A mindfulness based feminist ethics of care: weaving the feminist ethics of care and secular Buddhist concepts

February 10, 2024

I would like to acknowledge the substantial contribution of Anne-Laure Brousseau to this article. She brought critical insights to our discussion of the feminist of ethics of care and to the structure of this paper and its arguments.


In October 2022, Stephen Batchelor, a well-known proponent of secular Buddhism, offered a series of  four workshops on Mindfulness Based Human Flourishing (Batchelor, 2022c).  Embedded in a Cartography of Care, he presented a set of four paths, each with a task to be performed and mastered. Thirty two skills and virtues drawn from the dharma are divided across the four paths corresponding to the task requirements. Each path cultivates a specific mode of mindfulness practice.  In the course of these workshops Mindfulness Based Ethical Living (MBEL) emerged.

Batchelor describes MBEL as a practical philosophy, contemplation, and ethics for anyone seeking to care for their own and others’ lives. In his view, MBEL addresses those who seek a philosophical and ethical context for their practice of mindfulness meditation. (Batchelor, 2022a, Section 1, np)

His cartography maps a process of what to do to live a flourishing life and to create flourishing communities.  Care is at the centre of this process. ‘Care can be thought of as the overarching ethical sensibility which includes all other skills and virtues and to which they all tend’ (Batchelor, 2022a, Section 8, np). 

Batchelor notes that MBEL is inspired by four ethical perspectives. He describes the feminist ethics of care as one of the principal ethical perspectives of MBEL (Batchelor, 2022a, Section 8,  np). In the MBEL users manual, he doesn’t expand on these ethical perspectives nor does he provide detail on the congruences between MBEL and these ethical perspectives.

Inspired by Batchelor’s overarching notion of care, in this article I attempt to explore the meaning and practice of care. Drawing on the feminist ethics of care, I ask the questions – Why care?  How do we care? And, I consider what this ethical theory brings to MBEL, and how the feminist ethics of care and secular Buddhist concepts enhance each other. 

From psychologist Carol Gilligan’s seminal work in the 1980s to her more recent revisions (2011; 2014), the feminist ethics of care has developed into a well-established field of intellectual, academic and activist work across multiple disciplines. I focus on the work of political scientist Joan Tronto who emphasises care as practice. Her model outlining the dimensions of care and their accompanying ethical qualities comprises the practice of care (Tronto, 2013).

Why care?

Batchelor (2022a) asks, ‘How does one embrace this life fully?.... How might we understand and comprehend our existential condition …?’ (Section 2, np). I believe that saying yes to this life involves comprehending our vulnerability. As Batchelor (2105) argues, the first noble task invites us to comprehend our existential vulnerability – ageing, sickness, death, separation and loss p. 247). By virtue of our bodies, we are exposed. The feminist ethics of care reminds us that our corporeality discloses that we are dependent on others, and others on us, to survive and have well-being. So, we must comprehend our relational vulnerability, the receiving and giving of care, as the foundation for how to live. As Lowther (2018) elegantly writes, ‘Accordingly, the ethical question is not a one-sided “What ought I do?” but relational “What is the caring response?"’ (p158).

In liberal industrialised societies, independence, power and rationality are considered to be the culmination of moral development. Contesting the work in the 1950s and 1960s of the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg on moral development, Gilligan (1982) insisted on registering relationships, context and affective connection as legitimate in moral decision making. She recasts these qualities, conventionally associated with women and denigrated as weak, as valid and valuable. Gilligan (1982; 2014) added the morality of care to the ethical theories grounded in justice and rights, highlighting resistance to the silencing of non-dominant voices.  

The resistance extends beyond validating women’s voices and qualities of empathy and caring. Casting patriarchy in the light of trauma, she argues that the splitting of emotions and reason, and the rupture of self from relationship constitute a moral injury. In his work with Vietnam veterans, Jonathon Shay (1994) identified the sense of shame and betrayal - the moral injury - experienced  by veterans who were ordered by authorities to engage in actions that went against the moral compass of what felt ‘right’.

Gilligan compares Shay’s analysis of moral injury and the experience of initiation into patriarchy. Under patriarchy, boys and girls, men and women, disavow aspects of themselves that are not consistent with dominant gendered ideals. Gilligan (1982; 2014) shows that where dominating masculinity characterizes dependence, emotion, and caring as weak and ‘girly’, boys and men repudiate these human qualities. As a result, girls and women who, patriarchy declares, should act selflessly, are plagued by internal conflicts when they seek to assert their interests and points of view. In this way Gilligan (2014) emphasizes that resistance to patriarchy embodies ethics.

The feminist ethic of care is a different voice within a patriarchal culture because it joins reason with emotion, mind with body, self with relationships, men with women, resisting the divisions that maintain a patriarchal order (Gilligan, 2011).


