Carol Gilligan was born on November 28, 1936, in New York City. She graduated from Swarthmore College in 1958, majoring in literature. She received her Masters in clinical psychology in 1960 from Radcliffe University and her PhD in social psychology from Harvard University in 1964. She began teaching at Harvard in 1967, becoming a full professor there in 1986.
Gilligan’s primary focus was the moral development of young women. In 1970, she became a research assistant for Lawrence Kohlberg, whose stage theory of moral development is now well-known. Gilligan’s interest in moral development was deeply affected by her interviews with young women contemplating abortions in the 1970s.
Over time, Gilligan began to question Kohlberg’s methodology and the assumptions that grounded his theory. First, the participants in his studies were all privileged white men and boys. Gilligan felt that this biased his theory against women. Second, Kohlberg privileged the consideration of individual rights and rules over the consideration of the importance of caring in human relationships. Gilligan took this to represent the privileging of a male perspective over a female perspective.
Research by Constance Holstein (1976) appeared to support Gilligan’s claim that there is a gender bias in Kohlberg’s theory. Holstein’s longitudinal study found that female participants typically scored at stage 3 of Kohlberg’s moral stages (which emphasizes interpersonal relationships and issues of social duty and obligation), whereas male participants typically scored at stage 4 (which emphasizes abstract issues of rights, laws, and social contracts). According to these results, males are generally more morally developed than females. However, Gilligan argued instead that these results show that Kohlberg’s stages are unfairly biased in favor of the kind of moral reasoning in which males, but not females, typically engage.
Consequently, Gilligan became one of Kohlberg’s most outspoken critics. Her criticisms of Kohlberg’s theory were published in her 1982 book, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, which Harvard University Press described as “the little book that started a revolution.” Translated into 17 languages with more than three-quarters of a million copies sold, it continues to inspire political debate, new research, and initiatives in policy and education. In a Different Voice was followed by several other coauthored or edited books: Mapping the Moral Domain (1988), Making Connections (1990), Women, Girls, and Psychotherapy: Reframing Resistance (1991), Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development (1992), and Between Voice and Silence: Women and Girls, Race and Relationships (1995).
Review Of Kohlberg’s Moral Stages
In 1969, Kohlberg published his stage theory of moral development. He argued that moral development occurs through a series of invariant stages, in a manner similar to Jean Piaget’s cognitive development stages. Kohlberg’s model is not only descriptive of how moral development occurs, but also prescriptive of how moral development should occur. Insofar as each stage represents a higher level of moral reasoning (i.e., a stage that is more adequate, stable, and “ideal”), people should strive to attain the highest stage of moral development.
Kohlberg identified three levels of development with six stages, two stages per level, as follows:
Level 1—Preconventional (concrete individualistic perspective): stages 1 to 2
Level 2—Conventional (member-of-society perspective):stages 3 to 4
Level 3—Postconventional (prior-to-society perspective):stages 5 to 6
Although Kohlberg’s stages vary in what factors are salient to people engaged in moral reasoning, each stage involves what Kohlberg called “justice reasoning.”
Thus, each stage of development revolves around how best to adjudicate interpersonal conflicts, balance conflicting claims and competing interests, and most fairly distribute goods and rights (the “benefits and burdens” of social life).
Gilligan’s Theory Of Feminine Morality
Gilligan challenged Kohlberg’s claim that all moral reasoning is “justice reasoning.” She argued that Kohlberg’s stage theory makes assumptions—for example, that the moral ideal is attained through an abstract, impersonal, individualistic “prior-to-society” perspective—that do not respect the experiences of women, who prioritize interpersonal relationships. Kohlberg’s theory thus estranges women from the process of moral development.
Gilligan argued that women’s moral judgments necessarily include feelings of compassion and empathy for others, as well as concern for commitments that arise out of relationships. Women engage in “care reasoning,” not “justice reasoning,” and thus consider their own and other’s responsibilities to be grounded in social context and interpersonal commitments.
Gilligan identified two moral voices that arise from two distinct developmental pathways. According to Gilligan, the male voice emphasizes independence (“separation”) and responsibility for oneself, whereas the female voice emphasizes interdependence (“connection”) and responsibility to others. Males are encouraged to be active agents, females to be passive recipients. When faced with moral problems, males seek solutions that are just and fair; females seek solutions that are caring and benevolent. For males, moral wrongness is linked to the violation of rights and justice; for females, moral wrongness is linked to a failure to communicate and to respond. For males, moral interactions take place primarily at the political and legal level, in the realm of abstract laws and social contracts; for females, moral interactions take place primarily at the level of personal relationships, in the family and the social network of the community in which they live.
Like Kohlberg, Gilligan identified several stages of moral development.
