The following is an excerpt from the book Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom, taken from the name of an Internet-based talk radio show I did in times past. The topic of chapter five is “Relationships and Social Policy That Foster Moral Development and Caring.” My two impressive partners in dialogue are psychotherapist and author Marianne Preger-Simon, Ed.D. and noted philosopher and professor, Nel Noddings, Ph.D. Concepts we try to elucidate in our engaging conversation include moral development, care, caring, love, maturation, socio-emotional development, nurturance, empathy, morality, character, and responsibility.
Note: Dr. Simon is symbolized by MS:, Professor Noddings is NN; I am JM. For paragraphs with no initials, assume they are a continuation of the speaker who was speaking in the previous paragraph. I highlight words having to do with values and virtues by placing them in boldface type.
“We need to understand historically how we came to think that individual freedom is the highest good, that institutions stand in the way of our freedom. We need to understand how we failed to see that the virtue in autonomy, in the sense of personal freedom, can be realized only along with other virtues, such as care and responsibility.” ~ Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, & Steven M. Tipton
JM: One of the things that can make a major difference in the quality of life, as well as the greatness of America, would be to raise children who are almost always safe, secure, happy, healthy, moral, well-adjusted, civically-minded and generative.
How do we get from here to there? What are the constituent elements of this complex goal? What can we learn from our past to shape our future? Can science, philosophy, education, religion, or politics play a role? Are we talking about “character education”? What are the elements of caring, healthy relationships? What role does free market capitalism play in this evolution – if any? Can virtue and morality even be taught per se? What new social policies should (or, in today’s climate, could) be enacted? Should society even be determining what is good, right, and desirable – or is leaving the freedom to choose one’s individual ways and ends sacrosanct, even at the expense of the community?
These are interesting questions; critical ones. I think they might provide some “grist for the mill” as we try to determine how, within the bounds of a pluralistic (or even, fragmented) society, we will make progress in the future. I am relieved to have the ears of two enlightened and accomplished guests to help me in my endeavor…
“Life is mostly froth and bubble. Two things stand like stone: kindness in another’s trouble, courage in your own.” ~ Adam Lindsay Gordon
…My first interlocutor is Marianne Preger-Simon, Ed.D. She’s a psychotherapist in private practice from Whately, Massachusetts. Dr. Preger-Simon has many feathers in her cap; she obtained degrees from New York University and the University of Massachusetts. She has studied and/or practiced psychotherapy, family therapy, personal growth, values clarification, guitar, singing, teaching, dance, and drama. If polymath is appropriate to refer to a female, she seems to fit the bill well. I am happy she made the time to speak with me.
Her book is Heart by Heart: Mothers and Daughters Listening to Each Other. It’s an anthology about transformative moments in pairs of mothers’ and daughters’ relationships – all ages, all stages. Marianne wrote introductions to each chapter explaining a key relationship-enhancing concept which it exemplifies. That’s right up my alley; I like that style of academia. Let’s bring her on now and begin our Q&A about this interesting topic.
Hello, Dr. Simon. Would it be okay if I called you Marianne?
MS: Sure, that’s my name!
JM: Okay, good deal. Thanks for coming on the show.
MS: You’re welcome, I’m delighted to be here.
JM: Wonderful. Please say a little something about yourself so that the listener gains an understanding of some of the things you’ve been into throughout your long and varied career path.
MS: At the moment, besides being a mother, I’m also a grandmother and have nine grandchildren. I’m married. I’ve been leading mother-daughter workshops in a number of different places; I was at Esalen for four years. My first career was as a dancer in Merce Cunningham’s First Company. That was wonderful fun and had nothing to do with mothers and daughters whatsoever! I’ve had many different careers since then— I was a folksinger; I’ve been a teacher in the inner-city schools; I’ve conducted all kinds of workshops throughout the United States and in Canada.
JM: Interesting. And diverse.
MS: And diverse, yes!
JM: Are you excited about this anthology you put together? How did this book on moral development, caring, and love come about? How did you find the participants?
“For me, it’s empathy. We struggle with ourselves, which means we should be able to connect with other people’s struggles. You need the facts, the analysis to figure out what to do, but empathy is the first ingredient. For me, music and politics are both about trying to find that place to connect.” ~ Eliza Gilkyson
MS: I’m very excited about it. It’s wonderful; there are beautiful poems and touching stories by both mothers and daughters about each other which are very, very moving. When I was editing the book, I was in tears half the time because they are very beautiful and heartwarming.
