Caring: The Practical Side of Ethical Living; Bob Greenwell, Program Director

We let our big male cat outside sometimes. Once or twice a year, he catches a bird and brings it in the house and displays it proudly in the middle of the kitchen floor. I coo approvingly, while my wife is aghast. She imagines the bird’s pain. I imagine the cat’s satisfaction, and wonder at nature’s ways.

My daughter has two daughters. She has learned some of the modern, stricter styles of childraising from her conservative church. She occasionally resorts to the belt or threat of the belt. Once I brought this up with her. I told her what I was learning from studies of how children grow up to be ethical, and that threatening with a belt did not bode well. She said, Dad, I hear what you’re saying, but I’m raising my kids my own way….Period. In my caring for my daughter, embedded in a long history, I want her to have the full space needed to raise her kids in her way. I care for my granddaughters too, and their future capacity to live out of desire and hope rather than out of fear. I hold both of these cares together. I have to stretch my inner caring space in order to do so.

You’re home during the day. You hear a dog barking. You look outside. There are no prowlers, just the dog barking. You know this dog, and he’s gotten to know you a bit. His bark sounds plaintive to you. He’s tied up on a 15-foot leash in your neighbor’s back yard. Your neighbors are gone all day. You feel a tug at your heart. You should do something.

You’ve gotten to know the owners of the dog too. They moved in about a year ago. It’s taken them a while to warm up to you. They’re a young family with skin colors that make them stand out from the dominant white culture they live in. Your neighborhood is 70% white. This new family no doubt has personal reasons of its own for being cautious in dealing with their new white neighbors. You could foolishly, ineptly, say or do something that would mean one thing to you but another thing to them, something that would seal a barrier of distrust. Gradually, relations have become more cordial. Crazy things happen. Once, a thief, in broad daylight, walked into their garage and took off riding one of the kid’s bikes. Mom started running after him, yelling at the top of her voice. Another neighbor in a car saw what was happening and chased the thief in her car. The thief dropped the bike and took off running to escape. That incident caused some ripe neighborly conversation for a while. Their kids have gotten to know your kids and have played outside with them recently. For the very first time, Mom came into your house a couple of weeks ago, as you shared stories about furnaces and cats. You’re coming to regard this family as good neighbors, and as good people.

Now what should you do about the tied-up dog? Is this an ethical issue? When I put myself in your place, and look inside myself, I do not detect any whiff of an Ethical Principle demanding to be upheld. I’m only aware of my feelings for the dog. I have a sense that he is not happy, frustrated in his natural urges, and I feel an urge in myself to do something. Countering these feelings are the feelings about the neighbors and the impulse to continue nurturing the relationship and not accidentally ambushing it.

Caring is not free of conflicts. When we care, we develop our capacity for caring, for giving full vent to the caring even when different cares are creating cognitive dissonance or tearing our heart apart. You could learn to stop hearing the barking, and so stop caring in that way. Or you can honor the feeling you have, and put your mind to work, checking for possible cultural biases in the way you’re reacting to the barking, searching for a creative solution to what to do, or reconciling yourself to living with your own inner conflict.

Is this an ethical issue? To me, it is. It’s about caring. Every day there are opportunities to expand and strengthen our caring capacity, or to diminish and weaken our caring. Yet for thousands of years, this is not what philosophers and moralists and religious teachers have meant by ethics. Ethics has meant the establishment of supreme rules of moral behavior, and the judging of behavior as either in accord with these rules or not. And what makes a man or woman good or bad? If they regularly act in accord with ethical rules, then we say they are
good, moral people. What an external, abstract, impersonal way of apprehending the worth of people! Yet this is the traditional approach.

Oh, caring was always somewhere in the neighborhood. Generosity, charity, lovingkindness, gratitude were all regarded as virtuous qualities. But the real thrust of ethics always seemed to deal with how we treated people for whom we didn’t care. Did we still treat them fairly, respectfully, without favoritism, ethically? Traditional ethics meant judging people by supreme moral principles.

Well, if ethics meant supreme rules of behavior, where did these supreme rules come from? For some, they came from God. For others, they came from the need for social order and control. For others, they didn’t come from anywhere; they just are.

