The Debate over Women and Moral Theory Revisited
The contemporary debate over women and moral theory, which was prompted in 1982 with the publication of Carol Gilligan’s In A Different Voice, has generated an impressive literature of a truly multidisciplinary nature. Reflecting back on the various themes and disagreements of this debate, we can isolate several reasons why Gilligan’s work, in addition to its intrinsic merits, insights, and elegance, would become the focus of such an intense, and interestingly enough, nonacrimonious controversy.
In A Different Voice reflected a coming of age of women’s scholarship within the domain of “normal science,” in Thomas Kuhn’s sense of the word. Like Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering in socialization theory, Evelyn Fox Keller’s A Feeling for the Organism and Reflections on Gender and Science in the social studies of science, and Genevieve Lloyd’s The Man of Reason in the history of philosophy, Gilligan’s work showed the consequences of raising the “women’s question” from within the parameters of established scientific discourse. Once women are inserted into the picture, be it as objects of social-scientific research or as subjects conducting such inquiry, established paradigms are unsettled. The definition of the object domain of a research paradigm, its units of measurement, its method of verification, the alleged neutrality of its theoretical terminology, and the claims to universality of its modes and metaphors are all thrown into question.
Gilligan’s work in cognitive and moral development theory recapitulated an experience that women’s historians had first encountered
in their own field. Joan Kelly Gadol has described this in a 1975 article entitled “The Social Relations of the Sexes: Methodological Implications of Women’s History” as follows:
Once we look at history for an understanding of women’s situation, we are, of course, already assuming that women’s situation is a social matter. But history, as we first came to it, did not seem to confirm this awareness… The moment this is done—the moment that one assumes that women are a part of humanity in the fullest sense—the period or set of events with which we deal takes on a wholly different character or meaning from the normally accepted one. Indeed, what emerges is a fairly regular pattern of relative loss of status for women in periods of so-called progressive changes…. Suddenly we see these ages with a new double vision—and each eye sees a different picture.1
Gadol writes of a “doubled vision,” each eye seeing something different. Gilligan writes of hearing a different voice. In each case, the experience is the same. The women’s question—women as objects of inquiry and as subjects carrying out such inquiry—upsets established paradigms. Women discover difference where previously sameness had prevailed; they sense dissonance and contradiction where formerly uniformity had reigned; they note the double meaning of words where formerly the signification of terms had been taken for granted; and they establish the persistence of injustice, inequality, and regression in processes that were formerly characterized as just, egalitarian, and progressive.
In the following discussion I shall isolate two broad ranges of issues from among the complex set of problems within and outside the confines of feminist theory which Gilligan’s work has given rise to. While the second half of this chapter will look at the methodological status of the category of “gender” and at the question of “difference” in Gilligan’s research on women and moral theory, in the first half I shall continue to explore the implications of Gilligan’s research for universalist moral philosophy.