Justice and gender: two views of moral growth

SCHOOLS should attend not only to the academic growth of students, but to their moral development as well. So say two Harvard professors of education, Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan, whose conflicting views on moral development in students have become major reference points for educational theory and practice in schools of education across the country. While Dr. Kohlberg has argued the existence of moral stages through which all people pass, Ms. Gilligan has insisted that his theory does not account for all dimensions of moral development and especially overlooks females.

In the early 1970s, Kohlberg revolutionized educational psychology by suggesting there are six fundamental, ascending stages of moral judgment in human beings. His work was based on a 20-year study, beginning in 1956, in which he asked individuals to resolve hypothetical moral dilemmas.

The first two levels of moral judgment, according to Kohlberg, occur by age 10. At these levels, children typically make moral decisions based on avoiding punishment, or ones to further their own desires.

By the third and fourth stages, which extend from adolescence into adulthood, the individual, Kohlberg says, becomes less self-serving and starts upholding the rules and expectations of others. These ``others'' include one's family, and in ``Stage 4'' expand to include concern for the larger society.

Thus, a child at ``Stage 1'' who refuses to steal because he fears getting caught may at age 17 choose not to because he knows stealing is against the law, an attitude befitting ``Stage 4.''

Anyone reaching Kohlberg's final moral stages - and Kohlberg feels that only a few adults come this far - will value ``universal principles of justice.'' Instead of merely obeying the law, a person at ``Stage 5'' appreciates the beneficent social contract from which law emerges. At ``Stage 6,'' individuals depend on their own fully developed ethical principles based on such universal standards as respecting the rights of others. Stealing at this stage would violate these rights.

Since reasoning about justice can solve basic conflicts between people in a society, adds Kohlberg, a higher moral stage is obviously a better one.

In 1981, Carol Gilligan published ``In a Different Voice.'' Her work, she said, picked up where Kohlberg left off. Kohlberg studied only males, Gilligan pointed out, and she presented research findings showing that females do not necessarily fit the mold of his moral stages. Care, not justice, is the preeminent ethic of women, she says. Such an ethic leaves ``caring women'' permanently on the ``third stage'' of Kohlberg's moral hierarchy, she says - and leaves out a whole set of alternative criteria based on the importance of felt relationships, rather than the decisionmaking capacities stressed by Kohlberg.

Gilligan incorporates theories such as those of psychologist Nancy Chodorow, which recast male and female psychology. According to these theories, the strong bond that a daughter maintains with her mother does not hold for a son, who at an early age starts identifying with his father.

As they develop, girls primarily value continuing relationships and the caring that supports them, she says. Boys, on the other hand, who pay less attention to maternal influences, tend to give priority to rules and systems of order that ensure greater control over their lives. They become the justice-conscious men Kohlberg identifies, she says.

Gilligan illustrates her point with the same moral dilemmas that Kohlberg poses. In the most famous of these, a man must decide whether to steal a drug he cannot afford to buy so as to save his dying wife. Whereas Kohlberg draws attention to the human and legal rights of the parties involved, Gilligan defines a totally different problem. She focuses instead on the possibility for the druggist to respond to the sick wife's needs or for the husband to approach the druggist without stealing from him - solutions that prefer relationships and care over rights and justice. Kohlberg's and Gilligan's theories have both taken root in high schools. ``Despite our differences,'' Gilligan observes, ``we ... agree that adolescents are passionately involved in moral questions.''

Kohlberg says that during the 1960s he ``became concerned with real-life cases as well as hypothetical ones - which led to developing a democratic approach in which teachers and kids would make rules together.''

What followed was a series of educational experiments in which schools would transform themselves into ``Just Communities.'' Clusters of about 100 students and their teachers would attend weekly community meetings, form fairness committees, and tie course work to moral issues.

``Through these programs,'' Kohlberg says, ``kids' individual moral growth can be paced by collectively espoused values and by exposure to their teachers' higher stage of moral development.''

The communities have received mixed reviews. In Cambridge, Mass., the local schools decided their ``Just Community'' wasn't practical.

Alan Sternberg, however, who directs a ``Just Community'' at the Theodore Roosevelt School in New York's South Bronx, says, ``I've really seen a lot of these kids make quite a step in terms of the way they deal with their problems and speak to one another. They are able to respect another individual, even if they don't like what that person says.''

Eleventh-grader Michelle Villari echoes the sentiment: ``I look at things more openly and I try to give everyone a fair chance. That's what this community has given me, and I'm giving others that same respect.''

With the Theodore Roosevelt program as a pilot, the state commissioner of education is considering establishing similar programs across New York.

Gilligan emphasizes that she does not go into schools with such a predetermined agenda. Instead, she engages teachers and students in conversations around the moral issues they raise. At Emma Willard, an all-girls boarding school in Troy, N.Y., and one of Gilligan's research sites, the administration has taken her findings to heart. Those girls who serve on discipline committees receive special counseling. Whereas boys would be inclined to execute the law and move on, reflects acting principal Trudy Hanmer, girls must deal with their breach of caring when they punish a classmate. Considering what they see as the relational needs of girls, the school has also added a collaborative requirement to every academic subject. In math, for example, this adjustment has involved creating new problems that encourage students to work together.

The Kohlberg-Gilligan debate is also influencing a new generation of teachers. Perry Nelson, who will be returning to the classroom after spending this year at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says, ``I never looked at how boys and girls may respond differently to a question or situation.''

D. Kay Johnston, who teaches moral development as part of teacher training at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., adds, ``Now that these future teachers see that we have `justice' voices and `care' voices, they can be more vigilant about educating both.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Justice and gender: two views of moral growth
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today