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How does one choose between right and wrong? Are there differences in moral development based on gender? Psychologist Carol Gilligan proposed a theory that highlights the differences between male and female moral development.

Carol Gilligan: Moral Development

A community of moles gives shelter to a homeless porcupine. The moles, however, are constantly stabbed by the porcupine’s quills. What should they do?This scenario was used to aid in the development of a theory that argued women and men may have differing paths to moral development. This lesson will introduce and apply that theory, developed by Carol Gilligan.

The field of moral development encompasses prosocial behavior, such as altruism, caring and helping, along with traits such as honesty, fairness, and respect. Many theories of moral development have been proposed, but this lesson will focus on the specific theory proposed by Psychologist Carol Gilligan.Gilligan was a student of Developmental Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, who introduced the theory of stages of moral development. Gilligan, however, felt as though her mentor’s theory did not adequately address the gender differences of moral development due to the fact that participants in Kohlberg’s study were predominately male and because his theory did not include the caring perspective.

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Carol Gilligan felt that Lawrence Kohlberg did not address gender differences in moral development
Carol Gilligan

Gilligan argued that males and females are often socialized differently, and females are more apt than males to stress interpersonal relationships and take responsibility for the well-being of others. Gilligan suggested this difference is due to the child’s relationship with the mother and that females are traditionally taught a moral perspective that focuses on community and caring about personal relationships.

Care-Based Morality ; Justice-Based Morality

Gilligan proposed the Stages of the Ethics of Care theory, which addresses what makes actions ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Gilligan’s theory focused on both care-based morality and justice-based morality.Care-based morality is based on the following principles:

  • Emphasizes interconnectedness and universality.
  • Acting justly means avoiding violence and helping those in need.
  • Care-based morality is thought to be more common in girls because of their connections to their mothers.
  • Because girls remain connected to their mothers, they are less inclined to worry about issues of fairness.

Justice-based morality is based on the following principles:

  • Views the world as being composed of autonomous individuals who interact with another.
  • Acting justly means avoiding inequality.
  • Is thought to be more common in boys because of their need to differentiate between themselves and their mothers.
  • Because they are separated from their mothers, boys become more concerned with the concept of inequality.

Returning to our mole/porcupine scenario, researchers found individuals approached the problem with two perspectives: justice-based morality or care-based morality. Gender differences were also evident.

Individuals with a justice-based perspective tend to see any dilemma as a conflict between different claims. The moles want one thing; the porcupine wants something incompatible. They can’t both have a valid claim on the burrow, so only one of them can be right. A solution to the dilemma is not a resolution of the conflict; it’s a verdict, in which one side gets everything and the other side gets nothing.The care-based perspective approaches the problem differently. Rather than seeing all the parties as separate individuals with their own valid or invalid claims, it sees them as already in a difficult situation together. If there is a conflict between them, that is part of the problem.

The point is not to decide the conflict one way or the other but to find a way to get around it or remove it. This perspective starts from the particular case and the actual people within it and hopes to find a solution that will not damage anyone. It will be ready to embrace compromise and creative solutions.Researchers have found a tendency for males to adopt the justice perspective and for females to be more likely than males to adopt the caring perspective.

Stages of Ethics of Care

There are three stages in the Ethics of Care Theory
Ethics of Care Theory

Like Kohlberg, Gilligan proposed three stages in her Ethics of Care theory: pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional.

Within each stage, there are goals and specific transition points that move the individual through the stages. Gilligan suggests that these transitions are fueled by changes in the sense of self rather than in changes in cognitive capability.During the pre-conventional stage, the individual learns to care for oneself.

The goal is individual survival. The transition is from selfishness to responsibility toward others.In the conventional stage, the individual internalizes norms about caring for others and tends to neglect oneself. The goal is self-sacrifice.

The transition is from self-sacrifice to the truth that the individual is a person and should be cared for too.The final stage, post-conventional, is the point in which an individual becomes critical of the conventions they adopted in the conventional stage and learns to balance caring for self with caring for others. The goal is a principle of nonviolence: do not hurt others or self.Moving away from our mole/porcupine example, let’s explain these stages through another scenario. Two friends, Amy and Ella, are playing at recess when a bully approaches Ella to start a fight. In the pre-conventional stage, Amy might run away, leaving Ella behind, because she is concerned with her safety and worries about getting in trouble for fighting at school.

In the conventional stage, Amy might start fighting the bully herself to protect her friend, neglecting her own safety for her friend’s safety. In the post-conventional stage, Amy might try to intervene and stop any fighting from occurring.

Lesson Summary

The study of moral development involves both prosocial behaviors, such as caring and helping, and traits, such as honesty, fairness, and respect. Many theories exist to explain moral development among children, but Gilligan introduced a theory that captured the gender differences of moral development.

Gilligan’s theory focused on both care-based morality and justice-based morality by proposing three stages of moral development: pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional. In each stage, the individual transitions from one focus to another, eventually establishing a balance between caring for one’s self and others.

Lesson Objectives

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify Carol Gilligan and explain why she developed her Stages of the Ethics of Care Theory
  • Contrast care-based morality with justice-based morality and list the principles of each
  • Name and summarize the three stages of Gilligan’s theory

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