I have a biological daughter, a step-daughter, and three daughters-in-law, all of whom I love and have been allowed to mother in one way or another. Also, I’ve been leading mother/daughter workshops since 1986, at first with my daughter and then alone. I’ve become familiar with many of the issues that arise between mothers and daughters, and have seen a variety of ways in which those issues have been resolved. Finally, as a therapist I’ve often coached both mothers and daughters, helping them to find new paths to better communication, understanding, or fresh perspectives on their relationships.
I was invited to write a book about mothers and daughters by the editor at a California publishing company. She had seen my workshop listed in the Esalen Institute catalogue. A few [participants] were friends and family members, but most came through an ad I placed in Poets and Writers Magazine. I prepared a ten-point questionnaire to prompt women’s memories and to indicate the types of submissions I was seeking – stories and poems about relationships that were, or became, effective, satisfying, meaningful. I wanted readers to find encouragement, inspiration, and ways for making their own relationships more rewarding.
“…one of the things a wise man knows and a foolish man does not is that such things as social position, wealth, and the good opinion of the world are too dearly bought at the cost of health or friendship or family ties.” ~ Philippa Foot
JM: Indeed, I purchased two as gifts – one for my mother and one for her daughter. There are so many anthologies and compilations out there that are so rich. Stories are very impactful. When someone has an idea and can bring together diverse perspectives from many individuals to bear on a worthy topic, it’s very laudable. I know for a fact it takes a lot of creativity, hard work, and moxie to publish a book when a publisher isn’t knocking on your door, chasing after you (an oddity I assume the best-selling authors are treated to).
So, you’re a marriage and family therapist, I understand…
MS: Yes, I’ve been doing that for 25 years now.
JM: Hmm. So, that’s a pretty interesting experience in regard to relationships and thinking about moral development and caring, is it not?
MS: Yes. It’s all about relationships, basically – ones that are current, or ones that are in the past. It’s very interesting to work with people on those issues. People talk about their mothers forever!
JM: Oh, I know!
MS: It’s a very mysterious, complex relationship— with both parents, but particularly the mother because that’s where we physically emerge from. It continues to be very, very influential all through our lives.
JM: The mother-child relationship – attachment, love, boundaries, safety – are critical to a child’s socio-emotional- and moral development. Talk about some of the influences in addition to that primary one.
“Care is the ingredient that keeps true friendships alive despite separation, distance, or time. Care gives latitude to another person and gets you past the dislikes and annoyances. Quite simply, caring sustains love.” ~ Sara Paddison
MS: Well, one of the interesting things is that we tend to think of the relation between primary caregiver and infant or child as being just a relationship between two people, but actually there are so many influences that impinge on it. There is always an immediate family when the child is born that influences many factors, such as how much attention the mother has (e.g., who else is pulling on her?).
In addition, generations past leave legacies of one kind or another; I think immediately of alcoholism, which passes down through generations. There are other kinds of legacies, such as education— that a child must go to college, for example – or should work (or not work). Those kinds of family and inter-generational dynamics are cultures that influence tremendously what happens between mother and child.
There are also influences from the outside – from the ethnic culture in which people live that determines how a person is supposed to grow up. Regions of the country have different effects on a family. Even neighborhoods do. There’s also the physical environment.
If the family has financial difficulties and the parents need to work to ensure they can provide, the child is in the hands of somebody else most of the time. All of those things affect the particular relationship between the parent and child. I think it’s helpful to be aware of how many other influences there are on that relationship so that it doesn’t get so intensely “It’s your fault!” or “It’s my fault.”
“The surest way to knock the chip off a fellow’s shoulder is by patting him on the back.” ~ Zig Ziglar
JM: Socioeconomic status is quite important, I believe. Perhaps more than even race or religion when it comes to determining how a child turns out. The family’s S.E.S. and luck are hugely impactful on the course of a life. Of course, parents and schools and the culture at large are very influential, as well. Genetics; the decisions the individual makes; socio-historical factors. Social science is fascinating and complicated stuff.
This raises the idea of just deserts, merit, and fairness. On the vanguard of this broad and deep philosophical question lies the late philosopher, John Rawls, author of A Theory of Justice, Political Liberalism, and others. He said that “Those who have been favored by nature, whoever they are, may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out.” He really put together an interesting and influential theory of social justice/political philosophy.
I think his work beautifully compares and contrasts libertarianism and egalitarianism. My take on it is that those who inherit large sums of money, or even folks who are as successful (i.e., meritorious) as Oprah Winfrey or Jerry Seinfeld (the few) can accept progressive taxation to assuage the suffering that the many experience – usually through little fault of their own. If we are going to have a system that allows sports figures to make $35,000,000 a year, or actors to pull in $20,000,000 per movie, or families to bequeath $75,000,000 to two children, let’s appropriate some of that money and put it to good (social) use.
