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The Maternal Factor: Two Paths to Morality

The Maternal Factor: Two Paths to Morality

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by Nel Noddings

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In this provocative new book, renowned educator and philosopher Nel Noddings extends her influential work on the ethics of care toward a compelling objective—global peace and justice. She asks: If we celebrate the success of women becoming more like men in professional life, should we not simultaneously hope that men become more like women—in caring for


In this provocative new book, renowned educator and philosopher Nel Noddings extends her influential work on the ethics of care toward a compelling objective—global peace and justice. She asks: If we celebrate the success of women becoming more like men in professional life, should we not simultaneously hope that men become more like women—in caring for others, rejecting violence, and valuing the work of caring both publicly and personally? Drawing on current work on evolution, and bringing concrete examples from women’s lived experience to make a strong case for her position, Noddings answers this question by locating one source of morality in maternal instinct. She traces the development of the maternal instinct to natural caring and ethical caring, offering a preliminary sketch of what a care-driven concept of justice might look like. Finally, to advance the cause of caring, peace, and women’s advancement, Noddings urges women to abandon institutional, patriarchal religion and to seek their own paths to spirituality.

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"The book remains a must-read."--Ethical Perspectives
Ethical Perspectives

“The book remains a must-read.”

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The Maternal Factor

Two Paths to Morality

By Nel Noddings


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94780-1


The Evolution of Morality

In this book, I am interested primarily in the evolution of morality through female experience and how that morality might be described. It makes sense, then, to start with a discussion of maternal instinct, infant bonding, and the empathic capacities developed through the basic experience of mothering. After laying out this story, we'll look at some current work on the evolution of morality—work that often ignores female experience entirely. The chapter will conclude with an outline of topics and questions to be addressed in later chapters.


The instinct to nurture and care for offspring is basic to the survival of every species. Some of the "lower" animals—insects, fish, and reptiles—may simply prepare the natal environment so that the newly hatched are likely to survive without the attention of a parent. But most mammals must provide food and protection for their babies until they are ready to fend for themselves. It is usually the female who cares for the young. Sometimes a male provides protection for both mother and infants, but some males have been known to threaten or even destroy the young. Then the mother, with help from one male or other females, must defend her babies. Often she will do this at the risk of her own life.

It is hard even to imagine what the earliest human females must have suffered in birthing and rearing their children. The best we can do is to tell a plausible story—some of it based on what we know about our likely ancestors among the primates. But certainly, a successful female—one who survived and nurtured more than one living infant—was aided by capacities associated with the maternal instinct. Maternal instinct prodded her to care about her infant's survival. She wanted it to live. To care successfully for it, however, she had to learn how "to read" the infant, understand the needs expressed, and have the resources to meet these needs. Is the infant hungry? Cold? In pain? In need of grooming? Females incapable of this basic reading would be unlikely to have surviving infants. Each new generation of females would likely have a propensity for what might be called elementary empathy.

It is necessary now to interrupt our likely story to say more about this crucial word empathy. With Martin Hoffman and Michael Slote, I want empathy to include both cognitive and emotional processes that help us to understand and sympathize with what another is experiencing. Hoffman says: "The key requirement of an empathic response according to my definition is the involvement of psychological processes that make a person have feelings that are more congruent with another's situation than with his own situation."

Donald Broom also refers to empathy as a process: "Empathy is the process of understanding the experience of another individual, cognitively and emotionally." But this definition, too, begs for a description of related—perhaps necessary—processes under discussion here, such as receptive attention and the "reading" (cognitive apprehension) of others.

The designation "psychological processes" covers a large territory. What psychological processes are involved? Given this definition, how is empathy different from sympathy? Historically, "feeling with" or "feeling for" has been identified with sympathy, and the original use of empathy (first in aesthetics and then in psychology) referred to a cognitive process of understanding. It did not mean taking on the other's feelings but, rather, understanding the other's perspective. As such, empathy could be used for instrumental or immoral purposes as well as moral ones.

In earlier work, I expressed some reluctance to use the word empathy because of these ambiguities. But it represents a powerful shorthand, and I will use it occasionally here, with the understanding that it has both cognitive and emotional elements, and that the emotional element is primary. In care ethics, empathy is regarded as receptive, not projective. We do not "project" ourselves into the other in order to understand. In chapter 2, the processes involved in empathy will be examined more closely.

Now, back to our story. The earliest human mothers had to "read" their infants and respond to their expressed needs. Clearly, feeling is involved in this early empathy. The mother felt something as a result of her infant's expression of need. But then she had to assess the need; this is the "reading" process to which I've been referring. I will call needs so discerned expressed needs, because the mother's intention is to discover what the infant feels as a need. In contrast, a mother might assume a need without considering the child's expression. In much of what will be developed later, the distinction between expressed needs and assumed needs will be important.

