Can one (a mother?) have an ethical relationship with an infant?

Essay 2000 10 Pages

Sociology - Gender Studies


Final Paper

Class: Feminist Theory

Teacher: Dianne Rothleder Student: Wiebke Boetefuer

University of Illinois in Chicago

Can one (a mother?) have an ethical relationship with an infant? “In the beginning is not the word; it is the touch.

What is care? If you care for someone, you feel a lot of affection for him or her. Or it could definite as, if you care for somebody, then you look after him or her in a good state or condition. The question arises do infants care about mothers? Does they have affection to the mother or are caregivers replaceable? And how can the mother receive the affection? Working as a nurse for pediatric at the newborn unit, I experienced that infants calm down and feel comfortable with any person who is calm and balanced. It was our own status of emotion, which was transferred to the infant and reflected. Yet, there was not really a difference between mother and nurses. The affection we showed, the love we had for the infants got reflected and the feeling of being cared for as well. I cannot say if my experience was just a reflection of my emotions or an active on the part of the infant. Furthermore, I reject the thought that the infant is able to look after the mother, that means it is not able to give care, in the sense that the infant i.e. feeds the mother. However, caring is also means being able to fulfill needs and desires. Therefore, the infant is able to care. For example, the desire of the mother to have to have a baby is fulfilled. How much do infants fulfill the needs of the mother concerning sleep and time for herself differs very much. How much does the mother to change her life to meet the needs of the infant? Does the infant changes his/her life to the needs of the mother?

Willett argues, “the work of the mother must be reinterpreted beyond altruism...” (P.38). The common value of western societies is that the mother has to meet all needs of the infant. She has to be there and reject all egoistic thoughts. That would mean that the mother becomes a slave for the bundle of desire. She gets sucked up in the desires of the infant. Willett explains this with fusion, in which “two individual subjects dissolve into a single identity” (p.38). I can see that a mother loses all her boundaries and lives only for her infant. She gives up her own identity to fulfill all needs of the infant. She stops focusing on her own and exist only through the reflection of caring. Also mothers may have the need to become one with the baby.

But how can the baby fuse with the mother? How can theory analyze that the baby is one identity with the mother?

Willett discusses that the mother-infant relationship has to be seen as a dance between two individuals. That would reject the fusion experience. It would start with the interpretation of the embryonic kick “not as an act of resistance but as a step in a dance between mother and child” (p.32). She sees the mother and infant as a dancing couple. Observing dancers, especially Latin-dance like tango, we see two individuals becoming one unit. Also, we know from dancing that one person leads the other. Therefore, the question arises, who leads whom in the mother-infant- relationship. Does the mother leads the infant by socialization, education, and oppressing the needs of the infant, i.e. feeding according to a daily-plan. Or is it more the infant who lets the mother by showing its needs and desire, with the expectation that they get fulfilled? If we talk about a dance between the mother and infant, I think we have to assume, that the needs of both individuals get fulfilled. I do not really see this in a mother-infant relationship. As I observed in my surroundings, mothers with infants and children most of the time suppresses their needs and desire to benefit their offspring’s.

Does the mother become a slave for her kid? If, after Hegel, the slave has a lack of self-consciousness, the mother cannot be a slave, because she knows about herself as an individual. Instead the question is whether or not the infant has self- consciousness. Further, Douglas defines “the slave lacked (with) the will to be free” (Willett, p. 132) In this context the mother can be seen as a slave, when she suppresses her will under the desire of the infant. Hence, Douglas defines the slave as a man with fear of the death and I will transfer this definition this definition onto women as well. That means, a free man has no angst of death, and this is very seldom in Western rare. I deny this definition not only for mother and infant but also for humans in general. Furthermore, the mother most of the times chooses the relationship with the infant, in contrast to the slave and the master. Also she is able to exit, by taking a nurse or adoption. Therefore, I would not consider the mother-infant- relationship as a slave relationship, even if mothers often feel like it.

So, what does the infant give to the mother? Infants often present a fulfilled desire. A lot of mothers have the feeling of being loved by the infant. Often the infant represents a part of the mother. The genes are transferred and the mother has the feeling, even if she dies, that something from her lives on. She teaches the baby her beliefs of right and wrong; and within her ethic. The socialization contains ethics and starts from the first day on. The beliefs of what the mother thinks is good for the baby, i.e. breasted or bottle-feeding, is her personnel ethic. How does she think a human can be treated? Which moral thoughts does she project on the infant? Which moral and ethical concepts does she consider and act upon? And does she make a distinction between her own child and humans in general? If she projects her ethic on the infant, has the infant an own ethic? How can one say that infants act ethically, when the question is still open, if they have self-consciousness? Therefore, the ethical-relationship might be seen as a one-way- relationship. The mother gives, and the infant is the receiver. The receiver can be seen as giver as well; in the way that taking is giving. (Parallel with the concept of being active, by being passive, i.e. not voting is voting.) Moreover, if the mother feels satisfaction in her relationship with the infant, then I would reject the thought of a one-way-relationship. Further, a benefiting relationship does not say that giving and taking must be in the same way or the same amount. Even unbalanced relationships can be beneficial and challenging, like a teacher-student one. In my eyes, a relationship becomes than ethical, if both side are challenged and satisfied with it. The problem is, how do humans know if both sides are satisfied when they do not communicate?