Why? Is that fair or unfair? Is wealth redistribution right or wrong? My answer is: we’re all in this together. We are all related in a way. Some perspectives would actually hold that we are one. Despite what the Horatio Alger myth holds, or what rugged individuals often claim, we all rise or fall together.
The justification is both pragmatic and humane. Here is the pragmatic: “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich” (John F. Kennedy) or “There is no finer investment for any country than putting milk into babies” (Winston Churchill). I would be ashamed to be quite wealthy and just sit on my yacht or play the ponies all day, and drink champagne and philosophize at night. What would the honor in that be?
As for the humane, I don’t often quote scripture or refer to God, but I am very fond of The Golden Rule, and the aphorism “There, but for the grace of God, go I” is quite pithy. I also sometimes reflect on Luke 12:48 when thinking about privilege, desert, responsibility, and magnanimity: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.” Anyone who understands that has achieved a decent level of moral development, I would say. I don’t think one can live selfishly and know God; I doubt that Wall Street titans and highfalutin corporate execs can be said to be serving anyone but themselves. This is ignoble, I believe. As humorist Stephen Colbert snapped:
“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
…The conversation is apropos of where the typical American family intersects with society; where the private encounters the public; where the individual meets the Commons; where philosophy meets politics. Marianne, if one wanted to positively impact society 25 years in the future, would not one of the best things one could do be to ensure that families are nurturing, safe, secure, functional, rewarding, well-adjusted, not unduly affected by external pressures, growth-enhancing, loving, stable, authoritative, and, arguably, intact?
MS: Absolutely, because the parents serve as models for the child: this is the way one should be. If the society is supporting the family, it makes a big difference. Mothers are not always treated well; they are not always honored and respected. The relationship between parents and children should be supported in any way that’s possible.
JM: Could you say a little more about the quality and nature of the relationship between a child and a parent?
“People need meaningful work. Is there any more important or meaningful work than caring for other humans, particularly our children, and for our natural environment?” ~ Riane Eisler
MS: Yes. First of all, what is absolutely basic is that the child is welcomed into the world and loved. Loved not because they achieve something, or because they’re a certain way, but because they exist. That’s an enormously important, warm, embracing atmosphere to bring a child into.
Then, in addition to that, it’s very helpful if there is an adult around who can pay attention to the child and encourage her or him and be aware of what he or she is doing or feeling. To appreciate steps and developmental milestones as the child grows up.
I have a client right now who has been thinking about her childhood, and who was very moved when I suggested, “You’re doing great! Keep on comin’!” That encouragement – to see what has been accomplished, and facilitate the child moving forward, to encourage them in doing their best and to keep working toward goals – is very important. Those are a few of the things.
JM: Yes. Would you say that the values that the parents hold can make an impact on how the child turns out – especially his or her moral development?
MS: A tremendous amount. Tremendous impact. I think the values of the parent which the child sees in their behavior – even more than in their words – is very important. If the adults are concerned and interested in other people/in the world/in progress; if they are supportive of the livelihood of other people; if they act in ways that show the child that they care and that they think about things, then the child will pretty predictably absorb those values. There are always some cases where that doesn’t happen, but on the whole, the values that the parents live get passed on to their children.
JM: Mm-hmm. Which are the most fundamental?
MS: Integrity, concern for the environment around them and the world, compassion – all these make a big difference. Parents are models, and the child absorbs that automatically.
JM: Let me ask you a question, and follow it up with a quotation to illustrate what I’m getting at. Do you think that a child can adequately be shown what is moral? Can virtue be taught? Here’s the quotation by Colin Greer:
“It is through caring contacts with adults that young people can learn about strength of character without also learning the rigidity that follows the punishment and forced-feeding that once typified moral education.”
MS: Oh, absolutely, Yeah.
JM: Do you think that there is a sort of “rigid” quality to moral education, and ought it to be so?
MS: I think there can be a rigid quality to moral education, and I don’t think it’s very useful. I think rigid responses to things just teach a child to be rigid. We don’t need rigidity in the contemporary world because it’s changing so rapidly; we need flexibility; we need the ability to respond to new things in fresh and creative ways.
JM: Well, hopefully you can demonstrate your flexibility by bearing with me as I go to a commercial break! To the listener: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Marianne Preger-Simon about not only her book, Heart by Heart, but also more generally about relationships that foster moral development and caring. Please stay tuned through a short commercial, and I will continue in conversation with Marianne, here on Values and Ethics: from Living Room to Boardroom.
