Universalist Moral Philosophies and Carol Gilligan’s Challenge
Undoubtedly, Gilligan’s work invoked the widespread recognition and controversy that it did because it reflected the coming-of-age of women’s scholarship within the paradigms of normal science. Equally significant, however, was that the kinds of questions which Gilligan was asking of the Kohlbergian paradigm were also being asked of universalist neo-Kantian moral philosophies by a growing and influential number of critics. As I have explored previously, these communitarian, neo-Aristotelian, and even neo-Hegelian critics of Kantianism like Michael Walzer, Michael Sandel, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor—like Gilligan herself—questioned the formalism, cognitivism,
and claims to universality of Kantian theories. Just as Gilligan challenged the separation of form from content in the evaluation of moral judgment, so too, MacIntyre argued that out of the pure form of moral law alone no substantive moral principles could be deduced.2 Just as Gilligan reported her female subjects’ sense of bewilderment in view of a language of morals which would pose even the most personal of all dilemmas like abortion in terms of formal rights, so too, Michael Sandel maintained that a polity based on the procedural and juridical model of human relationships alone would lack a certain solidarity and depth of identity.3 And just as Gilligan doubted that the Kohlbergian model of the development of moral judgment could claim the universality that it did in view of the difficulties this model encountered in accounting for women’s judgment and sense of self,4 others like Taylor and Walzer questioned whether the form of moral judgments of justice could be so neatly isolated from the content of cultural conceptions of the good life.5 There was a remarkable convergence then between the Gilligan-type feminist critique of Kantian universalism and the objections raised by these other thinkers.6
But exactly what implications should one draw from Gilligan’s findings, which themselves have been moderated over time, for universalist moral philosophies? Does Gilligan’s work suggest and even warrant replacing an ethics of justice with an ethics of care? My own position on this complex issue is that Gilligan’s work to date does not provide us with sufficient reasons to want to reject universalist moral philosophies. Gilligan has not explained what “an ethic of care” as opposed to an “ethical orientation to care reasoning” would consist in, nor has she provided the philosophical argumentation necessary to formulate a different conception from the Kohlbergian one of the moral point of view or of impartiality. Many of her formulations suggest that she would like to see the ethics of justice be complemented by an ethical orientation to care.7 These approaches are complementary and not antagonistic. Undoubtedly, one can also attempt to formulate a “feminine ethic of care,”8 but this is not an implication supported by Gilligan’s own work. Precisely because I do not think that a moral theory adequate to the way of life of complex modern societies can be formulated without some universalist specification of impartiality and the moral point of view, I find it more fruitful to read Gilligan’s work not as a wholesale rejection of universalism—for which there is little evidence in her own texts—but as a contribution to the development of a non-formalist, contextually sensitive, and postconventional understanding of ethical life. I shall attempt to specify this claim by taking my cue from a penetrating analysis of the relation between the justice and care perspectives provided by Lawrence Blum.
In a recent article on “Gilligan and Kohlberg: Implications for Moral Theory,” Blum outlines a hypothetical response to Gilligan that could be
given by defenders of the “impartialist conception of morality.” Impartialism is understood in this context to characterize not only Lawrence Kohlberg’s view of morality, but to have been “the dominant conception of morality in contemporary Anglo-American moral philosophy, forming the core of both a Kantian conception of morality and important strands in utilitarian (and, more generally, consequentialist) thinking as well.”9 Impartialism demands that the moral point of view articulate impersonality, justice, formal rationality, and universal principle. Blum then suggests that the relation between impartialist moralities and a morality of care can be conceived of in eight different ways:
1. One can deny that the care orientation constitutes a genuinely distinct moral position from impartialism. “Acting from care is actually acting on perhaps complex but nevertheless fully universalizable principles, generated ultimately from an impartial point of view.”10
2. While care for others, it may be argued, constitutes a genuinely important set of concerns and relationships in human life, nevertheless such concerns are more personal than moral ones.11
3. This position admits that concerns of care and responsibility in relationships are truly moral (as opposed to being merely personal), but it claims that they are secondary to, parasitic upon, and/or less important than principles of impartiality, right, and universality.12
4. Care, it is said, is genuinely moral and is a moral orientation distinct from impartiality, but it is inadequate because it cannot be universalized. An ethics of care, it may be argued, is ultimately inadequate from a moral point of view for the objects of our care and compassion can never encompass all of mankind, but must always remain particularistic and personal. An ethics of care can thus revert to a conventional group ethics, for which the well-being of the reference group is the essence of morality. This reference group may be the family, the nation, a particular affinity group, let us say a political or an artistic avant garde, to whom the individual owes special allegiance. An ethics of care yields a non-universalizable group morality.
