10 Relational Ethics

Whereas virtue ethics tends to consider how individuals can be perfected or perfect themselves, relational ethics begins from the idea that nobody is truly self-made. All relational ethics starts with a particular view about who we are, how we live, and the nature of human psychology that emphasizes relationality. The idea is we all are who we are through our relationships and so ethics needs to value and pay attention to these relationships. Different traditions take different approaches to thinking about which relationships create and constrain our moral lives.

We begin with feminist ethics, which was developed in reaction to the ethical traditions of Europe—especially Utilitarianism and Kantianism and, to a lesser extent, Aristotelianism—as well as the political discourse on rights that arose out of these theories (discussed below in section 4.13). In the 1970s and 80s, many feminists noted that the traditional European accounts of ethics seemed to assume that ethical actors were all independent and self-made. They argued, first, that people vary significantly in their degree of dependency and, in fact, nobody is truly fully independent and, second, that inequality shapes many people’s lives and severely curtails their choices in ways that are ethically relevant. We are going to think about this first kind of relational ethics as focussing on personal relationships and this second kind of relational ethics as focussing on political relationships.

Then we turn to ethical approaches that foreground communal relationships. These are less concerned with power than the kinds of relationships that we will consider under the moniker “political.” This approach can be understood through the African idea of ubuntu, which places the community at the centre of moral decision-making. Finally, we will consider relational approaches that go beyond human relationships to all our relations and seven generations, including those in the more-than-human world. This is an ethical framing that is common in traditional Indigenous ontologies and value systems throughout North America.

10.1. Focus on Personal Relations

When feminist philosophers began to engage ethical theory in the 1970s, they noticed that the then dominant approaches to ethics—Utilitarianism and Kantianism—seemed to assume that the goal of ethics was to adjudicate conflicts and facilitate decision-making in the public sphere. By this, they meant that ethics seemed only to capture issues that arose outside the home with parties who were mature, independent, impartial adults. The private sphere—i.e., home life, which is characterized by relationships of dependency and partiality—was simply not addressed. The feminist critique was twofold. First, ethics needs to address the importance of personal relationships in our lives. Second, humans are, in fact, thoroughly relational beings and the idea that anyone is self-made is simply a myth. Minimally, all humans require huge amounts of care and education at the beginning of our lives if we are to develop into capable adults, and, throughout our lives, we depend on others looking after us or helping us with various activities—from helping us secure work to addressing our most intimate personal needs.

This gave rise to a distinctive ethical approach called care ethics. Care ethics recognizes that relationships of care, for instance parents caring for young children, cannot be captured by the ethical theories that have dominated European and settler traditions. After all, young children are not autonomous in a Kantian sense as they do not have the capacity to reason, nor do they have the ability to overcome their inclinations. They are also extremely vulnerable; so, we may have special obligations to our own children because of their vulnerability and because we are in a unique and specific relationship of care with them. Perhaps most importantly of all, the ethical relationships that parents have with their children, indeed that all of us have with family members more generally, are emotional relationships. Caring for a child requires, not impartiality, but rather a thoroughly partial emotional investment in the life and wellbeing of the child. Love and care are not incidental to these relationships or a fortunate consequence of them; they are the very stuff of them.

A similar idea can also be found in ethics in the tradition of Kongfuzi (or Confucian ethics). Confucianism emphasizes that we learn how to be good people through our relationships with our family members, particularly our parents. We learn the moral emotions, such as love, through loving our parents. The respect and love that we have for our parents is, in effect, the root for the love and respect that we show to other people as adults. In this way, Confucians believe that the capacity for humaneness, our moral concern for humanity generally (ren, sometimes translated as human-heartedness[1]), emerges through our personal filial relationships.[2]

10.2. Focus on Political Relations

Although relational ethicists who focus on personal relations often emphasize the positive ways in which these constitute us, it is important to remember that families can be places of inequality and terrible suffering. Children are not only in need of care from their parents but are extraordinarily vulnerable to abuse and neglect. In patriarchal cultures, wives are often seen as subordinate to their husbands and have their freedom curtailed and their interests and needs overlooked or marginalized. Daughters are often similarly devalued.

