Nel Noddings: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. (Notes)

I first read this book by Nel Noddings 25 years ago, in a Gender Studies module for my Masters in Education. Her book has been sitting on my bookshelf all this time, rarely looked at, or even thought much about since then, although I have noted how her name is often mentioned in relation to the ‘Caring is Sharing’ meme, which is very popular in open education circles! I’m not sure what Noddings herself would have thought of this.

Recently I have read her book again in preparation for the Philosophy of Education Reading Network’s May meeting.

Although I was 50 when I first read Nodding’s book and had three children in their upper teens at that time, I don’t think I fully recognised the significance of her work. Noddings herself was 55 when she wrote this book. She is now 92. I didn’t know at the time of my first reading that she has 10 children. If you know this, then it’s much clearer how much personal experience she brings to her work on caring. I don’t know how old her 10 children were when she wrote this book. I am just amazed that she managed to bring up 10 children and pursue an academic career, whilst maintaining a focus on caring! She is clearly a rather unique and special woman.

It would be a mistake to think this a book solely for educators of young people, or solely for women, and although I can understand why it was a required text for my MA Gender Studies module all those years ago, I now think it an important text for all educators and carers, as well as for parents, based as it is in an understanding of relation and how to pay meaningful attention to the other.

In this post I will share the notes I made on Chapters 1-7. For notes on Chapter 8 see my next post Nel Noddings: A Feminine Approach to Moral Education (Notes)


In the introduction to her book Nel Noddings tells us that the primary aim of all education must be nurturance of the ethical ideal. The ethical ideal is to be one-caring and to meet the other morally. This resonates even more now than the first time I read her book. Twenty-five years ago I was working as an educator and caring for the children I was teaching, as well as my own three teenage children, so I was reading her book with that focus in mind. This time I am reading it as carer for my disabled husband, and so these notes do not focus as much on caring in teaching (which Noddings discusses throughout the book) as on what is means to care more generally.

According to Nel Noddings, if a relation is to be described as caring, my caring must somehow be completed in the other. This is a very important point which she repeats many times. Noddings believes that the ethical ideal (to be one-caring and to meet the other morally) is difficult to achieve, because ethics is discussed in the language of the father, the masculine voice, which fails to capture the receptive rationality of caring. The mother’s feminine voice has been silent, feminine being understood in the deep classical sense as rooted in receptivity, relatedness and responsiveness. (Masculine and feminine here is not being equated to men and women. Both men and women can be one-caring).

 Chapter 1: ‘Why Care about Caring?’ and ‘What Does it Mean to Care?’

Noddings says that the essential elements of caring are located in the relation between the one-caring and the cared-for. Apprehending the other’s reality, feeling what he feels as nearly as possible, is the essential part of caring from the view of the one-caring.

Caring is always characterised by a move away from self. It involves stepping out of one’s personal frame of reference into the other’s. The time-span may vary, and the intensity may vary, but caring always involves engrossment in the other and a desire for their well-being. In these terms, we can be one-caring for an instant. Warmth, body language, interest and concern are all recognised in the one-caring. To care is to act not by fixed rule, but by affection and regard. The actions of the one-caring are not rule-bound, but varied, and not always what the cared-for wants.

Universal caring is impossible. Conflict and guilt are inescapable risks of caring. There exists in all caring situations the risk that the one-caring will be overwhelmed by the responsibilities and duties of the task and that, as a result of being burdened, he or she will cease to care for the other and become instead the object of ‘caring’.

Something from the one-caring must be received and completed in the cared-for. When the attitude of the one-caring bespeaks caring, the cared-for glows, grows stronger and feels not so much that he has been given something as that something intangible has been added to him.

The danger is that caring, which is essentially non-rational in that it requires a constitutive engrossment and displacement of motivation, may gradually and abruptly be transformed into abstract problem-solving. If rational-objective thinking is to be put in the service of caring, we must, at the right moments, turn it away from the abstract towards what it tends and back to the concrete. At times we must suspend it in favour of subjective thinking and reflection, allowing time and space for seeing and feeling. Caring for is different to caring about (for example, about things and ideas).

Noddings believes that there is a form of caring that is natural and accessible to all human beings, and that human love and human caring are quite enough on which to found an ethic.

Chapter 2: The One-Caring

The one-caring receives the other into herself, sees and feels with the other, becomes a duality. This is not empathy, this is not putting myself in the other’s shoes; this is engrossment. Feeling is essentially involved in caring, but there is also motivation, a motivational shift towards the other. Vulnerability is increased when I care. I can be hurt through the other as well as through myself. All this is particularly easy to recognise in parenting, but the receptive or relational mode seems to be essential to living fully as a person. We move back and forth between this mode (feeling and engrossment) to abstract, analytic-objective problem solving mode.