5. According to this position, the difference between an ethics of care and one of impartiality is in the “objects of moral assessment” or in the “construal of the domain of the moral.” While care is concerned with the evaluation of persons, motives, and character, impartiality is concerned with the evaluation of actions, principles, and rules of institutional life.
6. While care and responsibility are appropriate moral responses in certain situations, it is claimed, considerations of an impartialist right set the constraints within which care is allowed to guide our conduct.
“Considerations of impartiality trump considerations stemming from care; if the former conflict with the latter, it is care which must yield.”13
7. While considerations of care are genuinely moral, nevertheless their ultimate justifiability “rests on their being able to be validated or affirmed from an impartial perspective.”14 This can be seen as an elaboration of position 6.
8. In the final, most mature stage of moral reasoning the perspectives of “justice and care” will be integrated to form a single moral principle.15
Using this scheme, I shall first look more closely at Habermas’s response to the challenge posed by Gilligan’s work; in the second place, I shall suggest how on my own understanding of discourse ethics as a conversational model of enlarged mentality, a different response to Gilligan becomes not only possible but also desirable.
In “Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action,” Jurgen Habermas suggests that Carol Gilligan, particularly in her article coauthored with J. M. Murphy on “Moral Development in Late Adolescence and Adulthood: A Critique and Reconstruction of Kohlberg’s Theory,” fails to disentangle the complex set of problems which arise when, in the transition from adolescence to adulthood, the everyday lifeworld of our community loses its prima facie validity for the individual and is judged from a moral point of view. Habermas writes:
Thus the formation of the moral point of view goes hand-in-hand with a differentiation within the sphere of the practical: moral questions, which can in principle be decided rationally in terms of criteria of justice or the universalizability of interests are now distinguished from evaluative questions, which fall into the general category of issues of the good life and are accessible to rational discussion only within the horizon of a concrete historical form of life or an individual life style. The concrete ethical life of a naively habituated lifeworld is characterized by the fusion of moral and evaluative issues. Only in a rationalized lifeworld do moral issues become independent of issues of the good life.16
How does this observation bear on Gilligan’s and Murphy’s argument for the necessity of formulating a “postconventional contextualist” position which will take into account the dilemmas of applying ethical principles in complex life-situations? On Habermas’s reading of her, “Carol Gilligan fails to make an adequate distinction between the cognitive problem of application and the motivational problem of the anchoring of moral insights.”17 For both the cognitive problem of how to make contextually sensitive moral judgments and the motivational problem of how to act in concrete life situations according to principles the validity of which one hypothetically acknowledges, only arise
when the moral point of view has been abstracted from the certainties of a shared way of life and this way of life has been submitted to the hypothetical test of impartiality. In other words, although Gilligan and Murphy put their fingers on an important problem—namely, how moral agents who have attained a postconventional stage of moral reasoning behave and judge in concrete life-situations—their insights bear on the “application” of a univer – salist and post-conventional morality to life situations; the program of a “post – conventional contextualism” has no relevance then for the justification or delineation of the moral domain. Habermas agrees with one of Kohlberg’s early objections to Gilligan that her work confuses “issues of justice” with those of the “good life,” thus blurring the boundaries of the moral domain.18 “In terms of the conduct of an individual life, this corresponds to the distinction between self-determination and self-realization,” writes Habermas. “Typically questions of preferences as to forms of life or life goals (ego ideals) and questions of the evaluation of personality types and modes of action only arise after moral issues, narrowly understood, have been resolved.”19
With this response, Habermas maintains that the kind of issues raised by Gilligan belong not to the center but to the margins of ethical theory, and that they are “anomalies” or problems of an otherwise adequate scientific paradigm. Using Blum’s scheme, we can say that for Habermas the relations between the justice and care orientations follow positions 1 and 2. That is, issues of care and responsibility toward others which arise out of the special relations in which we stand to them are “evaluative questions of the good life,” concerned with forms of life or with life goals and with the “evaluation of personality types and modes of action.” In modem societies in which moral questions of justice have been distinguished from evaluative questions of the good life, relations and obligations of care and responsibility are “personal” matters of self-realization. Since much of this discussion of Gilligan is couched in the language of Habermas’s own terminology deriving from his social theory, an example may help us understand Habermas’s position better.
