Carol Gilligan's Different Voice
Nell Noddings's Care                                      Return to contents

Carol Gilligan's Different Voice

    A main theoretical contribution in feminist ethics centers on the notion of care. The attempt is to build an ethical theory that moves away from a central role for individual rights and away from strict moral rules and principles, to a concern for establishing and preserving good relationships, helping others, and promoting mutual well-being. All of this is summarized under "care."
    We may wonder why this emphasis on care is considered a contribution of feminist ethics. The answer takes shape with the influential work of the psychologist Carol Gilligan. In 1982 she published the results of her studies of moral development of women and men: In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Gilligan takes to task influential psychologists, including Sigmund Freud, with the claim that they ignore the moral development of women or else relegate women's moral sense to a lower level than that of men. The contemporary psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg presents six stages of moral development. She claims that he locates most women at stage 3, related to interpersonal helping and pleasing, while men frequently reach "higher" levels, involving moral rules and the principles of justice.
    Gilligan rejects the notion that the movement toward the so-called higher stages indicates a superior moral aptitude. For her, women exemplify care, an important moral characteristic. Theirs is a more inclusive morality, one that strengthens relationships and solves problems without resorting to the binding authority of rules and principles.
    The difference between Kohlberg's and Gilligan's points of view is exemplified by their analysis of answers to a question posed to two preteens, Jake and Amy. The question involves Heinz's hypothetical dilemma: Heinz cannot afford a drug needed to save his wife's life. He considers stealing the drug. Amy and Jake are asked whether stealing the drug is morally proper. Jake responds that it is morally proper because people are uniquely valuable, worth more than the loss of income to the druggist. Furthermore, if Heinz were caught, Jake believes a judge would probably understand why Heinz stole the drug.
    Amy, on the other hand, believes that the dilemma is not genuine. Stealing the drug doesn't solve the problem because the wife may get sick again, and Heinz may have to go to jail. She is convinced that the couple can find another way to get the money needed or else come to some agreement with the druggist.
   Gilligan concludes that Amy attempts to preserve relationships, and to solve problems by mediation. Jake sees the world more in terms of doing the "right thing," and using rules to solve the problems he confronts, just as one might use rules to solve an equation. Additional questions posed to Amy and Jake reveal that Amy considers her personal worth bound up with relationships involving care for others, while Jake judges himself against his own ideal of personal perfection.
    Glligan argues that women's statements exhibit a desire not to hurt others, the belief that morality calls for resolution of conflicts, and judgment of themselves in relation to their ability to care for others. With the women's rights movement, and the problem of abortion that puts into focus women's needs, Gilligan sees the need to expand care -- thought of in terms of care for others -- to include care for self.
    Whether or not Gilligan's study is an empirically accurate portrayal of how most women react to moral problems, her work suggests that a morality of care is an often neglected although enlightening approach to moral problem-solving. The different voice she points to is a call to a new moral perspective.    Top

Nell Noddings's Care

    In Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, Nell Noddings presents an approach to ethics that she considers to be feminine, meaning not that it is only for women but that it represent characteristically feminine virtues: receptivity, responsiveness, and relatedness. Women often define themselves in terms of caring, and they use caring relationships as a way to analyze moral problems. According to this view, a feminine approach rejects the universality of high-level moral principles and centers on feelings, personal joy, impressions, personal ideals, and needs, while principles and rules separate and devalue people and often makes people feel self-righteous.
   Noddings characterizes what it means to care. She identifies both natural caring and ethical caring. Natural caring happens when someone is engrossed in another and feels joy when helping the other, even if the help involves self-sacrifice. The paradigm case is that a mother caring for a child. Natural care is accepting; it does not evaluate the other person but allows the cared for person to pursue his or her own projects. Natural caring is not judgmental; instead, it involves sensitized perceptions and awareness of the needs and nature of the other. Ethical care, a technical term as Noddings uses it, does not involve such natural attachment, but is an extension of natural care. Moments of joyous caring are remembered, and can be used to direct concern for others, to display ethical care when strong feelings of engrossment and concern are not present. This ethical caring must be practiced and involves effort; nevertheless, it is based in, and is informed by, natural caring.
    Noddings emphasizes that caring of either type is a relationship because it involves response to another. When the response by the cared-for is confirming, as it is in the infant's expressions, caring is a fulfilling act. The cared-for is vital in a caring relationship because without some appropriate response -- a recognition of care or development under that care -- the caring relationship is broken. Furthermore, when a caring person receives care back, then that person learns to care for himself or herself. Implicit in Noddings's account is the ethical demand not only to be caring but also to respond to care. Proper response establishes the proper conditions for caring.
    Care is a local phenomenon; it responds to the demands of a situation, and an ethics of care does not admit proper control of actions by moral rules or universal principles. Yet care itself is universal. Natural caring is the same in all places and all times and becomes the base of universal concern in ethical caring. However, care always occurs in a context or a situation, and as such it seems to be forged anew in each occurrence.
    Although Noddings explicitly rejects the binding force of universal prescriptions, she insists that caring relationships respect the freedom of the other. This is a universal demand that leads to difficult problems, often faced in the history of ethics, about the nature of freedom. We all know about suffocating "care," care that is not in the interest of the free development of the cared-for. That care may feel the same, by everyone involved, as genuine care. So the resort to a universal prescription about freedom of the cared-for is in order, but it suggests the limitations of the notion of care as the sole foundation of moral outlook.
    Since caring occurs locally, although from a universal sentiment, we may question how caring can deal with relationships that are distant, for example, institutional relationships or relationships to others in a society. In contemporary life we frequently influence the lives of others we do not know, and we often do not know about the consequences of our actions. Noddings deals with such relationships, distant relationships, with the notion that we are engaged in concentric circles of caring, ever more distantly located. The natural feelings of caring are attenuated at levels more distant and more impersonal.
    At the impersonal level, Noddings admits a legitimate value of the use of rules. Rules of the game, institutional and social rules and moral rules, allow us to participate comfortably in impersonal circumstances. She believes that custom and rules can help us to meet the minimum requirements of care. To her these rules are most appropriate in unproblematic circumstances. Once conflict occurs, she believes we should resort to our heightened ethical sense of caring. In the final analysis, rules and customs represent "someone's sense of relatedness institutionalized in our culture." So Noddings calls for rules that reflect a truly caring attitude. Our culture is filled, she states, with customs that distort caring. Rules and customs need to enhance rather than detract from caring. A caring person does not steal, does not kill, betray, and so on. But all such rules are simply aids to moral behavior. She believes that moral rules, like the rule against lying, may be broken without the need for explanation or justification.     Top

See also: