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Carol Gilligan: interpretation of “Feminine Ethics” Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 3 May 2018

Carol Gilligan: interpretation of “Feminine Ethics”

To start with Carol Gilligan is considered to be one of the most famous psychologists in the United States and in the world. The author of the “feminine ethics” was born in New York in 1936. Her career as a future psychologist started with the presenting of the doctoral thesis at the Harvard University in 1964. For a decade she was working with the great theorist of moral development, Lawrence Kohlberg, but then she began criticizing his works. In her famous book “In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development” (1982) Gilligan presents a revolutionary idea, she gives women rights to choose and she associates them with care and in some cases with the motherhood.
Still, there were some reasons why Gilligan began to criticize Lawrence Kohlberg’s work. Firstly, she considered him to have rather a narrow approach to the problem of moral values. Secondly, Lawrence Kohlberg examined only men’s moral principles and paid no attention to women’s feeling and in such way, Kohlberg showed “biased opinion against women”. Thirdly, Gilligan felt that women should have the voice and she wanted to present a controversial approach to women’s rights and moral values. Fourthly, Kohlberg in “terms of influence on a human relationship” considered men’s rights and rules to be at the higher stage than women’s (Gilligan, 1982).

Lawrence Kohlberg was not the only scientist whose works gave Gilligan ground for her future work. She laid her research on Freud’s and Erickson’s works. Thus, while discussing women’s moral senses Sigmund Freud, stressed that they are underdeveloped, because of women’s dependence upon their mothers (Lawrence, 2008). Another famous moralist and theorist, Erik Erickson believed that the process of women’s development is successful only in case of separation from the mother and the family. Thus, the board schools for girls are a good possibility for a young lady to develop moral senses. Still, Erickson thought that if a woman did not come through the process of self-development she would be lacking some major senses, which make her a real woman (Boeree, 2004).

Criticizing the above-mentioned theories Gilligan understood that her goal was to present a new approach to the women’s moral senses. Her theory comprises three aspects of women’s moral development: selfish, social and principled morality. According to Gilligan (1982) “Women must learn to deal with their own interests and to the interests of others”.

The above-mentioned theory has laid the basis for the Gilligan’s Ethics of Care and Feminine approach to the women’s role in the society. I look closer to the proposed three-stage theory some similarities to Freud’s one will be found. Thus, Gilligan presents the following ideas as for the first level – the level of “self”: “… the self is the sole object of a woman’s concern. This self is a beleaguered self: a powerless and disappointed self, so afraid of being hurt that it prefers isolation to connectedness….this is a self that wants above all to survive” (Gilligan, 1982)

Still, the first level is the level of “wish”; and when the woman makes the transition from “wish” to “necessity”, from “the selfishness” to “willful decision” and to “the responsibility of moral choice” she will reach the second level – the level of moral development. The main motive which leads the woman to move from the first to the second level is a desire to establish connections with others and to participate in social life. According to Gillian “…the woman of the second level is the conventional, nurturing woman who equates goodness with self-sacrifice and who tries to subjugate her wants to those of other people…” (Gilligan, 1982).

The moral development of a woman according to Gilligan can continue to the third level in the case when a woman suppresses her wants and as a result, she reaches a destructive boiling point. Thus, Gillian writes: “…to avoid becoming a resentful, angry, even hateful person, a woman needs to push beyond level two to level three of moral development, where she will learn how to care for herself as well as for others…” (Gilligan, 1982)

So in case when a woman moves to the third level the process of making decisions is a two-sided procedure. From one hand woman takes into consideration her own desire and from the other hand she looks at others’ interests and tries to find a happy medium. Gilligan characterizes the move from the second level to the third level as a transition from goodness to truth. She writes: “A woman moves from pleasing others – being the conventionally good, always self-sacrificing woman – to recognizing her own needs as part of any relationship. In sum, a woman attains moral maturity when she stops opposing her needs in favor of others’, simultaneously recognizing the falseness of this polarity and the truth of her and others’ interconnectedness…” (Gilligan, 1982).