Take the generally accepted principle that younger members of a family should not continue the family business or the father’s profession but should pursue the career and way of life most compatible with their abilities and talents. Historically, this principle originates with the eventual development of a universal market economy and with the continuing decline of the family household as an economic unit of production in the modem world. Whereas in most pre-capitalist economic formations and even in some forms of merchant and industrial capitalism, generations within a single household acted as an economic unit, let us say in the form of the family business or the family firm, with the spread of capitalism and the continuing decline of the feudal estates system sons no longer followed in their fathers’ footsteps and did not assume the family vocation or business. Eventually, it became accepted that children, primarily male children, could and should follow the vocation most suitable to their talents. The moral expectations which governed family life in most western countries up until the late 1920s or 1930s, let us say, have been subject to a differentiation. The choice of a career by the younger generation is no longer a “moral” issue of obligation owed to other family members, in particular to the pater familias, but an “evaluative” matter of the good life. Now for the modern liberal family the question whether the less talented firstborn son should get to attend an expensive private college as opposed to sending the more talented younger daughter to medical school may continue to be a moral problem, for this involves a question of justice, of conflicting interests over scarce resources. But neither the one child’s decision to study business administration nor the other’s decision to study medicine are moral issues; they have become evaluative matters of the good life.
Yet this conclusion is profoundly counterintuitive and remote from everyday moral reality. If my example captures Habermas’s meaning correctly, then there is something profoundly odd in his insistence that these issues are “personal” as opposed to “moral”; in fact, this claim runs just as contrary to our moral intuitions as Kohlberg’s assertion that “the spheres of kinship, love, friendship, and sex that elicit considerations of care are usually understood to be spheres of personal decision-making, as are, for instance the problems of marriage and divorce.”20 These issues are obviously both personal and moral. Even in highly rationalized modern societies where most of us are wage-earners and political citizens, the moral issues which preoccupy us most and which touch us most deeply derive not from problems of justice in the economy and the polity, but precisely from the quality of our relations with others in the “spheres of kinship, love, friendship, and sex.” We may lament the sterility of our political lives as citizens and long for a more vibrant and compelling civic life; certainly I have argued for this position at various points. We may strongly oppose the fact that our economic arrangements are so unjust and so immoral from the point of view of satisfying the basic needs of millions upon this earth, but none of this detracts from the fact that for the democratic citizen and economic agent, the moral issues that touch her most deeply arise in the personal domain. How can Habermas and Kohlberg defend such a counterintuitive position, counter that is, to the phenomenology of our moral experience? Let us look more closely at the argument distinguishing moral issues of justice from evaluative matters of the good life.
