Carol Gilligan’s Theory of Ethics of Care (Explained and Summarized)

The ethics of care is a theory developed by American psychologist Carol Gilligan as a moral theory of universal principles in human beings concerning the ethics of justice.

The Ethics of Caring for Gilligan and its Employees is aimed at upholding the right of people to take care of others and the equality of moral and ethical development between men and women..

This theory emerged as an alternative to Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development in the 1980s, which will be briefly explained in the next section to get into the topic.

At the same time, some arguments related to the two theories will be presented, based on the impartial examination of some bibliographical sources on models of moral development.

    The precedent of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development

    The psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg developed a model of moral reasoning divided into six stages and three different levels, postulating that children reached higher moral standards as their cognitive abilities increased with age and education.

    The experiment that Kohlberg carried out to develop his theory arose from the analysis he made in his doctoral thesis on the theory of moral development Jean Piaget. This experiment was based on exposing participating subjects to moral dilemmas, having to choose between following the rules or disobeying them for the benefit of another person (e.g. Heinz’s dilemma, which is to pose a situation in which you must deciding between stealing a medicine for a sick person, not being able to buy it, or obeying the law and preventing that person from having the medicine they need).

    Next, the different levels of moral reasoning that Kholberg raises in developing his theory will be briefly shown.

    Level I. Pre-conventional ethics (4-10 years)

    • Step 1. They follow the rules to avoid being punished
    • Step 2. Perform actions to receive benefits.

    It’s here an individualistic perspective, based on a principle of hedonism. Children travel for their own benefit.

      Level II. Conventional ethics (10-13 years old)

      • Step 3. They want to please other people who are important to them.
      • Step 4. Respect social norms to maintain social order.

      here the individualistic perspective of the previous stage begins to merge into a more well-oriented perspective of the closest people, as friends and as a family. They care about being “good kids” and loving others.

      Level III. Post-conventional morality (adolescence-early adulthood)

      • Step 5. Really cares about the rights of society.
      • Step 6. Respect for universal rights.

      The third level is that of true morality. Recognizes a conflict between two moral standards and motivates the decision to adopt one conduct or another on the basis of the principles of justice and equality. Also, this model was not free from criticisms, as we will see later and, among which is the model that Gilligan postulates as an alternative.

        Gilligan’s ethics of care

        The main criticisms of Kohlberg’s model are based mainly on the fact that he did not do his research in a real situation, but in an experimental context.

        Another criticism of this study was that Kohlberg’s experiment could be biased, showing results in women with intermediate levels of moral development.; unlike men, who have achieved the highest level of moral development in a large proportion.

        It was following these controversial conclusions that Carol Gilligan, who was her student at Harvard University and collaborator in her research, decided to develop her theory of the ethics of care, to the detriment of Kohlberg’s universalist theory.

        Like that, Carol Gilligan’s ethics of care emerged as a counterpart to Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning, who had researched with values ​​that Gilligan said were previously more important to men, such as following socially established norms and not harming others, leaving out values ​​such as the importance of taking care of others .

        However, Gilligan’s research did not receive enough support at first, and so he continued to research with the goal of gaining greater soundness in his theory.

        Gilligan she wanted to investigate how women made moral decisions when faced with different dilemmas. In his research, situations have been presented to act with morality, seeing in it a concept of responsibility in the face of selfishness, responsibility being understood as the obligation to take care of others and not to harm.

        After analyzing the results, Gilligan presented the finding that women focus less on abstract justice and fairness and think more about the responsibilities they have to specific people of their environment.

        As a result of her research, she developed her theory of moral development in women, which is divided into three levels.

        Level 1. Orientation towards personal survival (preconventional)

        At this first level, women focus on themselves, in what is best for them and in what serves them a beneficial use.

        Transition 1. From selfishness to responsibility

        In this transition to the conventional level, they begin to be considered more in their relationships with others, being less individualistic.

        Level 2. Kindness as a form of (conventional) self-sacrifice

        At this conventional stage, it’s when they genuinely care about selflessly caring for others.

        Transition 2. From kindness to truth

        They make sure to weigh their decisions according to the consequences they could have. They develop their moral reasoning to the point of always taking into account the needs of others, without ever losing sight of theirs. They begin to find a balance between their personal care and that of their loved ones.

        Level 3. Morality of nonviolence (postconventional)

        It is the highest stage that one can reach in moral reasoning, the post-conventional. By reaching this level, they take responsibility for their own decisions because they are in control of their lives.. It is the level where a moral balance has been consolidated between the focus on oneself and on others.

          Moral development according to Gilligan

          For Gilligan, a woman’s greatest moral dilemma was based on the conflict he had between the needs and care of others.

          In Gilligan’s model, he postulates that women’s preferences for caring for others as a moral responsibility are based on being responsible, to a greater extent, for caring for babies. The result is that in all societies and cultures one can find characteristics in the female personality that are more rooted in connection with others than are usually male personality traits.

          The fundamental characteristics which are taken from Carol Gilligan’s theory of the ethics of care are: care, responsibility, community, care and interdependence. The driving force behind them is the mutual cooperation that takes place through skills such as empathy and the ability to maintain interpersonal relationships. This is thus posed in contrast with the ethics of justice, whose values ​​were more oriented towards individuality, independence, objectivity, freedom, equality and justice, being driven by reason. and compliance with the stipulated rules.

            Conclusions on Carol Gilligan’s Theory of Ethics of Care

            In conclusion, it should be noted that there is a posteriori research that did not find any major gender differences in terms of moral reasoning.

            113 studies were analyzed and concluded that women think more in terms of care, in a contextual plane; while men did so in terms associated with justice, situated on a more formal and abstract plane. Condemnation that the differences between the two sexes were small.

            Other studies conducted with radiological neuroimaging techniques revealed that women exhibited increased brain activity in areas associated with care-based reasoning (posterior circle, anterior and anterior insula); while men exhibited greater activity in other areas of the brain associated with justice-related processing (superior temporal sulcus).

            In subsequent research, Gilligan postulates that moral development, for both women and men, evolves beyond reasoning in abstract terms.. Therefore, in his research, he used moral dilemmas applied to real life situations that might arise for the people being assessed at some point in their lives.

            A striking result of the experience of Gilligan and his colleagues is that they were able to observe that many twenty-year-old boys were dissatisfied with their capacity for moral logic, considering it to be underdeveloped and at the same time to have a greater capacity to coexist with moral contradictions.

            On the other hand, it should be noted that Gilligan’s model has been widely accepted by the developmental psychology community as being conducted in a real-world context, and also reflects an alternative value system to that proposed by Kohlberg. It should also be noted that Kohlberg added a seventh step to his moral reasoning model, and his model became more in accord with Gilligan’s model..

            The latest update to the Gilligan and Kohlberg models postulates that responsibility to others is the highest level that can be achieved in the development of moral reasoning. Both psychologists agree on the fundamental importance that relationships with others have for both sexes, as well as compassion and care for others.

            Bibliographical references

            • APIR (2019). Manual of psychological development. Madrid: APIR.
            • Faerman, R. (2015). Ethics of care: a different perspective on moral debate. Journal of Legal Theory, University of Palermo, 123-146.
            • Papalia, DE and Martorell, G. (2017). Human Development (13th ed.). Mexico: McGraw-Hill Education.

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