‘In A Different Voice’: Gender and Children’s Moral Development
In the 1980s, professional psychology was at a crossroads. Facing an active women’s movement and growing criticism of its male-dominated theories of personality and development, the discipline was ripe for change. To that end, psychologist Carol Gilligan published In A Different Voice in 1982. It was the first of many scholarly works by Gilligan that would tackle difficult issues of childhood development, girls education, inclusive education and moral integrity.
The book rapidly took the world by storm, becoming a bestseller within weeks of its release, and had a tremendous impact on our thoughts today. Especially on inclusive education. What drove the success of In A Different Voice was its open defiance of psychology’s stubborn male bias and Gilligan’s confident portrayal of the merits of inclusive education and of a more feminine approach to boys and girls education in morality.
Western psychologists have long assumed the male mode of morality is the correct one. In this book, Gilligan invites us to reconsider the merits of a traditionally feminine relational ethics — a morality of mutual care, rooted in interpersonal responsibility.
Psychology hasn’t been the same since. And I must admit this book and her concept of ‘care’ influenced my thoughts more than others.
Care ethics and inclusive education
Sex Differences in Moral Development
Research consistently shows that girls and women tend to make moral judgments differently from boys and men. The empirical differences can generally be observed in children by the time they’re old enough to attend school.
For girls, morality happens in relationships. Girls tend to see moral issues as arising and resolving within a network of interdependent social relations. Moral conflicts are taken as crises of responsibility and failures of communication. From the female perspective, conflict resolution is understood to hinge on the building-up and renewal of critical ties. The best solution serves both oneself and the greater good.
In contrast, boys are more likely to explore the philosophical basis of moral judgments. They seek to weigh the relative importance of competing elements in an abstract hierarchy of value. The element with the greatest value ‘wins.’
For boys, morality is a calculus of individualism, natural rights, and adjudicated fairness. Universal laws govern across situations. The masculine stable state contrasts with a feminized morality distinguished by its willingness to bend the rules to accommodate a solution that pleases everyone, no matter how innovative. While boys may believe one can always deduce the ‘right’ answer, girls may contend there is no single answer that is always correct.
One can also see emerge the true value of inclusive education.
Harvard’s ‘Little Book That Started a Revolution’
Gilligan does not challenge the existence of the observed sex differences in moral development. Rather, she takes issue with their interpretation. Women’s emphasis on relationships has been cast as a developmental liability – but why?
Relational morality, feminine by association, has been dismissed as inferior, she writes, because it deviates from the terms of male moral thought. But mere difference does not imply disability. It’s not clear that rejection of interpersonal responsibility is constructive for either boys or girls education.
In fact, Gilligan proposes, the undervalued female perspective may be just what we need to make better moral decisions.
Gilligan is not trying to say that only women are in tune with relationships, or that the ethics of responsibility will save us all. Nor does she believe the ethics of care is the opposite of the ethics of justice. She argues, rather, that development is incomplete without the sense of mutual responsibility, in both sexes. A worldview that hails separation and autonomy while neglecting relationships is jaundiced for what it lacks. The importance and value of inclusive education and an inclusive world for that matter can again not be better underlined.
Lessons for Moms: Girls Education and Teaching Interdependence
For mothers, Gilligan’s lessons are profound and practical. In A Different Voice expands our idea of healthy moral development to include proactive affirmation of one’s responsibility for others’ happiness and well-being.
This is not to say it is wrong to teach individualism in girls education. Your daughter is distinct from her peers, and she will hopefully grow into an understanding of self that honors her personal boundaries and unique identity. But it’s just as true that her self is interdependent with others, knowable through the intricacies of relationship and dialogue.
In the end, humans are social beings – responsive and relational at our core. For Gilligan, it makes sense to encourage this style of thinking in girls education. For boys too, we can instill a balanced ethics, inclusive of humanist interconnection. We can show our kids that they are deeply linked to their community, and their success need not come at others’ expense.
Ethics + Gender: Food For Thought
Don’t worry if little Johnny cries when he gets in a spat with his best buddy, or tiny Sally is determined to become a hard-hitting lawyer steeped in justice morality. Gilligan’s book comes with an important caveat: your mileage may vary. Either moral approach may spontaneously develop in either sex, in any configuration. And that’s okay.
In A Different Voice does not propose a dogma of gendered morality or for inclusive education or approach. Instead, it shows us how addressing gender inequality leads to a stronger vision of ethical development in boys and girls education.
Together, masculine and feminine ethics can be the building blocks of a complete moral system. Synthesized within a child’s moral universe, the combination of rights and responsibilities makes a powerful tool for grappling with some of life’s toughest realities.