The dharma points to care as a virtue that helps us walk our path carefully. In a great number of translations of the dharma, the word most commonly associated with care is appamada. In After Buddhism Batchelor (2015) translates the word appamada as care.  In the Appamada Sutta, a discourse which is set in Sravasti, where Gotama spent 25 rain retreats, King Pasenadi asked him about salvation.

Is there, lord, any one quality that keeps both kinds of benefits secure -- those in the present life and those in the future life?

Batchelor, 2015, p101.

Gotama replies appamada, which he likens to the footprint of an elephant.  Just like the footprints of all living beings can fit into the footprint of an elephant, care is the container for all other virtues.

Batchelor’s secular dharma brings us care as authentic to existence. Batchelor adds to care-fulness, being caring. So, appamada encompasses being careful, and a ‘heartfelt’ concern for the well-being of others and oneself (2015, p102).

If, as Batchelor suggests, MBEL is a practical philosophy, for anyone seeking to care for their own and others’ lives, then, how do we care?

How do we care?

Sevenhuijsen (1999), Professor of Women’s Studies, locates care in the everyday, to illustrate the complexity involved in interpreting needs.

In my view it is better to stress the inherently situated and conflictual nature of care, and thus the need for elaborated forms of a 'politics of need-interpretation', that can accommodate the viewpoints and the moral repertoires of the different actors in the caring process (care-givers, care-receivers, institutional care providers etc.).

Sevenhuijsen, 1999, p16

Tronto (2013) places relationality at the centre of her distinction between the feminist ethics of care and the ontological, what she calls the dispositional accounts of care (p 48).

The problem with these accounts of caring as an attitude or disposition is that they still center on the caring subject, rather than seeing the caring subject and object (which can even be the same person) in relationship and in actual caring practices. It is too abstract, too much of an intellectual …rather than a practical and collective concern. One might say that such a disposition is necessary but not sufficient for care. … It ignores the fact, to employ the language used here, that attentiveness to needs can and must itself be trained.  Care-giving is not (only) natural and innate, one can become attuned to it.

Tronto, 2013, p 49.

To understand care, we need to understand the relational practice of care whereby we reach out to engage with others.

In After Buddhism, Batchelor gives a similar emphasis to the lived experience of care, yet seemingly the focus is on the disposition of the caring subject, rather than on the relational exchange involved in care.

Care is something one learns by observing the way careful/caring people live. It is not a quality that can learned from a text on moral psychology or Buddhist ethics but only by living and interacting with human beings who embody it in their speech and acts.

Batchelor, 2015, p. 105.

Tronto’s model of 5 dimensions of care

With Berenice Fisher, Tronto has identified four dimensions of care to which four moral qualities are aligned. Inspired by Sevenhuisjen (1999) Tronto, added a fifth. As seen in Figure 1:

Caring about calls for the moral quality of attentiveness - with the intention to discern and understand the needs of others and our own.

Caring for calls for taking responsibility. Identifying needs carries the burden of responsibility to meet them.

Care giving - the actual work of care requiring competence - both as skills and moral quality – the intention to avoid harm.

Care receiving calls for responsiveness- being open to and observing the responses of the cared for.

Caring with/solidarity implies communication, trust and respect in dealing with a plurality of others.  Drawing on Sevenhuisjen’s argument for caring in a democratic society one must be committed to seeing the moral complexities of dependence and plurality.  (2013, 34-35).

Linking a feminist ethics of care and the Cartography of Care

Returning to Batchelor’s Cartography of Care the first task, Embracing Life, requires Caring About with the ethical quality of attentiveness. For this we must recognise our mutuality, and the other as an equivalent centre of being (Benjamin, 1995). Emphasis should be given to attentiveness to others’, and to the needs of the carers.

It is interesting to return to Batchelor’s rendering of care in After Buddhism. He (2015) renders appamada (care) to include vigilant attention (being careful) and concern for the well-being of others and oneself: ‘…a careful, lucid, and contained caring for one’s own condition as well as that of others’ (p. 103).

Yet, attentiveness as central to understanding the condition of others and to identifying needs, is not explicitly elucidated in Batchelor’s Cartography.

A feminist ethics of care brings to this discourse attentiveness to the needs of individuals, communities, and social and political institutions (Sevenhuisjen, 1999). Echoing the practice of mindfulness, Sevenhuisjen  challenges the notion that attention is simply an other- regarding activity, arguing that attentiveness should start with the self.  She suggest self-reflection on our own actions and interactions, so that we may improve the quality of relating with others (2018, p 21).

