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Module 5: Moral Development

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Carol Gilligan’s Theory

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Carol Gilligan developed a framework where the ideas in it centre on a morality of care, or system of beliefs about human responsibilities, care, and consideration for others. Gilligan proposed three moral positions that represent different extents or breadth of ethical care.

Unlike Kohlberg, Piaget, or Erikson, she does not claim that the positions form a strictly developmental sequence, but only that they can be ranked hierarchically according to their depth or subtlety.

In this respect her theory is “semi-developmental” in a way similar to Maslow’s theory of motivation (Brown & Gilligan, 1992; Taylor, Gilligan, & Sullivan, 1995).

The table on the right summarises the three moral positions from Gilligan’s theory

Position 1: Caring as survival
The most basic kind of caring is a survival orientation, in which a person is concerned primarily with his or her own welfare.

Example:
If a teenage girl with this ethical position is wondering whether to get an abortion she will be concerned entirely with the effects of the abortion on herself. The morally good choice will be whatever creates the least stress for herself and that disrupts her own life the least. Responsibilities to others (the baby, the father, or her family) play little or no part in her thinking.

As a moral position, a survival orientation is obviously not satisfactory for classrooms on a widespread scale. If every student only looked out for himself or herself, classroom life might become rather unpleasant for everyone involved. Nonetheless, there are situations in which focusing primarily on yourself is both a sign of good mental health and relevant to teachers.

Example:
For a child who has been bullied at school or sexually abused at home, it is both healthy and morally desirable to speak out about how bullying or abuse has affected the victim.

Doing so means essentially looking out for the victim’s own needs at the expense of others’ needs, including the bully’s or abuser’s. Speaking out, in this case, requires a survival orientation and is healthy because the child is taking caring of herself.

Position 2: Conventional caring
A more subtle moral position is caring for others, in which a person is concerned about others’ happiness and welfare, and about reconciling or integrating others’ needs where they conflict with each other.

Example:
In considering an abortion the teenager at this position would think primarily about what other people prefer. Do the father, her parents, and/or her doctor want her to keep the child?

The morally good choice becomes whatever will please others the best. This position is more demanding than Position 1, ethically and intellectually, because it requires coordinating several persons’ needs and values. But it is often morally insufficient because it ignores one crucial person: the self.

In classrooms, students who operate from Position 2 can be very desirable in some ways; they can be eager to please, considerate, and good at fitting in and at working cooperatively with others. As these qualities are usually welcome in a busy classroom, teachers can be tempted to reward students for developing and using them.

The problem with rewarding Position 2 ethics, however, is that doing so neglects the student’s development—his or her own academic and personal goals or values. Sooner or later, personal goals, values, and identity need attention and care, and educators have a responsibility for assisting students to discover and clarify them.

Position 3: Integrated caring
The most developed form of moral caring in Gilligan’s model is integrated caring, the coordination of personal needs and values with those of others. Now the morally good choice takes account of everyone including yourself, not everyone except yourself.

Example:
In considering an abortion, a woman at Position 3 would think not only about the consequences for the father, the unborn child, and her family, but also about the consequences for herself. How would bearing a child affect her own needs, values, and plans?

This perspective leads to moral beliefs that are more comprehensive, but ironically are also more prone to dilemmas because the widest possible range of individuals is being considered.

In classrooms, integrated caring is most likely to surface whenever teachers give students wide, sustained freedom to make choices. If students have little flexibility about their actions, there is little room for considering anyone’s needs or values, whether their own or others’.

Example:
If the teacher says simply: “Do the homework on page 50 and turn it in tomorrow morning”, then the main issue becomes compliance, not moral choice. But suppose instead that she says something like this: “Over the next two months, figure out an inquiry project about the use of water resources in our town. Organise it any way you want—talk to people, read widely about it, and share it with the class in a way that all of us, including yourself, will find meaningful.”

An assignment like the previous example poses moral challenges that are not only educational, but also moral, since it requires students to make value judgments. Why?

1. Students must decide what aspect of the topic really matters to them. Such a decision is partly a matter of personal values.
2. Students have to consider how to make the topic meaningful or important to others in the class.
3. As the time line for completion is relatively far in the future, students may have to weigh personal priorities (like spending time with friends or family) against educational priorities (working on the assignment a bit more on the weekend).

As one might suspect, some students might have trouble making good choices when given this sort of freedom—and their teachers might therefore be cautious about giving such an assignment.

But the difficulties in making choices are part of Gilligan’s point: integrated caring is indeed more demanding than the caring based only on survival or on consideration of others. Not all students may be ready for it.