Care Reasoning in Interpersonal Relationships: Cognition about Moral Obligation and Personal Choice

By Sorkhabi, Nadia | North American Journal of Psychology, June 2012 | Go to article overview
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Care Reasoning in Interpersonal Relationships: Cognition about Moral Obligation and Personal Choice

Sorkhabi, Nadia, North American Journal of Psychology

Care, interpersonal responsibilities, or helping have been regarded by some developmentalists as supererogatory matters that unlike justice do not have a fully moral status (i.e., prescriptivity and generalizability (Kohlberg, 1981; Nunner-Winkler, 1984). For example, Kahn (1992) found that children and early adolescents reason that helping another in need is kind and virtuous (good if they want to) but not morally obligatory (not imperative if they do not want to). Similarly, conclusions from research on cultural mediation of moral judgments (i.e., that moral judgments differ in accord with individualist and collectivist cultural values) indicates that the individualistic focus of adolescent and adult European Americans on self-interest leads to a truncated view of interpersonal responsibility and to judgments that caring for another in need is largely a personal choice, not a moral obligation (Baron & Miller, 2000; Miller & Bersoff, 1992; Miller, Bersoff, & Harwood, 1990).

Other scholars, however, have begun to expand the moral domain to include care-based matters of interpersonal responsibility and prosocial behavior (e.g., Carlo, 2005; Eisenberg & Shell, 1986; Gilligan, 1982; Keller, Edelstein, Krettenauer, Fu-xi, & Ge, 2005; Neff, Turiel, & Anshel, 2002). A great deal of attention and research has focused on prosocial behavior or altruism involving helping strangers, the debate regarding justice and care, and cultural mediation of judgments about care (e.g., Baron & Miller, 2000; Eisenberg, 1982; Jaffee & Hyde, 2000; Kahn, 1992). However, as others concur (Carlo, 2005; Eisenberg, Cumberland, Guthrie, Murphy, & Shepard, 2005; Neff, Turiel, & Anshel, 2002; Smetana, Tasapoulos-Chan, Gettman, Villalobos, Campione-Barr, et al., 2009), much less research has been done to delineate the factors that affect judgments or reasoning about moral obligation to help in close interpersonal relationships. The aim of the present study is to delineate the factors that affect the judgments of European American adolescents and young adults about moral responsibility in interpersonal relationships.

A literature survey suggests that at least four factors may significantly affect judgments of moral responsibility in interpersonal relationships: (a) cost-benefit involving level of cost to the agent who has to provide help vs. level of benefit to the recipient who is in need of help, (b) variations in quality of dyadic relationship, (c) existence of kinship ties, and (d) sex differences in cognition about care.

Condition of Cost-Benefit: Four Levels

Helping benefits the person who is in need but also carries cost for the agent who helps or provides care. The ethic of care rests on the principle that the person in need is not harmed by indifference and inaction and that the agent is also not unduly harmed as he or she acts to provide help (Gilligan, 1982). Therefore, in helping situations both the agent and recipient may potentially be harmed, and it is important to examine the moral implications of each. Few studies, however, have directly examined how variations in cost to agent and benefit to recipient affect judgments of moral obligation to provide help.

Mixed results have emerged from the limited number of studies that has examined cost-benefit in care reasoning. Eisenberg and Shell (1986) and Eisenberg, Carlo, Murphy, and van Court (1995) have found (in hypothetical scenarios) that in high benefit care situations in which the need of the recipient is substantial, the moral dimension of such need (i.e., harm will be sustained if help is not provided) took on greater significance than hedonistic self-interest. Similarly, Miller, Bersoff, and Harwood (1990) found that European Americans do reason that providing help in extreme need situations, involving life-threatening need, is morally obligatory but not when any other type of need that is either not life-threatening or is moderate to low exists (i.

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Care Reasoning in Interpersonal Relationships: Cognition about Moral Obligation and Personal Choice


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