Sevenhuisjen outlines eight elements of  attentiveness. These are: presence – being there for the other, showing interest; seeing –a conscious effort to discern, rather than just looking; listening – creating a space for understanding rather than just hearing; honouring our intuition – knowing some knowledge springs from deep inner wisdom; thoughtful speaking - thinking before speaking to keep so communication open; reliability (trust) – being reliable for care receivers entrust who entrust care givers with what matters;  accountability - willingness to check our mistakes and perceptions against those of others; and plurality – recognising that we are differently situated individuals, but each of usare equivalent centres of being (Sevenhuisjen, 2018, p 204-205).

Gilligan (2014) argues similarly for active listening - listening in a way that creates rather than destroys trust. She echoes Batchelor (2015) in this regard.

The ethic of care guides us in acting carefully in the human world and highlights the costs of carelessness. It is grounded less in moral precepts than in psychological wisdom, underscoring the cost of not paying attention, not listening, being absent rather than present, not responding with integrity and respect .

Gilligan, 2014, p. 103.

These perspectives from the feminist ethics of care  provide a convincing argument for more directly and explicitly focusing on attentiveness as critical to living an ethical life.

The second task in Batchelor’s cartography is to Let Reactivity Be. He argues that reactivity inhibits caring. According to the dharma, reactivity arises in relation to the three marks of existence – impermanence, suffering and selflessness. The feminist ethics of care emphasises that the delusion of a self that is atomised and self-sufficient registers the fear evoked by mutual dependency. Martin Luther King observed – ‘we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.’  We should take responsibility to care for the needs that are inherent in this ‘network of mutuality’. Accepting our mutuality provides an argument that the second task should incorporate the notion of Acceptance: recognising our reactivity to mutual dependency

The third task involves the duty to allow reactivity to cease – See Reactivity Cease.  The conditions for this to occur are, according to the dharma, disillusion, detachment, freedom and knowing the end of reactivity.  Sometimes by observing our habitual reactions and delusions we may see through them. Turning within to do this is the actual work of care. From this we may develop skills and competence.

The final task is to Actualise a Path, to walk the middle way. Batchelor re-visioned the traditional aspects of the path, reinterpreting the order and the meaning of the path factors. While it is beyond the scope of this article to explore Batchelor’s revisioning of the path factors, it should be noted that there are congruences between some of Batchelor’s path factors and a feminist ethics of care.

In  Batchelor’s notion of one of the path factors, Perspective, ethical decisions are situational and uncertain. That ethical decisions are made in context and elaborated in relationship is foundational to Gilligan’s (2014) morality of care. To this extent, in contrast to the ethics of rights and justice, the feminist ethics of care and Batchelor’s Cartography do not view abstract ethical rules as universally applicable.

Congruence between Gilligan’s Different Voice (1982) and Batchelor’s path factor of Voice is in finding an authentic voice that requires differentiation from our habitual, internalised voices.  Gilligan is bolder in specifying the different voice as resistance to the dominant patriarchal order.  She is also more decisive in linking internalised voices to external social and political ideologies.

Batchelor’s Cartography of Care calls us to care, suggesting Imagination - both empathic imagination as a means to understand the suffering of another and creative imagination to find a caring response.  There is resonance here with Tronto’s emphasis on attentiveness and responsibility. However, unlike the feminist ethics of care, the practice of attending remains faint in the Cartography, accounting for the absence in the Cartography of the ethical quality of responsiveness, sensitivity to how care given is received.

Finally, as will be discussed below, Mindfulness - which is defined by Batchelor as to keep in mind what one has to do, why one has to do it and how one has to do it - enhances the capacity to practice care as outlined in a feminist ethics of care (Batchelor, 2022, a).

What the feminist ethics of Care brings to the Cartography of Care is the importance of coming to terms with our relationality, our reactivity to dependency, attentiveness and the contested nature of care. The feminist ethics of care insists that resistance to the disparagement of relationality, and emotion is critical to ethics of care.  Tronto’s 5 dimension model of care makes very clear that the practice of care requires attentiveness to the needs of care receivers and caregivers.

Sevenhuisjen (1999, 2018), on whose work Tronto bases the fifth phase of care, suggests caring with.  We are encouraged to recognise that as we are all differently situated, mistakes in discerning needs can be made. Therefore the experiences of giving and receiving care can be conflicted and we must stand in solidarity despite differences. Batchelor’s Cartography as it stands now, does not feature the complexity and contested nature of care.

The Cartography brings to the feminist ethics of care the resolve and skill contained in mindfulness and focus. The practice of mindfulness, a cultivation of close attention to the process of experience, provides the ground for contemplating existence, motivation, habitual patterns of reaction, and the possibility of transformation. Mindfulness encourages us to consider how we choose to live and whether our responses and behaviours support our chosen path. We are encouraged to welcome whatever arises  with kindness which  can helps us to stay the course when the going gets tough. 