These patriarchal views of women extend beyond the home. This makes it more difficult for women to leave abusive domestic situations and find better lives elsewhere because they are frequently seen as incompetent or incapable of filling any roles other than those traditionally assigned to women. Moreover, they may have internalized these patriarchal views so that they see themselves (and other women) as being properly subordinate to men and unfit for anything but traditional feminine roles. Such assumptions make it extremely difficult for women to succeed in various professions where they may be assumed to be deficient in virtues associated with men—such as rationality, morality, strength, and competence. Because, in a patriarchal culture, traditional women’s roles—including essential, skilled care labour, such as growing or obtaining and cooking food, cleaning, and childcare—are devalued, men often refuse to take on care labour as they find it demeaning or lack the relevant skills. The feminist slogan, the personal is political, refers to the way in which inequality in our personal relationships scale up to produce inequality in our society and inequality in our society scales down and affects almost every aspect of our daily lives .

Early feminist theories addressing the injustices of patriarchy were often criticized for only voicing the perspectives of straight, white, Anglo, settler, middle-class women without disabilities. Many of the women overlooked by these theories pointed out that they often experienced inequality quite differently. For instance, some suggested that poor women enjoyed greater equality with poor men than middle-class women did with middle-class men but greater inequality overall. Poor women did not long for access to the public sphere of work outside the home as they already worked outside the home, albeit often for wages significantly lower than men’s wages. Many women maintained that much of the discrimination they faced had more to do with their racial or ethnic identity, their class, their sexuality, or their disability status than their gender. Moreover, not infrequently, this discrimination was enacted or exacerbated by more privileged women, some of whom claimed to be feminist.

US legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, coined the term intersectionality to capture this idea.[3] She recognized that in societies that have multiple axes of oppression—such as racism, colonialism, ableism, hetero- and cissexism, and classism—people who belong to more than one oppressed group often experience oppression in distinctive ways that are highly particular. These patterns of oppression can be difficult to predict and understand from the perspective of those who do not share similar social positionings and experiences.

If we are committed to equality for all, we must pay attention to intersectional issues. This type of analysis draws attention to the fact that we are all located in complex webs of social power and privilege. While in an ideal world we might be able to treat everyone (outside our friends and family) impartially, in societies that are structured by patterns of injustice and inequality that disadvantage particular groups, we need to take the reality of these political relationships into account when we are making ethical decisions.

Because it is often difficult for those who are privileged in a certain respect to understand the true challenges and restrictions of those who aren’t, it is particularly important to have people who experience oppression involved in decision-making about policies intended to address that oppression. Disability rights advocates coined the phrase “nothing about us without us”[4] to capture this idea. This is not only a call to inclusion but also a call to those allies who wish to support their cause to exercise humility—a warning that well-intentioned paternalism can actually exacerbate harms and inequality and undermine the autonomy of those whom one wishes to help. Understanding how the complex political relationships that we have with each other inform various ethical challenges and dilemmas is key to this relational approach to ethics.

10.3. Focus on Communal Relations

While political approaches to relational ethics draw attention to the many social and political differences between us, communal approaches tend to focus on the collective. Collectivism is quite common in ethical theories outside the European tradition (indeed, we have already seen a version of it with Mohism in 3.7.1) and is often part of a critique of that tradition. The concept of ubuntu is a good example, as it both rejects European individualism and has been employed as a post-colonial ethical anchor for rebuilding more just communities and positive relationships in societies recently freed from colonial oppression.[5] In South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process, set up to document and deal with the appalling human rights abuses that happened under apartheid, ubuntu has been an important principle that has shaped how this process of restorative justice has been understood.[6]