In caring, we must make plans, respond and express ourselves, but we cannot remain perpetually in receptive mode. We need to move away from the cared-for to think about the problem, but we have to be careful to turn back and avoid caring only for the problem rather than the person. Guilt is a constant threat in caring, from accidents or a lapse of caring, but we must have courage to accept what cannot be changed and to go on caring.

How many people can we care for? Noddings responds to this question by writing about the concentric circles and chains that reflect and sustain caring. In our inner circle are those who we love and so care for. As we move out from the centre we care for those we hold in personal regard, and beyond this to strangers for whom there is the potential to care. Chains of caring are established to those who I may come in contact with through those in my inner circles. There is asymmetry and reciprocity in caring. The cared-for depends on the one-caring and the one-caring is dependent on the cared-for. Both are free and bound.

A natural imperative that arises as I receive the other is ‘I must’. I am closest to goodness when I accept and affirm the internal ‘I must’. The ethical self is an active relation between my actual self and a vision of my ideal self as one-caring and cared-for. As I care for others and am cared for by them, I become able to care for myself.

How can I meet the endless demands of caring? There are no rules or right or wrong. Rules and penalties should be kept to a minimum. There will always be conflicts between the perceived need of one and desire of the other and between what the cared-for wants and his best interest, but rules cannot guide us.

Chapter 3: The Cared-For

In this chapter, Noddings considers the one-caring’s attitudes and its effects, apprehension of caring necessary to the caring relationship; unequal meetings, reciprocity and the ethics of being cared-for.

Noddings writes that the one-caring’s attitude of receptivity maintains and enhances the relatedness that is fundamental to human reality. The basic relationship in caring is not reasoned or rational. The one-caring sees the best self in the cared-for and works with him to actualise that self.

Warm acceptance and trust are important in all caring relationships, but the meeting between one-caring and cared-for is unequal. One-caring involves inclusion (engrossment) and confirmation. It is an attitude that both accepts and confirms. The one-caring must see the cared-for as he is and as he might be, as he envisions his best self – in order to confirm him. The cared-for ‘grows’ and ‘glows’ under the perceived attitude of the one-caring. Caring is completed in reception. It involves two parties: the one-caring and the cared-for. It is complete when it is fulfilled in both. For the cared-for, reciprocity is to freely reveal himself. To behave ethically the cared-for must be free to pursue his own projects. A caring relationship requires the engrossment and motivational displacement of the one-caring, and it requires the recognition and spontaneous response of the cared-for. When caring is not felt in the cared-for, but its absence is felt, the cared-for may still, by an act of ethical heroism, respond and thus contribute to the caring relationship. Thus we can hope that we can learn to care and learn to be cared for.

Chapter 4: An Ethic of Caring

Noddings distinguishes between natural caring and ethical caring. Wanting to care is natural caring. In natural caring no ethical effort is required. ‘I must care but I don’t want to’ is ethical caring. Ethical caring is done out of duty, not love, but it is dependent on natural caring. When we act on ‘I must’ we are under the guidance of the ethical. If we do not care naturally, we must call on our capacity for ethical caring, commitment and obligation. The source of my obligation is the value I place on the relatedness of caring. I am obligated to maintain an attitude to meet the other as one-caring, and at the same time, to increase my own virtue as one-caring. An ethic of caring implies a limit on our obligation. We cannot care for everyone, but the caring attitude that lies at the heart of all ethical behaviour is universal.

Ethical caring depends not on rule or principle, but on the development of an ideal self. Ethical caring is about how to meet the other morally. It is not the study of justified action. As one-caring I am not seeking justification for my action. What I seek is completion in the other. Far from being romantic, an ethic of caring is practical. Caring is both self-serving and other serving. An ethic of caring is a tough ethic. It does not separate self and other in caring. It advocates deep and steady caring for self. If caring is to be maintained, the one-caring must be maintained. She must be strong, courageous and capable of joy.

Chapter 5: Construction of the Ideal

The ethical ideal springs from the natural sympathy that human beings feel for each other and our longing to maintain, recapture or enhance our most caring moments. A commitment to receptivity leads to natural caring occurring more frequently. For some, ethical caring springs from God, reason or self-interest. An ethic of caring strives to maintain a caring attitude, although the one-caring must be maintained and may have to withdraw for repairs. An ethic of caring is not dour, dutiful, cowardly or contemptuous. It finds joy, as well as obligation in its relation to the other.

There may be some constraints on attaining an ethic of care. Self-deception has the potential to destroy the ethical ideal. The ideal can also be constrained by jealousy, greed and small-mindedness. The one-caring never places principle above person. We must accept the constrained ideal, but attainment must be actually possible.

