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Lawrence Blum on Gilligan and Kohlberg (part 3)

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In a 1988 paper, 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.)

Thus for Gilligan relationship precedes principles, and moral principles emerge from relationships. For Kohlberg, moral principles are “universalistic, applicable to all” (476,) and “moral responsiveness to others is mediated by adherence to principle” (477;) persons have moral significance “solely as bearers of morally significant but entirely general and repeatable characteristics” (475.)

For Kohlberg moral principles are logically prior to relationships, such as “Be loyal to friends” and “Nurture one’s children” (486.) A principle to be loyal to one’s friends may seem universal, applying to all friends, yet there is no prior universal principle that mediates a partial relationship, such as friendship or family. A principle about partial relationships that is not subsumed in its universal form asserts moral significance on other than universal terms; thus “Be loyal to friends” can only be an instance of “Be loyal to others.”  For Kohlberg “Acting from care is … acting on … complex but … universalizable principles” (477,) yet in choosing loyalty to a friend one may be disloyal to a stranger.

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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