Although, as South African jurist, Yvonne Mokgoro notes, ubuntu is not easily definable, particularly in a foreign tongue,[7] there are, nonetheless, a number of sayings and stories that point to the central idea. The Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission quotes Ms. Susan van der Merwe, whose husband was murdered in 1978:

The Tswanas have an idiom which I learned from my husband which goes ‘a person is a person by other people, a person is only a person with other people’. We do have this duty to each other. The survival of our people in this country depends on our co-operation with each other. My plea to you is, help people throw their weapons away…No person’s life is a waste. Every person’s life is too precious.[8]

The key ideas here are that the well-being and indeed the survival of anyone in a community is intimately connected with the wellbeing and survival of everyone in the community. From such a perspective simply pursuing one’s own self-interest while neglecting or harming other members of the community is, in effect, harming oneself. It is unintelligible because it is contrary to one’s own self-interest. Thus, ubuntu is associated with harmony and solidarity at the level of the group with processes aimed at adjudicating conflict focussed on the restoration of peace in the community.[9] As Mokgoro notes:

Group solidarity, conformity, compassion, respect, human dignity, humanistic orientation and collective unity have, among others been defined as key social values of ubuntu….[I]ts value has also been viewed as a basis for a morality of co-operation, compassion, communalism and concern for the interests of the collective respect for the dignity of personhood, all the time emphasising the virtues of that dignity in social relationships and practices.[10]

Thus, ubuntu not only emphasizes a strongly relational ethics that focuses on the community, it is also deeply humanist. Ubuntu recognizes that one’s own humanity is inextricably bound with the humanity of others.

10.4. Focus on All My Relations

While the other three types of approach to relational ethics typically highlight different types of relations between humans, the last includes these but goes beyond to consider relationships in the more-than-human world. This is the approach exemplified by the phrase all my relations that is central to the worldview and ethical orientation of many Indigenous peoples in what settlers have called North America. This perspective emphasizes not only the reality of our physical, psychological, and spiritual dependence on the many different beings in the world around us but also our capacity to affect these beings. For many Indigenous traditions, it is not only nonhuman animals who are included in these relations but plants and parts of the non-organic world also.

Importantly, the relations acknowledged are not simply relationships of interdependency but also relationships of respect. For instance, many traditional Mi’kmaq stories identify ways that plants and animals guide and teach humans. These stories recognize that nonhuman beings do not exist to serve humans but have their own moral status that demands respect.[11] Failing to respect other beings can bring disastrous results to those humans who ignore their obligations to the more-than-human world. This ethical orientation brings with it gratitude for their sustaining our lives and a commitment to sustaining theirs. This means that when one takes something from the world one should only take what is needed. When one takes something from the world one should only take what is needed, which not only shows respect for what is taken but also ensures that there is plenty for others (human and nonhuman, alike). Reciprocity is often emphasized with the view that one should give back for the gifts that one receives. In this way, relationships remain mutually beneficial. Just as ubuntu emphasizes the value of harmony in the human community, all my relations emphasizes the value of harmony of humans with each other as well as the many other beings in the natural environment.

An adjacent ethical teaching in Indigenous cultures is the seven generations teaching. The seventh generation holds significance for many Indigenous peoples, such as the Anishinabek, Ojibway, and Haudenosaunee.[12] When thinking about how one should act, this teaching recommends that one consider the actions and traditions of the previous seven generations and the effect of one’s actions on the seven generations after oneself. The foundational principle of this teaching is that our choices, actions, and mistakes have a ripple effect throughout history. As Linda Clarkson, Vern Morisette, and Gabriel Régallet explain:

There is a teaching passed down from our [Ojibway] ancestors that crystallizes our sense of responsibility and our relationship to the earth that arises out of the original law. It is said that we are placed on the earth (our Mother) to be the caretakers of all that is here. We are instructed to deal with the plants, animals, minerals, human beings and all life, as if they were a part of ourselves. Because we are a part of Creation, we cannot differentiate or separate ourselves from the rest of the earth. The way in which we interact with the earth, how we utilize the plants, animals and the mineral gifts, should be carried out with the seventh generation in mind. We cannot simply think of ourselves and our survival; each generation has a responsibility to “ensure the survival for the seventh generation”.[13]

