Bubeck thus distinguishes care from “service”, by stipulating that “care” involves meeting the needs for others who cannot meet their needs themselves, whereas “service” involves meeting the needs of individuals who are capable of self-care. She also holds that one cannot care for oneself, and that care does not require any emotional attachment. While some care ethicists accept that care need not always have an emotional component, Bubeck's definitional exclusion of self-care is rejected by other care ethicists who stress additional aspects of care.

I've bolded the bit that confused me most. It seems a bit like the claim is that to care involves doing what only you can, but I'm not at all sure that's right.

Is there a point where "service" shades off into care, perhaps when one obscures other people's needs or sacrifices them to meet the needs of who we care for?

  • Presumably, provided with enough of the proper resources, one could easily care for oneself, although various kinds of support are always welcome if one happens to be devoted to caring for someone who can't take care of themselves (such as children, elderly, ill, injured, or disabled individuals). I think it's a serious mistake to remove the emotional component from caring. Caring is something most people would do, whether compensated for it or not.
    – Bread
    Dec 5, 2018 at 12:05
  • hmm thanks @Bread should that be "whom we care for" gosh i'm ignorant sorry
    – user35983
    Dec 5, 2018 at 18:02

2 Answers 2


Bubeck appears to be using language stipulatively.

'Self-care'seems to include activities such as eating, bathing, dressing, walking. A person capable of self-care can do these (basic) things but may still need auxiliary support; they may not be able to travel, to negotiate a supermarket, to withdraw money from a cashpoint. The auxiliary support is 'service' so far as I can make out.

The point about 'care' is a logico-linguistic one. Aristotle says that one cannot act justly towards oneself; justice is necessarily directed to other people (Nicomachean Ethics, V, 1138a). Likewise, Bubeck assumes that 'care' is necessarily directed to others or some other. 'To care' is a transitive verb that requires another person, other people or some other (an animal or anything capable of being harmed) as its direct object.

I doubt if ordinary language can be regimented in this way. But this is the best sense I can make of the passage you question.

  • thanks for the answer geoffery. i'll leave the question open in case anyone wants to reply more directly to the question
    – user35983
    Dec 5, 2018 at 15:56
  • 1
    @confused. Fine - just the right thing to do. Thanks for letting me know. All the best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Dec 5, 2018 at 17:16

Let's take the eponymous feminist cases first...

Care implies doing tasks for someone incapable of doing those tasks for themselves. Young children, older people with dementia, people with severe disabilities, etc, all require care, since someone needed to feed them, clean them, move them about, etc. Care can be given for necessities (food, shelter, etc) or for pleasures (walks in the park, providing entertainment or education, etc), but still provides something to the cared-for that they could not provide for themselves.

Service is providing a convenience for someone who could provide for themselves. A typical 1950s housewife would cook meals, wash clothes and linens, care for children, clean house, and do other activities that her husband was clearly perfectly capable of doing himself. Such a husband could hire someone to do all of these things if his wife went on strike; there are entire industries dedicated to providing such. That ability to hire someone is one of the hallmarks of a service.

There are of course, a number of confusing issues here. For instance (as noted above), a child requires care, but the act of providing care can be a service performed for another adult, so that said adult does not need to provide care for the child. A sick person might be perfect capable of getting up and (say) cooking themselves dinner, but someone might choose (or be paid) to provide that service, which we usually think of as caring for that sick person. Sex opens up an intellectual can of worms, because it is variously treated as an act of intimate mutual care and as a transactional service people provide for each other. All in all the care/service distinction is a sound typology with some decidedly fuzzy edges.


I forgot to add (for completeness' sake) that while the concept of self-service is empty, the concept of self-care is useful. Self-care means doing for yourself what you wish another would do for you as an act of service or care. Taking the time to make yourself a home-cooked meal instead of picking up take-out would be an example of self-care; you are taking the time to do something for yourself rather than farming it out to a service industry. It's an idea worth exploring...

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