Level 1: Self-Oriented
Focus is on the needs of oneself. Here, the survival of oneself is of sole concern. The transition to level 2 begins with the recognition of the conflict between one’s own needs and the needs of others (i.e., what one owes to oneself vs. what one owes to others).
Level 2: Other Oriented
Focus is on the needs of others. Here, the self-adopts the traditional conception of feminine goodness, the maternal morality of self-sacrifice, whereby the good is equated with caring for others. Consequently, one’s own needs become devalued. The transition to level 3 begins with the recognition that the self cannot be left out, but must also be an object of one’s caring.
Level 3: Universal Oriented
Focus is on the universal obligation of caring. Here, care is a self-chosen principle that condemns exploitation, violence, and neglect and demands active response to suffering. Caring for oneself and others is seen as intertwined because the self and others are recognized as interdependent. Thus, all acts of caring are seen as beneficial to both self and others.
Evidence For Gilligan’s Theory
Nona Lyons (1983) interviewed 36 people using real-life moral dilemmas. Responses were coded as either “rights” (justice) oriented or “response” (care) oriented. Three fourths of female respondents displayed the response orientation, whereas only 14% of male respondents displayed this orientation. On the other hand, 79% of male respondents displayed the rights orientation, whereas only 25% of female respondents displayed this orientation.
Gilligan and Attanucci (1988) found that 65% of males used a justice-only orientation, 32% used a justice and care mixed orientation, and none used a care-only orientation. In contrast, 35% of females used a care-only orientation, 35% used a justice and care mixed orientation, and 29% used a justice-only orientation. Gilligan and Attanucci concluded that both men and women can use justice and care orientations, but men tend to gravitate toward a justice orientation, whereas women tend to gravitate toward a care orientation. They further concluded that women appear to be more willing (or able) to use a justice orientation than men are willing (or able) to use a care orientation.
As further evidence for her theory, Gilligan pointed to the overwhelmingly male population of the prison systems and the preponderance of women in educational and caretaking professions. Rhetorically, she asks: if there are no gender differences in empathy and moral reasoning, then why are there such easily recognizable gender-specific behavioral differences?
Criticisms Of Gilligan’s Theory
Some argue that Holstein’s study failed to provide unequivocal evidence for gender bias because, although some results did suggest a gender bias, other results did not.
Indeed, Gilligan’s claim that Kohlberg’s theory is gender biased has found little empirical support. Lawrence Walker’s (1984) empirical meta-analysis found that gender differences in moral reasoning stages are extremely rare: of 108 studies, only 8 showed clear gender effects, many of which were confounded by educational levels or occupational status. Likewise, James Rest’s (1979) meta-analysis also found that gender effects are extremely rare. Also, Walker (1989) found that most of the gender effects that have been reported are nonsignificant.
Kohlberg’s response to Gilligan’s critique was to distinguish between two different ways of thinking about morality. Morality is sometimes concerned with what it takes for a judgment to be moral (i.e., whether or not it is impartial, universal, and prescriptive; whether or not it is motivated by a desire to adjudicate conflicts, and so on). However, morality is also sometimes concerned with human relationships and what they must include to be moral (i.e., whether or not they involve adequate concern for another’s well-being; whether or not they are motivated by feelings of obligation and responsibility, and so on). These are two ways of thinking about morality, Kohlberg argued, not two different moralities. Consequently, he proposed a moral continuum that possesses a justice orientation at one end and a caring orientation at the other.
- Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
- Gilligan, , & Attanucci, J. (1988). Two moral orientations: Gender differences and similarities. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 34, 223–237.
- Holstein, C. S. (1976). Irreversible, stepwise sequence in the development of moral judgment: A longitudinal study of males and Child Development, 47, 51–61.
- Kohlberg, (1969). Stage and sequence: The cognitive development approach to socialization. In D. A. Goslin (Ed.), Handbook of socialization theory and research (pp. 347–480). Chicago: Rand McNally.
- Kohlberg, , Levine, C., & Hewer, A. (1983). Moral stages: A current formulation and a response to critics. In J. A. Meacham (Ed.), Contributions to human development (Vol. 10). Basel: Karger.
- Lapsley, (1996). Moral psychology. Boulder, CO: WestviewPress.
- Lyons, P. (1983). Two perspectives: On self, relationship, and morality. Harvard Educational Review, 53, 125–145.
- Rest, J. (1979). Development in judging moral issues.Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
- Walker, L. J. (1984). Sex differences in the development of moral reasoning: A critical review. Child Development, 55,677–691.
- Walker, J. (1989). A longitudinal study of moral reasoning.Child Development, 60, 157–166.
- Women’s Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society. (n.d.). Carol Gilligan (1936–present). Retrieved from http://www.webster.edu/~woolflm/gilligan.html