Ethics of Care and Mathematics

I was recently introduced to the concept of “Ethics of Care” by Indira Nair, who has written a couple of articles on the subject as applies to STEM fields. When we think about situations in which moral decisions must be made, we can consider how different individuals make those choices. One traditional method is to look at the development of individuals as moving from decisions made from self interest to ones made in terms of justice and universal rights. Feminist philosophers such as Carol Gilligan have developed another frame, which is moving from care of the self, to care of others, to balancing ones own needs with others. This is an ethics based on care, responsibility and relationships.

The most interesting thing about this, from my point of view, is that Nair and her colleagues have applied this to engineering and science. This requires the creativity of expanding what we mean by care. If we see care as the addressing of human needs, then of course engineering, and technology are about care since they grow out of human needs, the needs of people, the tools that people use, the environments in which we live, the things that we need to support our lives and communities. Science often grows out of this kind of care as well.

Nair and Pantazidou have linked four aspects of care: attentiveness, responsibility, competence, and responsiveness to engineering and the design process. Attentivness is about recognizing and identifying the need. Responsibility in terms of engineering design is conceptualizing and determining how to respond to the need. Competence is about actually satisfying the need and producing a product or solution. Responsiveness is about the reception of the product and assessing the solution. Connections can be made with problem solving and with scientific process as well.

I am interested in the application of this idea to mathematics. Mathematics and mathematics education often at least appear to be failing to care in the sense of responding to a need. Often the need is there, but the math doesn’t (or doesn’t appear to) grow out of the need. I think it is often it looks like we are saying, “You definately need this math, but its up to you to figure out why you might need it” or “You need this math in order to get a degree and a good job” (but it has no intrinsic value itself). That of course naturally begs the question of why we need math at all, and I think this is actually an interesting question. We should be asking “Who needs math?” and “What do we need it for?” and “What counts as a need?” For instance, I have a 6-year-old and she “needs” math because she likes making patterns and writing down numbers. I “need” math because I teach it to other people. My spouse “needs” math to model brain rhythms. I have a friend “needs” math to figure out how to bill and pay employees for landscaping work.

I’m going to be thinking more about this, but I’m curious if others have thoughts as well!

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Reference: Pantazidou, M., & Nair, I. (1999). Ethic of care: Guiding principles for engineering teaching and practice. Journal of Engineering Education-Washington, 88, 205–212.

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