Having decided what the child's expression of need means, the mother must respond to meet the need. In this "I must," we see a pre-moral imperative. The mother is not obeying some moral principle; she is responding quite naturally to the child's need, for the child's sake. But again, thinking is required in deciding what to do.

The problems involved in finding and using resources had to be pressing and omnipresent in the earliest days of human life on earth. Although we do not know details of early mating practices, we do know that the first humans, like their primate ancestors, were social beings. Why did females select and settle down with one mate instead of raising their offspring in enclaves of females? This choice is still veiled in mystery. Perhaps permanent affiliation with one strong male gave more protection for a woman and her babies. This seems reasonable. The female, naturally bonded with her infant, would seek or accept a male who would defend her child. Males might accept such responsibility in return for the ready availability of sex and the assurance that resulting offspring were his own. Having a dependable, readily available source for sex might well have been seen as more convenient than fighting other males for every opportunity. If, further, the male could secure more than one female, the arrangement might be very attractive to both male and females, who would form a social group to provide further protection for the young. The female's main criterion for selection of the male would be his strength and willingness to protect her and her young.

The male, however, was rarely as committed to the young as the female. Although we now have evidence that concern—even altruism—shows up in nonhuman species along bloodlines, paternity (until recently) has been an inference; it is not so easily established as maternity. It is almost certain that the female had to keep the male satisfied if she wished to retain his services as protector and provider of some resources. Thus, in addition to learning to read her infant, she also had to read her mate. Was he hungry? Angry? Wanting sex? Wanting to be left alone?

While both relationships contributed to the female's evolving capacity for empathy, the one with her mate also conditioned her to subservience and dependency. Unable to protect her young alone and unable to achieve her ends by force, she accepted a role complicit in her own subordination. Care theory urges an end to this subordination. Some feminists worry that the ethic of care will actually contribute to the continued subordination and exploitation of women, but I will show that such an assessment rests on a misunderstanding.

Notice that as we seek the evolutionary sources of morality, we are looking at social beings from the start. Both males and females start out in relation, and females are virtually defined in relation. Frans de Waal, whose work we will consider again in chapter 6, acknowledges that women understand connection and relation better than men do, but he insists that connectedness applies also to men.

But how does connectedness apply to men, and why have they so often rejected the idea in favor of individualism? Why have some men felt the need to construct elaborate theories to explain and defend social connectedness? Somewhere along the way, males did become more invested in the lives of their offspring. That investment may have been prompted, as already suggested, by the desire for dependable sex and other creature comforts. But we can be quite sure that a male's intense interest in establishing conditions to ensure that the offspring were indeed his is at least in part a reflection of the tendency humans share with the nonhuman world to identify with members of a kin-group. In historical times, male interest in offspring also became bound up with interest in property. The offspring as well as their mother were considered the male's property. Further, even today, although both mothers and fathers sometimes abandon their children, it is far more common for fathers to do so. And, when children are killed by a parent, it is much more likely that the murder was committed by the father. The murder of a child by its mother occupies public attention for months, even years.

As surviving females grow in the capacity for empathy, their offspring—both female and male (to a lesser extent)—may also develop the capacity. The mother-child relationship begins before birth. We know now that a fetus in the last trimester of pregnancy can distinguish the mother's voice from that of others, and this may indicate a rudimentary capacity for empathy. However, genetic differences in empathic response between males and females are probably there from the start, and subsequent socialization strengthens the difference.

The maternal instinct in females is accompanied by biological responses that encourage empathy. For example, a crying infant—even one unrelated to the mother—will induce a letting down of milk in a lactating female and a tingling in the breasts of those who are not lactating. This biological response may well be accompanied by the customary feelings of sympathy and urgency a woman has for her own child, and it may provide a basis for the development of natural caring beyond maternal instinct. Similarly, females likely developed concern for other females who were nourishing their babies. They were aware of what other mothers were feeling—another extension of empathy.

In the relation between mother and child, we detect also the pre-moral "I must" or "I ought." No matter the mother's own activities, exhaustion, or fear, the imperative "I must" arises in connection with satisfying the infant's needs. As in the case of the lactating mother and a child not her own, the "I must" may arise in response to the needs of some others. When this response is generalized to wider situations, it becomes a genuine moral approach to life, and it is this beginning on which we may build an ethic of care. Before tackling the task of articulating such an ethic, we should engage in some discussion about the meaning of morality and what we are looking for in the present exploration.


Morality usually refers to that huge domain that treats how we should behave, what we hold as good or right and how best to achieve it. Although there is continuing debate over the scope of morality, we generally agree that, although it may have something to say about personal behavior, it concentrates on interpersonal relations. The domain of "oughts" is often contrasted with the world of nature that can be studied by science. If we believe in a sharp separation of the two worlds, we might confine the study of morality to religion or philosophy.

