Gilligan's Ethics of Care

hands holding letters spelling the word care

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Psychologist Carol Gilligan is best known for her innovative but controversial ideas on the moral development of women. Gilligan emphasized what she called an “ethics of care” in women's moral reasoning. She placed her approach in direct opposition to Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, which she claimed was biased against females and emphasized an “ethics of justice.”

Key Takeaways: Gilligan's Ethics of Care

  • Carol Gilligan believed women’s morality arose from real-life dilemmas, not hypothetical ones. She came up with three stages of moral development that emphasize an ethics of care.
  • Pre-conventional stage: women are focused on the self.
  • Conventional stage: women have come to focus on their responsibilities towards others.
  • Post-conventional stage: a woman has learned to see herself and others as interdependent.
  • Gilligan developed her thinking in response to the stages of moral development outlined by Lawrence Kohlberg, which Gilligan claimed were gender-biased and emphasized an ethics of justice. However, research by other scholars has shown that two moral orientations exist—one towards care and one towards justice.

Origin of Gilligan’s Ethics of Care

In 1967, a few years after receiving her Ph.D. from Harvard, Gilligan started a teaching position there. She also became a research assistant for Lawrence Kohlberg, who developed a popular theory of moral development. Gilligan’s work was a response to the gender bias she saw in Kohlberg’s approach. 

Kohlberg’s theory of moral development included six stages. At its highest stage, an individual develops a deeply held, self-defined set of moral principles that one wishes to apply equally to all people. Kohlberg cautioned that not everyone would reach this sixth stage of moral development. In subsequent studies, he found that women tended to score at lower stages of moral development than men.

However, Gilligan pointed out that the research Kohlberg did to develop his stage theory only included young white male participants. As a result, Gilligan argued that men weren't morally superior to women. Instead, the reason women scored lower in Kohlberg’s stages than men was that Kohlberg’s work discounted the voices of women and girls. She outlined this position in detail in her seminal book In a Different Voice, which she published in 1982.

Gilligan decided to study the development of moral reasoning in women herself and found that women thought about morality differently than men. Men, as exemplified by Kohlberg’s theory, tend to look at morality through a lens of rights, laws, and universally applied principles. This “ethics of justice” has traditionally been viewed as an ideal in patriarchal Western cultures because it is championed by men. However, women tend to look at morality through a lens of relationships, compassion, and responsibility to others. This “ethics of care” has often been overlooked because of the limited power women have typically held in Western societies.

Gilligan illustrated this difference in the moral reasoning of males and females by articulating the thinking of a boy and a girl participant's responses to the “Heinz dilemma” from Kohlberg’s studies. In this dilemma, a man named Heinz must choose whether or not to steal medicine he can’t afford to save the life of his dying wife. The boy participant believes Heinz should take the medicine because the right to life is more important than the right to property. On the other hand, the girl participant doesn’t believe Heinz should take the medicine because it could land him in jail for stealing, leaving his wife alone when she needs him.

As this example demonstrates, the ethics of justice is impartial. Principles must always be applied in the same way, even if that means it negatively impacts the individual or someone they’re close to. On the other hand, the ethics of care is contextual. Morality isn’t based on abstract principles but on real relationships. Given these gender differences, Gilligan proposed that women don’t stop developing morally at lower levels than men, but that women’s moral development simply continues along a different trajectory than the ethics of justice measured by Kohlberg’s scale.

Gilligan’s Stages of Moral Development

Gilligan outlined her own stages of moral development based on an ethics of care. She used the same levels Kohlberg did but based her stages on interviews with women. Specifically, because Gilligan believed women’s morality arose from real-life dilemmas, not hypothetical ones, she interviewed women trying to decide whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Her work yielded the following stages: 

Stage 1: Pre-Conventional

At the pre-conventional stage, women are focused on the self and emphasize their own self-interests over other considerations.

Stage 2: Conventional

At the conventional stage, women have come to focus on their responsibilities towards others. They are concerned with care for others and being selfless, but this position is defined by society or other people in the woman’s orbit.

Stage 3: Post-Conventional

At the highest stage of moral development, the post-conventional stage, a woman has learned to see herself and others as interdependent. These women have control of their lives and take responsibility for their decisions, a big part of which is the choice to care for others.

Gilligan said that some women may not reach the highest stage of moral development. In addition, she didn't attach specific ages to her stages. However, she did claim that it wasn't experience that drove a woman through the stages, but cognitive ability and the woman’s evolving sense of self.

Can the Ethics of Care Extend to Men?

While the ethics of care was developed based on research with women, Gilligan has insisted that the ethics of care and the ethics of justice aren’t mutually exclusive. Instead of focusing on gender, Gilligan preferred to focus on the different themes brought up by these two perspectives on morality. Although this meant that men could develop an ethics of care, Gilligan indicated it was likely more common in women.

Research by other scholars has backed up some of Gilligan’s assertions. On the one hand, studies have indicated that the gender differences on Kohlberg’s stages aren’t especially pronounced, suggesting that there may not be a strong gender-bias in Kohlberg’s work. On the other, studies have shown that people have two moral orientations that line up with Gilligan’s ethics of justice and ethics of care. And studies have found that the moral orientation towards care is stronger in females. Thus, while both men and women can and will develop both orientations, one may be more influential in men than in women and vice versa. Furthermore, research suggests that as people age and reach the highest stages of moral development, the two orientations may be more equally represented in the individual, regardless of gender.

Critiques

Despite the evidence for some of Gilligan’s ideas, they have also been criticized for a number of reasons. One critique states that Gilligan’s observations are the result of societal expectations of gender rather than differences that naturally arise from gender. Thus, if societal expectations were different, the moral orientations of males and females would also be different.

In addition, feminist psychologists are divided over Gilligan’s work. While some have praised it, some have criticized it for reinforcing traditional notions of femininity that could continue to lock women into care-giver roles. Feminists have also pointed out that women are not a monolith. They argue that Gilligan’s work makes women’s voices seem homogenous, while denying their nuance and diversity.

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