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The feminist ethics of Nel Noddings

               First, a summary of NEL NODDINGS, CARING: A FEMININE APPROACH TO ETHICS AND MORAL EDUCATION (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984)

            Beware: summarizing is a rational-analytic process that truncates the intuitive experience of receptivity (e.g., in reading), which is essential to establish an appropriate relationship with another person (e.g., an author).

            Nel Noddings, a former high school mathematics teacher, now in the School of Education at Stanford University, draws on her experiences as a wife and mother.  Caring as a parent and as a teacher are her paradigms.

            She articulates her ethic by contrast with an ethic of rational principle, which appeals primarily to principles, propositions, justification, fairness, and justice (1).  This approach is associated with the father, is detached, and is prepared to "tear into others whose belief or behaviors differ from ours with the promise of ultimate vindication" (2).  This approach tends toward violence in the name of moral principle and emphasizes moral reasoning.  An ethic of rules designed to be universally applied appears to obscure the very differences between people that give rise to moral problems.  She regards maintenance of the caring relation, however, as a universal requirement which saves her ethic from relativism (85).

            Noddings criticizes the enterprise of justifying conclusions about morality, but defines ethics in terms of justification: "to behave ethically is to behave under the guidance of an acceptable and justifiable account of what it means to be moral" (27).  "When we care, we should, ideally, be able to present reasons for our action/inaction which would persuade a reasonable, disinterested observer" (23).  At the same time, "Moral statements cannot be justified in the way that statements of fact can be justified.  They are not truths.  They are derived not from facts or principles but from the caring attitude" (94).

            The alternate approach is "rooted in receptivity, relatedness, and responsiveness" (2), is concerned with seeking more information, talking to the participants to see their eyes and facial expressions, to receive what they are feeling."  This approach reasons on the basis of feelings and needs and impressions.  The focus is "not on judgment and particular acts but on how we meet each other morally."  Uniqueness and subjectivity are emphasized.  "Since so much depends on the subjective experience of those involved in ethical encounters, conditions are rarely 'sufficiently similar' for me to declare that you must do what I do" (5).

            The book's title associates caring with the feminine; it must be understood, however, that women have no monopoly on the feminine.  "It may be the case that such a approach is more typical of women than of men, but this is an empirical question I shall not attempt to answer" (2).  "Contrasts between masculine and feminine approaches . . . are not intended to divide men and women into opposing camps.  They are meant, rather, to show how great the chasm is that already divides the masculine and feminine in each of us and to suggest that we enter a dialogue of genuine dialectical nature in order to achieve an ultimate transcendence of the masculine and feminine in moral matters. . . .  [But] "I shall have to argue expressively" (6).  She uses the feminine pronoun to refer to the one-caring and the masculine pronoun to refer to the cared-for.


            The pattern of caring: from intuitive receptivity through reasoning to caring which is completed in the receptivity of the cared-for. 

            We rarely start with reasoning, but usually "in an intuitive or receptive mode" (7) with "memories, feelings, and capacities" (8).  Caring is not a matter of emotion, the degradation of consciousness described by Sartre (33).  Necessary to caring is engrossment and motivational displacement.  I become engrossed in who/what I am caring for, and other motives become displaced.  There is a flow of motivational energy which is shared and put at the service of the other.  "When one cares, there are active moments of caring in which the engrossment must be present.  In those moments the cared-for is not an object.  In Buber's words: 'He is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes and Shes, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities.  Neighborless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament" (74).

            Primary receptivity is not a matter of "putting oneself into another's shoes."  Such a procedure is a deliberate act of projective imagination and effort to understand (30).  (The golden rule, as a rule, belongs to the ethics of principle.)  Nevertheless Noddings says, "Caring involves stepping out of one's personal frame of reference into the other's" (24); "I begin, as nearly as I can, with the view from his eyes" (15); she cites Kierkegaard, "I must see the other person's reality as a possibility for my own" (14).  "The one-caring receives the child and views his world through both sets of eyes.  Martin Buber calls this relational process 'inclusion'" (63) (rare in institutionalized helping arrangements).

