The road less travelled – An agent-based approach to ethics of care

Project dates: 01/09/2021 - 31/08/2022

COVID-19 has placed a focus on the “caring professions” of health and aged workers who work on the front lines to save lives. This presents the opportunity for reflection by other professionals – public relations practitioners included – to ask: how do I incorporate caring into my job? What can I contribute to this challenging time? How can I work with a care ethics approach in my practice?

Following this, we can use COVID-19 as a springboard for reflecting on the need for professions to incorporate a caring ethic as underpinned by the motivations and habits of the agent, thus combining our three fields of theory – care ethics, virtue ethics and agency.

In proposing that these three fields can coalesce and provide insights into our field’s “road less traveled”, it is first necessary to clarify several key points. The first of these is the inherent rejection of virtue ethics by care ethics scholars.

Virginia Held saw care ethics as a distinct moral theory based on its focus on relationships, which sat quite separately to character-based ethics that typifies virtue ethics. While acknowledging the distinction, our research seeks to find the space that exists at the intersection of these approaches, following scholars who have examined the murky ground of whether the motivation of care (virtue ethic) precedes the value of the relationship of care (care ethics). In other words, we are particularly interested in how these fields intersect, as illustrated in the below Venn-diagram.

Research Diagram

We intend to explore this through examining how the public relations agent positions him/herself in caring relationships, and the role played by mindful and positive “habits” which are drawn from the agent-based virtue ethics, including the feelings of pleasure and accomplishment such habits can derive.

Our second point of clarification comes through drawing attention to our project topic: The road less traveled – a title which was purposefully chosen to borrow from the book by the same name, by American psychiatrist M. Scott Peck. While the phrase has become widely used to flag new directions, Peck’s book about living a rich, fulfilling life works as a segue for us to examine how our field intersects with aspects of care ethics, virtue ethics and agency. Peck’s book, in four parts, is about discipline, love, religion/philosophy and grace, which we will draw upon in identifying “the road,” devised as a framework, to guide our field’s normative professional practice.

Formentin and Bortree note how care ethics applies in a continual process through the day-to-day experiences of caring relationships, while Sevenhuijsen explains how caring occurs in four ways: ‘caring about’; ‘taking care of’; ‘caregiving’, and ‘care receiving’. These clarify the role that care plays on a daily basis within diverse locations in society.

This, in turn, cements our uniting of concepts, suggesting that ethics of care come from the intention of care, embedded in the mindful habits of the agent.

Our project will peel back these theories and explore their value for normative public relations practice. We suggest that, despite being emphasized as both a value and practice to fulfil reciprocal needs and human flourishing, the ethics of care has yet to explain the following points.

First, what it means to take, give, and receive care; second, how the reflexivity and subjectivity of the moral agent (i.e., PR practitioners) can work towards exercising care within specialized practices such as crisis communication, corporate social responsibility, and cause communication.

Our study will draw on insights of public relations practitioners in Australia and selected Public Relations Institute of Australia Golden Target Awards providing both a snapshot emerging out of our Venn-diagram to be developed as a framework for action, and a revised theoretical approach to care ethics.

DMRC research program

This project contributes to the research within the following DMRC research program:

Digital Publics

Project team


  • Dr Jenny Hou
  • Associate Professor Jane Johnston, University of Queensland

Project funding

  • Arthur W. Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant

path in a forest