Welcome back, here on World Talk Radio. I’m Jason Merchey, happy to be your host. I came across Dr. Preger-Simon because she’s affiliated with the Values Realization Institute. I thought she would be a good guest on today’s show, and I also asked her to be part of the anthology I put together, Living a Life of Value. You can read more about that at www.ValuesoftheWise.com…
“Caring is the heart of ethics, and ethical decision-making. It is scarcely possible to be truly ethical and yet unconcerned with the welfare of others. That is because ethics is ultimately about good relations with other people.” ~ Michael S. Josephson
…I’d like to know more about how the young person is affected by those other spheres superordinate to the caregiver relationship. Developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner developed his ecological systems theory, also called human ecology theory, to depict the individual as having a certain constitution (sex, age, prenatal environment, health, genetics, physical appearance, etc.). But moreover, as necessarily embedded in a microsystem (school, peers, neighborhood, religious group, health services available, and of course, the family). There is also what he theorized to be the exosystem, which includes influences such as friends of the family, neighbors, legal services, social welfare services, and mass media. In addition, the macrosystem; namely, the attitudes and ideologies of the culture in which the child is participating. He also believed that there was a chronosystem that is even wider and harder to visualize – what John W. Santrock described as “the patterning of environmental events and transitions over the life course; ‘sociohistorical conditions’” (time passing, for example; or cohort effects [being raised in the Great Depression qualifies]).
Anyone who sees kids on iPads knows that there is a strong influence of technology on child- and moral development that was not present in bygone eras. Undoubtedly, absent fathers, gay parents, capitalism, a family member in jail, poverty, guns, etc. play significant roles. Some of this is hard to see when one is “in it” – made clearer by a fish metaphor (that a fish doesn’t perceive itself as being “in water” per se, and yet it is thoroughly and inextricably surrounded by it). I really like this idea, and my bachelor’s was from The School of Social Ecology (which was separate from the more cognitively- and individually-oriented School of Social Science) at the university.
That pulls the lens back all the way to the bird’s eye view and is rooted in science and predictability. However, some influences on the child are nuanced, idiosyncratic, and hard to characterize. Mentors and bullies and special teachers, for example. Noted psychologist Leo Buscaglia said: “Too often we underestimate the power of touch, of a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring – all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
“Children who develop strong, caring relationships with all the people and living things around them will be more grounded and ultimately more prepared to function in, and meaningfully contribute to, an increasingly complex society.” ~ Mark Sorensen
…Marianne. I appreciate your time today. I don’t know if you happen to be aware, but in addition to a bachelor’s in psychology/social behavior, I also studied psychotherapy and family systems theory, so I know something of what you’ve been relating pretty well. Murray Bowen, M.D. and others were a pretty big part of my graduate study and an internship I had; I drew genograms and thought about dynamics, prior generations, and anxiety. In fact, I interviewed the influential protégé of Bowen, Michael Kerr, M.D., of the Center for the Study of the Family at Georgetown University, at length about such matters on one program.
But I’m also tuned into politics, sociology, economics and things like this. I have a quotation I’d like to share with you which I hope will kick us off in that direction. The question I would like to think about with you is the degree to which large influences and processes such as social policy, the economic system, the government, the educational system, and so on, affect the development of the person— especially one’s social, emotional, psychological, and moral development.
How does one become a functional and capable citizen; how does one relate to others; how is one governed; what is the ultimate goal of social life; how can children be raised to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem; how do they develop a life that they value – and that is of value to others? So, Bob Kenny writes:
“It is impossible to escape the reality that I live in a culture dominated by money; where values seem to be relegated to a secondary consideration. Yet I realize that I am a beneficiary of this capitalistic system. My challenge is a balancing act: living democratic values (caring, respect, trust, responsibility) in a culture that promotes capitalist values (net worth, status, power).”
…How does this quote make you feel, or what do you think?
MS: Well, I think that money needs to be put to support caring. I think we can put that together. Immediately, I’m reminded of schools: the classes are much too large, the teachers are often under-trained, and in most schools there is not room for the kind of attention and caring every child needs to develop optimally. I think we need to spend our money where we believe is important.
