Relational Selves: Gender and Cultural Differences in Moral Reasoning

By Edge, Hoyt; McLaren, Margaret A. | Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

Relational Selves: Gender and Cultural Differences in Moral Reasoning


Edge, Hoyt, McLaren, Margaret A., Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry


The analysis of moral reasoning requires an interdisciplinary approach. Because it is central to moral theory and ethics, it is a basic concern of philosophers; but because it deals with cognition, reasoning, and moral development (and thus, more generally, human development), it is also an important area in psychology. Our paper addresses both of these disciplines as well as the intersection of gender and culture by exploring the ways that empirical research can help to illuminate philosophical issues about moral reasoning and its relationship to conceptions of self.

In a recent lead article for Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan argued that most research in psychology has been carried out on WEIRD subjects; Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic. (1) They assert that enough data exists to call into question generalizing those findings to the status of universal psychological knowledge. Saying that Americans are "the most individualistic people in the world," they point out that Western cultures differ in cognition from non-Western ones. (2) Westerners prefer analytic thought while non-Westerners prefer holistic reasoning, and these differences give rise to different cognitive strategies employed in moral reasoning. In particular, Richard Nisbett also argues for this distinction, bringing empirical evidence to show that the two cultures have different approaches to reasoning, and these match their independent and interdependent views of themselves. (3)

In addition to these cultural studies, much research has been carried out on gender differences in moral reasoning, and increasingly research has also examined cultural differences specifically in moral thinking. In this paper we explore both the parallels and the intersections between gender and cultural differences in moral thinking. We bring together work from philosophy, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and women's and gender studies to analyze our recent empirical data that demonstrate both gender and cultural differences in moral reasoning, as well as their intersection. We support the following claims about culture, moral reasoning, and concepts of self:

1) Concepts of self are tied to approaches to moral reasoning.

2) Concepts of self differ by gender and culture.

3) Moral reasoning differs by gender and culture.

4) Gender and culture intersect in the formation of self-identity.

We demonstrate the above four points both through our empirical research and a discussion of the growing body of literature in support of these claims in the aforementioned disciplines. Furthermore, we believe that theoretical claims ought to be informed, at least in part, by empirical data when the claims relate to aspects of human development, such as moral reasoning. Both theory and empirical research lends support to the view that Western males are unique in their moral reasoning, overemphasizing independence and isolation over interdependence and connectedness. We find this in our data as American males consistently ranked lower on scales of interdependence and connectedness than American females, Balinese females and, interestingly, Balinese males. Given that American males are the anomaly, it seems clear that theories of moral development should neither begin from nor be limited to American males. We propose that philosophy, particularly moral philosophy, follow the lead of psychology and strive to be as inclusive as possible by including the full range of human diversity and experience. For philosophers, this would mean embracing--indeed, starting from--a multicultural, feminist approach to moral theories and questions; this approach would not only be sensitive to gender and cultural bias, but it also offers an alternative model to the paradigmatic rational, autonomous, independent agent of traditional moral theory.

I. Conceptions of Self and Moral Reasoning

Feminists have long questioned the standard view of moral reasoning and the concomitant conception of the self. …

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