By nearly all measures, my first son was an easy kid. Whereas most young children are walking, raging ids, Augie was sweet, composed, and strategic. He didn’t have tantrums, and put little effort into asserting power just for power’s sake. Instead, he was prone to careful, deliberate calculations, a pragmatist in Velcro shoes. No battles over wearing the fire-truck T-shirt instead of the police-car one; no tears if the cookie broke in two. He was still getting to eat a cookie, after all.

Father sitting on the floor holding and gazing at new baby

Raising this kind of child made it easy to do the type of things that usually cause great stress to parents of young children. We could eat meals at quiet restaurants, travel long distances, visit art museums, and count on him to endure a day of tedious errands. At night, I went to sleep less physically exhausted than many of my peers, and grateful for it.

But emotionally and intellectually, I was perplexed. This child of mine, at an unusually early age, had already begun replacing instinct and intuition with reason.

Advertisement X

While most parents struggled to get their kids to listen to others, my job was to get Augie to listen to himself. I wanted him to see the world on his own terms, less beholden to external factors. In order for this to happen, I knew I would have to consciously and deliberately get out of his way.

This was not something that came naturally to me. At the time when I had Augie, I was making my living in the “hot take” internet boom of the 2010s; strong opinions were my livelihood. Ask me a question or point to any news story, and by the end of the day I could hand over 800 hard-edged words on the subject—convinced I was right. When I wrote, I didn’t lie so much as ignore the other truths that would have blurred the singular fact I was focusing on. I had to draw a quick and neat line separating right
from wrong, and present the judgment as absolute and obvious.

Pre-motherhood, I worried about how parenthood would ruin my ability to work, and in the end it did just that—but not in the way I expected. No, caregiving didn’t make me want to stop working, or worse at it. Instead, I began to question the type of work I was doing as an opinion writer, the kind of person I had become through this work, and whether there could be a better way to exchange ideas.

That process started with Augie and intensified when I had Levi, his far more passionate brother, four years later. The deeper I got into caring for two distinct individuals, the more I began to question the certainty I paraded around in my writing and in my life. There are—an obvious and yet still often surprising truth—so many ways for a person to be.

Up until that point, my formal ethical education consisted of an intro to philosophy course that I had dropped out of after three weeks during my sophomore year in college. Instead of conversations about big questions about how to live well, the class was focused on (much to my disappointment) out-there theoreticals that we would have to solve with logic. Better, I thought, to stick with poets. This worked until I had kids and realized I needed more in the way of philosophical guidance. How I thought I should be, how I thought a person should be, was rapidly being exposed and punctured by care.

Philosophies of care

Few of us consider ourselves philosophers, but all of us think philosophically. We try to figure out what the “right” thing to do is in complicated situations, and contemplate what really matters in life. At an early age, we are taught to separate right from wrong, and that sense of right is supposed to come from within: Do unto others as you would want done unto you.

As we get older, we’re often taught to rely more heavily on reason and think more broadly about right and wrong on a societal level. Maybe, if we are ambitious, we use this reason to try to reckon with universal truths about freedom and justice, or wrestle with highly abstract and complicated philosophical hypotheticals, like philosophy 101 favorite the “trolley problem.”

This essay is adapted from When You Care: The Unexpected Magic of Caring for Others (Gallery Books, 2024, 320 pages).

But these big-picture ideals and hypotheticals, with all their abstract thinking and emotionless gamification, could only tell me so much about how to live my life. The one where people aren’t tied up, like they are in the trolley problem, but rather complicated, vulnerable beings who need something from me. I needed something else from philosophy, something that helped me understand the moral awakening I was experiencing in parenthood. I found this in the work of a lesser-known corner of philosophy called care ethics.

There I discovered the work of women like Nel Noddings, who explores how our instinct to care, an instinct that surfaces as early as infancy, is the foundation of our obligation to be good. This is a long way away from the many psychologists and philosophers who believed that intimate relationships—with all their biases, contradictions, and irrational moments—could be a hindrance to moral thinking. Noddings turns this 180 degrees, arguing instead that care is one of the greatest methods of ethical education.

Through her work, I began to think about what exactly care is, and what it means to do it well. Noddings distinguished between “caring for” someone, which she defines as meaning we both give attention to the recipients of our care and respond to them, and “caring about,” which means we give the recipients of our care attention but don’t necessarily respond. She also separated out what she calls “virtue carers” and “relational carers.” The former are caregivers who do what they think is right for the person being cared for. The latter are caregivers who attempt to understand what the person being cared for needs and then go about trying to provide that for them.