Let’s look at these three. You tell your little boy to stop biting his baby sister. He says Why. You say, Because it’s wrong. He says Why. You repeat this exchange several times. Finally, you say, with a booming voice, Because God says so! Your little boy finally gets it, apparently. Actually he probably shuts up because of your booming voice or tone of exasperation. Now there’s a real psychological advantage to this approach. The little boy gets a sense of hugeness and power attaching to this word God; he can picture God in any way that his mind is currently capable of picturing, and he can invest enormous feeling into the picture, putting everything he can imagine that God must be if his parents defer to it and if God is so everywhere and so concerned about everything that a little boy’s biting his little sister counts for so much.

Let’s try another approach. You tell your little boy to stop biting his baby sister. He says Why. You say, Because it’s wrong. He says Why. After several rounds of this, you get to your booming voice proclamation, Because I say so! He finally gets it and shuts up. This approach too has power. In fact, that’s what it has — power. It asserts power and teaches power. When you are the butt of exercises of power, the most usual thing is to begin to want to reverse the roles and have the power yourself. This is the origin of real-politick. Machiavelli becomes your patron saint. This approach to ethical principles, all boiling down to self-interest, generates a lot of passion in its followers too, glorifying the joys of conquest, victory, one-upmanship, superiority, and having more than others. You don’t need a supernatural religion to promote these values — just social structures that give them loose rein, and cultural mores that glamorize them.

These two approaches — the approach of “God Says So!” and the approach of “I Say So!” — result in two large worlds of people at odds with each other, or two large social forces at odds with each other: the vast world of religious devotion to supreme moral values invested with personal meaning, and the vast world of secular politics and economics where hard-boiled realities of self-interest, power, and expediency hold sway. Of course, these two get mixed up and contaminated with each other in many interesting ways throughout history.

But let’s look at the third approach that has also been tried. Your little girl bites your baby boy. You say Stop. She says Why. You say Because it’s wrong. She asks why and why again, and you boomingly proclaim, Because it’s just wrong! She stops asking why, stops biting her baby brother for the moment, but what’s going on inside? Probably not much. Perhaps a little puzzlement, but most likely nothing more that a realization that it’s time to stop asking why and move on to something else. Without any concrete image to attach to this abstract notion of Wrongness, it probably just evanesces into thin air. The approach of calling in God as source of right and wrong invests ethics with vast cosmic significance, personalized according to the young one’s imaginative abilities. The approach of simply asserting one’s own authoritative power as parent invests the notion of right and wrong with the power-hunger of the oppressed. The third approach of asserting the intrinsic values of right and wrong in themselves generally fails to take much root at all. The exceptions, people who heroically attain a passion about pure ethical values, prove the rule by being exceptions. There have been philosophers and moralists who have valiantly labored to give ethics its own footing and source of passion, from Plato and Aristotle to John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and our own founder Felix Adler, but so far without great effect. The world still moves jerkily along on its two muscular legs of supernatural passion and secular self-interest.

Just when it seemed as though it would ever be this way, necessarily so, along comes something actually new in the world. At least this was my reaction when I read Nel Noddings book, Caring, published in 1984. I shook my head in wonder, and thought, “This is completely new. It’s the insight that’s been missing. We may yet be able to develop a full, rich, passionate human ethics!” The full title of Nel Noddings book is Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Do not let the phrase “a feminine approach” put you off. This work could not have been written without the powerful intellectual ferment provided by the feminist movement of this century. It is what allowed her to think differently, and to dare to put forward something altogether untraditional, altogether new. But by “feminine” she does not mean off-limits to men. She means, rather, in her words, “feminine in the deep classical sense — rooted in receptivity, relatedness, and responsiveness.” “Feminine,” she writes, “does not imply either that logic is to be discarded or that logic is alien to women. It represents an alternative to present views, one that begins with the…longing for goodness and not with moral reasoning.” (p.2)

An ethics that starts with the longing for goodness. Feel the difference in that starting point. It leads to a new answer to the question, “Where do supreme moral principles come from?”

