Virtues of autonomy: the Kantian ethics of care


John Paley, Department of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Stirling, Stirling FK9 4LA, UK. Tel.: 44 (0) 1786 466399; fax: 44 (0) 1786 466344; e-mail:


Abstract The ethics of care, adopted in much of the nursing literature, is usually framed in opposition to the Kantian ethics of principle. Irrespective of whether the ethics of care is grounded in gender, as with Gilligan and Noddings, or inscribed on Heidegger's ontology, as with Benner, Kant remains the philosophical adversary, honouring reason rather than emotion, universality rather than context, and individual autonomy rather than interdependence. During the past decade, however, a great deal of Kantian scholarship – including feminist scholarship – has rendered this series of oppositions questionable, challenging the view that an ethics of care and Kant's moral law are irreconcilable. This paper therefore re-examines Kant's writings, drawing on recent scholarship, and argues both that they provide the care ethicists with everything they require, and that they offer something beyond an ethics of care, something that repairs the deficits in philosophies of caring. It concludes by suggesting that a Kantian ethics of care has significant implications for the construction of nursing knowledge.