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The Maternal Factor: Two Paths to Morality

reviewed by Jordan DeCoste - August 02, 2010

coverTitle: The Maternal Factor: Two Paths to Morality
Author(s): Nel Noddings
Publisher: University of California Press, Los Angeles
ISBN: 0520265505, Pages: 304, Year: 2010
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Nel Noddings’s most recent book offers yet another unique, timely, and crucial contribution to the study of morality. Its uniqueness lies in a defence of “the ethics of care,” an approach largely pioneered by Noddings, from evolutionary biology. This case comes at the right time, since more about the basic facts of natural human interaction is becoming known in scientific research and accepted by the general public. Ultimately, though, the book should be widely read because it clearly articulates how and why care ethics might constitute a more descriptively accurate and normatively desirable alternative to the traditional assumptions of moral thinking.

The Maternal Factor (2010) is driven by the following question: What can our biological experience tell us about the ethics of social and political interaction? Traditional theories tend to skirt this question by assuming abstracted accounts of human interest and optimal performance. Noddings indicates that the dominant approach here is to posit a moral standard of self-interest and then work deductively from that generalized rule down to particular instances of praxis. Virtue theory, for example, supposes that one’s interest in exemplifying morally good traits stems from one’s ultimate desire to possess them personally. Agents, then, are thought to be motivated by an idea of morality, which is a principled or justificatory kind of stimulus Noddings sees as a distraction “from the real, deeply felt problems of moral life” (p. 21).

But what, exactly, constitutes “real” moral life? Noddings’s career work has consistently argued that the answer would be in plain view if “relational ethics” were given pride of place over traditionally atomistic views. This text reinforces that point in a new way, claiming that “[w]e might reasonably speak of two evolutionary paths to morality: maternal instinct and self-interest” (p. 159, emphasis original). Though she covers myriad ways in which maternal instinct has been “neglected” by the canon of moral thought, her campaign does concede that care is not the but rather “one primary candidate” for lessons in moral living (p. 6). Additionally, her countervailing claim from “maternal instinct” is not meant to suggest that the phenomenology of all female life is always different from all male experience; nor does it necessarily claim that everything female is biologically distinct from and normatively superior to all that is historically male. Instead, Noddings’s attention to women’s biology is an attempt to be empirically and normatively accurate in understanding the entirety of our moral experience, showing how this shift in our descriptive and prescriptive attention to the oft-neglected case of “maternal instinct” will illuminate the way forward in developing the ethics of care as a viable moral alternative.

The core concepts of her ethics of care – such as “expressed needs” (pp. 12-13), “receptive attention” (pp. 46-48), “motivational displacement” (p. 48), “episode” (p. 49), “encounter” (pp. 49-50), “caring for,” and “caring about” (p. 50) – remain largely unchanged from her groundwork in Caring (1984). Instead, Noddings’s determination here is to address the concerns with sourcing care ethics in an example that is both “instinctive” and maternal (p. 33). As she previously acknowledged, many will find this move “problematic” because it implies a narrow and deterministic type of morality (1984, p. 83). The Maternal Instinct, however, shows that today’s social prescription, from care or otherwise, has been philosophically weakened by scientific discovery, for the essentializing versions of naturalism or cultural pluralism which reify pernicious gender norms are being empirically invalidated.

Contemporary findings in evolutionary biology suggest that today’s gender gap is a product of both natural differences in sex and their cultural reinforcement over time: “The human moral self is an empirical entity shaped by both genetic and social factors” (p. 110). Noddings takes this to mean that the “pre-moral imperative” which directs female response to their offspring’s “expressed needs” is as much a part of the evolution of human morality as our complicity in the subservience of women to men for protection (pp. 13-14). Yet, both women and men begin life in a relationship with those women “caring-for” them, suggesting that the characteristics of caring relations are “ontologically basic” to all human experience and “ethically basic” to all human interaction (p. 26; p. 33; p. 101; Cf. 1984, pp. 3-4). The upshot of this relational view, Noddings argues, is that its grounding in the pre-moral “I must” of the maternal instinct can be “generalized to wider situations” thus defining a “genuine moral approach to life” (p. 16). Noddings first explored this idea of extending care beyond direct encounter in Starting at Home (2002). Yet, before The Maternal Instinct, neither she nor other care theorists had yet to link this “turning point” (p. 240) in ethics to the “biological primacy” of care (p. 26).

