Carol Gilligan Moral Development Theory Explained


Carol Gilligan created a moral development theory that was used as an approach to reasoning. When researching morality and human development, Gilligan discovered that women tended to score lower on the scales of morality compared to men. Not agreeing with the idea that women were morally inferior to men, she began a process of interviewing women while they had to make difficult decisions in their lives.

This led her to assert that women were different, not inferior, to men and that previous development theories were based on definitions that would apply only to men with accuracy. Women, Gilligan asserted, would focus on connections with people instead of separation, driven by an ethic of care for people instead of an ethic for justice.

This process led her to develop a moral development theory that would be more closely associated with women instead of men.

The Three Stages of Gilligan’s Moral Development Theory

Gilligan produced a theory that had three stages that would lead to the ethic of care that would form the foundation of moral development.

1. The Pre-conventional Stage: In this stage, the goal of a woman is to survive. She is focused on individuality and making sure that her basic needs have been met. The ability to meet personal needs takes a priority over the ability to meet the person needs of others. If it is either her or them, she will choose herself every time in this stage of moral development.

2. The Conventional Stage: In this stage, a woman recognizes that self-sacrifice can be a source of “goodness” in her life. She recognizes the need to help other people and finds moral satisfaction in being able to meet those needs. Instead of focusing on her own self-survival, she is focused on helping others to survive in the best way possible.

3. The Post-conventional Stage: In this stage, a woman recognizes that the “ends no longer justify the means” to have needs met. Whether she is focused on her survival or the survival of others, there is a principle of non-violence that applies to every decision that she makes. She does not wish to hurt herself or hurt others, looking for alternative methods to have needs met so that everyone can progress forward with their care.

Gilligan suggests that there are two transitions that occur during the stages of the ethic of care as well. The first transition, which occurs between the pre-conventional and conventional stages, moves a woman’s moral ethics from one that is selfish to one that shares a responsibility to care for others.

The second transition, which occurs between the conventional and post-conventional stages, is a transition that moves a woman from being focused on “good” to being focused on “truth.” Instead of looking for ways to survive for herself and for others, she begins to look for options that are fueled by a need to stay true to certain moral constants.

Gilligan proposes that there is no approximate age for a woman to reach each stage. She even suggests that some women may never reach the post-conventional stage. What she does suggest is that movement through the stages is based more on cognitive capability and changes to a woman’s sense of self rather than built-up experiences.

Women View Relationships Differently Than Men

Gilligan suggests that there are differences in the relationships that women form compared to the relationships men form. Because of this, she suggests that women should be excluded from earlier forms of moral development theories that were developed by men.

Because women view relationships differently, the moral decisions and stages of the ethic of care are different. Major decisions can have an influence on how a woman sees morality. For Gilligan, her approach to the new moral development theory is based on the decision in her study as to whether a woman should have an abortion.

Gilligan suggests that she supports the right of a woman to choose, which then creates moral conflicts for those who might choose otherwise.

Criticism of the moral development theory suggests that Gilligan is basing the differences in morality on societal expectations instead of gender influences. Because society expects a woman to think differently than a man, then differences are present based on that expectation rather than any natural difference that is formed from a difference in gender.

That would mean the ethics of care are based not on physiological differences, but societal expectations of physiological differences.

Gilligan’s moral development theory presents the idea that men and women are fundamentally incompatible. That is the central idea to what she presents.