Too Posh To Wash?

-By Joanna Roughton

Is cleaning a moral virtue?

If there is an answer, then it is to theologians or ethicists that we might be tempted to turn. But it is a question with growing real-world relevance and, as such, it is something which affects us all.

I say this in light of the latest row in Britain regarding standards of care in NHS hospitals. There is a raging debate within nursing about whether some of our nurses, many of whom now have degrees, are “too posh to wash”. The theory, and that is all it is since proof would be impossible to come by, is that highly educated staff see mundane domestic tasks as beneath their pay grade. And here lies the rub, if you’ll excuse the pun. Since it is in the exercise of these very tasks that an intimate relationship between a carer and cared for, begins to take shape. 2

When we wash someone who is bed-ridden, we are involved in an intimate encounter. It requires, by its very nature, tenderness and frank communication. There can be no standing by the door, barking instructions. A carer who also cleans must, necessarily, be up close and personal. So cleaning, in the caring context, might be seen as morally, as well as pastorally, virtuous. But it might be possible to extend that analysis. On the macro scale the act of cleaning connects.

When I pick up my brush and sweep the yard, I am forming an invisible bond with all those people – predominantly women – for whom such tasks remain a daily necessity. It is brief opportunity to live out a universal and global human experience. One which provides a nexus, not only with the somewhere else, but another time too. As long as there has been dust, there have been cleaners! And on the micro scale, cleaning can be seen as a act of goodness. 3

Sometimes housework is presented as a straightforward binary choice between home and work. But this is to ignore an obvious, but frequently overlooked, third choice. It is entirely possible to elect to stay at home and do little or nothing. There are many men and women whose lives would be given form and structure, if only they could find the discipline needed to do the housework.


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