            "How can you even know that you are actually 'receiving the other'?"  In being totally with the other person there is no infallible intuition.  Sometimes we feelingly recognize that the person is in pain, but we fail to assess the cause of pain aright (25) [this explanation for error is identical to that of the rationalist, Descartes].  "I must see the cared-for as he is and as he might be--as he envisions his best self--in order to confirm him" (67).

            The feminine approach has its own kind of rationality, the "receptive rationality of caring."  In caring the activities normally identified as involving reasoning function as the middle phase in the process.  There is a danger of a hasty shift into the objective, procedure-following, problem-solving mode (25).  Our reasoning arises from receptive experience.  Reasoning is the intermediate phase of the process of resolving a question. 

            She appears to experience caring as self-forgetting identification with the cared-for, punctuated with ever renewed thinkings and dualities.        

            It is a total conveyance of self to other, a continual transformation of individual to duality to new individual to new duality.  Neither the engrossment of the one-caring nor the perception of attitude by the cared-for is rational; that is, neither is reasoned.  While much of what goes on in caring is rational and carefully thought out, the basic relationship is not, and neither is the required awareness of relatedness. (61)

Caring is not discerned by external, "objective" observation.  Caring is sometimes spoken of as a burden (which occasions the remark that it's not just a matter of claiming to care [10]; some "helping" activities may indeed be uncaring).  We care about things.  We also care for self and others.  Caring needn't be outwardly obvious; a mother's refraining from interfering with her teenage son can manifest caring (10-11).  Her ideal is to be consistently One-Caring, someone ready to give herself, someone who is present in the acts of caring, with an attitude that warms and comforts or "frees you to embrace the absence you have chosen" (19).  The caring attitude is holistic, does not use strategies, say, for certain learning goals (62).

              One learns to participate in cycles.  At one stage, things are allowed to enter with little restriction; a reservoir of images and energy is stored up.  Then a focusing takes place; the energies are made dense, brought sharply to focus on a point of interest.  Then a diffusion may occur.  The energy is converted to light and scattered over the entire field of interest illuminating elements and ground.  The field is now characterized by coherence and grace.  Both initial and final stages may be characterized as receptive.  In the first we receive what is there; in the last, we receive what-is-there in relation to what-is-here.  We see how we are related to this object to which we are related. (60)

            There is something like a circuit of caring [my term, not hers] which must be completed in order for caring to be actualized.  The one cared-for has responsibilities, too--mainly to tune in to the caring that is coming his way.  This includes recognizing the readiness of the one-caring to give herself, to see her present in the acts of caring or in the acts.  Not necessarily that the cared-for must express gratitude or give something back to the one-caring, but he must be receptive/responsive to the caring that is going on.  "If the demands of the cared-for are too great or if they are delivered ungenerously, the one-caring may become resentful and, pushed hard enough, may withdraw her caring" (47) or turn back in "anguish and concern for self" (74).  When caring goes right, ". . . the cared-for 'grows' and 'glows' under the perceived attitude of the one-caring" (67).  But the one-caring cannot demand or constrain the cared-for's response.  "The freedom, creativity, and spontaneous disclosure of the cared-for that manifest themselves under the nurture of the one-caring complete the relation. . . .  What the cared-for gives to the relation either in direct response to the one-caring or in personal delight or in happy growth before her eyes is genuine reciprocity" (74).

            What if you are supposedly the cared-for but the one-caring is inauthentic?  When the caring is not coming through as genuine, one can either (1) move covertly into the role of one-caring and fake the role of the cared-for or (2) heroically interpret the "one-supposedly-caring" at her best and respond to what should have been the intention ("the way of hope and beauty") (77). 


            The ethic of caring and its motive: actualizing one's ideal.  We all know what it is like to be naturally caring for someone else, and to receive such caring from another person.  "This goodness is felt . . . " (49).  We intuitively recognize that this is the way we want to live.  When we can, we do.  When we cannot, we perceive a basic obligation: "I must."  "My first and unending obligation is to meet the other as one-caring" (17).   We rouse a secondary, unspontaneous caring by motivating ourselves toward our personal ideal of becoming a consistently caring person.  "Caring for my ethical self commits me to struggle toward the other through clouds of doubt, aversion, and apathy" (50).  My ideal must be realistic; it must take my failures into account, and it must not be impossible to achieve.  There are situations in which my ethical capacity is diminished, e.g., when alternatives are tragically restricted, e.g., on account of competition or participation in hierarchal institutions (113-20).  The ideal is strong, beautiful, energetic, proud, yet humble on account of one's dependence on support and energy from the other (104-08).  Why be moral?  Because, on the one hand, I am moral.  And on the other hand, because I want to be moral (51).  The ideal is nurtured through dialogue, practice, and attributing the best possible motive to others (120-24).