An entirely naturalistic study of morality—one that might leave everything in the domain of "what is," perhaps depending on evolution to select what is best for survival—seems unrealistic as well as unsatisfying. Given the enormous influence of cultural factors and the lengthy periods of time required to realize most biological-evolutionary changes, such an approach would negate the cognitive and affective advantages already achieved. It is necessary to take account of human choice and responsibility, and this opens another huge domain—one that cannot be limited to rational choice or some branch of game theory. We would make a mistake to assume that, once we have uncovered the roots of morality in evolutionary events, we now have the whole story on morality.

Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that philosophers and others studying morality have made a mistake in moving away from rich descriptions and analysis of social life to technical analysis of moral statements, judgments, and universal principles. I think he is right on this, but I will argue that an even greater mistake was made in ignoring female experience. Starting with maternal instinct, humans have developed groups and communities characterized by what I will call natural caring. It is that social state—one in which people respond naturally to one another's needs and feelings—that is prized by most human beings, and I will give considerable space to its description. Natural caring is not a conceptual contrivance. It is a state we see in everyday life—a practical, empathic mode of responding to one another. It is a social way of interacting with others, and we treasure it. But it can be disrupted in innumerable ways, and then we need a more formal way of governing our responses. The purpose of formal morality from the perspective of care theory (what I will call ethical caring in chapter 3), then, is to sustain and expand the community of natural caring. Morality may be thought of as the set of attitudes, rules, and practices that aim to accomplish this purpose.

Consider how different this approach is from the technical work that occupies so many philosophers and psychologists today. The following example may help to make my point. Researchers studying morality present a problem to subjects to see what they will draw upon in making a moral decision. One such problem is known as the Trolley Dilemma. It is presented in two parts. In the first scenario, the subject is faced with a runaway trolley that will plow into five workers on the track. The subject may throw a switch that will redirect the trolley onto a siding where only one person will be killed. Would you (the subject) throw the switch?

In the second scenario, the same conditions exist, but no switch is involved. Instead, you are standing beside a very large man whose body—if he is pushed onto the track—will stop the trolley. Would you push him?

Investigators have found that most people would pull the switch in scenario 1, but they would not push the large stranger (thus killing him) to save five others in scenario 2. Ostensibly, this tells us something about the effects of proximity on our moral responses. We are not willing to kill even for a "good" purpose if we have to do it face-to-face.

Now my question is, Is the Trolley Dilemma really a moral problem? When I first read scenario 1, I thought, How could I throw a switch to change tracks? I don't know how to do this. Surely, one needs a special instrument? We can't have just anyone running about switching trains from one track to another. Then the influence of years of mathematics, logic, and philosophy kicked in, and I thought, Well, it's just an abstract problem—a game of sorts, and I should pretend I know how to do this. Maybe they are trying to count the number of Utilitarians versus the number of Kantians in the population.

But then I decided to think about the scenarios as many of the participants in Carol Gilligan's study did. I began to consider the human beings involved as though this were a true story. Suppose the five workers are part of a chain gang of really despicable criminals. I would still prefer to save their lives, of course. But suppose the person on the sidetrack is our good mayor, or an innocent schoolboy, or my elderly mother. (Why in the world would either the mayor or my mother be prowling around a railroad siding? Never mind, play the game.) Surely I would not sacrifice any of the three to save five criminals.

What would I really do in either scenario? In scenario 1, I would yell, wave my arms, jump up and down to warn the men on the track, and in scenario 2, I would poke the stranger next to me so that he, too, in perhaps a louder voice, would join in the clamor of warning. I might clutch his arm in horror, but I would not push him.

I am not arguing that we learn nothing at all from these abstract dilemmas, nor am I arguing that nothing remotely like this ever faces us in the real world. Along with the Trolley Dilemma, the Lifeboat Dilemma has also been popular. In this story, people crammed into a lifeboat in violently stormy seas realize that their boat cannot sustain such a large passenger load for long, and they believe that, with no rescue on the way, they will have to make it to shore in the lifeboat. Unless they lighten the load, everyone will die. How should they lighten the load? In the nastiest versions of the dilemma, students are asked to evaluate the relative worth of the passengers' lives. Should we toss the elderly overboard? They don't have much longer to live anyway. But two very heavy men would do as much to lighten the load as three or four scrawny elders. In some versions, a saint—perhaps Mother Teresa—is included in the group. Would you value your own ordinary mother over the saint? To their great credit, I have known students who refused to play this game.


Excerpted from The Maternal Factor by Nel Noddings. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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"The book remains a must-read."—Ethical Perspectives

Meet the Author

Nel Noddings is Lee Jacks Professor of Education Emerita at Stanford University. She is the author of many books, including Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (second edition), Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy, and Women and Evil, all from University of California Press.

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