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