Gender And Morality Essay, Research Paper
Gender and Morality
A study on the possible relation between sex, gender, and moral behavior
Our history is an account of changes, struggles and progress. It mostly contains writings and deeds of great ‘men’. However, in this century, many nations’ talent pools have been doubled by the introduction of Women’s Suffrage. With that event women in many societies have been able to elevate themselves to a point where they can work towards gaining recognition in domains in which they used to be viewed as ‘inferior’. One such domain is ethical theory. The following is a discussion on the following gender related ethical issues: Is there a gender-based difference in ethical perspective and reasoning? and, If there is, what is the cause of this difference?
In the late seventies, and early eighties, psychologist Carol Gilligan identified some interesting patterns in women’s discussions about their moral conflicts. After analyzing the patterns, she formed the following hypothesis: “(1) that there are two distinct modes of moral judgment– justice and care–in the thinking of men and women; (2) that these are gender-related; and (3) that modes of moral judgment might be related to modes of self-definition.” (Mapping of the Moral Domain; Ed. by C. Gilligan, J. V. Ward, J. McLean Taylor, B. Bardige; Pub. Harvard University Press, 1988) Throughout the history of ethical theory, women were often viewed as ‘morally inferior’ to men, as Freud noted. Justice has been viewed as the ‘higher’ moral perspective, and Lawrence Kohlberg found that women had difficulties reaching this stage of moral development (Ethics – Theory and Contemporary Issues; By Barbara MacKinnon; Ed. 2; Pub. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998). Partly, this reasoning could be a consequence of ethical studies focusing primarily on men and their perspective.
To shed some light on these issues, we can examine some empirical data. Research has been done in which hypothetical moral dilemmas have been presented to subjects of both sexes, for the purpose of determining whether a difference in perspective exists. Some studies have been specifically designed to test Gilligan’s hypothesis. In one very typical experiment, Jake and Amy, two eleven-year-olds have been faced with the following moral dilemma “…a man named Heinz considers whether or not to steal a drug which he cannot afford to buy in order to save the life of his wife.” (In a Different Voice – Psychological Theory and Women’s Development; Carol Gilligan; Pub. Harvard University Press, 1982) Jake decided very quickly that Heinz should steal the drug. He took a rational approach by mathematically weighing the value of human life over property. Relying on a social consensus on moral values, Jake decided that stealing the drug would be ‘the right thing to do’. Amy’s response, on the other hand, was rather evasive and illustrates a failure of simple logical deduction. She held that Heinz should not steal the drug, but that his wife should not die either. While Jake’s contemplation regarded the autonomous individual’s moral duty, Amy’s perspective focused on relationship–if Heinz goes to jail, his wife may die; Heinz should talk it out with his wife and they could try to borrow the money for the drug. Jake adhered to public standards, while Amy responded to particular private circumstances. This is a pattern that has been identified statistically in empirical data collected on children, adolescents and adults at various economic levels. Such a comprehensive study has revealed a difference in men’s and women’s considerations for rights and responsibilities (Mapping of the Moral Domain; Ed. by C. Gilligan, J. V. Ward, J. McLean Taylor, B. Bardige; Pub. Harvard University Press, 1988). Namely, all men interviewed employed considerations of rights, but 36 percent omitted considerations of responsibility. Similarly, all women employed considerations of response to need, but 37 percent failed to mention considerations of rights. Hence, the difference in moral perspective is evident. This has been proven by Gilligan and her associates in numerous studies.
