Friday, September 24, 2010

Gilligan's Theory of Women's Moral Development By Amy Butler

Summary of Theory

Carol Gilligan was disillusioned with existing theories because they focused mainly on males and placed females on a lower scale of moral development. Gilligan spent decades researching girls and women to propose her theory of moral development. Women perceive care and responsibility to others as their moral foundation. Development progresses through three distinct levels and two transition periods, with each representing a more sophisticated understanding of self and responsibility.
Level one, orientation to individual survival, shows the individual as self-centered and unable to distinguish between necessity and desire. The individual attempts to protect herself by not pursuing intimate relationships with others. The first transition is from selfishness to responsibility, in which there exists a new connection to others and a differentiation between needs and wants. Goodness as self-sacrifice is the second level of development. In this stage, the individual places greater reliance on others and yearns for social acceptance. In the second transition, from goodness to truth, the individual questions why she places others’ needs above her own. The third and last level, the morality of nonviolence, shows an individual with a transformed understanding of self. There is much respect for the self and individual needs, but the individual also recognizes responsibility and care for others and selects among competing choices.

Use in Higher Education
Gilligan’s theory of moral development has been applied to higher education in the form of student leadership. Once student leaders recognize the benefits of using both a care and justice orientation, they can more effectively fulfill their duties. Care emphasizes relationships, inclusion, and interdependence, which are crucial aspects to teamwork and group cohesion. On the other hand, justice promotes power, assertiveness, and objectivity, which are also necessary to motivate others and make progress towards a common goal. Student leaders who incorporate both orientations into their leadership styles can be more efficient.

Annotated Bibliography

Tanaka, G. (2002). Higher education’s self-reflexive turn: Toward an intercultural theory of student development. The Journal of Higher Education, 73(2), 263-296.

Tanaka researched numerous student development theories to create a cohesive intercultural theory. He collected data on survey instruments, which measured student progress along academic and social constructs. Considering the increasing complexity and diversity of campuses and multiple identifiers such as race, gender, and sexual orientation, Tanaka proposed examining each person’s subjective position, regardless of whether it is the typical norm. He created survey questions which ask students about their campus experience in terms of dominant racial culture, the power play between males and females, and differences in economic class. Tanaka’s vision is headed in the right direction, although the application of this survey tool has not been explored to validate his suggestions.

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice. 2nd Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gilligan, C. (1993).  In a different voice:  Psychological theory and women’s development.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Kohlberg, L., & Gilligan, C. (1971). The adolescent as a philosopher: The discovery of the self in a postconventional world. Twelve to Sixteen: Early Adolescence, 100(4). 1051-1086.

Tanaka, G. (2002). Higher education’s self-reflexive turn: Toward an intercultural theory of student development. The Journal of Higher Education, 73(2), 263-296.

Walker, L. J., De Vries, B., & Trevethan, S. D. (1987). Moral stages and moral orientations in real-life and hypothetical dilemmas. Child Development, 58(3). 842-858.


  1. I had an experience last month that relates to this theory. My coworker asked me to forge her signature for HR paperwork because she was home that day. Even though we were casual friends, I told her that I could not do it because, to me, it seemed unethical. She was furious and did not talk to me for a week. I was conflicted in compromising our friendship and standing up to what I believed was the appropriate action to take.

    After a few days, I accepted my decision (as in, I chose not to regret it) and decided that we could have our own modus vivendi without having to sacrifice cordiality. I wonder how my male colleagues would have responded to this situation, though. Any thoughts, you male readers out there?

  2. Since I am the only male in the class, I assume that you are calling me out :).

    I think that Gilligan's theory has general application. Both males and females go through a development process that includes a period of trying to please others at the expense of self.

    I recall a time when I became tired of doing this especially in close relationships. As a result of this fatigue from trying to please everyone, I had several frank conversations basically stating that I would be sharing my opinions and doing things differently from that point forward.

    I don't think that there has been an immediate change but it helped shift me toward finding a balance between my needs and the needs of others.