            Rules and conflicts.  None of the conventional rules is absolute.  Not that in the name of Principle one is permitted to betray another person.  The point rather is that caring for someone is so primary that social conformity is readily sacrificed (52-53).  There is a permanent liability for guilt, since caring can lapse or go wrong.


            Joy.  One maintains and enhances the ideal through rejoicing, e.g., celebrating the available beauty of daily repetition, and of homey, physical phenomena and activities (124-31).  Our basic reality is relational, and our basic affect is joy.  "[T]he occurrence of joy reveals the part of our fundamental reality that may be identified with the feminine as it is experienced by both men and women" (134).  We should be careful not to overgeneralize regarding emotions and to give adequate recognition to the conscious aspects of emotions.  She observes that joy is like emotions, in that it is occasioned by contact with an "object," but unlike typical emotions, is not advanced as a reason for doing something (142-43).  Sartre well describes the departure from rational engagement when emotion arises in activity.  Joy is irrational when it is exalted or unworldly or when it supplants other awareness.  But receptive joy, joy over relatedness, joy in the very between of the relationship--she lets herself grope for words/concepts--such joy is registered in addition to objects.  Such joy leads to the growth of altruism and social sensitivity (143-44).

            It often seems to sweep over us without being directed at an object.  It is triggered by something; but the joy itself seems to arise from something beyond the immediate object.  Further, it seems often to accompany a reflective mode of consciousness . . . . (133)


              Experiences of caring lead Noddings to regenerate the traditional ontology of levels of things, ideas, and beings who are sentient in varying degrees.  Among different species of animals, there are degrees of responsiveness to our caring.  We have a duty not to bring needless pain.  The chains of natural caring are such that to care for one cat binds us to caring for other members of the same species (148-59).  What about the natural environment?  It is not strictly appropriate to care for plants.  The persons involved in the controversies take precedence over, say, the trees that are disputed (159-161).  There is a legitimate "aesthetical" caring for things and ideas.  We behave ethically only through things, not to things.  We understand in the rhythm of effort and surrender.  Our creative experience with ideas goes through three phases: intuition, incubation, and illumination (161-69).


            The central aim of moral education is to enhance the other as caring.  The teacher identifies with the student while recognizing his independence.  The teacher's role is to attribute the best motives to the student.  Her role as the one who gives support and encouragement is inconsistent with her role as the one who gives grades.  Schools need to be restructured to permit an open, free-wheeling caring, through a greater diversity of activities.  Those who hold power in the schools, however, will not easily relinquish it. 

            There is an innate desire for competence (according to psychologist Robert White, sympathetically presented by Noddings), which she defines as "a global mastery of conditions in one's personal or professional environment" (62).

            Educational strategy should be built on the purposes of the student (Dewey) (63).  Education should make room for non-skill-building, etc. time to permit creative discoveries to dawn (144-46).

            A study of exceptionally creative architects discloses that their parents showed "an extraordinary respect for the child and confidence in his ability to do what was appropriate.  Thus they did not hesitate to grant him rather unusual freedom in exploring his universe and in making decision for himself--and this early as well as late.  The expectation of the parent that the child would act independently but reasonably and responsibly appears to have contributed immensely to the latter's sense of personal autonomy which was to develop to such a marked degree. (73, quoting Donald MacKinnon)


            Noddings's challenge to a religious ethic of love.

            Noddings's atheism is expressed in terms of a protest against violations of caring in male-dominated religion.  Noddings cites Nietzsche as one of the authors who have influenced her philosophy.