Feeling, thinking and behaving as one-caring mark ethical behaviour, but when caring must retreat to an inner circle, confine itself, and consciously exclude particular persons or groups, the ideal is qualitatively reduced. Ridicule, scorn and sarcasm etc. all undermine the ethical ideal. We (and institutions, such as the military, organizations and the church) may unwittingly contribute to the diminution of another’s ethical ideal. The words and acts of those caring must confirm that they do care. Listening, a supremely important form of receiving, is essential. Dialogue is also of central importance in nurturing the ethical ideal, and practise is required to develop competence in caring skills.

The ideal can be maintained thought activity in the non-human world and appreciation, affirmation and celebration of daily routines and repetition. The one-caring is not bored with ordinary life. Celebration of ordinary life leads to wonder and appreciation of the source of our ethicality. It requires and is likely to enhance receptivity. It provides practise in caretaking skills and induces deep, serene and receptive joy. Nevertheless, the one-caring who is not bored with ordinary life (usually women) need the public recognition that is granted by participation in the larger world of work in order to sustain themselves as persons and as ones-caring. Without this they may turn in on themselves, and whilst may continue caretaking, actual caring may all but disappear.

Noddings believes that women care more easily than men; there are strong biological factors which help women to become one-caring (e.g. motherhood). Men need to learn to care, and women need to learn to maintain themselves as one-caring.

Chapter 6: Enhancing the Ideal: Joy

In this chapter, Noddings discusses how joy often accompanies a realization of our relatedness and is a major reward for the one-caring, so encouraging growth in the ethical ideal. She suggests that joy might be considered an ‘affect’ or ‘feeling’ rather than an emotion, a reflective mode of consciousness, rather than the non-reflective mode associated with emotion, and triggered by something beyond the immediate object. She terms this receptive joy, joy that arises out of awareness of a caring relationship and comes to us unbidden when we are caught up in relation and are listening. Receptive joy sustains one-caring, and is very difficult to express in language. Joy thus seems out of place when considered with other emotions, although Noddings recognises that joy is sometimes an emotion. We do not offer joy as a reason for particular acts, although we may, of course, renew our commitment to caring as we are sustained by joy. Noddings writes that ‘the occurrence of joy reveals the part of our fundamental reality that may be identified with the feminine as it is experienced by both men and women’.

Chapter 7: Caring for Animals, Plants, Things and Ideas

In reading and making notes on this book, I became increasingly aware of how often Noddings repeats herself. This is useful as her key points become clearer with further reading. In this penultimate chapter (p.150) she reiterates what she has written before as follows:

‘The caring relation requires engrossment and motivational displacement on the part of the one-caring and a form of responsiveness or reciprocity on the part of the cared-for. It is important to re-emphasize that this reciprocity is not contractual, i.e. it is not characterized by mutuality. The cared-for contributes to the caring relation by receiving the efforts of the one-caring, and this receiving may be accomplished by a disclosure of his own subjective experience in direct response to the one-caring or by a happy and vigorous pursuit of his own projects.’

She then goes on to discuss the extent to which this is possible in relation to animals, plants, things and ideas.

Our obligation to summon the caring attitude is limited by the possibility of reciprocity. We are not obliged to act as one-caring if there is no possibility of completion in the other, but the desire to prevent or relieve pain is a natural element of caring, and we betray our ethical selves when we ignore it. Noddings writes that whilst animals can be cared-for, they cannot be one-caring in relation to humans. Thinking of dogs, in particular, I wonder if this is true.

Noddings has written that caring, natural or ethical, must be completed in the other and that an ethic of caring limits our obligation to those so far removed from us that completion is impossible, which presumably would apply to animals, plants, things and ideas. Our relation to plants is one-sided. I feel ‘I must’ in connection with my plants. Plants serve me, but they cannot care for me. They are responsive cared-fors.

Our relation to ideas is not ethical. There is no affective reciprocity with things and ideas, but there can be receptivity. In the intellectual domain, this receptivity is sometimes labelled as intuition. In this chapter Noddings spends some time exploring intuition as a receptive faculty, and notes the common features of engrossment and displacement of motivation. She concludes in the summary to the chapter that intellectual caring is not ethical in itself, but may contribute to ethicality by giving rise to receptive joy, which may help to sustain us in our quest for ethicality.

The final chapter in this book focusses on moral education. Since this post is already long, I will share my notes on the final chapter in a separate post.

In this post, I hope that these notes help the reader to understand what Noddings means by an ethic of caring, what it means to be one-caring, and what we can expect from the ‘cared-for’, be they humans, animals, plants, things or ideas. I think these first seven chapters of the book can be read independently of an interest in education.


Noddings, N. (1984) Caring. A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. University of California Press.

Noddings, N. (2005) ‘Caring in education’, the encyclopedia of informal education,

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