Moral Reasoning and Moral Concerns: An Alternative to Gilligan's Gender Based Hypothesis

By Keefer, Matthew W.; Olson, David R. | Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, October 1995 | Go to article overview

Moral Reasoning and Moral Concerns: An Alternative to Gilligan's Gender Based Hypothesis


Keefer, Matthew W., Olson, David R., Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science


Abstract

Research directed towards explaining differences in moral orientation in terms of gender specific modes of reasoning have yielded equivocal results. An alternate proposal is presented that accounts for gender differences reported in two experiments using hypothetical dilemmas. In the first, discourse methods are used to examine adults' responses to Kohlberg's Heinz dilemma. A 2 by 2 (Gender x Strategy) chi-square test, X2 (1, N = 25) = 5.531, p < .02 indicates that men prefer to apply a norm or rule in their solutions, while women reject the application of a norm or rule and seek alternate solutions. Experiment 2 replicated this result using the Heinz dilemma, X2 (1, N = 32) = 6.036, p < .01, whereas, in a second dilemma, this pattern was largely reversed with women clearly preferring to apply a norm or rule and men almost evenly divided in their use of either strategy X (1, N = 32) = 6.036, p < .01. These findings suggest that while the genders may differ in their judgements as to which norms or rules should be applied; once adopted, norms and rules are used in similar ways.

Beginning with Piaget, a rich body of literature has accumulated indicating that children's judgements pass through a series of stages culminating in the application of high order general principles to practical judgements. Principled moral reasoning, therefore, has come to be seen as similar in principle to other abstract sciences where less formal, narrative forms of thinking are seen to be less abstract and more immature. In the past decade, Carol Gilligan has posed a serious threat to this grand and general scheme by suggesting that a more narrative contextual approach to moral reasoning, what she calls an "ethic of care", which far from applying abstract moral rules to particular cases, treats each case in terms of a host of considerations any or all of which may have some role in arriving at a judgement or an action. She argues that such moral reasoning is as valid an orientation of moral thinking as that based on the application of general, abstract rules and furthermore that the bias towards this orientation is, at base, a gender bias. A rich body of data has now been collected congruent with these claims (Johnston, 1988; Langedale, 1988; Gilligan & Attanucci, 1988; Lyons, 1983, 1987).

However, several other studies report that gender is an inconsistent predictor of moral orientation, the style of reasoning varying within and between dilemmas (Walker, 1989; Pratt, Golding, Hunter & Sampson, 1988; Walker, DeVries & Treventhan, 1987). Consistent gender differences in moral orientation were found in men's and women's responses to self-chosen dilemmas but when the content of these dilemmas was analyzed, it became clear that these differences reflected the content of the dilemma - women being more likely to present dilemmas of a relational nature while men were more likely to choose dilemmas of an impersonal (nonrelational) character. Gilligan's claims may, therefore, be seen as conflating two aspects of moral reasoning that may usefully be distinguished, the content of value or concern, and the form of reasoning applied to that content. Women may indeed focus on different "content" but the modes of thought used in planning action and in justifying courses of action may be the same as men.

Two things are required in order to test this claim: (1) an explanation why any subject chooses a particular strategy of reasoning, and (2) a methodology that can better distinguish the strategies of reasoning from the content of moral concerns.

The proposal offered herein is that reasoning in moral conflicts is more or less universal and (most often) proceeds by the application of norms and general rules to particular cases. Such rules are deemed to be hierarchically ordered and each have a set of ceteris paribus clauses (i.e., "all things being equal"). Rules deal with cases directly. If the conditions for the application of the rule are met, the action prescribed by the rule is carried out. …

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