Gilligan's Theory of Moral Development

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Carol Gilligan is a psychologist best known for her innovative views on the development of women's morality and sense of self, which she detailed in her 1982 book In a Different Voice. Gilligan's theory of moral development was created in response to the theory of moral development proposed by Lawrence Kohlberg, which she criticized for ignoring women's perspectives.

Gilligan proposed that women come to prioritize an "ethics of care" as their sense of morality evolves along with their sense of self while men prioritize an "ethics of justice."

This article discusses the history of Gilligan's theory of moral development, how it differs from Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development, and how women develop their sense of self in the world.

Carol Gilligan and Her Theory of Moral Development

Gilligan received her PhD in social psychology from Harvard University in 1964 and by 1967 was working as a research assistant to Lawrence Kohlberg at her alma mater.

Gilligan's Argument Against Kohlberg's Theory

Kohlberg's theory of moral development consists of three levels each made up of two stages. At the lowest, the Preconventional Level, the needs of the self are prioritized. This evolves into the Conventional Level to an understanding of how to be a moral member of society. Finally, at the highest level, the Postconventional Level, the individual adopts a universal idea of justice.

Kohlberg observed that most people won't reach the highest stages of his scale but would stop developing morally in the middle stages at the Conventional Level, and that's exactly what research showed.

However, while both girls and boys tended to score at the Conventional Level on Kohlberg's scale, girls scored predominantly at Stage 3, which is concerned with being a good person in order to maintain the goodwill and approval of others, while most boys scored at Stage 4, which is focused on adhering to the norms and laws of society.

This made it seem like men reached higher levels of morality than women, but Carol Gilligan noted that Kohlberg's theory was formulated exclusively through research with young white males. As a result, she suggested that Kohlberg's theory is biased toward men and boys and doesn't account for women's and girls' perspectives on morality.

Men, she said, prioritize an "ethics of justice" where morality is centered on abstract principles and rules that can be applied equally to everyone. Meanwhile, women prioritize an "ethics of care," where morality is centered on interpersonal relationships and moral judgment is based on the context of an issue.

Gilligan conducted several interview studies with girls and women, including one with women who were deciding whether to have an abortion, in order to flesh out her ideas about women's morality.

The goal of her work was to demonstrate that women don't necessarily stop developing morally before men do, but that their moral development follows a different trajectory than that outlined in Kohlberg's theory.

Stages in Gilligan's Theory of Moral Development

Gilligan's research in the abortion decision study led her to detail her own stage theory of moral development, which she detailed in a 1977 article that she expanded into her book In a Different Voice. Gilligan's theory used the same basic three-level outline as Kohlberg's along with two transitions between the levels. The levels and transitions are outlined below.

Preconventional Morality

At the Preconventional Level, moral judgment is entirely focused on the self and the need to survive. When a conflict arises between the needs of the self and the needs of others, a woman will choose to address her own needs.

Transition 1

During the first transition from the Preconventional to the Conventional Level, the woman realizes that she has a responsibility to others. It is the first time that she realizes her previous moral perspective could be characterized as selfish.

Conventional Morality

At the Conventional Level, moral judgment becomes concentrated on caring for others. The woman starts to see herself as a participant in society whose claim to being a good citizen relies on helping and protecting others. This concern for others overrides her concern for herself, leading to a morality focused on self-sacrifice.

Transition 2

During the second transition from the Conventional to the Postconventional Level, the woman starts to experience tension between the needs of others and the needs of the self. She begins to realize she must strike a better balance between her needs and the needs of others.

This leads to a shift in moral judgment away from "goodness" to "truth" as she starts to honestly assess her own desires, not just her responsibility to others.

Postconventional Morality

At the Postconventional Level, moral judgment is dictated by the principle of nonviolence. The needs of the self are just as important as the needs of others, which causes the woman to arrive at a universal ethic of care and concern.

Adhering to the obligation of care while avoiding harm or exploitation to herself and others enables the woman to accept responsibility for her choices.

Gilligan didn't identify specific ages when the levels of moral development would be reached. However, as Kohlberg did with his theory, she noted some women might not reach the highest level. She also observed that it wasn't life experience that pushed a woman to higher levels, but cognitive ability and changes in a woman's sense of self.

The Ethics of Care and the Developing Sense of Self

Movement through Gilligan's stages of moral development hinges on an evolving sense of self.

  • At the Preconventional Level, only the needs of the self are recognized
  • At the Conventional Level, the needs of others are prioritized while the needs of the self are denied
  • At the Postconventional Level, a balance is struck between the needs of the self and others

Transition through these levels is based on a woman's reconsideration of what she considers selfish. Throughout these levels, women's sense of self, and the sense of morality that arises because of it, are driven by their feelings of connection and responsibility toward others, which gradually evolve to encompass others and then expand to encompass everyone, including the self.

Critiques of Gilligan's Theory of Moral Development

While Gilligan's ideas were groundbreaking, some feminist psychologists have also criticized them because they treat women's voices as a single homogenous entity while ignoring the diversity of women based on age, class, race, and other factors.

Moreover, some have expressed concern over the suggestion that women emphasize care and connection more than men, arguing that this reinforces traditional ideas about femininity while potentially continuing to push women into caregiver roles.

Gilligan's observations have also been critiqued as the result of societal expectations of men and women, not innate gender differences, which means that men's and women's moral development would follow different paths if society's expectations were different.

Carol Gilligan's Theory Today

Despite these criticisms, Gilligan's theory of moral development continues to be studied today. It is now widely acknowledged that there are two moral orientations, one that emphasizes justice and one that emphasizes care, as Gilligan proposed.

Both genders develop both orientations, however, studies have shown that men tend to emphasize an ethics of justice and women an ethics of care.

Recent research has continued to back up this assertion. For example, one study found that men and women handled ethical dilemmas in business differently, a result that was attributed to Gilligan's theory. Similarly, research analyzing the way men and women thought about morality found that men utilized a detached, intellectual approach while women used a subjective, personal approach.

Although both genders understood one another's moral perspective, men and women were unable to comfortably adopt the other's approach, demonstrating a gender divide consistent with Gilligan's ideas.

This research demonstrates that the moral development of men and women tends to follow different trajectories that emphasize different things. Because women and girls often prioritize relationships and care over rules and principles, their approaches to ethical dilemmas in their professional, academic, and personal lives are likely to contrast with that of men and boys.

Because the world still tends to prize men's perspectives over women's, this may leave women and girls feeling alienated or alone. However, for women, girls, and those raising girls, it helps to keep in mind that Gilligan's theory of moral development shows that many women and girls are likely struggling in similar ways.

This is knowledge that can perhaps enable them to feel less isolated and show them that their moral values and sense of self are legitimate even if they are different from men's.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the main focus of Gilligan's theory?

    Gilligan's theory focuses on sex differences in moral reasoning. Her theory suggests while men prioritize justice when making moral decisions, women prioritize a care orientation.

  • When was Gilligan's theory of moral development introduced?

    Carol Gilligan introduced her theory of moral development in her book "In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development," which was published in 1982.

  • What is the basic difference between Kohlberg's theory of moral development and Gilligan's?

    One of the primary differences between the two theories is that where Kohlberg's theory suggested that moral principles were universal, Gilligan's proposed that context plays a role in moral reasoning. According to Gilligan, women are more likely to consider how the context affects the choices people have and the decisions they make. Women are also more likely to make choices that preserve the individual's sense of self and protect relationships with others.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.