JM: Mm-hmm. Kevin Danaher, Ph.D., whom I interviewed, referred to money values versus life values. Though some people might make arguments like, “If you spend too much money on this over here, then that thing over there suffers.” Cost-benefit analyses and a zero-sum game mentality. One example that liberals constantly get beat over the head with is: If we change the military funding in this country to spend more on schools and social welfare, then we won’t be safe and we still might have underperforming schools and lazy citizens. The military budget is currently not too far from 3/4ths of a trillion dollars a year, year after year. This greatly outpaces most of the other major industrialized countries combined. We also sell more arms and weaponry to other countries for their petty battles and dampening of dissent. As Omar Bradley famously and poignantly put it:
“We’ve learned how to destroy, but not to create; how to waste, but not to build; how to kill men, but not how to save them; how to die, but seldom how to live. …We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”
…Martin Luther King, Jr. struck a similar chord with his famous:
“Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”
…Finally, consider this rejoinder to the military-industrial complex (which Dwight Eisenhower warned us about once he was ready to exit the scene) that Terry Herndon is reported to have made:
“I look forward to the day when the schools automatically receive the funds they need and the Pentagon holds bake sales to buy tanks.”
…One reply to critics of wiser and more humane spending is obviously that the whole premise is absurd. Look what social critic and writer/director of Who to Invade Next, Michael Moore, said in the also-stinging, Bowling for Columbine: “What better way to fight box cutter-wielding terrorists than to order a record number of fighter jets from Lockheed Martin?”
Another is that it is nearly bankrupting us: the debt is simply outrageous – nearly $20,000,000,000,000 as of this editing – whatever side of the aisle you vote for. What does this kind of spending mean for the development of our children – that they should learn how to fly $50,000,000 jets and do battle with the Middle East enemy du jour, or that they should learn to be happy, dedicated, and capable citizens of the republic? What are your thoughts? Specifically, let me ask, do you believe the claim that terrorists are going to ruin our lives if we don’t spend well over $800,000,000,000 a year of citizens’ taxes on the military is true? Is it proper prioritization of our values to put that much tax revenue there?
“Concerns about oneself are not necessarily moral at all…for example, feeding myself when I am hungry is simply a matter of self-preservation. Yet the same concern directed at someone else – such as feeding a hungry child, or guest, or stranger – means caring for that person in a moral way.” ~ Lou Marinoff
MS: I don’t have the impression that all the money we are putting into our military is making us any safer. If I may say so, I think that all of the money that has gone into the war in Iraq has produced an enormous amount of disrespect for the United States and people who are willing to do things to demonstrate that. So, I don’t think it’s wise. If we were raising children who had sufficient money spent on their education so that they were capable, competent, confident, creative adults who could be productive, we would be much safer.
JM: I think you hit the target on that, no pun intended. It’s an excellent point. So, what do you think is stopping us?
MS: Well, what’s stopping us is going along with what the leadership in this country has been pushing. There have not been enough people standing up bravely, and saying: “STOP.”
JM: Do you think that’s because people don’t have the same view that you do about the importance of education and healthcare and the quality of a child’s home life and community? Or do you think that they are distracted by things, confused by misinformation and disinformation, and that, frankly, we are “reaping what we have sown,” educationally- speaking?
“To give aid to every poor man is far beyond the reach and power of every man. Care of the poor is incumbent on society as a whole.” ~ Baruch Spinoza
MS: I’ll tell ya; I believe that most people care about education and care about health. I think that one reason people don’t vote, though they have the opportunity, is that they’re distracted by other cares and problems which, as communities, we’re not helping to resolve in any way. Then, I think people have different ideas about what’s going to produce jobs, security, etc. I do believe that anybody who has children, certainly, is focused on wanting them to have a good education, but the way to get it seems to be in dispute. I also think that 9/11 scared everybody to pieces, so that the general thinking has not been as sharp as it could be.
JM: Yes, yes. And I probably would tag onto that the following: It seems that the last election was marred by “wedge issues” and infighting over values. For example, as it is said: “God, guns, and gays.” Theoretically, a wedge is driven between good people who have relatively similar goals but somewhat different sensibilities and values, causing them to misuse their vote on sound bites, spin, preconceived notions, and dogma. Obviously, money in politics plays a huge role in dividing and conquering people – democratically-speaking.
Well, Dr. Preger-Simon, that is our time. You did a fine job elucidating these issues and representing positive values. I think the listener was educated and intrigued, just like I was, by what you shared. I wish you success with your book Heart by Heart: Mothers and Daughters Listening to Each Other.
MS: Well, thank you very much; it’s been a pleasure.
