The debate between Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan dominated the subject of moral development following Gilligan’s 1982 book, “In a Different Voice,” one of the first to challenge male-centered psychological research. The differences between Kohlberg and Gilligan boil down to whether males and females define “morality” differently -- with men focusing on justice concerns, according to Kohlberg, and females more focused on caring and relationship needs, according to Gilligan.

Context and History

Theories on how people develop morally became a focus of psychology when Jean Piaget first studied how individuals’ reasoning and thinking skills evolve throughout the lifespan. Kohlberg liked Piaget’s approach and, after conducting research studies in the 1960s, used the resulting data to develop a model of six “universal” stages through which individuals progress morally. By the late 1970s, his model of moral development was the dominant view. But females consistently achieved Stage 3 when tested with his model, while men consistently scored at Stages 4 and 5. Gilligan, a former student of Kohlberg’s, noted that the model was based on tests performed on boys only, and questioned whether women were really “morally inferior,” as test scores suggested. So, conducting her own research, she developed an alternative model.

The Central Difference Between Kohlberg and Gilligan’s Views

The debate centers around Gilligan’s claim that female psychology and values -- including how women come to define morality -- differ from those of men. She developed a relational theory that became known as an “ethics of care.” Kohlberg’s model of moral development centered around the ability to make decisions based on universal, abstract principles of justice, duty and the use of impartial reason and logic. Gilligan contended, on the other hand, that because girls understand and define themselves more in terms of their relationships and responsibilities to others, they hold different traits as morally valuable. Women also tend to prioritize empathy over logic in their decision making, she said.

Kohlberg’s Stages

Kohlberg's model consists of three main levels of moral progression, each consisting of two substages, producing the six-stage sequence of moral development. Specifically, the levels are 1) Pre-conventional stage: Occurring from birth to about age nine, moral judgments during this period are egocentric, based primarily on fear of punishment and unquestioning deference to authority. 2) Conventional stage: Spanning the age range of 10 to 20, individuals at this level are more able to view situations from the perspectives of others. They become aware of social expectations, and the intentions behind their actions weigh into decisions. 3) Post-conventional stage: Occurring from age 20 on, people at this level are able to make moral judgments based on impartial logic and universal standards of right and wrong that are independent of culture. People here balance their moral values against what is best for the common good. Few people reach this highest level of moral development, according to Kohlberg’s tests.

Gilligan's Stages

Gilligan’s three-level progression of moral development identified different values and beliefs as accompanying each stage. Gilligan believed women’s development of a sense-of-self played a larger role in their decision making than cognition. Her levels were defined as: 1) Pre-conventional stage: A young girl's morality is oriented toward herself and individual survival; decisions are made based on what is practical and best for her. 2) Conventional stage: Here, a female develops a sense of responsibility to others. Morality is equated with goodness and self-sacrifice -- one’s own wishes should be subordinated to the cares of others. 3) Post-conventional stage: To achieve this highest level of moral development, a woman realizes that her needs are equal to others. The focus shifts from being “good” to recognizing universal truths -- primarily the unethical nature of violence and exploitation of others.

The “Care-Justice” Debate Today

While Kohlberg and Gilligan have often been portrayed as locked in rife debate, in fact, neither Kohlberg nor Gilligan saw themselves as in fundamental disagreement. Gilligan saw her work more as an expansion of Kohlberg’s model that was inclusive of female experience. Both Kohlberg and Gilligan remained in dialogue following publication of her book, and they modified their models to include both care and justice ethics.

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