The Gilligan-Kohlberg Moral Theory Controversy

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The Gilligan-Kohlberg Moral Theory Controversy

Ethics, or moral philosophy, as a field of intellectual inquiry developed in the west for well over two thousand years with minimal input from women. Women's voices have been virtually absent from western ethics until this century. The absence of female voices has meant that the moral concerns of men have preoccupied traditional western ethics, the moral perspectives of men have shaped its methods and concepts, and male biases against women have gone virtually unchallenged within it. Feminist ethics explores the fundamental effect of this imbalance on moral philosophy and seeks to rectify it. So the questions we face are: Do women have a distinct moral perspective? How if at all is gender relevant to moral theory? Questions such as these will be answered in this essay. The concept of morality has long been one of intense interest and debate for many disciplines, from ancient philosophy to contemporary psychology. However, it could be questioned the extent to which we have developed in terms of understanding such an abstract entity. Carol Gilligan follows the cognitive developmental models of Lawrence Kohlberg in her argument concerning female morality, yet can her perspective be supported, or does her theoretical model raise broader issues surrounding the explanation of moral thought and behavior? According to Gilligan, the model of a distinct female moral development is in response to the lack of attention paid to women in previous models of moral development, namely Kohlberg. I want to begin by comparing two well-known scholars and their debate, Carol Gilligan and Lawrence Kohlberg. My purpose here is to review the Gilligan-Kohlberg controversy and show the relevance of gender diversity in moral theory. I will discuss some of the implicit and explicit philosophical differences between Gilligan's and Kohlberg's out-looks and will then illustrate that Gilligan’s claims that women have a distinctive moral voice cannot be fully justified. Lawrence Kohlberg, born in 1927, taught at Harvard University where he taught both education and social psychology. Kohlberg’s stages of moral development are the stages in thinking about right and wrong that everyone goes through growing up. Each stage builds on the one before so you have to go through them in order. There were six stages (three levels): avoiding punishment, self-interest, good boy attitude, law and order morality, social contract, and principle. The first level of moral thinking, “pre-conventional,” is generally found at the elementary school level. In the first stage of this level, people behave according to socially acceptable norms because they are told to do so by some authority figure (e.g., parent or teacher). This obedience is compelled by the threat or application of punishment. The second stage of this level is characterized by a view that right behavior means acting in one's own best interests. The second level of moral thinking, “conventional,” is generally found in society. The first stage of this level (stage 3) is characterized by an attitude, which seeks to do what will gain the approval of others. The second stage is one oriented to abiding by the law and responding to the obligations of duty. The third level of moral thinking, “post-conventional,” is one that Kohlberg felt is not reached by the majority of adults. Its first stage (stage 5) is an understanding of social mutuality and a genuine interest in the welfare of others. The last stage (stage 6) is based on respect for universal principle and the demands of individual conscience. While Kohlberg always believed in the existence of Stage 6 and had some nominees for it, he could never get enough subjects to define it, much less observe their longitudinal movement to it. Gilligan (“In a Different Voice) challenges Kohlberg’s “stage theory” of moral development. Carol Gilligan, born in 1936, received her doctrine then taught at Harvard University,...
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