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Reflections on Kohlberg and Gilligan

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My response to the Kohlberg / Gilligan debate has different aspects, and a few preceding posts reflect different phases of reflection.  The core issue I was trying to draw out is that universal principles about partial relationships, such as friends and family, seem incoherent.  Such relationships do not primarily form for rational reasons; while there are exceptions and distortions, such as those noted by Marilyn Friedman in “The Practice of Partiality,” most form from care motives.

The care motives that are the basis for at least some care based partial relationships escape Kohlberg’s rational principles.  One can analyze friendship relationships from an external perspective and derive the principle “Be loyal to friends,” on perhaps consequentialist, utilitarian, deontological, or virtue grounds.  Those in friendships however understand that principle on very different grounds: betrayal hurts, and the friend betrayed has a sense of being morally wronged by the betrayal itself that does not reduce to the externally derived principles.  One can argue similarly from external grounds for the principle to nurture one’s children; children however have a more immediate sense of being wronged and harmed by an abusive or neglectful parent.  It is not at all clear to me that one would even bother formulating Kohlberg’s principles were it not for the affective pain of the relational violations: if betraying a friend or neglecting a child were to have no personally painful consequences from a violated care ethic, why would one derive the principle?  It seems to me that in that sense Kohlberg’s externally, rationally derived principles are posterior, rather than prior, to the relationships they purport to mediate.  In other words, to the extent that Kohlberg’s principles apply to partial relationships, they only describe; they do not explain the relationships.

What is lurking in the background is how this discussion evaluates for non-care based partial relationships, such as contractual or associational relationships in the market.  Since about the late 1980s the idea of a “relational good” has been discussed by a few economists and by Martha Nussbaum.*  In many cases though the relational good – a friendly relationship with one’s barber, for example – is auxiliary to the economic good produced, such as a haircut.  There are many market relationships in which the relationship itself is ancillary and instrumental to another desired end; when the market purpose changes the relationship does not continue for its intrinsic value.

It seems to me that the sorts of rational principles Kohlberg proposes are much more meaningful in market relations.  As I noted previously in a response to Mill, trust in markets is vital to their flourishing.  If I contract with a supplier for a good or service that is in turn necessary for me to supply a good or service, I must be able to trust that the supplier will not break the contract with me just because she managed to work a better deal.  In economic relations, as we have seen in the last few years, one is much more reticent to contract with someone that has a poor reputation for keeping his contracts.  If distrust is pervasive, there are direct systemic economic consequences.

In such situations it is possible to formulate rational principles for not breaking one’s contracts along consequentialist lines, because the contractual relationship itself was (probably?) established as instrumental for its consequences.  In other words, the relationship can be rationally analyzed on the same grounds on which it was rationally established.  Penalties are usually contractually established for breaking the contract, and in that sense breaking a contract within the agreed provisions may not have moral aspects.  Where it seems the moral aspects enter is in the making of promises or commitments and the creation of expectations on which other parties depend; breaking those commitments apart from agreed on contractual grounds may have moral dimensions.

* Bruni, Luigino. (2012.) The Wound and the Other: Economics, Relationships, and Happiness. New York: New City 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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