervalued when compared to fields like engineering and science, which are predominantly focussed on the application of reason and logic, as opposed to interpersonal connection.[xiv]

There are a few possible ways of moving towards discursive spaces where those who use a care perspective do not experience epistemic injustice as a result. One such pathway is described by Fricker and Dieleman and would require one’s focus on becoming (what Fricker refers to as) a virtuous hearer. This is a person who is aware of their preconceptions and actively works to overcome them. In addressing hermeneutical injustices, the virtuous hearer understands that instances of “poor communication” may be a result of the person communicating in a way that does not draw upon the same set of base assumptions that the standard hermeneutical resources do, and thus actively seeks to understand rather than dismiss the person.[xv] Another method of addressing these injustices is highlighted by philosophers such as Sophie Bourgault, who suggest implementing a broader education on the use of care ethics as a method of addressing injustices, both of the sort described here and more broadly.[xvi] Research by Gilligan in fact supports this avenue, by demonstrating that a significant percentage of children, once educated about the two frameworks, are easily able to pivot between the two, analysing moral problems using both perspectives.[xvii] I believe this demonstrates that once educated about the two frameworks, people are capable of using both and can therefore understand the approach of others who use either of the two.

In conclusion, I believe that the historical privileging of a justice framework approach to moral problems has meant that many discursive spaces do not have the hermeneutical tools to allow a person who uses an ethic of care framework to fully communicate their ideas. This has resulted in many, wide-reaching experiences of epistemic injustice. The movement towards overcoming these injustices may involve developing Fricker’s notion of virtuous hearing, as well as the implementation of wider education on the existence and use of an ethic of care framework.

Chloe Davies studies philosophy, political science, and psychology at the University of Queensland. She is fascinated by the intersections between these three disciplines and finds that understanding the competing perspectives that the different disciplines offer on the same questions is crucial for the development of a nuanced perspective. 


[i] Carol Gilligan, “Moral Orientation and Moral Development,” in Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics, ed. Virginia Held (New York: Routledge, 1995), 30.

[ii] Gilligan, “Moral Orientation and Moral Development,” 22-23.

[iii] Gilligan, “Moral Orientation and Moral Development,” 22-23.

[iv] Gilligan, “Moral Orientation and Moral Development,” 31.

[v] Gilligan, “Moral Orientation and Moral Development,”30.

[vi] Gilligan, “Moral Orientation and Moral Development,” 25.

[vii] bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994), 88.

[viii] Ben Shapiro, Twitter post, February 2016, 2:03 a.m.,

[ix] Susan Dieleman, “Epistemic Justice and Democratic Legitimacy,” Hypatia 30, no. 4 (2015): 799,

[x] Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford

New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 1.

[xi] Dieleman, “Epistemic Justice and Democratic Legitimacy,” 799.

[xii] Dieleman, “Epistemic Justice and Democratic Legitimacy,” 801.

[xiii] Dieleman, “Epistemic Justice and Democratic Legitimacy,” 798; Fricker, Epistemic Injustice, 1.

[xiv] Shahra Razavi and Silke Staab, “Underpaid and Overworked: A Cross-National Perspective on Care Workers,” International labour review 149, no. 4 (2011): 414,

[xv] Dieleman, “Epistemic Justice and Democratic Legitimacy,” 804.

[xvi] Sophie Bourgault, “Epistemic Injustice, Face-to-Face Encounters and Caring Institutions,” International journal of care and caring 4, no. 1 (2020): 92,

[xvii] Gilligan, “Moral Orientation and Moral Development,” 27.


Bourgault, Sophie. “Epistemic Injustice, Face-to-Face Encounters and Caring Institutions.” International Journal of Care and Caring 4, no. 1 (2020): 91-107.

Dieleman, Susan. “Epistemic Justice and Democratic Legitimacy.” Hypatia 30, no. 4 (2015): 794-810.

Fricker, Miranda. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Gilligan, Carol. “Moral Orientation and Moral Development.” In Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics, edited by Virginia Held, 20-33. New York: Routledge, 1995.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Razavi, Shahra, and Silke Staab. “Underpaid and Overworked: A Cross-National Perspective on Care Workers.” International Labour Review 149, no. 4 (2011): 407-22.

Shapiro, Ben. Twitter post. February 6, 2016, 2:03 a.m.

Featured photo by Anugrah j on Unsplash


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