How does the mother know about the needs of her infant? Can she be sure, that if the baby cries and she is able to calm it down, the original desire is satisfied and that a displacement has not occurred? To universalize this thought, how does Western society know the needs, and what is good for Eastern societies, i.e. concerning culture-imperialism. In my opinion culture-imperialism can be seen as an overdose of care; a care that not only oppresses the needs of societies or humans, but can even kill them. We have to remember that care is not always welcome. So, what is the right amount of care? We might have to stop caring to help individuals develop independency. Therefore, can there be positive and negative care? We have to ask ourselves why we care and if we not only transfer our selfish needs onto other people.

For Koehn2 communication is the basis for an ethical relationship. More explicit, in her view it is the dialectical dialogue. In her book, Rethinking Feminists Ethics, Koehn sums up the female care ethic and criticizes it strongly. She defines care ethics as being open to arguments; not to censor; consideration of all arguments; taking responsibility for friends, community, and world. Further, the question is if we have to be willing sacrifices for each other; is the obligation given towards other of higher value than obligation for the law (see, p.102). Koehn than criticizes the definition. She rejects especially strongly the female ethical concern not to judge, out of the reason that no one can have all features and knowledge about an issue. Instead she holds up, that “a practically useful ethic must supply some principles for judgment” (p. 100). Further, through the absence of principles of judgement, a regulated ethic becomes incomprehensible. Koehn claims that an ethic needs a framework to function and suggest her concept of dialectical dialogue.

The basis for it is the thinking, which ``finds to be consistent with ongoing thinking`` (p.101) and the definition of thinking of Hannah Arendt. For Koehn thinking replaces reason. The thinking sets one free, out of one’s social boundaries. It makes possible that the individual lives other ways, other possibilities as lived, and internalized by socialization. By thinking and understanding, humans are able to overcome the self-set borders and gain new possibilities. Dialectic thought will overcome the unthinkable. Dialogue will tell us when, what, why, and how we care. We should be willing to find the truth but not stop the dialogue. The truth can only be the truth for the moment. As the moment disappeared and within the constellation of information and issues the definition cannot preserved. Therefore, we have to continue the dialogue. Definitions can only be established for a moment. That would mean, we would only know for the moment what is good and wrong, and what is means to be ethical. Yet, not being able to capture the moment, the definition, the ethic has to be rethought. Also, definitions are not fixed. Hence, if you think to know something you stop thinking and talking. The dialectical dialogue gives the possibility of reworking, reevaluation, rethinking and never knowing. If we think about the Kosovo conflict, an alternative was maybe to keep the dialogue going. To discuss with all participant about the problem to figure out, which action is ethical in this case, or the dialogue would become the action.3 Again, passivity becomes action; so there is only active ethic.

Moreover, to claim knowledge to judge, if one does not have it, is not necessary in the dialogue. During the dialogue one will gain knowledge to judge. Koehn considers her concept as a framework for ethical care. This framework is indebted in principles.

P.1: “Recognize that opinions of all people may not be equally practically goods”

(Koehn, p.109). Feministic ethic is often based on the notion that the subject in its own experiences cannot be wrong. The individual has his/er own truth, and her own point of view. This refers to multiplicity. Also, every truth is equal, neutral, accepted and right. For Koehn “what is needed is not an ethic of acceptance but an ethic that encourages both adults and children to be critical and gives reason to be so” (Koehn, p.110). This means, her ethic is framed by right and wrong. The mother can be wrong toward her child and vice versus. I want to stress the point of criticism. If every opinion is right, a dialogue is not longer necessary and there is no need to discuss viewpoints anymore. This means different needs become oppressed. Koehn’s P1 gives us the possibility to present the needs and find a consensus. “Our discussion partner may be wiser than we and able to offer the intelligent advice our own actions show that we value” (p.111). That means the dialogue will help to analyze what is wrong in our truth.

P.2: “Never act unjustly” (p.117). We might think that a person did something unjustified. For Koehn even then, we have no right, to answer it with an unjustified action. For example, somebody killed somebody, and we think it was unjustified. Then we are not allowed to kill the killer. Instead we have to continue the dialogue with the killer and “the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’ may not be as great as we thought” (p.117). That can include the experience of pain; but even if the dialogue is painful, it has to continue. The pain will be diminished in the ability to exist next to each other. If everybody speaks and every voice is heard the possibly of being cared to death is decreased. Further, a dialectical dialogue assumes to be challenging for the participants. And even children can be toughed to see inside and outside positions critically “in the effort to find and defend still better positions” (p.120). P.2 “commits us to a lifetime of holding ourselves responsible for never doing wrong”

(p.119). Yet,”if we should never do wrong, then presumably we should not do so even when it is legally required. Yet shouldn’t we also consider whether it is right to violate the dictates of the laws, especially since the laws provide the social framework in which principles dialogues occur?” (p.128).