Now we face the harder task of trying to understand what implications these results have and why there is a difference. Is the difference based on sex or gender? Does the separation in moral perspective happen in a person’s childhood or adult life? Various speculations and observations of human biological nature, social role, organization of family, childhood psychology and other aspects have led to different theories about the basis of the discussed difference. Virginia Held outlines the possible roots of a feminine moral perspective — “The place of women in the family is shaped by social, economic, legal, and political forces, along with the psychological and biological forces that contribute to forming families. Women are routinely subordinate within the family, and then subordinate in the ‘public’ sphere, partly because of their confinement to roles associated with being wives and mothers… When women work for wages outside their households, the jobs open to them are largely in roles that match their traditional roles in the family: nursing the sick, teaching children, waiting on tables, and typing and filing for men.” (Rights and Goods-Justifying Social Action; By Virginia Held; Pub. The University of Chicago Press, 1984) This view contains the elements that satisfy the socio-cultural theory on gender-based ethics. It holds that the feminine moral perspective is focused on care due to women’s gender role in society. Men’s justice- oriented moral perspective then arises from their practice in the public domain where universal standards apply. Women appear to be more attached to, and caring for their offspring, and are less likely to abandon their child. Their maternal practice requires them to respond to the needs of the helpless one. This relationship is strongly laced with love, self-sacrifice, protection, compassion, and generally virtues that are necessary for mothering. Held spells it out for us: “(Traditionally) Women have had fewer occasions to experience for themselves the moral problems of governing, leading, exercising power over others (except children)… Men, on the other hand, have had fewer occasions to experience the moral problems of family life and the relations between adults and children.” (Ethics – Theory and Contemporary Issues; By Barbara MacKinnon; Ed. 2; Pub. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998)
Another theory is founded on the psychosexual development in childhood and adolescence. Latest by the time of puberty, males experience a separation from their mothers as they come to comprehend themselves as being different from their mothers, thereby acquiring a sense of individuality and autonomy. I think that the latter two trades may be inforced by the fact that their father, at that point, may not simply replace the care and nurturing of the mother. At the same stage of development, females establish a new relation with their mother, reinforcing the existing one as they discover that they are becoming what their mother is–a woman.
While the socio-cultural theory is based on gender, the biological theory is based on sex. In the center of this theory is the reproductive capacity of women, and its lack in men. It proposes that the difference in moral perspective springs from experiences as pregnancy, labor and childbirth, and women’s feeling of dependency and contingency resulting from reproductive practice. “Women feel themselves participating in species life at its very primitive level… Caring and nurturing are said to spring naturally from the intimate and sympathetic relation to the child.” (Ibid.)
All three theories are debatable and each one might, in fact, be hard to prove wrong as their premises are solid. However, the strength of the socio-cultural is particularly evident in our time. Even though many may agree that there still is much room for improvement, gender roles are less explicit and prescribed than they were in the past. Hence, women have more opportunity to, on one hand, gain recognition in the public domain, and, on the other hand, to have recognition for their effort in ‘traditional roles’, or simply on their own terms. The care oriented moral perspective is one that is to be appreciated for its capability to produce relations between individuals (and I do not only mean mother and child) that are founded on trust, care, sacrifice, and cooperation, rather than struggle and fierce, competitive elimination. Women’s capability and compatibility in the public domain, and in assuming a justice oriented moral perspective can no longer be questioned. Proof are great women holding office and governing nations (i.e. M. Thatcher), and, on grounds of care, women who became saints with their heart that had room for all the disadvantaged ones (i.e. Mother Theresa). On the other hand, men are indeed capable of adopting a care perspective, either through parenting, or through upbringing. The key to a future that would make the best out of everyone, might in fact be in disregarding traditional roles and a little practice and focus on both perspectives.
Mapping of the Moral Domain; Ed. by C. Gilligan, J. V. Ward, J. McLean Taylor, B. Bardige;
Pub. Harvard University Press, 1988.
Ethics – Theory and Contemporary Issues; By Barbara MacKinnon; Ed. 2;
Pub. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998.
In a Different Voice – Psychological Theory and Women’s Development; Carol Gilligan;
Pub. Harvard University Press, 1982.
Rights and Goods-Justifying Social Action; By Virginia Held;
Pub. The University of Chicago Press, 1984.
The Psychology of Moral Development; By Lawrence Kohlberg;
Pub. Harper & Row, 1984