They come, Noddings says, from the human experience of caring. In fact, moral principles are not supreme after all. Caring is supreme. Moral principles that can be articulated as rules are derivative from the imperative to care. The rules and their exceptions must be always firmly rooted in a conscious caring, else they are not ethical at all, just expressions of fanciful supernatural beliefs or rationalizations of self-interest.

What we’re doing here is demystifying ethics. In doing so, we find that we are humanizing it. We start with natural caring. That’s a given. I mean really given. Not given like some assumption in a system of metaphysics. Not given as like an axiom at the start of a mathematical proof. Natural caring is given to us, concretely, as we enter the world, experientially. Yet it’s not an absolute either. Sometimes the gift is not there. A baby is unwanted. Or the mother has lost the capacity to care. Sometimes a new human being must be heroic in order to attain to ethical caring. Sometimes, without the original gift, ethical caring is never achieved. But we start with where we actually start. We don’t just pop into the universe as an individual atom of being. We are born into a relationship with the woman who gives birth to us, a relationship that pre-existed our birth. This relation is constitutive of who we are. And most times, the gift is there: the relationship is one of natural caring.

From the outset, this caring is inclusive and reciprocal. We have to learn how to exclude, through traumas and vicissitudes of living, where the injury is not tended to by one-caring and the pain absorbed back into inclusive caring. What we are given is natural inclusive caring.

Now this new human baby is not passive. It responds with appreciation of care, and with care itself, and it evaluates. It looks the gift horse in the mouth. The new one recognizes in bones and sinew and gut, before brain has a chance to translate anything into thought or to get distracted, that this is the highest good, this is what life is all about at its best, this is the meaning of the good life. Not a life without pains, but a life in which the pains and the crying and screaming and thrashing about are held in a context of caring. Noddings puts it this way: “The relation of natural caring [is] the human condition that we, consciously or unconsciously, perceive as ‘good.’” Wow! This is the line that most made my head spin, made me giddy with revelation. The relation of natural caring is the condition that we, consciously or unconsciously, perceive as good. It is the summum bonum, to borrow a phrase from medieval philosophers, the supreme good. The supreme human good must contain both joy and purpose, and that is what caring does. Joy, notes Noddings, is precisely “the special affect that arises out of the receptivity of caring.” (p. 132) As for purpose, Noddings brings to our awareness that “In caring… there is aroused in us the feeling ‘I must do something.’” (p. 14) This is the obligation side of caring. But this is not an externally imposed or externally arriving obligation; it is self-generated. It comes from me and is part of me.

Next comes the recognition that life is not always like this. A seed of desire arises that says, Life should be like this. This seed develops into what Nel Noddings calls our “ethical ideal.” The ethical ideal is a picture of myself as a being embedded in the joy and work of inclusive caring relationships, both as one-caring and as one cared-for. Perhaps this internal picture, this ethical ideal, is what religions have meant by “conscience.” Maybe it’s what Freud meant by “superego.” But neither of these ring true to one who cares. My ethical ideal is a combination of my affirmation of the caring relationship as the ultimate human good, my longing to restore, maintain, and enhance such caring, and my intention to care even when not easy. Nel Noddings writes:

It is this ethical ideal…that guides us as we strive to meet the other morally. Everything depends upon the nature and strength of this ideal, for we shall not have absolute principles to guide us… Since we are dependent upon the strength and sensitivity of the ethical ideal — both our own and that of others — we must nurture that ideal in all of our educational encounters… We are dependent on each other even in the quest for personal goodness. How good I can be is partly a function of how you — the other — receive and respond to me. Whatever virtue I exercise is completed, fulfilled, in you. The primary aim of all education must be nurturance of the ethical ideal. [pp. 5-6]

Our circle of caring grows more complex, as we discover there are more people in the world than mom and me. Our mind stretches to universal principles that express the inclusiveness we felt from the beginning. But these principles must ever be fueled by actual caring. When severed from the source of ethics, universal principles become excuses for uncaring acts, or mere pretenses for one’s behavior.