            There are those who locate the source of their ethicality in God, and others who find theirs in reason, and still others who find theirs in self-interest.  I am certainly not denying the existence of these positions nor their power to motivate some individuals, but I am suggesting that they do not ring true to many of us and that they seem off the mark or unnecessarily cumbersome in their search for justification. (104)

            The first problem with agapism is that it makes love obligatory (74).  The demand for universal love leads to conflicting demands for caring, is impossible to actualize, and tends to invite abstract talk that supplants caring.  But Noddings upholds "an internal state of readiness to try to care for whoever crosses our path" (8).  Rather, there are "concentric circles" of caring: one cares much for those nearest.  But there are "chains" of caring: I come to care for someone; that person cares for someone else; so I come to care for that third person.  What about strangers?  "I can meet him only in a state of wary anticipation and rusty grace, for my original innocent grace is gone and, aware of my finiteness, I fear a request I cannot meet without hardship" (47).

                        There is no command to love nor, indeed, any God to make the commandment.  Furthermore, I shall reject the notion of universal love, finding it unattainable in any but the most abstract sense and thus a source of distraction.  While much of what will be developed in the ethic of caring may be found, also, in Christian ethics, there will be major and irreconcilable differences.  Human love, human caring, will be quite enough on which to found an ethic. . . . (29; cf. 4)

            She speaks of "natural inclination," "natural caring."  The story of Abraham, willing to sacrifice his son in obedience to [what he thought was] the command of God, illustrates how far religion can carry us from caring (43ff; 97-98). 

                        There are many women who will deplore my insistence on locating the source of caring in human relations.  The longing for something beyond is lovely--alluring--and it persists.  It seems to me quite natural that men, many of whom are separated from the intimacy of caring, should create gods and seek security and love in worship.  But what ethical need have women for God?  I do not mean to suggest that women can brush aside an actually existing God but, if there is such a God, the human role in Its maintenance must be trivial.  We can only contemplate the universe in awe and wonder, study it conscientiously, and live in it conservatively.  Women, it seems to me, can accept the God of Spinoza and Einstein.  What I mean to suggest is that women have no need of a conceptualized God, one wrought in the image of man.  All the love and goodness commanded by such a God can be generated from the love and goodness found in the warmest and best human relations. (97)

              Let me say a little more here, because I know the position is a hard one for many--even for many I love.  In our earlier discussion of Abraham, we saw a fundamental and deeply cut chasm between male and female views.  We see this difference illustrated again in the New Testament.  In Luke 16, we hear the story of a rich man who ignored the suffering of Lazarus, a beggar.  After death, Lazarus finds peace and glory, but the rich man finds eternal torment.  He cries to Abraham for mercy:

Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.  But Abraham said, "Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented.  And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.

              But what prevents their passage?  The judgmental love of the harsh father establishes the chasm.  This is not the love of the mother, for even in despair she would cast herself across the chasm to relieve the suffering of her child.  If he calls her, she will respond.  Even the wickedest, if he calls, she must meet as one-caring.  Now I ask again, what ethical need has woman for God?

              In the stories of Abraham, we hear the tragedy induced by the traditional, masculine approach to ethics.  When Kierkegaard defends him in an agonized and obsessive search for "something beyond" to which he can repeatedly declare his devotion, he reveals the emptiness at the heart of his own concrete existence.  If Abraham is lost, he, Kierkegaard is lost.  He observes: "So either there is a paradox, that the individual as the individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute/or Abraham is lost."

              Woman, as one-caring, pities and fears both Abraham and Kierkegaard.  Not only are they lost, but they would take all of us with them into the lonely wilderness of abstraction. (97-98)

[Is her critique of the implications of the text from Luke 16 accurate?  Is there any way for someone who regards that passage as a teaching of Jesus to defend the story?]