Noddings is careful in her movement from the naturalistic example of instinctive caring to the wider, social implications of what she calls “natural caring” and “ethical caring.” The distinction between each is instructive. Natural caring, she says, is “not a conceptual contrivance,” but “a practical, empathic mode of responding to one another” (p. 17). It is the social expression of instinctive caring, always natural and always pre-moral. If caring is to move properly into the traditional domain of morality, centering as it does on rules or principles of right action, then this formalized version of care must remain firmly rooted in what comes to carers naturally. That is, if natural caring fails to obtain or fails to satisfy expressed needs, only then should ethical caring, which is “heavily dependent on reasoning,” be invoked “to establish or restore natural caring” (p. 243). Noddings spends a great deal of time at this point in the argument both to differentiate care ethics from and to show its points of convergence with traditional moral theories, principled or justificatory views she says are “already articulated quite beautifully” (p. 26). However, her treatment of the relationship between these dominant models of moral reasoning and her allegedly alternative view of “critical thinking” leaves some important questions unanswered.

It may well be true that relation is ontologically basic. Indeed, evolutionary biology may empirically support the case. But, no instinct, however auspicious, can sufficiently direct us through all instances of moral conflict. Noddings occasionally signals her awareness of this problem: “Claiming a just cause implies that someone else did something unjust, and it isn’t always clear who has the better argument” (p. 207). A theory of “nice, fuzzy feelings,” she asserts, is not the solution implied by caring from maternal instinct (p. 243). Instead, Noddings takes the wider implications of her account to call for a “desirable mutuality” among “competent adults in equal relations” (p. 167) where “the negotiation of needs requires dialogue” (p. 191). Ethical caring is in this way supplementary to natural caring, and “requires a high degree of skill in critical thinking” (p. 243). Noddings does qualify, though, that “the required thinking is directed at situations and practices of real life, not merely at the perfection of a theory” (p. 243).

One is left to wonder whether Noddings has missed an opportunity to strengthen the status of care ethics by showing its strong points of convergence between the “critical thinking” and “dialogue” involved in “ethical caring” and a leading model of practical reasoning offered by public reason. If she is dismissing the latter as “a sophisticated linguistic/mathematical game entirely foreign to the everyday social life of human beings” (p. 38), then this suggests either that she is not yet prepared to explain how care can respond to the inevitable occasions in which the expressed needs of “competent adults” experience an incommensurable clash or that she is simply unaware of how these “real” problems are a significant part of reasonable conflict in everyday life. The fact that she speaks nothing of public reason or that her examples of critical thinking are somehow illuminated by meeting the needs of infants – i.e., addressing a child’s desire to lift a heavy package (p. 49) – is an unfortunate indication that Noddings might underestimate the gravity and complexity of today’s reasonable moral conflict.

Noddings is likely to dismiss this critique. She would claim that its philosophic context is still within the traditional domain of ethics, one in which our instinctual motivation is reasoned away by principled justification (p. 84). If she is right (and I hope she is), we can (re)learn to better attune ourselves to the natural inclinations of care. But, only then will the strongest of today’s justifications and their theories lose the need for consultation.


Noddings, N. (1984). Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Noddings, N. (2002). Starting at home: Caring and social policy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 02, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16092, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 8:41:40 AM

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About the Author
  • Jordan DeCoste
    Queen’s University
    E-mail Author
    JORDAN DECOSTE teaches and studies political philosophy at Queen’s University in Canada. He has published on Nel Noddings in Interchange. His current research seeks to illuminate the neutrality-perfectionism debate by exploring the competing justifications of political obligation.
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