The BEST: In a Different Voice

Stephen Glicksman Tradition Online | December 16, 2021

SUMMARY: Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Harvard University Press) studies ways women analyze moral issues. Gilligan’s work changed moral theory and general psychology by recognizing women’s moral voices. 

Male-dominated methods of psychological study had devalued the reasoning skills of women and impeded their full inclusion in society. They also undermined our understanding of the full spectrum of both women’s and men’s psychological traits. In reality, both men and women reason in both rational and emotional voices. As Gilligan put it, “Of course men have feelings and women think…That’s why my book was called not In a Woman’s Voice but, In a Different Voice”. Psychology’s focus on the rational side of reasoning led to a misunderstanding of both genders’ ways of thinking. It created negative cultural expectations of the stoic male and the caring female willing to give up her own dreams for her husband and children. Gilligan’s work led to the recognition of Emotional Intelligence as a necessary human characteristic for successful interactions. It facilitated cultural shifts which allowed both men to express their feelings and women to take on formerly male-dominated roles.

Why this is The BEST: Published in 1982, the book responds to what was (and had been since its own publication in the 1950s) the most widely accepted psychological theory of moral development, that of Lawrence Kohlberg, Gilligan’s Harvard professor. Building on the earlier works of Jean Piaget and John Dewey, Kohlberg used moral dilemmas (stories in which two equally valid moral ideals are in conflict) to study subjects’ moral reasoning. From these interviews, he developed his Stage Theory of Moral Development that proposed three distinct levels of moral reasoning, each with two substages. At the pre-conventional level, moral decisions are based on appeals to power and the tangible consequences of moral behaviors: Will I get punished? Will I be rewarded? Reasoning at the conventional level is based on the acceptance of social rules and community standards: Am I living up to people’s expectations of a good person? Am I following society’s standards? At the highest, post-conventional level, moral reasoning is based not on the rules themselves, but on the underlying values behind those rules and appeals to universal ethical principles. 

Kohlberg’s theory was a paradigm shift in the psychological world for a number of reasons. It was the first theory to give a relative value to the different stages. In other words, whereas developmental theories prior to Kohlberg simply described the progression of development (stage two comes before stage three, but everyone eventually grows through all the stages), Kohlberg insisted that cognitive skills are necessary but not sufficient for reaching higher stages. Because of this, he found that not everyone reaches the highest stages of moral development. In other words, Kohlberg’s work presented the first non-neutral theory of development. As a veteran of World War II who later worked with the Haganah to smuggle Jewish refugees into Palestine, he knew that after the Shoah any theory of moral development could not be ethically neutral or insist that values are culturally relative. Evil exists, and it’s typically perpetuated by people at the lower stages of moral development. 

Non-neutrality presents a problem: When evaluating people’s moral reasoning using Kohlberg’s methods, women tended to get stuck at stage three of the six stages (low-normal). Two possible causes could explain this phenomenon: Either women may be less morally mature than men or Kohlberg’s theory was biased against women. Gilligan believed the latter. 

Carol Gilligan

Gilligan’s critique of Kohlberg was a methodological one: Because his original subjects were exclusively male, his theory saw moral issues in a specific way. According to Gilligan, the boys and men in Kohlberg’s studies reason about moral issues through a perspective of justice, focusing on differences in people’s relative power beginning with a relationship of inequality in the lower stages (so doing what’s right is about following authority) to one of equality (following communal standards or underlying principles that are shared by all). This hierarchical view of the world, Gilligan asserts, is a very “male” way of speaking. Women, on the other hand, speak in a different voice: Not one of competition, but of cooperation. Gilligan’s research shows that women’s moral reasoning tends to focus not on the relative power between individuals or a competition of rights, but rather evolves from a perspective of care, moving from a focus on caring for oneself at the preconventional level, to caring for others at the conventional level, and ultimately (hopefully) seeing the needs of oneself and others as interdependent at the post-conventional level. Rather than a “justice orientation” that evaluates moral dilemmas based on features having to do with equality or inequality, women’s “care orientation” focuses on the relationship of detachment or attachment of those involved. 

To take Kohlberg’s most famous dilemma as an example, a man’s wife is dying and a druggist developed a medication that can save her life. The druggist was charging many times the manufacturing cost for the drug, and the man could not afford to pay. Should the man steal the drug to save his wife? For men, Gilligan points out, this dilemma is basically, “a math problem with people,” posing conflicts of justice (should I steal or let the person die; should I take what rightfully belongs to the druggist in order to save the life of a person I care about). Women, Gilligan finds, see this dilemma as a relationship story. When they start reasoning about the relationship aspects of the stories presented and the shift in reasoning turns from a rational discussion of rights to an emotional one, their responses are scored at stage three (What would a good husband do? What would people think of a husband who lets his wife die?). Viewed through the lens of a justice, they appear reflective of community standards rather than on overarching ethics. From a voice of care, on the other hand (reasoning about one’s attachment and detachment to another human and recognizing that we all depend on each other for our wellbeing), such thinking reaches a higher moral categorization. 

Real life debates ride on this insight. For example, in the debate over reproductive rights, Gilligan points out that

whether the abortion dilemma is cast as a conflict of rights or in terms of respect for human life, the claims of the fetus and the pregnant woman are balanced or placed in opposition. The morality of abortion hinges on the question of whether the fetus is a person, and, if so, whether its claims take precedence over those of the pregnant woman. Framed as a problem of care, the dilemma shifts. The connection between the fetus and the pregnant woman becomes the focus and the question becomes whether it is responsible or irresponsible, caring or careless, to extend or end this connection.

So, when a woman says, “I can’t have this baby, I can’t take care of it” and a man says, “You should have thought of that before you got pregnant, you can’t have an abortion just because having a baby is inconvenient,” they are really speaking from two different perspectives: care of the baby versus the rights of the baby. 

In Judaism, the distinction between the rational man and the emotional woman has its own history. Sometimes, this distinction is celebratory, such as in Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s, “A Tribute to the Rebbetzen of Talne” (TRADITION, Spring 1978), where the Rav describes his mother as someone without whom, “I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive… The fathers knew much about the Shabbat; the mothers lived the Shabbat, experienced her presence, and perceived her beauty and splendor.” At other times, this distinction takes on halakhic implications that some find troubling, such as laws concerning women serving as witnesses or being described as “light-minded” (Kiddushin 80b). I recall a certain Rabbi giving a warm and effusive drasha on the vaulted emotional role of women in Judaism who was shocked by the criticism he received. When he explained that he was merely quoting the Rav and that he meant his words as complimentary, a congregant explained that, “I know you did, Rabbi, but those positive sentiments are often followed by, ‘And that’s why you can’t….’” If the lessons from In a Different Voice help us at least contemplate the various implications of the role of women in Jewish thought and communal life through a variety of perspectives, it is worth having on our shelves.

Stephen Glicksman, Ph.D., a Developmental Psychologist, serves as Director of Clinical Innovation at Makor Disability Services and teaches at Yeshiva University. Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

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