P3a stayed ”Obey the law, persuade it to change, or take advantage of a legal right of exit” (p.129). Koehn want to see us bounded to the law as we are bounded to parents, as some system that cares about us. Then we do not obey blindly, but with regard to right and wrong. Therefore, the dialogue about right and wrong becomes important. Hence, the law is socially constructed and can change; also the law is not a fixed definition. The critical view is necessary to see what is ethical. Moreover, the law can change and Koehn gives us the possibility to be active in this process. Furthermore, she holds up the opportunity to exit and to go into asylum. P.4 “consider whether principles 1 through 3a apply in one’s own case” (p.142).

P.4 is the individual voice. Every participant has to speak and to be heard and to be given own particularity. Further “it does so without making the dialogue ethical relativistic” (p.144). Also, it gives us a better possibility of empathy and care than female ethics. Through the dialogue the individual gets the feeling that somebody cares about her, and feels empathetic. Comparing this to the feminist ethic, in which there is no wrong, I argue that it is more challenging to have a dialogue in which I can reevaluate my position and somebody who listens and response, rather than that the listener cares about me and that I am right what ever I say.

As much as I support Koehn’s concept of the dialectical dialogue, I see (like herself) critical issues. First, the concept is based on intelligence and ratio. Therefore, the concept is related to the head and can be seen as masculine. This can give Koehn a hard time to convince certain feministic groups. For me, produced by a woman, this concept appears to deconstruct the old structure of gender rules. Yet, the theory is located in the head and not in the belly, the emotions are excluded. To remember, humans are both. Therefore, we have to find a theory that includes the dialogue and the emotions, in which both are able to be in balance. Second, the dialectical dialogue has to be learned. It is not innate and natural. Then, there must be an institution, which teaches the sprouts. Or does it relate to the mother, who is in charge to do so? Third, Koehn speaks about the possibility to exit. The problem I see is that these possibilities might be very restricted. If we recognize the people who fled from the DDR into the BRD, often not only gave up all their belongings but even their identity. The absolutely different systems, in which they suddenly had to participate, required them to be new persons. Fourth, Koehn wants to obey the law, which she chooses to obey. Also, she sees the law as parents. Yet, who choose her parents? And which young child can exit? Fifth, in her theory she forgets the part of the listening. This issue has to be stressed, because if individuals speak, they also have to listen to each other. The dialogue cannot be dialectic and challenging, if people are focused on their issue and are not open to listening to each other. Sixth, to have an ethical relationship with an infant we must be able to have an dialectical dialogue. Koehn bases her complete theory on the abilities of thinking and speaking. Therefore, she excludes not only mute people, like babies, but also the possibly of different languages. Then an ethical relationship to an infant becomes impossible, as does an ethical relationship with people with a different mother tongue.

And here Willett’s thought about the dance between mother and infant becomes important. It gives the possibility to have a dialogue, maybe even a dialectical one, without talking the same language but still finding a way to challenge each other, like young children with each other. We might be able to say, that the balance between head and body is not only very important; but the dance between mother-infant can help to developed it. Also, the dance can be transferred into a critical view. Then children are able to find their own position and become not only independent, but can speak dialectically to define their amount of care. It seems, that Willett’s theory is the basis to establish and develop the dialectical dialogue successfully. Yet, remember that in the beginning is not the word but the touch.1

This Essay refers to the thoughts of Cynthia Willett and Daryl Koehn. Both feminist authors have developed ethical theories. As basis I shall take Willett with her thoughts about the relationship of mother and infant. Further, I will discuss if Koehn’s concept of the dialectical dialogue is useful for an ethical mother-infant relationship. A lot of problems arise during this discussion, set up in questions, which are not answerable quickly. They have to be left open. The mother shall be a metaphor for a caregiver in general. Working with both theories the essay is divided in three parts. In the first I tried to work very systematically, like Koehn does but work on Willett’s thoughts. The second refers to Koehn and in the third I will connect them. The question is, how far both theories can be connected.

I will start with definition of ethic: a believe system about moral principles concerning right and wrong. What is an infant? Infants are babies in there first 4 weeks after birth. It is the period in which the baby has to adapt to the world after being in the mother’s body. I dispense with the need to say, that it becomes an independent person. Of cause the infant depends on care, somebody who feeds her/him and fulfill her/his desire. To consider as well, is that the embryo is even dependent in the uterus and connected with the umbilical cord; but the membrane of the placenta already makes two individuals. A lot of biological adaptations proceed in these four weeks, i.e. the hormone system has to learn to work on its own.


1 Willett, Cynthia; Maternal Ethics, Slave Moralities; Routlege; 1995; P.47

2 Koehn, Daryl; Rethinking Feminist Ethics; Routlege; 1998.

3 Instead the USA choose to set an ultimatum including at which a paper had to be signed agreeing that the Kosowo would loose his sovereignty. By not signing the NATO would interfere. Which they did because the Kosowo agents did not wont to loose sovereignty.


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Title: Can one (a mother?) have an ethical relationship with an infant?