Care ethics in education

Care ethics in education

Shelby, Candice L

Ethicists worldwide are by now thoroughly familiar with Carol Gilligan’s (1982) criticisms of traditional accounts of moral development, characterized in terms of increasing individuation, abstract reasoning abilities, and objectivity. Regardless of the sometimes critical views taken toward her own positive suggestions for an alternative theory of ethics, the value of her insights regarding the incompleteness of such developmental theorists as Piaget (1965), Erikson (1950; 1964), and Kohlberg (1981) has been well established. Indeed, despite numerous ongoing debates, ranging in content from whether Gilligan’s “other voice” articulates any themes new to moral philosophy (Sher 1994) to whether the “care” approach is in fact an ethical theory at all, rather than simply a psychological orientation (Little 1998), and if so, what kind of theory it is (Veatch 1998), the language of care has become widely accepted, and even favored, ] especially in medical ethics. In the field of ethics education, however, authors often write as though no critique of the tradition has ever been offered. Discussion of ethics in education continues to be framed in terms of curriculum to be directed toward students, and, specifically, curriculum focused on either applying principles to cases, or on developing familiarity with, and encouraging the exhibition of, certain virtues (Chazan 1985; Lickona 1991; Bennett 1996). The incompleteness, and indeed the potential for harm, deriving from the continued exclusive focus on traditional models in the discourse of ethics education has apparently gone unnoticed.

Some ethics education packages operate through presenting a set of principles and then instructing students in their application, employing such vehicles as ethics games, tests, or writing assignments. Martin Marietta (now Lockheed-Martin), for example, has distributed to high schools a game-like program, based upon its training tool for employees (Josephson n.d.). The lesson involves instruction in a decision-making process, presentation of scenarios involving ethical dilemmas, and presentation of four possible responses. Students are to discuss the dilemmas in small groups and then decide which response is best. Points (or “steps,” as the game is set up) are awarded based upon the desirability of the response given. “Correct” reasoning is outlined for students by the teacher, as each potential response is evaluated and the “best” one is identified.

More typically, especially in elementary and middle schools, moral education appeals to some version of virtue theory. Certain character traits, determined by curriculum creators to be more or less universally admired in our society, are described and discussed, and their assimilation encouraged. Methods of such encouragement differ, but most involve some form of praise or blame, or, more concretely, punishment or reward, with rewards usually consisting of such things as badges, stickers, notices on bulletin boards, notes to parents, “Good Citizen” awards, and write-ups in school newspapers. Punishments may include loss of privileges; detention in class while other students are free; or having students, on being discovered to have committed an infraction, confess to a school official which of the virtues he or she had failed to exhibit and then describe in what manner the questionable actions fell short of the mark.

More radical than these sorts of moral training is “directive moral education,” or the moral indoctrination approach (Bennett and Sher 1982). According to this view, which appeals to Kohlberg’s (1981) developmental theory, because children are not psychologically capable of being motivated to moral behavior by reason alone, it is appropriate to instill in them certain traits and principles through providing punishments, approval, and role models whom the children would be moved to emulate. In response to challenges that such training violates the children’s autonomy rather than developing it, Bennett and Sher (1982,665-77) declared that directive education provided in childhood may actually support one’s autonomy in adulthood, because the good habits one will have developed through such means will “neutralize or eliminate what would otherwise be a competing motive, and so may enable one’s appreciation of reasons to affect one more strongly.” That is, one may become more autonomous in the sense of being less susceptible to views other than those supported by a specific set of reasons if one is already disposed toward the results to which that set of reasons would lead.