How does one behave ethically? Isn’t this the practical question that newcomers to our Movement bring to us? Isn’t this the question that long-time members still want an answer to? How does one behave ethically? Not by consulting a book of rules of moral conduct. Not by subscribing to some universal principle and then trying to figure out how to apply it to the current one-of-a-kind situation we’re actually facing. Not by imagining a father-figure or king or judge in the sky looking down on us, perhaps sending us signs or clues about what to do, and then judging whether we act ethically or not. No. How do we behave ethically? We behave ethically by behaving caringly. Noddings’ caring ethics gives content to Ethical Culture’s abstract principle to elicit the best in the other and thereby in oneself. The content of ethics is caring, in all its magnificent manifestations and transformations. Ethics is in us. Ethics is our caring, both in the joy of caring and the work of caring, the joy and work that together lead to our deepest and broadest fulfillment.

We tell the truth not because of any abstract principles but because we care about the people to whom we are talking. Or sometimes we do not tell the truth, or the whole truth, because we care about the people to whom we are talking. Or we tell the truth because we care for our own ethical ideal of inclusive relation. The motivation is the same — caring. We do not kill because we care about the people whom we would kill. Or we kill because we care about people who will be killed if we don’t. We care too for ourselves, without whom we would not be part of any caring. These carings do not necessarily provide simple answers. What if I care more about my group than about yours? Caring has to remain always rooted in the real, and the real is more real when close at hand, concrete, brimming with specific memories and perceptions. If I care more for my family and close friends, does that mean that it is ethical to treat others with less care, less respect, or even with contempt? No, but it does mean that we have to rethink and revitalize our concepts of universal respect and fairness. We devise general rules as guides. But they are guides only, not absolutes. In any real concrete situation, in the real practice of living, what should be done ethically can only be worked out through an upsurge of the caring attitude. This does not make things easy. Or efficient. Or neat and clean. Not practical in those senses. Only practical in the sense of being absolutely real. There’s a lot of work to be done in our ethical understanding, now that we know where to start.

In a wonderful book called Ethical People and How They Get To Be That Way, by Arthur Dobrin, Leader of the Ethical Society in Long Island, published in 1998, Arthur cites empirical research that shows that the kind of discipline of children that assists their growing up to be ethical people is the discipline that presents empathic reasons for the parent’s demands. For example, you want Johnny to share the toys, and you say ‘Sharing makes other children happy.’ Such a statement, Arthur says, is more likely to be accepted and internalized by the child than a statement that appears to be a reason but really isn’t, such as ‘It’s good to share.’” (p. 78) In other words, empathic reasons build on the natural caring relationship that the child already knows about and values.

Your little boy bites his baby sister. You say Don’t do that. He says Why. You say, “Because it hurts her, and it hurts me to see her hurt. And it makes me smile to see you smile.” With this answer, if there has been a nurturing of the caring relationships in the family all along, the little boy doesn’t need to ask Why again. You’ve reached an ultimate, and he knows it’s an ultimate from his own experience.

Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture movement, wrote in one of his later essays:

The first idea animating the Ethical Movement is the idea of moral progress in the ascertaining of new moral knowledge, as well as better moral behavior. Matthew Arnold said in effect: “We have the moral knowledge we need; all that is necessary is that we apply the principles we already possess.” The very opposite is the main contention of this movement of ours. We do not possess the moral knowledge which we need — far from it. [pamphlet publ. in May, 1945, The Meaning of an Ethical Society.]

In this spirit, I think we now have the opportunity to begin to open up the wondrous and complex human dimensions of ethical living. We can move from reliance upon a supreme ethical principle, to reliance upon a supreme ethical attitude. The caring attitude. When I care, I am open to the reality of the other, and the other can sense whether I am authentic or not. It’s not so much that “I” have empathy as that I allow empathy to have me. I experience his or her life as though it were my own, and experience an urge to do something, as though it were my own life that was in peril, or my own life that had an opportunity of joy, if the moment be seized. There is natural caring, in which we are simply always ready to be open to the other’s experience, as mother with infant, and infant with Mom. And then there is developed ethical caring, in which we stretch, strengthen, and inform our caring capacity. Here is the concrete palpable meaning of our principle of treating everyone as having intrinsic worth. To treat another human being as having intrinsic worth is precisely to regard him or her as being worthy of being experienced by you from their inside. No contempt, no disdain. I could be you, and I would be no less worthy of being cared for and no less worthy or entitled to care. The ultimate good for humankind is in our hands.