  3. KAT said...

    My mother was just telling me about an article she read that said the field of economics is still dominated by men. I told her about this theory because I had just read it and was at the time I was thinking that perhaps due to the care vs. justice difference between men and women (in general) that men would be drawn to more empirical subject areas like economics which, like justice, have a clear set of rules and women may be drawn to subjects which, like care, have more room for interpretation. While socialization in school tends to point men toward sciences and women toward arts, I think socialization with regard to expected social responses would help guide men and women in these directions as well. That is to say, that seeing other women responding with a care orientation and other men responding with a justice orientation likely reinforce in us a desire to pursue more or less structure. this may be with regard to our own reactions or choice of life pursuits. Personally, I tend to lean more toward the justice side of things so that just blows my theory right out the window!

  4. This theory hits close to home for me as I can readily recall moving through the different levels and transitions during college and after. My family essentially has a missing generation where I have found myself caring for an aging grandparent to varying degrees since the summer before college. Wants vs. needs, needs vs. responsibility, self vs. others have all factored into many important life decisions and I have often tried to seek balance between competing agendas. Although I can apply this to other areas of my life during college, and in other relationships, the responsibility and care components exist to a greater extent for me in the relationship I have with my grandmother as she helped to raise me.

    Also, I appreciate Kat's comment, as a student who majored in Economics as an undergraduate, I would say that the care vs. justice orientation played a role in my decision to ultimately pursue a career in student affairs.

  5. I can relate strongly with this theory of care and responsibility as being my moral foundation. It has been far from easy; many times I found myself torn between care and justice. I have wanted to pursue higher education since graduating from high school. However, I found this overwhelmingly challenging to pursue while raising children. It took me 13 years to complete my undergraduate degree for this very reason. Whenever a field of study (i.e. medical school, physical therapy) interfered with my role as a mother, I switched majors. I am now almost 48 years old and just now beginning my Master's Degree. While I have no regrets in putting my children first, I wonder if I could have done anything differently that would have allowed me to offer the kind of care I felt my children deserved and yet pursued other career goals. Have any other parents, especially mothers, (Tom, your thoughts are important too and I want to hear them) experienced this?

  6. I found this theory extremely interesting and relatable to my own experiences. Even though I am not a mother yet, the dilemma Meg mentioned has still been a challenge to me. It’s my belief that in our current society many women probably experience the tug and pull between wanting to be a stay at home mom and wanting to work outside the home. I have never seen myself as taking on the role of a stay at home mom, which has given me feelings of guilt over the years. I would like to be there for my children but still want to have my own identity in the workplace. This is definitely the pull to have my needs met while being pushed to please others that was discussed in this theory.

  7. I enjoyed studying this theory because it was also relative to my own personal experiences. Interestingly to know that in most cases I make decision beginning at the second level/second transition of goodness as self-sacrifice and goodness to truth. I always foremost consider how others feel or how my decisions would affect others, then I move on to the third level and decide what's best for both myself and others without loosing my internal voice and still feeling a positive impact. Very little do I begin with the first level, it is almost like the first is the last for me and the one I get to if the third level of my decision did not work or unsatisfied. I always struggle in the middle thou but I think that it is ok and it is part of experiencing development.

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  9. I highly agree with Anita oh this theory. I usually am more concerned with others well being, and how they view me, rather than taking myself into account first, which is level two of goodness to self sacrifice. I saw myself doing this much more in high school and earlier than I do these days, but I believe I still tend to put others before myself. I would just never want to say no to anyone when I was younger, whether it was for acceptance or because I thought it was right. As I have developed and matured, I have to understand really why I do things, as well as I understand I have to really put myself into the equation. If I'm saying yes to something I don't really want to do, that may make me upset with the situation, and possibly at other people, so that really isn't real "goodness."

  10. We go through the cycle over when we encounter different period in our lives. I agree with Meg and Amanda even though I don't have kids of my own yet, I struggle whether to stay home or work when I have kids. I believe we all are selfishness once a while because we want to preserve our identity. We are human beings. Individual survival-we all have to do it to take care of ourselves. Connection-responsibility to others would be taking of our family, friends, and colleagues. We rely on others and be social accepted. I struggle with social accepted because I worry about what other think of me. I tend to act like I'm tough but inside I'm fragile. Goodness to truth-doing noble things, serve others, be true to yourself then mortality of nonviolence-don't intention to hurt others, and deeply care for the community.

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