My thesis is that Habermas and Kohlberg conflate the standpoint of a universalist morality with a narrow definition of the moral domain as being centered around “issues of justice.” These, however, are different matters. How we define the domain of the moral is a separate matter than the kinds of justificatory constraints which we think moral judgments, principles, and maxims should be subject to.21 Universalism in moral theory operates at the level of specifying acceptable forms of the justification of moral principles, judgments, and maxims. “Universalism” in morality implies first of all a commitment to the equal worth and dignity of every human being in virtue of her or his humanity; secondly, the dignity of the other as a moral individual is acknowledged through the respect we show for their needs, interests, and points of view in our concrete moral deliberations. Moral respect is manifested in moral deliberations by taking the standpoint of the other, as a generalized and concrete other, into account. Third, universalism implies a commitment to accept as valid intersubjective norms and rules of action as generated by practical discourses, taking place under the constraints specified above. The universalizability procedure in ethics specifies a model of individual and collective deliberation and imposes constraints upon the kinds of justification leading to certain conclusions rather than specifying the moral domain. An example may help explain matters.
Suppose in a family of three siblings one of the brothers is struggling financially and is unable to make ends meet. The moral standpoint of care, which Gilligan, Blum, and myself acknowledge, would say that there is a prima facie moral claim here, namely the claim whether we, as the more successful members of the family, have a moral obligation to help this brother. This moral obligation arises out of the special nature of the relationships in which we stand to this particular individual. The obligation may or may not be construable as one of justice. If we, as the older brothers, got to where we did in life by helping ourselves to a family inheritance and leaving the younger brother destitute, then the moral situation is also one of justice and of what is morally owed to the youngest sibling. But if we owe our position in life to nothing but our own hard work and good fortune, then the obligation owed to the other sibling is not a matter of justice. From a Kantian point of view, this obligation would be construed as one of “benevolence.” Indeed, it has been frequently maintained with respect to Gilligan’s work that the ethic of care and responsibility covers the same domain that Kant himself had classified as “positive duties” of benevolence or altruism. The domain of the moral, it is maintained, is distinct from supererogation or altruism although such acts may crown a virtuous character.22
As opposed to this classification of issues of care as issues of supererogation and altruism, I would like to argue, again with Gilligan and Blum, and against Habermas and Kohlberg, that obligations and relations of care are genuinely moral ones, belonging to the center and not at the margins of morality. If in the situation described above, the involved family members do not see or even acknowledge that there is a moral situation, in other words if they cannot cognize this situation as being “morally relevant,” then they lack moral sense. But strictly speaking, the morally relevant situation is not a situation of justice. There would be nothing “unjust” in the decision of the two elder brothers not to help the younger one, but there would be something morally “callous,” lacking in generosity and concern in their actions. Unlike Habermas and Kohlberg, I am not ready to say that “callousness, lack of generosity, and concern,” are evaluative but not moral categories; that they pertain to the quality of our lives together rather than to the general procedures for regulating intersubjective conflicts of interests. Such a claim is an unnecessary and unwarranted narrowing of the domain of the moral, and does not follow from a universalist moral position. A universalist moral position of enlarged mentality provides us with a procedure for judging the validity of our judgments in this context as well.
What a commitment to universalism in ethics requires from us in this context is to act in such a way as is consistent with respecting the dignity and worth of all the individuals involved and a willingness to settle controversial matters through the open and unconstrained discussion of all. What does this mean concretely? The successful siblings and the younger brother should be willing to engage in a discourse about the needs of the one and the responsibilities and expectations of the others. Respect for the worth and need of the youngest brother as a generalized and concrete other would require no less. The outcome of such a discourse, however; is not dictated by the procedure of the discourse itself. It is indeed possible for all involved to see that the financial help of the elder brothers is undesirable at this point because it may reinforce patterns of dependency, create resentment, etc. It is also possible to decide that with some help at this crucial juncture the youngest brother may be on his way toward a more self-sufficient existence. Procedures do not dictate specific outcomes; they constrain the kinds of justification we can use for our actions, judgments, and principles. Discourse ethics is a deontological and universalist moral theory where conceptions of the right do constrain the good. Here is where I depart from a care perspective and rejoin the universalists.
