Alumni Notes

Losses/Memorial Minute

Norman S. Care

Like many philosophers, Norman Care came to the subject by an indirect route. He was born in Gary, Indiana, on December 20, 1937. After graduating from the Gary public schools, he went to Indiana University to study percussion and music composition, working his way through by leading the Norm Care Orchestra and other musical groups. His interests turned to philosophy late in college and, with undergraduate work in both music and philosophy, he received the BA from Indiana in 1959. Norman earned an MA in philosophy from the University of Kansas in 1961 and completed his studies at Yale University. These studies included a year at Oxford University on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1962-63. He received his PhD from Yale in 1964 with a dissertation on the theory of action.

After teaching at Yale for a year, Norman came to Oberlin in 1965. He returned to Oxford on a research leave in 1969-70. His extensive research and writing was supported by several research status appointments from Oberlin, as well as by grants from the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In December 2000, he stepped down from his regular teaching duties and planned to assist the College in developing its First Year Seminar Program. These plans were cut short in 2001 when it was discovered that he had a brain tumor. He died on September 4, 2001.

Norman’s primary interests as a teacher and scholar were in ethics, social and political philosophy, moral psychology, and environmental ethics. He also taught the philosophy of art for many years. Scores of letters from his appreciative students confirmed what his colleagues all knew: Norman Care was one of the outstanding teachers of his generation at Oberlin College.

Norman received two major teaching awards from Oberlin. His popularity as a teacher arose not from the entertainment value of his classes, but from the quality of the philosophizing that took place in them, his passion for philosophy, and his deep concern for his students. Many students were inspired to major in philosophy by his introductory course, “Philosophy and Values,” and over the years he was a valued supervisor to dozens of Honors students and their projects.

Norman’s service to the College was also extraordinary. He was a staff member for the Education Commission during 1970-72 and an exemplary department chair for ten years. He was often elected to faculty committees, especially the Educational Plans and Policies Committee and the General Faculty Council. He served on many other committees, as well as on a wide variety of special task forces.

Norman was a committed and creative committee member. Underneath his self-effacing manner, he was an activist at heart. Committees on which he served often brought new ideas—basically his ideas—to the faculty for action. Possessing a lucid and distinctive writing style, he wrote many of the reports in which those ideas were presented.

He was also active professionally. He served on six committees of the American Philosophical Association and was a tireless reviewer, referee, or evaluator for articles, books, grant proposals, personnel decisions, and departmental reviews. For many years, he was on the editorial board of the journal Ethics and on the advisory committee of the Case Western Reserve University Center for Biomedical Ethics. With Charles Landesman, he co-edited Readings in the Theory of Action (1968). He also co-edited the proceedings of the Oberlin Philosophy Colloquia in 1967 and 1971.

Norman Care loved to write. He lectured widely on many subjects, and his numerous articles and essays appeared in a wide variety of publications. The three books which he published reveal much about him as both a professional philosopher and a human being. While social and political considerations are central to them, they deal less with the structures of societies than with the demands which morality places on individuals within those societies. Taken together, they constitute a position that might be called “anti-moralistic moralism.”

Norman was a moral rigorist who rejected any form of relativism and was more at home with Kant than with any other major ethicist. In On Sharing Fate (1987), he argued that worldwide destitution and environmental degradation place severe moral demands upon us. In this respect, he was an idealist. In his other two books, though, he attacked the judgmentalism that so often accompanies high ideals.

Living with One’s Past: Personal Fates and Moral Pain (1996) and Decent People (2000) both argue against what Norman called “persona moralism,” the moralistic view of persons as abstract and unified moral agents who are routinely censured for failing to do what they should. He was interested in the variegated moral lives of real people and in the process of “moral recovery” by which they can recover a sense of moral agency.

Norman combined high moral ideals with a realistic conception of human capacities and hopes for moral improvement. This was not merely a philosophical position, for it reflected the deep respect for persons that was at his core. He had known times when his own life, productive as it was, had to be lived “one day at a time.” He deeply empathized with people who were doing their best to be “decent people,” and he wanted to assist them.

Many people will testify to Norman’s deep humanity. He was a wonderful listener. Talks with him would range from the abstractly philosophical to the mundanely collegial to the deeply personal. Always he would be there for us, listening and reacting, with a twinkle in his eye and a gentle laugh.

Norman’s life testified to the importance of human relationships. The love, respect, and support which he and Barbara shared since high school were there for all to see. Equally obvious was his delight in talking about his children, Steven and Jennifer, and his grandchildren. The many people whose lives he touched miss him greatly.

Daniel D. Merrill is professor emeritus of Philosophy at Oberlin. This Memorial Minute was adopted by a rising vote of the General Faculty of Oberlin College on April 16, 2002.

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