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WOMEN AND MORALITY / Vol. 50, No. 3 (Fall 1983)

Debra Nails, Mary Ann O'Loughlin, and James C. Walker, Guest Editors
Arien Mack, Journal Editor

Moral questions are of critical interest to women, and many of the so-called women’s issues are approached by women in terms which would be described conventionaly as moral rather than political, economic, or ideological. Feminist discussions in the academic context of philosophical ethics—like nonfeminist discussions—have tended to emphasize the conceptual and casuistic aspects of the moral questions facing women, but at the expense of consideration of women’s felt experience. It seems to us that now is a suitable time to bring together various perspectives, with specific attention to the “essentially moral” character of women’s “felt” experience.

The ideal of an ordered realm of thought to which intellect can retreat from the confusion of passion and the sensuous has dominated Western intellectual aspirations from the time of Plato. Reason is the prerequisite for, and point of access to, not just the public domain of political life but also a public realm of thought—a realm of universal principles and necessary orderings of ideas. Women stand in an ambivalent relationship to this realm; and the ambivalence surfaces in contemporary debate about gender differences. The idea that women think differently from men—whether or not we endorse it—is so familiar to us that it is easy to overlook the extent to which it is a by-product of a developing philosophical tradition.

When women’s studies first emerged in the early 1970s, many expected it to bring forth some very basic challenges to the existing academic disciplines. Women’s studies has produced novel and indeed sometimes revolutionary means of viewing the subject matter of a variety of disciplines. One such example is recent feminist scholarship in moral theory. Some feminist scholars have made the increasingly convincing argument that the content of the theory produced by men such as Plato, Hume, and Bentham has not been uninfluenced by the masculinity of its creators. I agree with the feminist argument. The point I wish to make in this essay is that it needs more careful formulation and elaboration than it has sometimes been given.

It has, at least until the rise of the women's movement, been very difficult for women to be epistemically responsible. In consequence, the kind of moral responsibility women have been able to exercise has been perceived to be of a sort inferior to that possible for men. It is important, then, to look at the ways in which male and female natures have, in practice, been shaped so as to produce such differences.

Recent work by Carol Gilligan on the moral development of females is seen by many as presenting a significant advance in moral development theory. Gilligan's work is a direct challenge to the theory and research of Lawrence Kohlberg, which have dominated moral development theory in the cognitive-developmental paradigm for decades. Gilligan maintains that Kohlberg's theory of moral development has been too concerned with rights and rules. From the study of females, according to Gilligan, there emerges a very different view of moral development. The “female” view of moral development has far more to do with responsibilities than with rights. This article focuses on this key concept of “responsibility.” I begin by asking what Gilligan means by “responsibility.” I then suggest some problems with her construal of the concept and point out some disagreeable consequences of her view.

Lawrence Kohlberg's program in moral psychology mirrors what Alasdair MacIntyre calls "the project of the Enlightenment," the philosophical project of justifying some general-purpose moral principle. The educational project pending the success of the Enlightenment project was to be the practical one of figuring out the best way to inculcate the right general-purpose principle. The comprehensiveness of Kohlberg's moral psychology is being questioned on a number of fronts. Most interestingly, his research program is receiving pressure from within, from his colleague and collaborator Carol Gilligan. Gilligan argues that women conceive of morality "in a different voice" from that spoken at Kohlberg's highest stage, and she argues for the legitimacy of this voice. We focus on this intratheoretical controversy in order to sort out some central stakes regarding the relation of moral theory, moral education, and moral psychology.

The ontological, asymmetrical, sexual, symbolic, historical, cultural, hermeneutic, and intersubjective qualities of gender cry out for a vision more complex and with greater descriptive scope than a dualistic psychology of development has yet been able to offer. Gender and sexuality are phenomena that are in a relation of friction with superimposed cultural or ideological stereotypes and individual self-interpretations. It is the recognition and continuation of that friction which helps to make being gendered simultaneously entertaining and poignant. If we fail to recognize that friction, for whatever reason, we anaesthetize ourselves to the sensuous texture and creative possibilities of being female or male.

Differences become deficiencies to those who peer through the bifocals of gender differentiation. Carol Gilligan offers a description of female moral development wherein women prove to be more responsibility-oriented while men are more rights-oriented. This description can and will be used as evidence for the inferiority of women unless (1) males are shown to undergo the same development, or (2) the female morality is proven superior, or (3) the entire enterprise is undermined as fallacious and unreliable. This paper assesses the third point, looking critically at both Gilligan's method and her presuppositions: reification of moral maturity, scaling from negative to positive, and measurement of moral (rather than cognitive) skills; concluding with a few remarks about the danger of generalizing for groups and applying one's generalizations to the individuals within the group.

Is women’s supposed greater inclination to intimacy, integration, and solidarity a source of strength or weakness? If such an inclination in human relationships functions as the psychological basis for an essential component of a decent morality, what should we make of any discovery that the conditions for such a moral desideratum were coextensive with the continued oppression of women? I shall argue that since intimacy, integration, solidarity, and unselfishness are desirable human qualities, and since they are causally contingent on female psychosocial and moral development, they require a recognition, protection, and cultural valuation of female development. Further, this entails that women should organize to ensure that their voice is heard, understood, and heeded and that the conditions for its development and exercise are secured. Thus, ironically, the maintenance of such relational patterns presupposes an infrastructure of independence of separate female development. This has politically separatist consequences which seem scarcely recognized, let alone intended or proclaimed, in such accounts. The theoretical tendency we shall examine may be reasonably described, therefore, as cryptoseparatist feminism.


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