I went into parenting thinking of my children like the readers of my opinion pieces: in need of a clear and firm take on the world around them. But what they needed wasn’t a steadfast guide, but someone who stopped to pay close attention to their needs. On my best days, I am a “relational carer.” I respond to questions with more questions, I remain curious about their desires, all the while hushing the part of me that thinks, “This should be different, better; they could be different, better.” With time, I began to treat others—friends, acquaintances, and even strangers—this way as well.

As Noddings sees it, these moments of engrossed, responsive care can help the caregiver form an “ethical ideal” of the kind of person they want to be, a best self that will serve as a lodestar or reference point in other moments. “I have a picture of those moments in which I was cared for and in which I cared, and I may reach toward this memory and guide my conduct by it if I wish to do so,” she writes.

“Moments of engrossed, responsive care can help the caregiver form an 'ethical ideal' of the kind of person they want to be, a best self that will serve as a lodestar or reference point in other moments”
―Elissa Strauss

Philosophers have long contemplated the ways moving beyond our own perspective can be a moral act. Simone Weil, a philosopher who was born in France in 1909, called attention “the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Iris Murdoch, an Irish and British novelist and philosopher, said that “goodness” happens when we “pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is,” she writes. Martin Buber, an American philosopher and Jewish theologian, encouraged his readers to try and see the other not as an object, but a messy, complicated entity that we experience in all their surprising, confusing, and delightful complexity. “All real living is meeting,” he said.

And yet, if it were ever so simple. Sometimes caring for others makes us better humans overall, and sometimes it doesn’t. For every caregiver or parent transformed by care, there are plenty of parents and caregivers who have been casually awful, or even committed gross atrocities, to those they aren’t caring for while absolutely adoring the people they did care for.

Making care universal

Greater Good Chronicles

A series of essays by people trying to apply the science of a meaningful life to their daily lives.

Evolution plays a role here. We are wired to care for those we identify with—whether that’s our family, tribe, or compatriots—more than those we don’t identify with. This can make us biased, shortsighted, and even selfish. It’s why we can at once care about our children while treating the woman we employ to care for them poorly. Or why we can care about the person caring for our children while ignoring the reality of her children living in the same neighborhood, or thousands of miles away.

Still, when a man says being a father changed him, made him more empathic and patient to all, or when a wealthy woman says taking care of her infant made her realize how important universal parental leave is—that now she cares about all mothers—the metamorphosis strikes us as both plausible and sincere.

Care ethicist Sarah Clark Miller has wrestled with how care has the potential to open our hearts to some, while also treating others poorly. Her big philosophical question is: How do we bridge this gap? How do we make it so our intimate experiences of care, including all those insights into human dependency, vulnerability, and subjectivity, extend to the wider world and translate to a more caring society?

We could, she realized, think of care as a duty, or a collectively agreed-upon rule and obligation. When care is a duty, it tells us that we must care because it is fundamental to the good life. Care becomes something you do because it’s the right thing to do, a social norm that you don’t think much about. But, and this is where Noddings’s push for receptivity comes in, we can leave the big rules out of how we care. Instead, we should rely on what we learn through tending to that one-and-only person to inform those decisions.

“Back in the early days, there was great optimism in the care ethics community that we just need to care more and then we will become a more caring society,” care ethicist Daniel Engster told me. “It’s not hopeless, but it requires a lot more cultivation than care theorists have thought.”

Cultivation can look like better government policies supporting caregivers, which, besides giving them some financial and practical relief, tell them that what they do matters. It also requires a culture shift that takes us away from seeing humans as a collective of individuals and instead as a collective of relationships.

In some ways, Engster says this shift is already happening, most notably in our conversation about income equality. For a long time, equality meant that everyone had to follow the same rules; now we are more likely to consider how one person’s well-being compares in relation to another, he explained. The more we see each other as people in relation to one another, the more the lessons we learn through care can plug into how we approach the world at large.

There is, sadly, no single, surefire path to becoming a better person, but if the care ethicists teach us anything, it is that relationships are as valid a path for seeking truth, fairness, and goodness as reason. Since becoming a parent, I regularly think of whose philosophical epiphanies count in our society, and how this authority is determined.

The image of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker” often comes to mind. A strong man, sitting down, chin resting on his knuckles; aquiline nose and tense brow drawing the viewer’s attention to his eyes, which, in return, gaze downward, oblivious to his surroundings. Rodin said he intended the man to appear to be thinking with “every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.” I like the statue enough but have come to resent the story its popularity tells us about the gestures, postures, and social conditions of deep thought. What about those of us who have discovered themselves in moments of epiphany while looking into someone else’s eyes, holding their hand, or rubbing their back as they laughed or cried or died?

GreaterGood Tiny Logo Greater Good wants to know: Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?

You May Also Enjoy


blog comments powered by Disqus