Care As Practice


Care is central to human emotions, feeling and thinking. It is the essence of what it is to be human – to care for the well-being of others; to provide care for them; and to act with care in regard to them. It embodies everything from virtue ethics to obligations and responsibilities.

Care is not just an abstract theoretical concept – it is of profound practical significance. It is commonly associated with notions of dependency of others and our natural human instinct to respond by providing care to those who depend on us. It has become one of the fastest growing industries as cohesive nuclear family units and communities disintegrate and traditional support from them diminishes. In its place has come the professionalization of care for the young, sick and elderly by “care workers” and a formalization of the procedures by which it is dispensed and evaluated.

Care transforms the selfish into the selfless and should underpin everything we do

The formalization of care derives not only from the dependency of others on us but the impact we have on them. As organizations grow in scale and significance, they have increasing potential to deliver both positive benefits and negative detriments, and those charged with running them have ever more extensive duties of care to promote the former and avoid the latter. This is reflected in the intensified regulation that we impose on the conduct of individuals and institutions.

Care is therefore associated with both solving and avoiding creating other people’s problems. But the need to professionalize and formalize the procedures by which it is delivered reflects a fundamental failure of modern economic, political and social systems to preserve and promote it. Care should be triggered by human emotions of empathy for those in need of it, and not rely on rules and regulations, monitoring and oversight to ensure its delivery.

Care transforms our individual self-interests into other-regarding interests and the selfish into the selfless. As a matter of course, it should therefore underpin everything we do as individuals, organizations, corporations, nation states and societies. But it doesn’t and, it is increasingly failing to do so as we observe growing fragmentation of our nations and international order as well as families and communities.

With care, economies and communities promote inclusive growth that incorporates the interests of those who are otherwise excluded or left behind. It makes participation and access an intrinsic part of the development of economies and communities stemming from an innate desire on the part of those who enjoy the fruits of success to extend it to those who do not.

Care should be incorporated as a core value of institutions and organizations from the outset

We are not taking adequate care of care. We are not protecting and nurturing this most important of human qualities as we emphasize rationality over emotions and value over values. We idolize hard and measurable financial value, and scorn soft and subjective values. As we race for economic and financial value, we are denigrating care and the values associated with it.

Instead, we are subcontracting the provision of care to those who are professionally trained to provide it. That in turns raises questions of the legitimacy of the rest of us to offer it and creates a vicious cycle of separation between those who are charged with delivering it and others who feel increasingly alienated from expressing it.

We are substituting emotion-driven care with market transactions in which care is delivered through contract rather than an intrinsic concern for the wellbeing of others. That points to two distinct policies for promoting care: market transactions supplemented by government provision or the enhancement of social settings that stimulate our inherent sense of care for others. Focusing on the former risks discouraging the latter.

Care should be incorporated as a core value of institutions and organizations from the outset. We should look to all of them to specify and justify their values and include care amongst them. In particular, we should call upon nation states across the world to embed in their constitutions the principle that they, their citizens, corporations, organizations and institutions exist to “care for the wellbeing of others, especially those who most depend upon it”.

Colin Mayer is the Peter Moores Professor of Management Studies, Said Business School, University of Oxford and a Fellow at THE NEW INSTITUTE working on the programme "The Foundations of Value and Values".


We use cookies to measure how often our site is visited and how it is used. You can withdraw your consent at any time with effect for the future. For further information, please refer to our privacy policy.