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Lawrence Blum on Gilligan and Kohlberg (part 2)

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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,) and“moral responsiveness to others is mediated by adherence to principle” (477.) Gilligan proposed a care ethic among people “within a web of ongoing relationships, and morality” (473;) “Moral action is meant to to express and to sustain those connections to particular other people” (476.)

Thus for Gilligan relationship precedes principles, and moral principles emerge from relationships; for Kohlberg, moral principles are prior to and mediate relationships. This recalls F.A. Hayek’s constructivist and ecological rationalities, which I know through Vernon Smith. In Smith’s terms, Kohlberg’s is a constructivist rationality that “involves the deliberate use of reason to analyze and prescribe actions judged to be better than alternative feasible actions,” while Gilligan’s is an ecological rationality of an “emergent order in the form of the practices [and] norms governing action by individuals that are part of our cultural and biological heritage and are created by human interactions, but not by conscious human design” (2.)

Both rationalities are important: we rationally design social institutions and norms to achieve certain ends, while countless care relationships form not because agents recognize in each other “morally significant but entirely general and repeatable characteristics,” as per Kohlberg (475,) but from highly particular and non-repeatable characteristics. Smith noted that the two rationalities are not inherently in opposition, but can work together: “in evolutionary processes, constructivist cultural innovations can provide variations while ecological fitness processes do the work of selection” (2.) If this is correct, on this view the two are complementary, affirming Gilligan’s view that a “a final mature morality involves a complex interaction and dialogue between the concerns of impartiality and those of personal relationship and care” (474.)

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

Hayek, F.A. (1988.) The Fatal Conceit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Vernon. (2008.) Rationality in Economics. NY: Cambridge University Press.

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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