“Caring is reciprocal. To the extent one truly ‘turns toward the other,’ one is altered. To the extent one brings the other to life, one also becomes more fully alive.” ~ Irvin D. Yalom
JM: Well, now I’m eager to speak with Nel Noddings. She received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physical science from Montclair State College, and a master’s degree in mathematics from Rutgers University. Dr. Noddings worked in many areas of the education system, spending seventeen years as an elementary and high school mathematics teacher and school administrator. She then earned a Ph.D. in education from Stanford University and began making a mark in the philosophy of education and ethics; specifically, moral education and the ethics of care. She became a member of the Stanford University faculty in 1977, and was the Lee L. Jacks Professor of Child Education from 1992 until 1998. Professor Emerita Noddings received awards for teaching excellence in 1981, 1982 and 1997, and was the Associate Dean of the School of Education for four years. After leaving Stanford, she taught and did research at Columbia University and Colgate University. Dr. Noddings is the past president of the Philosophy of Education Society and the John Dewey Society. Nel has 10 children, 39 grandchildren, and over 20 great-grandchildren – many of whom are educators themselves. She has authored over 200 articles and chapters on various topics ranging from the ethics of care to mathematical problem-solving. She has authored fourteen books, including Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, Educating for Intelligent Belief or Unbelief, The Challenge to Care in Schools, Philosophy of Education, as well as In a Different Voice.
As Wikipedia notes, “Nel Noddings’ approach to ethics of care has been described as relational ethics because it prioritizes concern for relationships. Like Carol Gilligan, Noddings accepts that justice-based approaches, which are supposed to be more masculine, are genuine alternatives to ethics of care. However, unlike Gilligan, Noddings believes that caring ‘rooted in receptivity, relatedness, and responsiveness’ is a more basic and preferable approach to ethics.”
I’m honored to welcome a renowned philosopher and educator to the show. Hello, Professor Emerita Noddings.
“We are fully human only in the concerned act of serving and caring for the other.” ~ Ellen A. Herda
NN: Hello, I’m here.
JM: Thank you so much for speaking with me. Would it be okay if I called you Nel?
NN: Sure, of course.
JM: Okay, superb. I’m not sure how long you’ve been listening, but I was speaking with Marianne Preger-Simon, a psychotherapist and editor of a book entitled Heart By Heart: Mothers and Daughters Listening to Each Other. We had the lens pulled back to the macro level in the end, but also focused on the parent-child relationship and things such as care. Perhaps you’d like to say a little something about any of those ideas and I’ll just shape what you’ve said with a follow-up question…
NN: Well, I think the very first thing for people to keep in mind is that the first step in learning to care is actually learning to be cared for. As I talk to teachers across the country, particularly primary school teachers, they tell me that a lot of kids come to school needing to learn to be cared for, and until that happens it is fruitless to try to get them to care about others. I think we sometimes forget that we need to supply the conditions, both in homes and in schools, under which kids feel genuinely cared for.
JM: The book Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education – I wish I’d thought of that title! That’s a beautiful idea and I’m sure that in the book you fleshed it out in wonderful eloquence. Can you share a little bit about the book?
NN: Actually, I kind of regret the subtitle! I’ve taken a lot of flak on that – the feminine approach. I didn’t mean to give an essentialist argument there. The fact of the matter is that I don’t know how deep the genetic differences are between men and women, particularly the psychological ones.
Rather, in using that word, I was pointing to the fact that, for many centuries and in virtually all cultures, women have been assigned the task of caretaking, and that generally involves caring as I’ve described it. Certainly, I did not say in the book that caring is exclusively the domain of women; I don’t believe that at all. I believe that men are quite capable of caring, and that, in fact, we should give more time to this in schools, and we should expect boys as well as girls to care.
“We cannot each single-handedly cure all of society’s ills, but we can contribute more kindness, more caring, and more consciousness to what is happening inside of us and around us. And that will begin to make a difference.” ~ Barbara De Angelis
JM: I’m a man (laughs), and I’m not really put off by that title. In fact, I think of myself as relatively androgynous, which to me means that I am characterized by both masculine and feminine characteristics. To say that feminine is a proper approach to care does not offend a masculine sensibility in me, personally. Whether moral development and character education should be considered feminine or masculine is a question.
I believe Socrates, one of the first philosophers to theorize about moral development, was quite masculine and perhaps his dialogues reflected his interest in defining values such as justice and wisdom and education, as well as questions of politics and civics and democracy. Perhaps people such as pioneering psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (who investigated moral development) create relatively neutral or stereotypically masculine approaches to moral development, and it’s perfectly fine for someone such as yourself to follow up with some criticism and some emphasis on relationships and the relativity that marks more feminine based approaches to ethical decision-making.
NN: Yes, your take on feminine and masculine as separate but related to male and female is right. Many great thinkers and writers – Virginia Woolf comes to mind – talk about femininity and masculinity as social constructs; that is, they’re not built into us biologically but are constructed socially, and she thought both of them were abominable. That is, the social construction of masculinity has led to aggression and warfare – you know, the sense of “manliness” defined by the warrior – and that femininity was so defined that it supported that view of masculinity.
