It starts with “I must”

Following the works of Carol Gilligan came Nell Nodding’s “Caring” (1984) which similarly explores a feminine approach to ethics and moral education. She begins with the fundamental notion that care is basic in human life and that all people want to be cared for. She states that the application of care as a foundation for ethical deliberation creates a moral attitude which she class “natural caring.” Natural caring is “a longing for goodness” derived from relationships, experience, and memory of being cared for or knowledge of what care would be like. I agree with this notion considering the desire to be cared for and need to be cared for is something I would consider innate and natural in itself, as much as caring seems to be, as well. Noddings examines the way caring is experienced for both, what she calls, the “one caring” and the “cared-for.” Essential elements to caring, she states, are receptive attention, motivational displacement, and an acknowledgement of the degree of reciprocity of the event. Thus, she distinguishes a caring act as one that encompasses the following:

  1. A cares for B – that is A’s consciousness is characterized by attention and motivational displacement – and
  2. A performs some act in accordance with (1), and
  3. B recognizes that A cares for B.

In discussing an ethical ideal, she writes, “it is our best picture of ourselves caring and being cared for.” Essentially, this ideal comes from ourselves and it somewhat relative to each person, which dismisses the belief in a universal ideal, which I believe is important to recognize. I think that’s the point though, to say that no real ethical ideal exists as it is very much relative to the individual. Her work gets a bit sticky when she discusses who our responsibility to care for extends to, specifically with the case of an unborn child and abortions. Noddings argues that the issue is not when life begins but when relation begins. She believes that should relation never form between the fetus and the mother, is it not her obligation.

“We do not have to construct elaborate rationales to explain why human beings ought to treat one another  as positively as our situation permits. Ethical life is not separate from and alien to the physical world. Because we human beings are in the world, not mere spectators watching from outside it, our social instincts and the reflective elaboration of them are also in the world. Pragmatists and care theorists agree on this. The ought – better, the ‘I ought’ – arises directly in lived experience. “Oughtness,” one might say, is part of our ‘isness.’

In contrast ‘ethical’ caring does have to be summoned. The ‘I ought”’arises but encounters conflict: An inner voice grumbles, ‘I ought but I don’t want to,’ or ‘Why should I respond?’ or ‘This guy deserves to suffer, so why should I help?’ On these occasions we need not turn to a principle; more effectively we turn to our memories of caring and being cared for and a picture or ideal of ourselves as carers… Ethical caring’s great contribution is to guide action long enough for natural caring to be restored and for people once again to interact with mutual and spontaneous regard.”

Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.


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