In thinking about our relation to the generations before us and the ones after us, the seven generations teaching emphasizes the connection with our ancestors and descendants. We live in a continuum, with each of us having parents, grandparents, and great grandparents (who, in turn, had parents, grandparents, and great grandparents), who we learn from and sometimes teach; and many of us have children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren (and some of them will have children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren), who we teach and learn from.[14] Some of us will spend time in every role. Everyone has a responsibility to learn from and teach past and present generations. Awareness of this interconnectedness within the community encourages one to act selflessly and sustainably for future generations.

Importantly,  the seven generations teaching is not only forward looking, but it also emphasizes the importance of continuity with traditional and cultural origins. Failure to know and consider one’s place in one’s cultural history and traditions leads to alienation and lack of identity in one’s life. Knowing who you are and how you fit in the world is important for making ethical choices. Moreover, in knowing our history and traditions, we can avoid making the same mistakes as our ancestors. Such history and tradition should inform, guide, and support our present choices as we think about our impacts on future generations. We have a responsibility to bridge the gap between our past and future—by upholding and maintaining tradition, learning from our ancestors, and passing traditions onto our descendants. The responsibility to all our relations is inherited from one’s ancestors and passed onto future generations, solidifying one’s bond with their community.

  1. John M. Koller, Asian Philosophies, 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2002), 220.
  2. Koller, 222. Confucianism is a good example of an ethical theory that employs many of the different approaches we have discussed here. From these filial relationships come specific duties. The humaneness that follows from filial piety is, in effect, a virtuous character, which is valuable, in part, because it brings about good consequences.
  3. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241–1299.
  4. Anne-Marie Callus and Amy Camilleri-Zahra, “‘Nothing About Us Without Us’: Disabled People Determining their Human Rights Through the UNCRPD,” Mediterranean Review of Human Rights 1 (2017): 1-26, https://www.um.edu.mt/library/oar/ bitstream/123456789/56964/1/MHRR1A1.pdf.
  5. Michael Onyebuchi Eze, “I am Because You Are,” UNESCO Courier (2011): 11-13, https://en.unesco.org/courier/octobre-decembre-2011/i-am-because-you-are.
  6. Desmond Tutu, et al., Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, Volume 1 (South Africa: Government of National Unity, 1998), 125-8, https://www.justice.gov.za/trc/report/.
  7. Yvonne Mokgoro, “Ubuntu and the Law in South Africa,” Potchefstroom Electronic Law Journal 1, no. 1 (1998): 18. https://www.ajol.info/index.php/pelj/article/view/43567
  8. Tutu, Truth and Reconciliation, 128.
  9. Mokgoro, “Ubuntu,” 24-5.
  10. Mokgoro, 19.
  11. Margaret Robinson, “Animal Personhood in Mi’kmaq Perspective,” Societies 4 (2014): 672–688. https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4698/4/4/672.
  12. John Borrows, Seven generations, seven teachings ending the Indian Act (West Vancouver: National Centre for First Nations Governance, 2008), https://fngovernance.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/john_borrows.pdf; Linda Clarkson, Vern Morrisette, and Gabriel Régallet, Our Responsibility to the Seventh Generation: Indigenous Peoples and Sustainable Development (Winnipeg: International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2001), https://www.iisd.org/publications/our-responsibility-seventh-generation; “Seven Generations – the Role of Chief,” PBS, https://www.pbs.org/warrior/content/timeline/opendoor/roleOfChief.html.
  13. Clarkson, Morrisette, and Régallet, "Seventh Generation," 12.
  14. Academic Algonquin, “Seven Generations,” YouTube, video, May 18, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHg3enCCyCM.


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Applied Ethics Primer by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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