These types of ethics education, at least in their unmitigated forms, present several difficulties. First, they continue to emphasize punishments and rewards, despite all theoretical and empirical arguments against the value of such inducements. From the beginning of the century, such tactics have been criticized as ineffective and potentially counterproductive, if not downright destructive. As John Dewey (1975, 2) noted, rather than using inducements to get children to perform in certain ways, we ought to “aim at making the methods of learning, of acquiring intellectual power, and of assimilating subject matter, such that they will render behavior more enlightened, more consistent, more vigorous than it otherwise might be.” For Dewey (1975,2), the goal of education was “to see to it that the greatest possible number of ideas acquired by children and youth are acquired in such a vital way that they become moving ideas, motive-forces in the guidance of conduct.” Yet this process does not happen via external inducements. As Maria Montessori (1964,21) argued, “Prizes and punishments are, if I may be allowed the expression, the bench of the soul, the instrument of slavery for the spirit . . . not applied to lessen deformities, but to provoke them. . . . [They] are incentives toward unnatural or forced development, and, therefore we cannot speak of the natural development of the child in connection with them.” The alien nature of such inducements, she maintained, degrades and deforms the developmental process of human beings. This theme continues to be echoed today, most recently and popularly by Alfie Kohn (1993) in Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Surely, if the case against punishment and rewards as viable tools for enhancing real human development has continued to receive both philosophical and popular support, it is incumbent on educators to examine critically the currently popular methods of ethics education that continue to use them.

In addition to their adherence to these questionable methods, the value of ethics programs typically adopted by schools is jeopardized by their persistent presumption that the mature moral agent is and should be an autonomous individual who makes decisions through an increasingly abstract process of logically adequate reasoning. School leaders simply do not recognize the possibility of other types of moral reasoning, such as the kind exemplified by Gilligan’s (1982) “other voice,” which focused on interpersonal relationships and the psychology of particular individuals rather than on abstractions, and on needs rather than on the rights of autonomous agents. In fact, each of the types of moral education so far described consciously fosters, to the extent it can, the maturity of the moral agent as defined in the language of Piaget, Erikson, and Kohlberg.

This approach seems problematic for at least two reasons. First, as Gilligan discovered, men who had undergone the sort of maturation process such approaches value and foster reported in significant numbers being disaffected in their personal relationships as adults, resulting in dissatisfaction with their lives as they moved into middle age. Clearly, we ought not uncritically dismiss these men’s own testimony as we attempt to decide whether to persist in using current models of ethics education. Furthermore, given the increasing level of abstraction involved in children’s present day-to-day life patterns, due to the amount of time they spend on television, playing video games, and working and playing on the Internet, it seems that they are already in significant danger of distancing themselves from other real human beings and human affect. Promoting further movement in that direction hardly seems wise, because individuation and autonomy, pushed to extremes, can clearly promote a kind of pathological alienation.

The second reason these kinds of approaches to ethics education, at least when unmitigated by something like the care approach, seem problematic, is that they de facto devalue patterns of reasoning most often attributed to women, with the result that they perpetuate the undermining of young women’s confidence. As Mary Pipher (1994,18-19) has noted, girls who in preadolescence are “marvelous company, because they are interested in everything” often undergo dramatic changes in early adolescence; during this period, “just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves. . . . [Girls] become more deferential, self-critical, and depressed.” They undergo this transformation, at least in part, if we are to accept Gilligan and Pipher ‘s arguments, because their mode of thinking is underrated, dismissed, and disqualified from “adult” conversation, while the abstract, principled thinking characteristic of developing males is embraced as a sign of maturation. Yet if even Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1960), exemplar of the rationalist tradition in philosophy, could say that a fully developed ethics “would need a new type of logic entirely different from what we have known until now,” then surely we should not automatically assume that, simply because the kind of moral reasoning often exhibited by girls is not the kind officially espoused and taught by the officially sanctioned tradition of Western ethics, it has no place there.


Teaching a care-based ethics, officially and vocally, would provide a much-needed balance to the one-sidedness currently characterizing ethics in the education of our youth in at least two ways. First, it would promote a more fully human notion of the mature moral agent. Boys as well as girls would be encouraged to examine and value more of their own capacities, and to develop the entire range more fully, with the possible result that both would be prepared to develop satisfying interpersonal relationships as adults, and thus ultimately to enjoy more fulfilling lives. At the same time, girls, no longer shut out of the moral dialogue, would have a better chance of maintaining their prepubescent self-confidence, which might very well contribute to the development of other talents that, within the present culture, seem to disappear at puberty. Even more important, including care ethics in the moral training of our youth could significantly influence the degree to which they are susceptible to becoming involved in violent activities, because they would be focusing attention specifically upon their own identities in terms of relations to concrete others.

