Imagine a set of ethics based on caring — the sort of caring we see between mother and child — rather than the traditional Western ethic of trying to "do the right thing" based on self-interest.

Imagine a set of ethics based on caring — the sort of caring we see between mother and child — rather than the traditional Western ethic of trying to "do the right thing" based on self-interest.

These two streams of morality will be explored Friday at Southern Oregon University by author and philosopher Nel Noddings, a former professor at Stanford, Columbia and Colgate Universities and author of "Caring: a Feminist Approach to Ethics and Moral Education" (1984) and the just-published "The Maternal Factor: Two Paths to Morality."

The talk is at 4 p.m., Friday, April 29, at 118 Science Building, Southern Oregon University, and is part of SOU's "On Being Human" series. It is free and open to the public.

"We have the two main origins of our moral life. Self-interest, built up over the centuries by men, with the approach that 'I won't hurt you, so you won't hurt me'," said Noddings, in a phone interview. "The other, much neglected, derives its ethics from the maternal instinct, mother and child, which is the only human relationship more concentrated on the other person than one's self."

A debate is going on now in the field of ethics about the two main sources, says Noddings, adding that the maternal instinct of "natural and ethical caring" is now being noticed by evolutionary biologists in animals as a "basic sense of fairness" based on concern for other animals.

"Care ethics starts with a basic relationship between the carer and the cared for, with both having a role, in contrast to the traditional ethics of the moral agent doing the right thing," said Noddings, who has been married 60 years, with 10 children.

"It is needs-based. The carer listens, attends and hears the expressed needs of the cared for and tries to respond to them with care and trust. This is in contrast to the needs and rights" in the traditional model.

Noddings has degrees in mathematics and physical sciences, serving 17 years in elementary and high school teaching and administrative posts, followed by a Stanford doctorate in education.

In another talk Thursday at SOU, she will take American public education to task for creating a uniform, unequal system that aims all kids at college and fails vast numbers who need a rich, well-rounded education that carries them into good vocations.

Her talk, "Equality in American Schools: Should Everyone Be Prepared for College?" is at 7 p.m., Thursday, April 28, at the Meese Auditorium, SOU Art Building. It's free and open to the public.

Noddings will examine arguments for and against preparing all students for college, but says "school districts are requiring algebra and geometry for everyone, with the result that lots of kids are failing and taking (poor) courses." Western European nations have a better model with "a thorough educational program for citizenship, family life and culture in general," Noddings says. "I'm a very strong advocate of a renewed vocational education system if it has rich and relevant general education and sufficient guidance to avoid the tracking disasters of the 20th century."

Tracking disasters, she notes, are the funneling of "well-to-do kids to college prep and poor and minority to vocational ... we need different programs for kids of different talents, but make all courses rich and interesting, not just a choice of 'academic' or 'dead-end' courses." The concept of different courses for different students is found through all the philosophy of education, from Plato to Rousseau and Dewey, she says, adding, "kids are different." The concept of equality under a democracy has taken education down the wrong road so that it came to mean "you give all kids the same courses, however, if I give you (the courses) I have, that's not equality."

Noddings has written 17 books and is Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emerita, at Stanford University. She is a past president of the National Academy of Education, the Philosophy of Education Society and the John Dewey Society. She presents her talk on education as the 2011 SOU Frank J. Van Dyke Scholar in Professional Ethics.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at