So far; I have argued that the definition or specification of the domain of the moral and the level of justification or argumentation required by a commitment to universalism must be distinguished from each other. If universalism is interpreted procedurally, as it must be, then such a procedure can be applied to test the validity of moral judgments, principles, and maxims even in situations that, according to Habermas’s and Kohlberg’s definitions of them, appear to be concerned with “evaluative questions of the good life” rather than with “moral matters of justice.” Questions of care are moral issues and can also be dealt with from within a universalist standpoint. Such a universalism supplies the constraints within which the morality of care must operate.
If we return to Lawrence Blum’s scheme discussed above, then my position would be captured by theses 4, 6, and 7. Care issues are genuinely moral, yet the care perspective does not amount to a moral theory with a distinct account of a moral point of view (thesis 4 above). Considerations of a universalist morality do set the constraints within which concerns of care should be
allowed to operate and they “trump” over them if necessary (thesis 6 above); and considerations of care should be “validated or affirmed from an impar – tialist perspective” (thesis 7). Let me return to the example given above to explicate these more clearly. Now suppose the members of this family are part of the clan of Don Corleone (the Godfather) and belong to the Mafia. The Mafia is an organization based on care and mutual responsibility toward members of one’s own clan or extended family, yet this morality of care is accompanied by a morality of injustice and contempt towards the lives, dignity, and property of non-group members. Theorists of care must specify the criteria according to which such clans as the Mafia are to be considered “immoral” from the standpoint of a morality of care. I consider Kantian universalism to be indispensable at this point. A morality of care can revert simply to the position that what is morally good is what is best for those who are like me. Such a claim is no different from arguing that what is best morally is what pleases me most.
Thesis 6 says that a universalist morality should set the constraints within which concerns of care can operate. In the case of our example this would mean that the elder brothers cannot recommend to the younger one, from a moral point of view, that the murder of X would be an appropriate way to put his financial life in order; nor would any other recommendation which violated the dignity and worth of another person be consistent with the moral point of view. The right limits the precepts of virtuous conduct and good judgment. It would not be moral to recommend to the younger brother, for example, that he marry a rich woman and thus put his life in order since this would be treating the woman involved as a means to an end and would be incompatible with her human dignity.
As thesis 7 states, considerations of care “must be validated or affirmed from an impartialist perspective.” The principle that “family members should show support, concern, and care for one another” is, in my view, justifiable for all and not only for some, because if we could enter into a practical discourse and consider whether a world in which families exercised no solidarity would be more acceptable for all involved than a world in which families did show such support and solidarity, we could all agree that the latter alternative would be in the interests of all involved. There is a distinction between saying that “Jewish, Irish, or Italian family members should show support, concern and care for one another” and the claim that whoever we are and whatever our background, a world in which families or family-like household arrangements showed support, concern, and care for one another would be preferable to a world in which this were not the case. The latter is a universalizable moral claim whereas the former remains an ethnocentric articulation of a group morality which can cut both ways: group solidarity may often be achieved at the expense of moral disregard and contempt for individuals who are not group
Suppose, however, a more strictly Kantian theorist questioned us about the status of the claim “a world that would be preferable to.” Is this a utilitarian or a consequentialist claim? Am I arguing that the sum of all happinesses and well-being in such a universe would be greater than in another? At some level, of course, these considerations about morally intact families derive from a concern for human well-being and flourishing. Meta-theoretically I am committed to the position that the discursive procedure alone and not some additional moral principles of utility or human well-being define the validity of general moral norms. Yet as a discourse theorist who is also a feminist, the needs and well-being of the concrete other are as much of a concern to me as the dignity and worth of the generalized other.