The second way in which including care-based ethics in moral education would provide a much-needed balance concerns the climate of our schools themselves (Noddings 1992). In perhaps no places other than prisons are there more clear patterns of “actions and consequences” than in our schools. In nearly any classroom one might care to visit from 6th to 12th grades, especially in public schools, one can see the rules and “consequences” listed. The actions of teachers and administrators are similarly circumscribed at every visible level. Ultimately, even principals, who allegedly are in control of the environments for which they are responsible, admit that their actions are largely prescribed either by school district rules and policies or by laws that permit lawsuits against schools, districts, and/or the individuals who serve them. All of these structures and strictures demand only compliance-nothing more than adherence to rules, just because they are the rules. This emphasis seems to presume cessation of moral development at the fourth of Kohlberg’s six stages. What is more, many common school structures and practices depend for their effectiveness on an even lower kind of thinking, what he defined as the second stage of development, in which punishment and obedience are the focus. So much focus on law and order, punishment and obedience, does not seem to promise an environment likely to stimulate either intellectual or emotional development. Surely the conscious attention to the interpersonal, relational elements of life that the care-based model emphasizes might reasonably be expected to affect this situation positively.


A critic of the present proposal to bring care ethics into education might object that a requisite to any such implementation action would be a well-reasoned and fully fleshed-out articulation of the theory. Such does not, however, exist. Care ethicists have so far managed only to delineate for themselves the problems with traditional ap-proaches and to articulate an orientation that might provide the basis for an alternative. So, the critic might object, including care ethics in moral education is not viable, at least at present, for there is nothing of substance to teach.

The pervasiveness of the language of care in discussions of health-care ethics, however, seems to undermine the power of such an objection. Authors as well as practitioners in the field, even without fully developed theoretical structures, have used the approach with confidence and efficacy in addressing the complex problems of their specialty. In any event, the introduction, even in the broadest terms, of alternative orientations to the ethical, of alternative modes of moral reasoning, would surely be a positive addition to the restricted ethics education students currently receive, when any instruction is offered at all. We needn’t settle, however, for such meager goals. Maria Montessori, for one, nearly a century ago, articulated a view of the developing human and an understanding of the implications that that view has for ethics education. Though I am in no way suggesting that all aspects of her observational method ring of care ethics or that her method should be accepted in whole, the values and practices she suggested clearly exhibit some of the main themes embraced by care theorists.


When the rules exert such priority that humanity is dampened, something has clearly gone awry, and yet the hearts of those around us are the last things considered as we carefully train our students in ethical reasoning. Many of the virtue-based programs, it is true, include compassion among the characteristics to be valued and assimilated. Yet it is a cold-hearted, duty-directed compassion that shows its face when students are moved to it by rewards or punishments, or by rational adherence to duty. Only that response and the kind of accompanying thinking that arises naturally in the human being, and which is nurtured by other human beings, can balance the abstract, detached reasoning that attention to principles and policies demands. Care ethics relies upon that response. Indeed, despite the theoretical difficulties that arise in attempting to characterize and manipulate that response, the unashamed appreciation and dependence on it is the most valuable feature of the care approach. Incorporating this approach into ethics education, precisely because of the emphasis it places on the human capacity for response to connection and need, has the potential to strengthen in our schools the sense of humanity that has over the last half-century become so seriously weakened.


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Candice L. Shelby is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Denver and Executive Director of the Center for Ethics and Community. She publishes on the history of philosophy and specializes in the work of G. W. Leibniz, particularly his ethics and contemporary applications.

Copyright Kappa Delta Pi Summer 2003

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