Human Dependency and Christian Ethics
Series: New Studies in Christian Ethics
- ISBN: 9781107168893
- Published By: Cambridge University Press
- Published: October 2017
In her book, Human Dependency and Christian Ethics, Sandra Sullivan-Dunbar provides us with an exceedingly well-researched and engaging analysis of the ways that human dependency has been—and mostly has not adequately been—taken up by Christian ethicists. As a part of the series New Studies in Christian Ethics, this volume is an important addition to the ongoing project of bringing Christian ethical reflection into conversation with contemporary social sciences and secular philosophical ethics.
Sullivan-Dunbar names human dependency as a central characteristic of human existence. We all come into the world as dependent infants and many of us receive various kinds of care throughout our lives. This care takes place within dependent care relations—relationships between care givers and those who receive care, such as infants and children, people with disabilities, and the elderly; these dependent care relations are morally complex and require attention to the intertwining of equality and justice. Sullivan-Dunbar argues that Christian theologies of love fail to take account of dependent care relations and, as a consequence, leave care givers and care receivers out of theological and ethical view. She calls for a “more adequate and multivalent understandings of justice than have been presupposed by most recent Christian theologies of love, and in so doing, we can work toward a Christian ethic that can see, assess, honor, and support the moral work done within dependent care relations” (231).
Sullivan-Dunbar provides a detailed account of dependent care relations in political theory, economic theory, and Christian love theologies. She critiques secular political philosophy for failing to adequately deal with the dynamic of equality and dependency in caregiving relationships, while at the same time disregarding the work of providing care within contexts of limited resources by people marginalized and ignored by economic theory. In her critique of Christian love theologies, Sullivan-Dunbar notes that sacrificial models of love prioritize extraordinary sacrifice and ignore the ordinary and day-to-day sacrificial nature of providing care for a dependent person. The author writes: “Precisely because sacrifice pervades our lives together, we must construct a love ethic that engages sacrifice as an ordinary moral reality and acknowledges that sacrifice is distributed among us in lopsided ways” (79).
In addition, Sullivan-Dunbar criticizes the “equal regard” approach of Gene Outka, which proposes agape as an unalterable and disinterested love. She suggests that this definition of love obscures the many forms of interested and preferential love that form the basis of dependent care relations. Feminist care ethics provides, for Sullivan-Dunbar, an important corrective to Outka by suggesting that one must not choose between love and justice. Finally, Sullivan-Dunbar examines the resources of Thomistic thought, which offers an “account of love, and of the order of love—or the principles determining how much we should love persons connected to us in various ways, and upon whom we should bestow our finite capacities for benevolence” (148). While she recognizes the possibilities in Thomas’ theology for a dependent care ethic, she also recognizes that this contribution is limited by his premodern understandings of science and social class.
With these limitations in mind, in chapter 7, Sullivan-Dunbar proposes key elements that are needed for a more adequate Christian ethic of dependent care relations. She suggests that such an ethic requires attention to the following: how to distribute limited resources among those who need care, the role of the state in ensuring care, an understanding of sacrifice that limits personal autonomy, an account of the good that justifies such sacrifice, ways to assess the social organization of care giving, and a way of describing equality within dependent care relations. In chapter 8, she turns her attention to the resources available for constructing the kind of ethic of dependent care relations that she envisions. Reviewing the possible contributions of the Catholic social teaching tradition and feminist accounts of justice in dependent relations, Sullivan-Dunbar suggests that what is needed is an ethic that makes two key claims: that human dependency is “more universal . . . than autonomy” (224) and that “we are dependent for our ongoing existence at any given moment on the ground of our creation” (228). She calls for a theological account of equality that is grounded not in autonomy but in dependency. Such “a theological approach can recognize that dependency, at the most primordial level, is not just on other ‘autonomous’ human persons, but is dependency on God that is shared by those autonomous human persons. Thus our equality is always in and through this deeper dependency” (228).
Of particular note in this treatment of human dependent care relations is Sullivan-Dunbar’s laser focus on dependent care relations; this means that she is able to investigate equality, autonomy, justice, love, prudence, and sacrifice in ways that thinkers who ignore or sideline dependent care relations do not. By drawing our attention to these relationships, she proposes an ethic of care that is both morally complex and richly nuanced. What Sullivan-Dunbar does not do, however, is provide an account of the various kinds of care that people give and receive and the ways that these differences might impact her understanding of an ethic of dependent care relations. While the care provided to a helpless infant, a rebellious teenager, a person with developmental disabilities, a person recovering from illness or injury, a frail older person, and an actively dying person are all a part of what she understands as dependent care, the kinds of relationships between care giver and care receiver are necessarily going to be different.
Similarly, while she provides a helpful account of the marginalization of caregiving by defining it as labor provided by women and other vulnerable people, Sullivan-Dunbar does not attend to the role of families in these practices of caregiving. These would be welcomed additions to her further work in this area. Nevertheless, this volume achieves its goal of proposing a Christian ethic that acknowledges the centrality of dependency in “our theological anthropologies, our understanding of Christian love, and our conceptions of the relation between Christian love and justice” (2).
Cynthia L. Cameron is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Rivier University, Nashua, New Hampshire.Cynthia CameronDate Of Review:January 16, 2021