THE PANDEMIC changed much, but it revealed more. A crisis in caregiving that had long existed suddenly became visible. Caring for others is essential for families and for society. But it took the covid-19 crisis to make us all realise just how ubiquitous and necessary caregiving is—and how neglected it has been.
Throughout human history, people have had to take care of helpless children and fragile elders—homo sapiens has an exceptionally long period of childhood and old age. Humans also evolved an exceptionally wide range of carers: mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, grandparents and uncles and aunts, and “alloparents”—those who take care of other people’s children. It takes the proverbial village to look after the old as well as raise the young. But in today’s society, the cost of that care has been invisible—it’s not even counted in GDP. The pandemic transformed a quiet, slow-motion disaster into a startling, explosive one.
There are several immediate reasons for the crisis. Women have shouldered most of the burden of care and women’s work has always been overlooked and undervalued. Care has relied on an unstable amalgam of institutions that bridge the family, market and state. Society has depended on individual mothers and daughters, and perpetually struggling private day-care centres and nursing homes. Public institutions, such as schools and hospitals, that provide care, often do so as an after-thought, a side-effect of their primary purposes. In fact, programmes that do provide care often disguise the fact, especially in America. Child care only gets support if it’s called preschool, and social security is positioned as just another kind of insurance.
The pandemic suddenly made the fragility of these contrivances painfully apparent. Parents and children were locked in the same room 24/7, as schools and sports and day-care centers shut down. “Assisted living” for the elderly turned into solitary dying. Carers, paid and unpaid, who had always been “essential,” now got this designation officially, and at least earned a measure of respect, even if it was expressed by bell- ringing and clapping instead of higher salaries.
Aside from these particular circumstances, though, there are also more profound philosophical and psychological reasons why it has been so difficult to find a place for care. The idea of care is deeply tied to love—the way we feel about our specific, particular children and parents, family and friends. Until recently, those emotions and relationships have been strikingly absent from philosophy, economics and politics. The idea that the world needs more love has been the stuff of songs and sermons, not public policy. Taking love and care seriously could lead to a new political agenda that bypasses the usual ideological divisions and helps society solve the caregiving crisis.
Much of the discussion about policy is rooted in the idea of the social contract. Individual agents try to achieve their goals and maximise their utilities. But better outcomes for everybody are possible if people are willing to place the interests of others above their own, at least sometimes. I may sacrifice my own short-term interests for yours, so long as you reciprocate—tit for tat.
Ultimately, both sides do better. This kind of contract has been the focus of attention in philosophy, biology, psychology, economics and political theory. It’s central to philosophical utilitarianism, biological accounts of the evolution of altruism and psychological accounts of how we cooperate. And of course, it’s at the core of classical economics.
Market economics and political democracy were the great inventions of the Enlightenment and they expand the logic of individual contracts to the scale of a city, a nation or even a planet. You could think of them as a kind of software that aggregates all those individual goals and utilities into the “greatest good for the greatest number”, with dramatically beneficial effects.
Until recently, though, love and care have been paid much less attention. They have always been part of religious traditions, of course. And feminists have argued that they have traditionally been associated with women and so undervalued. But relationships of care have been subject to much less rigorous scientific or analytic attention than contractual ones, and they’ve played a surprisingly small role in moral psychology and economic and political theory.
That’s starting to change. Important scientific work has uncovered biological mechanisms of care, and tracked their evolutionary history. The relationships between mothers and infants in mice and voles involve the same brain mechanisms that underpin the wide-ranging attachments we see in humans. But though they may have their evolutionary origin in kinship relationships, in humans these relationships extend far beyond shared genes.
In fact, one of the principal mechanisms for establishing these relationships of care is caring itself. Vole mothers and fathers who groom their infants become attached to them. The badly paid, over-worked carers who risked their lives during the pandemic often explained their heroism in terms of their relationship to specific people—“I couldn’t abandon old Mr Smith!”. We don’t care for others because we love them, we love them because we care for them.
Taking these caring relationships seriously would give us a very different picture of moral psychology and political philosophy. Love and care can play an essential moral and political role that goes beyond contracts. When we care deeply for another person, we are no longer just one person with one set of values and interests—values and interests that we can weigh against one another, and co-ordinate with the values and interests of others. Instead, a parent is a person whose self has been expanded to include the values and interests of a child, even when those values and interests are different from their own. The same expansion of interests happens when we care for an elderly parent or an ailing spouse, or just a friend in trouble.
Care isn’t a trade-off between two equal and autonomous agents. Instead, care expands an individual agent’s utilities to include the utilities and goals of another. In fact, one of the challenges of all these kinds of care is that we must assess our actions from the perspective of the person we care for, even if their goals are different from ours. This kind of expansion of the self serves the same overall function as the social contract: it lets a community of people do better than any individual could. But it uses a very different mechanism to do so, a mechanism we are just starting to understand both biologically and mathematically.
From a policy perspective, this kind of care doesn’t fit well with either the market or government models that have been so useful in scaling up contracts and accomplishing utilitarian ends. In a market economy, defined by consumers and producers, love and care either become expensive luxuries, measured in preschool tuition and assisted-living facility costs, or a particularly poorly paid and low-status kind of work. But love and care also don’t seem to fit the model of goods, like defense or education, healthcare or environmental protection, that a state should distribute equally and universally to all its citizens.
We can imagine an alternative policy agenda that would help support and encourage these local caring relationships, an agenda to let love flourish. In America the pandemic suddenly made programmes like family allowances, childcare subsidies and parental-leave policies realistic. Along with stimulus checks and financial assistance, the programmes will dramatically cut child poverty. These policies could be extended to support care for elders and others.
There are more ambitious ways to reimagine policies to foster caregiving. Marriage is one of the few examples of a legal recognition of love, conferring both benefits and responsibilities. Yet the model of marriage could be extended. For example, one particular child, usually a daughter, often ends up taking responsibility for ageing parents, and society could formally recognise and support that commitment. The designated carer could receive six months of “elder-care leave” and a cash allowance—the equivalent of parental leave and child allowances. Carers could be granted more authority over medical and financial decisions, as currently happens with spouses.
Policies could allow other people to make similar formal commitments to help care for children, along the lines of traditional godparents. Or they could allow one friend to be officially committed to caring for another: a dear friend of mine who has no close living relatives recently shared her anxieties about growing old alone. Officially recognising and supporting relationships of care beyond marriage would help carers both practically and symbolically.
Finally, we could work to alter the physical environment to support these close relationships. Close relationships of care are intrinsically local—they depend on being in the same place. But in contemporary life, people work in one place, children go to school in another and elders are even further away, with long commutes in between. Once again, the pandemic exaggerated problems that were already there.
The forced togetherness of parents and children was difficult, but the forced separation of grandparents and grandchildren was tragic. Yet the pandemic also let us see that care and other kinds of work could happen in the same place, as they did for most of human history. If the industrial economy separated work and family, neighbours and friends, the post-industrial economy might allow us to bring them together again.
No lesson can make up for the fundamental tragedy of the pandemic. But if we started taking care seriously and acting to support the people who care for others, we would have salvaged a treasure from the wreck.
Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of several books on cognitive science, notably “The Scientist in the Crib” (Harper Collins, 2001) and “The Philosophical Baby” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009).