            She remarks about the responsibility for and the response to evil:

            But this evil [of a woman who murdered her abusive husband while he slept] is not An Evil sustained by cosmic forces and just waiting to trap the weak and unwary.  It is created by individual human beings making conscious choices.  When one intentionally rejects the impulse to care and deliberately turns her back on the ethical, she is evil, and this evil cannot be redeemed. . . .  One cannot be rescued from evil as from a burning house [a popular Buddhist image]; one must choose its opposite.  Nor can evil be redeemed with compensation; it can only be terminated, rejected unequivocally.  Evil is not likely, either, to be weakened or reversed by the submission of its victim.  Again we see that an ethic of caring is a proud ethic.  It does not turn the other cheek in meek submission.  It seeks to prevent a second blow.  It does not seek to "heap coals of fire upon the head" of the transgressor nor to prove its own superiority in accepting evil while giving good.  It seeks to preserve and enhance caring. . . .  How often are we lost because we do not know until too late that we are dealing with evil.  This is an unavoidable danger of acting under the guidance of an ethic of caring. (116)


            Critical questions.  Noddings works with the hypothesis that there tend to be psychological as well as biological differences between men and women.  Some literature characterizes men at their worst and women at their best.  Why is this practice understandable?  Is it fair?  To what extent does Noddings do so?  Are her characterizations of men and of religion an example of tearing into others?  To what extent are they legitimate?  Is it always wrong to tear into others?  On p. 97 she explicitly and deliberately pursues a critique of religion that she knows many of the women she loves will find painful.  Can this be called "tearing into others"?  What is the difference?

            Is her concept of caring as remote as she claims from agape?  Does her discussion of joy witness to spiritual experience?  Does she intend the joy of caring to be a substitute for religious experience?  Is her concept of the ideal comparable to the concept of an evolving soul?

            Nel Noddings and Paul Shore, Awakening the Inner Eye: Intuition in Education (New York and London: Teachers College Press, 1984).  This book brings together many sources from Pythagoras to contemporary and new age psychology, all focusing on intuition.  Arithmetic is founded on intuition, which is required to "pick out discrete objects, locate them in space, and separate them from their backgrounds" (49).  Noddings astutely recognizes the major role of intuition in the history of philosophy as the foundation of such knowledge as is available to us.  Thinkers disagree about what kinds of intuition we have, but not about the grounding of reason in intuition.  She summarizes points from Aristotle, Plotinus, Descartes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Kant, Hume, Schleiermacher, Husserl, and others.  A quote from Descartes: "Intuitive knowledge is an illumination of the soul, whereby it beholds in the light of God those things which it pleases him to reveal to us by a direct impression of divine clearness in our understanding which in this is not considered an agent, but only as receiving the rays of divinity" (13).  Richard Rorty is cited for his analysis that "intuition" can be used to mean (1) unjustified true belief, (2) immediate knowledge of the truth of propositions, (3) immediate knowledge of a concept, or (4) nonpropositional knowledge of an entity (42).  She says, "If we allow intuition to reflect on inner activity we can have clear knowledge of intellectual things without Platonistic paradigms" (52).

            Intuition may be mistaken, but it arises with conviction.  Michael Polanyi (Personal Knowledge): "Therefore, as it emerges in response to our search for something we believe to be there, discovery, or supposed discovery, will always come to us with the conviction of its being true.  It arrives accredited in advance by the heuristic craving which evoked it" (148).  She is prepared to distinguish the intuition itself from the feeling of certainty that often accompanies it (53).

            Many people charge that our practical purposes so distort our perceptions that we can never honestly say that we have a neutral, objective intuition.  Noddings agrees that purpose affects perception, but insists that one of the purposes we can have is simply to intuit what is there (54).  Sometimes she appears to waver on one related point.  She tends to insulate her claim about the primacy of intuition from all balancing remarks, denying that any conceptual mediation is implicit in intuitive experience: "Intuitive activity involves immediate contact with objects of knowledge or feeling.  Cognitive or conceptual schemes do not mediate the interaction" (69).  At the same time she wants to acknowledge that intuition is dynamic, without creating its object whole cloth.  There are constructive and receptive aspects of intuition (53).  The proportion of purposeful/imposing vs. receptive/attentive varies in different types of intuition.

            Intuition is appreciated in the history of ethics as a special faculty for recognizing moral distinctions regarding (1) the moral value of a particular action and the moral hierarchy of motives, (2) a class of acts which can be intuitively known to be wrong, and (3) the synthesis of morality into a single precept or criterion (34).

            "The intuiter reacts in a certain way as if his actions reflected something he knew" (27).

                                                                                                Jeffrey Wattles 11/91