Contained in mindfulness, is intentional and non-judgemental observation - the ‘seeing’ of experience.  In this way, the skill and virtue of mindfulness can support the practice of attentiveness as outlined by Sevenhuisjen (2018).Yet at the empirical level, what is seen is contested. Who observes, who sees, and what is seen, highlight that care involves relations of power.  How might power relations be registered in the Catrtography of Care?

Secular dharma and the feminist ethics of care assume a capacity to care.  This may be so at the ontological level. At the empirical level, care is more pragmatic and complex, speaking to Gilligan’s poignant questions – ‘how do we lose the capacity to care, what inhibits our ability to empathize with others and pick up the emotional climate, and how do we fail to register the difference between being in and out of touch? And most painfully, how do we lose the capacity to love?’ (Gilligan 2014, p 90). 

Social and political conditions enable or constrain relational nurturing, social care and care for the public good.  Care is conditioned and contingent. Tronto (2013) makes the point that politics, which should be a realm of caring, has become conflated with the world of the economy and the pursuit of self-interest. 

What has happened  to our concerns about care? Why has so much in human life and in politics turned into discussions about selfishness, greed and profit? Why has the language of economics seemingly come to replace all other forms of political language? 

Tronto, 2013, p.xi.

Equally, as Batchelor (2022a) eloquently reminds us, we cannot ignore the role of our personal histories. Winnicott, a child psychoanalyst, argues that the capacity for concern is a developmental achievement. He uses the word discover to refer to the development of the capacity to care, with the mother's love being the ground on which this discovery is made. The mother survives the child’s aggressive impulses and remains there to nurture. In this process the baby, with a growing sense that the mother is a separate being with needs, ‘discovers’ the urge to give and repair. Exploring these psychodynamics is beyond the scope of this paper.  Nevertheless, they bear thinking about in our consideration of the factors that inhibit or facilitate care.  

A note on representational forms

Finally, Batchelor takes on criticism of the linearity of the Cartography, by pointing out that a line can become a circle or can be transformed into a spiral (2022 a,  p20). I suggest a labyrinth (see Figure 2) can be used as a tool to contemplate how the feminist ethics of care and  Batchelor’s Cartography mutually illuminate a path of care and provide for contemplating the tasks in these ethical frameworks. With the Cartography and the feminist ethics of care as backdrop, it’s possible to reflect on the labyrinthine journeys all of us take into the crises and suffering, the wonders and joy, involved in ‘being alive’.

Figure 2:


Batchelor, Stephen

(2015) After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age (Yale University Press).

            (2022) (a)  Mindfulness Based Ethical Living: A User’s Manual

            (2022) (b)  “Stephen’s Cartography of Care,” in Unit 6: Walking the Path, Reimagining the Eightfold Path, a 6-week online course offered by Tricycle Magazine/Bodhi College, Nov—Dec 2022 > www.tricycle.org/courses <

            (2022) (c) ‘Stephen Batchelor’s program on Mindfulness Based Human Flourishing’ Secular Buddhist Network, at https://secularbuddhistnetwork.org/stephen-batchelors-program-on-mindfulness-based-human-flourishing/ BuddhaStiftung, Heidelberg Germany, 8—28 October, 2022.

Benjamin, Jessica

            (1995) “Recognition and destruction: An outline of intersubjectivity.” In Like Subjects, Love Objects: Essays on Recognition and Sexual Difference. (Yale University Press, 1995), 27-48.

Gilligan, Carol

            (1982) In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Harvard University Press)

            (2011) “Looking Back to Look Forward: Revisiting In a Different Voice." Classics@ 9. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2011. https://classics-at.chs.harvard.edu/classics9-carol-gilligan-looking-back-to-look-forward-revisiting-in-a-different-voice/.

            (2014) “Moral Injury and the Ethic of Care: Reframing the Conversation about Differences.” Journal of Social Philosophy vol 45, no 1, Spring 2014, 89-106.

Lowther, M. W. 

            (2018) “Working with Wendy. A tribute to slow scholarship.” South African Journal of Higher Education, 32 (6), 153-167. http://dx.doi.org/10.20853/32-6-2610

Sevenhuisjen, S.

           (1999) Caring in the Third Way. The relation between obligation, responsibility and care in Third Way discourse. Paper presented to the ESRC Seminar Series: Postmodern' Kinship University of Leeds, 4 March 1999. Working paper Centre for Research on Family, Kinship and Childhood.

           (2018) “Care and Attention”.  South African Journal of Higher Education, 32 (6). https://doi.org/10.20853/32-6-2711

Shay, Jonathon

            (1994) Achilles in Vietnam: Combat, Trauma and the Undoing of Character. Atheneum.

Tronto, Joan C.

             (1993) Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care (Routledge)     

(2013) Caring Democracy: Markets, Equality, and Justice (NYU Press)

Winnicott, Donald W.

(1971) Playing and Reality. New York: Brunner-Routledge



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