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Lawrence Blum on Gilligan and Kohlberg (part 1)

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In a 1988 paper, “Gilligan and Kohlberg: Implications for Moral Theory,” Lawrence Blum contrasted the moral theories of Carol Gilligan and Lawrence Kohlberg, arguing in support of Gilligan. Kohlberg represents the dominant view, which casts morality as based on “impartiality, impersonality, justice, formal rationality, and universal principal” (472.) Gilligan proposes a care ethic that begins with people “within a web of ongoing relationships, and morality … consists in attention to, understanding of, and emotional responsiveness” to those persons” (473;) these connections exist “prior to moral beliefs about what is right or wrong or which principles to accept. Moral action is meant to to express and to sustain those connections to particular other people” (476.)  In contrast, for Kohlberg “moral responsiveness to others is mediated by adherence to principle” (477.) Thus for Gilligan relationship precedes principles, and moral principles emerge from relationships; for Kohlberg, moral principles are prior to and mediate relationships.

Examples of such principles are “‘Be loyal to friends,’ ‘Nurture one’s children,’ and ‘Protect children from harm’” (484.) Yet some principles cited regard relationships of friends and family with care commitments that in my view are prior to the formulation of the principles, as Gilligan argued; contra Kohlberg, such principles are not prior to the partial relationships involved. It seems to me that impartial principles motivated by “principles of right or duty” (490) might be more like “Be loyal to all,” or “Protect all children,” as these can be rationally formulated without partial care commitments.

Though principles of right or duty may apply in partial relationships, Blum asserted that some acts toward friends and family lie outside such obligations (490n30;) I argue that such obligations are insufficient to subsume all relationships. It seems clear that the rationally motivated actions of impartial principles, and the care motivated actions of partial relationships such as friends and family, “are not simply identical acts prompted by different motives” (490.)

I find Blum persuasive: “If emotionally expressive action is an integral part of appropriate behavior within personal relationships, then a philosophy grounded in rational principle alone will be importantly deficit … and cannot be seen as superior to one of care” (490.)

Blum, Lawrence. (1988.) “Gilligan and Kohlberg: Implications for Moral Theory.” Ethics, Vol 98, No. 3 (Apr., 1988,) pp. 472-491.

This is adapted from a series of responses I wrote for an independent study in analytic ethics of partiality and consequentialism.

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