As it becomes clear Gilligan believes that women look at moral senses through the prism of caring about others and responsibilities to others. Still, Gilligan uses rather a narrow approach to the women’s moral senses. It is obvious that women are living in society and fulfill their roles according to the choice made. But Gilligan ties ethic of caring with the relationship and responsibility and here is the greatest confusion. Thus, from one hand women make choice on their own from the other hand they are to look at their family, relatives, and friends. Can there some misunderstanding be found? Nevertheless comparing the Gilligan work “In a different voice” with the feminine approach which is presented in the work, it should be stressed that everything is circling around care, which the woman is obliged to give. But is it a real feminism? It can’t be so. Still, it should be stressed that Gilligan’s work influenced a lot of works in the sphere of women’s morality and feminism.

Analyzing Gilligan’s work Omonia Vinieris, the representative of idealism, writes that proposed three-level development of moral senses cannot be applied to the modern society because of the masculine “competition and self-interest”. She stresses that “sensitivity and kindness were never equated with human goodness” and as a result presented “feminine approach cannot be applied to the rational and intellect male-world” (Vineries, 2002)

Using Gilligan’s ethics of care Brenda Green proposes to apply feminist care to the nursing practice. She thinks that care can be applied to politics and can be associated with gender and power. Moreover Green advocates the idea that the ethics of care should be rooted in the moral frameworks of responsibility and relationships rather than rights and rules and that any care orientation is inseparable from contextual circumstances rather than being a formal and abstract system of thought. Additionally, care should be grounded in the daily activity of life rather than a set of universal principles. (Green, 2012)

Houser, Wilczenski, and Ham (2006) using the “Ethics of care” suggest that feminism ideology includes two primary streams of “woman-centered” approaches which are relevant to care ethics: the feminine and the feminist. ‘Feminine’ refers to the exploration of women’s unique voice and advocates for an ethic of care. ‘Feminist’ refers to the resistance against male domination and advocates for equal rights. Both approaches seek to validate the importance of experience, understand the destructiveness of oppression, and eliminate gender and social inequality.

Halwani (2003) in his turn suggests that while using care equal weight should be given in our moral deliberations. The main aim of the family from his point of view is responding to the needs of the loved ones. Such an approach implicates partialism or discrimination in care to others. Although partialism seems arbitrary, it does assign greater importance to the protection of one’s own interests and to the interests of those the person cares about, over the protection of the welfare of others, particularly those who are strangers.

Coming to conclusion it should be stressed that Carol Gilligan has presented the new approach to the development of women’s moral senses and feministic ideas as for the women’s role in the society. Beside Gilligan’s works influenced further studies in the sphere of morality and the women’s place in the society.

Boeree C. G. (2004) Personality theories: Erik Erikson. Psychology Department Shippensburg University. Retrieved from http://www.ship.edu/%7Ecgboeree/perscontents.html
Gilligan, C. (1982) In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Green B (2012) Applying Feminist Ethics of Care to Nursing Practice. Journal of Nursing & Care. Retrieved from http://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/applying-feminist-ethics-of-care-to-nursing-practice-2167-1168.1000111.php?aid=6557.
Halwani R (2003) Care ethics and virtue ethics. Hypatia, 18, 161-192.
Houser R, Wilczenski F, Ham M.A. (2006) Culturally relevant ethical decision-making in counseling. Sage Publications, California.
Lawrence A. (2008) Gilligan and Kohlberg: Implications for Moral Theory. Blum Source: Ethics, 98 (3), 472-491
Vinieris O. (2002) On the feminist theory of care. QCC. Retrieved from http://www.qcc.cuny.edu/SocialSciences/ppecorino/ETHICS_TEXT/Chapter_12_Feminism/What_is_it.htm

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