In this respect as well, Habermas and Kohlberg have dismissed all too quickly a central insight of Gilligan and of other feminists: namely, that we are children before we are adults, and that the nurture, care, and responsibility of others is essential for us to develop into morally competent, self-sufficient individuals. Ontogenetically, neither justice nor care are primary; they are each essential for the development of the autonomous, adult individual out of the fragile and dependent human child. Not only as children, but also as concrete embodied beings with needs and vulnerabilities, emotions, and desires we spend our lives caught in the “web of human affairs,” in Hannah Arendt’s words, or in networks of “care and dependence” in Carol Gilligan’s words. Modern moral philosophy, and particularly universalist moralities of justice, have emphasized our dignity and worth as moral subjects at the cost of forgetting and repressing our vulnerability and dependency as bodily selves. Such networks of dependence and the web of human affairs in which we are immersed are not simply like clothes which we outgrow or like shoes that we leave behind. They are ties that bind; ties that shape our moral identities, our needs, and our visions of the good life. The autonomous self is not the disembodied self; universalist moral theory must acknowledge the deep experiences in the formation of the human being to which care and justice correspond. Gilligan formulates the interdependence of justice and care thus:
Theoretically, the distinction between justice and care cuts across the familiar divisions between thinking and feeling, egoism and altruism, theoretical and practical reasoning. It calls attention to the fact that all human relationships, both public and private, can be characterized both in terms of equality and in terms of attachment, and that both inequality and detachment constitute grounds for moral concern. Since everyone is vulnerable both to oppression and to abandonment, two moral visions— one of justice, and one of care—recur in human experience. The moral injunctions, not to act unfairly toward others, and not to turn away from
someone in need, captures these different concerns.23
The continuing challenge posed by Gilligan’s findings to universalist moral philosophies is how to acknowledge the centrality of justice as well as care in human lives and how to expand the moral domain to include consideration of care without giving up the justificatory constraints imposed upon the articulation of the moral by universalism.
There is a belated acknowledgment of some of the issues raised by the Gilligan debate in Habermas’s article “Justice and Solidarity: On the Discussion Concerning ‘Stage 6.”’ Commenting on Kohlberg’s last efforts to integrate justice and benevolence into a unified moral perspective, Habermas writes:
Thus, the perspective complementing that of equal treatment of individuals is not benevolence but solidarity. This principle is rooted in the realization that each person must take responsibility for the other because as consoci – ates all must have an interest in the integrity of their shared life context in the same way. Justice conceived deontologically requires solidarity as its
reverse side—– Every autonomous morality has to serve two purposes at
once: it brings to bear the inviolability of socialized individuals by requiring equal treatment and thereby equal respect for the dignity of each one; and it protects intersubjective relations of mutual recognition requiring solidarity of individual members of a community, in which they have been socialized. Justice concerns the equal freedom of unique and self-determining individuals, while solidarity concerns the welfare of consociates who are ultimately linked in an intersubjectively shared from of life.. ,24
The similarities in these two formulations are striking. Gilligan writes of “equality and attachment,” of the need “not to act unfairly toward others” and not “to turn away from someone in need.” Habermas writes of “solidarity,” of the interest each has in protecting “intersubjective relations of mutual recognition.”25 Certainly, there are differences of emphases as well. For Habermas, justice is tempered by “mutual recognition” (Anerkennung) among individuals of each others’ welfare; for Gilligan justice must be tempered by care and a mutual acknowledgment of dependence and vulnerability. Yet in both formulations, the ideals of moral autonomy and justice are traced back to their foundations in fragile human relations and thus “reduced to size.” The generalized other of the justice perspective is always also a concrete other, and we can acknowledge this concreteness of the other by recalling those human relations of dependence, care, sharing, and mutuality within which each human child is socialized. If feminist theory has reminded universalist moralities in the Kantian tradition of the need to compensate “for the vulnerability of living creatures who through socialization are individuated in such a way that they can never assert their identity for themselves alone.. .,”26 then a significant paradigm shift is occurring in such theories— a paradigm shift which I describe as a movement away from a legislative and
The Debate over Women and Moral Theory Revisited /193 substitutionalist universalism model towards an interactive universalism.