Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Men & Women; Justice & Compassion

By Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez

Put yourself in the position of "Michelle," a single mother of four children Michelle's life is a mess. She lives in crowded three-room apartment with the four kids and her elderly mother, whose medical bills have grown unbearable in recent months.

As Michelle reflects on all these difficulties, she sees a woman draped in fur emerge from a Cadillac. The woman's wallet falls from her purse to the ground Michelle picks the wallet up and discovers, to her amazement, that it is stuffed with hundred-dollar bills. She has only an instant to decide whether to chase after the woman or slip the wallet into her own purse.

If she returns the money to the woman (who, from the looks of it, can probably afford to lose it) she will give up a chance to take care of her family responsibilities. But keeping the money isn't fair to the woman, regardless of her financial position. Stealing, after all, is wrong, isn't it?

What would you do? Recent research on such ethical dilemmas suggests that when confronted with such choices, good willed individuals may choose either to return the wallet or to keep the money depending on the ethical perspective that they use to frame ethical question. What's more, Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan believes that differences in ethic perspective are related to gender—that is, that men and women follow different but parallel paths of moral development that lead them to make their ethical choice based on different ethical criteria.

According to Gilligan, some people base ethical decisions on principles of justice, equality, impartiality, and rights. This is the justice perspective. But others base their decisions on a care perspective, which the need to preserve relationship and minimize hurt takes precedence over considerations of justice and rights. The care perspective places special significance on attachment and compassion, Gilligan writes, "the moral injunction not to act unfairly toward others, and not to turn away from someone in need, capture these different concerns."

To explain how two separate more perspectives can exist in parallel, Gilligan uses the analogy of an ambiguous figure, well-known phenomenon of visual perception. When looking at a drawing, one viewer may see a vase, for example, while another sees two faces in profile, but it is virtually impossible to see both views a the same time.

Eventually, Gilligan notes, an observer will probably be able to see both the vase and the faces, but in general, one view will still remain more compelling.

Similarly, individuals tend to make their ethical choices based on one or the other ethical perspectives, even if they are aware of both possibilities.

Gilligan developed her theories about differences in ethical perspective in response to another Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, whose early findings suggested that men more often reached, the higher levels of moral development than women. Her research, then, pose challenges not only for other researcher interested in moral development, but also for social scientists exploring the differences between men and women.

Kohlberg postulated that there were three levels of moral maturity. At the earliest and least mature level, children typically define right and wrong in terms of what authority figures tell them is right and wrong, or in terms of what results in reward or punishment.

The second level is typical of adolescents who tend to base right and wrong on loyalties to their family and friends. The third and most mature level is achieved when a person comes to rely on universal and abstract ethical principles, such as the principles of justice or equality, that impartially take into account the interests of all persons.

Gilligan's research over the past eleven years suggests that women tend to be more concerned than men with maintaining good relationships with their family and friends, and with minimizing hurt to those whom they care about, characteristic of Kohlberg's second level of moral maturity. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to look at moral issues from the standpoint of impartial and impersonal principles, characteristic of the third and most mature level. By implication then, women appear—according to the standards developed by Kohlberg—to reach the third and most mature level much less frequently than men, and therefore to be less morally developed than men.

But Gilligan's work challenges this interpretation. The problem, she claims, is not women, but the theory of moral development that Kohlberg worked out.

Kohlberg's theory canonized the justice perspective favored by males because he and most of his subjects were male. Gilligan's research on women revealed, however, that a care perspective could also be a morally mature stage of moral reasoning, but one that is more favored by females.

Gilligan's research shows that women, more than men, view themselves as part of a network of relationships and feel that sustaining these relationships is a moral imperative. Central to this "female ethic" are notions of care and responsibility for others. By contrast, the "male ethic" of Kohlberg's third level is one based on abstract, impersonal principles.

Gilligan argues that for most women, progress toward moral maturity is marked by changes in the focus of caring, not by the development of the abstract, impersonal principles that Kohlberg proposes.

In the care perspective, the earliest level of moral development, she claims, is one marked by a concern with caring only for oneself. At the second level, others become the focus of caring. At the third level of moral development, the morally mature person achieves a balance between caring for others and caring for oneself.

"Progress from stage to stage is motivated, in part, by the individual's increasing understanding of human relationships, and, in part, by the attempt to maintain one's own integrity and care for one's self without neglecting others. Throughout this process, women regard themselves as selves-in-relation."

At the highest level of moral development, write philosophers Diana Meyers and Eva Feder Kittay, the care perspective embraces a "morality of nonviolence" that "leads to a universal condemnation of exploitation and hurt."

Gilligan admits, however, that both perspectives are valid, in fact complementary. She argues that "a shift in the focus of attention from concerns about justice to concerns about care changes the definition of what constitutes a moral problem, and leads the same situation to be seen in different ways."

Theoretically, writes Gilligan, "the distinction between justice and care cuts across the familiar divisions between thinking and feeling, egoism and altruism, theoretical and practical reasoning. It calls attention to the fact that all human relationships, public and private, can be characterized both in terms of equality and in terms of attachment, and that both inequality and detachment constitute grounds for moral concern."

"Gilligan's work provides a psychological frame that enables us to understand the psychology of the gender gap," observes psychologist Dorothy Austin. "By defining a distinctly different mode of moral reasoning, Gilligan allows us to rethink the male notion of patriotic sacrifice, and the notion of the 'other' as enemy." That, she says, may help to explain why men are willing to sacrifice their lives in battle, while women are willing to sacrifice themselves to preserve the lives of their children.

Gilligan's notions about parallel moral perspectives are a recent development in the field of ethics, but already, they have sparked lively debate, and considerable reflection on old ways of thinking about moral development.

For further reading:

Ronald Duska & Mariellen Whelan, Moral Development: A Guide to Piaget and Kohlberg (New York: Paulist Press, 1975).

Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).

Eva Feder Kittay and Diana T. Meyers, eds., Women and Moral Theory (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1987).

Neil Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984).

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