Carol Gilligan's Different Voice
A main theoretical contribution in
centers on the
notion of care. The attempt is to build an ethical theory that moves away from a
central role for individual
and away from strict moral
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
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
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
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
and centers on feelings, personal joy, impressions, personal ideals, and needs, while
separate and devalue people and often makes people feel self-righteous.
Noddings characterizes what it means to care. She identifies both
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
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
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
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.