I think what we need to do is to learn from the experience of both men and women, and we certainly need to allow and encourage girls to participate in fields that were once thought to be “men’s domains” (I’ve spent a good part of my life teaching mathematics). I think that girls who want to should be encouraged to enter math and science, that’s for sure. But, on the other hand, I think that boys should be invited to participate in the important activities that have been considered “women’s domains.” So, I would like to see more young men in early childhood education, nursing, social work, and so forth. I think we will have a much more balanced world that way.
JM: Acknowledged. Let me ask you, regarding feminism, is it not true that the approach there, at its highest, is not really about femaleness as much as it is about values such as equality?
NN: Sure, sure. Liberal feminists, in particular, are driving for equality in the world as it is. I am certainly a feminist, but I push for transformation of the world; that is, I don’t want just equality in the world as it currently stands, I want a better world— not only for women but for men and children as well.
“Martin Buber’s description of an I-Thou relationship, and the accounts of interdependence offered by Carol Gilligan and other students of the psychology of relatedness, help point the way to an understanding of the fullest response to others of which humans are capable.” ~ Alfie Kohn
JM: Well said. Let me give you a quotation I have of yours, and ask you to give some background. I think I understand what you were getting at, but let’s take it from the top to be sure we all do: “Our ethic of caring, which we might have called a feminine ethic, looks to be a bit mean in contrast to the masculine ethic of universal love or justice, but universal love is an illusion.”
NN: What I mean to point out there is that people talk easily about “universal love,” but it’s mainly talk and not much action. So, I was separating two kinds of caring: caring for, which is taking direct responsibility for the other in a relation – even if it is a short interaction (such as when a stranger stops us on the street to ask for directions). Naturally, we’re more interested in the caring encounters that take place over a period of time. Here we would find the caring responsibilities we have for family. When I care for members of my family, I certainly do many, many things that I can’t be expected to do for everyone in the world. That’s what it means to be part of a family. This is taking direct responsibility.
Contrast that with caring about – which is important, mind you – but it isn’t full-fledged “hands-on,” taking responsibility for. So, we may care about starving children in Africa, but we have to ask, What comes about as a result of that caring about? Do we vote differently? Do we check up on the organizations to which we give money? What does it really mean to say “caring about”? My contention is that ethical action begins with that direct caring for, and the realization that we can’t possibly do for everyone in the world once we have an absolute responsibility to do for those in relationship to us.
JM: So, is that what you would call a critique of certain ethical theories that, in practice, sort of break down in regard to their applicability?
NN: Yes, you could fairly say that.
JM: What type of response have you gotten since you and colleagues such as Carol Gilligan started putting forth ideas about moral development such as this?
NN: Well, some of the initial responses were that of shock! I know there was one misunderstanding that more or less said that we have no obligation to care for the starving children in Africa – that was a particular quote. Obviously, we don’t have the obligation to stop everything we’re doing – for example, caring for our own children – and run off to Africa to do some good. In the second edition of Caring, I emphasized, because there were so many misunderstandings, that it doesn’t mean that we have no obligation at all to fellow human beings – we should do something, but it should be something that fits with obligations that we have already established.
“It is important to realize that the major health problems of the world largely continue to exist, not because we do not know how to prevent disease and keep people healthy, but because no one is putting enough effort and money into doing what we already know how to do.” ~ Peter Singer
JM: So, when you say “already established,” it seems to me that though we haven’t really made a pledge to help innumerable, anonymous, distant others, we have made a pledge to help and be in relationship with certain others (friend-friend, boyfriend-girlfriend, parent-child, neighbor-neighbor, congregant-congregant, etc.).
NN: Oh, Yeah. And more than a pledge. The idea that I was trying to develop in that book and in the books I am working on now, is not the virtue of the person who is caring; the concentration is on the relation. I’m asking the question: Under what circumstances can we properly call a relation caring (and in particular, this caring for)? That means, in order to complete the relation, there has to be some response from the cared for. This is impossible when you’re caring at a distance. I have no way of knowing for sure that the relationship is “completed” because I have no direct contact with the people on the other end.
JM: Well, I think you probably did catch me saying something that comes from a masculine frame of reference when you spoke about the word pledge. I think that does reflect that “duty-based” ethical perspective. Philosophers such as Nozick and Rawls specifically point to moral duty vis-à-vis a pledge – i.e., where no pledge has been made to help, no obligation to help therefore exists.
NN: That’s not bad, Jason. I think we have a tacit agreement (but not in that masculine, Rawlsian way, where everyone sort of “signs on the dotted line”), but we do make this sort of heartfelt pledge when we marry, when we have children, or when we take pets into our household. In these cases we have an implicit contract there: we promise to care for. With pets, those relations are in a sense completed because we get a healthy, tail-wagging/meowing response.
“Charity is a virtue of attachment, and the sympathy for others which makes it easier to help them is part of the virtue itself.” ~ Philippa Foot
JM: Got it. If there were a scientific experiment, or maybe a fortuitous accident, that left somebody with the parts of their brain that could feel damaged and inoperative, would your theory be the same? In other words, that your theory rests on emotion per se (as differentiated from cognitive mechanisms)?
I am thinking of the character Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Though fictional, the writers imbued him with a sense of aliveness, of ethical sensitivity and interpersonal sophistication, and so on. Though he has a cat, and though he conducts ongoing relationships with crewmates, and though he endeavors to understand humanity and do the right thing, he is not driven by emotion because as an android, he is bereft of the blessing/curse of feelings. Quite a few interesting episodes involved Data trying to “be human” and fit in, but just not quite succeeding.
“I have mentored many young women with childhoods similar to mine, helping them cope with home lives that are untenable, helping them find positive ways to adapt until they were able to be on their own. They have all gone on to lead productive lives.” ~ Ruth Westreich
…I am also thinking of the sociopath, who can be characterized as having elements of thinking that omit critical emotional and ethical and relational aspects. Would human beings in the real world maintain caring relations with others if they had no feelings? Is reciprocity integral to caring, intimacy, relations?
NN: Whoa, you’re asking a really tough one. I myself have written controversial material on euthanasia and other topics. It depends very heavily on the capacity of the other to respond in a “humanly-detectible” way. If you talk to nurses of patients, or parents of really severely handicapped children who are simply incapable of making certain responses, we find enormous difficulty in caring for such victims because, as “carers” we are dependent on that response.
I pointed out so many times that when parents have to get up in the middle of the night to respond to a crying baby, of course, we’re irritated at first but when we enter the room, a little creature is in pain, and the whole picture changes; we’re able to respond quite fully.
The same thing is certainly true in teaching: when our students respond positively, that’s what keeps us going. Physicians have told me similar stories— that when patients are responsive it makes all the difference in their work. So, we’re talking about interdependence: “carers” are, at least in part, dependent on the response of the “cared for.” That’s what makes the relation a caring one.
“We should want more from our educational efforts than adequate academic achievement, and we will not achieve even that meager success unless our children believe that they themselves are cared for – and learn to care for others.” ~ Nel Noddings
JM: That elucidates the issue a bit for me. I know that if I were awakened three times a night by a speaker which emitted a plaintive wail, it would be very disturbing, but as you point out, when you go in there and you pick up your baby it engages a brain that is “wonderfully human.” We are special because of mental processes that involve cognitions, memories, wants and needs, neurotransmitters, hormones, and pleasure-reward pathways. Even the brilliant (fictional) scientist and inventor Noonien Soong – the individual who “invents” Data 300 years hence – can’t synthesize a human successfully. He can make an android stronger and smarter and faster and more durable, but not human.
NN: Yes. Note, when I say how difficult it is for nurses and parents to work with children in whom there is no “characteristically human response,” they are called upon to use “ethical heroism,” and deserve all the support from the community possible.
JM: I hear you. Well, thank you kindly for your time today. It was appreciated. I was so gratified to have you on the show.
NN: Thank you!
Here are a few more quotations on moral development. You are certainly welcome to look up other quotes about caring, care, concern, empathy, love, partnership, nurturance, child development and character in The Wisdom Archive. Always free, always interesting. It’s a great resource for life-long learners.
“Our culture of discussion in our region is to debate, to know the truth, and try to prove to the other one how they are mistaken – and it’s not really helpful. Listening compassionately can enable us to let the other person reveal and discover what is really there.” ~ Hagit Lifshitz
“People have the capacity to love not just their own species, but life in all its shapes and forms. This empathy with the interknit web of life is the highest spiritual expression I know of.” ~ Loren Eisley
“Real kindness is mouth-gaping respect and compassion for just how hard it is to be a human being – any human being.” ~ Rebecca Alban Hoffberger
“Empathy and compassion are our most basic moral impulses, and we can even teach the Golden Rule without lying to ourselves or our children about the origin of certain books or the virgin birth of certain people.” ~ Sam Harris
This is but one of twenty chapters in the book Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom. An e-book is a mere $2.99. I hope you enjoyed these quotations on moral development, care, caring, love, empathy, responsibility, and parenting. Here are others!
Here are TED talks on love.