Ethics of Care Theory: Carol Gilligan & Nel Noddings

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  • 0:01 A Gender Gap?
  • 1:22 Ethics of Justice
  • 2:48 Ethics of Care
  • 4:45 The Private Sphere
  • 5:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

How has the lack of female voices in philosophy in the past affected our understanding of ethics? In this lesson, you'll consider the difference between the traditional ethics of justice and a feminist ethics of care.

A Gender Gap?

A group of young children are being given a test. This isn't a typical academic test, though. This test will ask questions about what is right and wrong to do. The researchers want to know whether the children are progressing through various stages of moral development. The stages range from a child choosing the right behavior based on whether they will be punished or not (a lower stage of development), all the way up the highest stage in which a person chooses their actions based on universal ethical principles, like what is fair and just. There are six stages in total.

The researchers ask each of the children questions about how they would act in certain situations. They notice a pattern in the answers of the boys when compared with the answers of the girls. Using the scale for the stages of moral development, the girls are lagging well behind the boys. In other words, they don't seem to be maturing morally as quickly as the boys.

This lesson takes a critical look at what feminist theories have to say about this moral test. We'll focus on the work of Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings, who took an interest in a concept known as the ethics of care.

Ethics of Justice

So, were the girls really morally stunted in their growth? Gilligan argues that it wasn't the girls who were insufficiently moral but that the scale itself had flaws. One question to ask is how the particular scale of ethics was even developed. How did the creators of this ethical test come to their understanding of ethics? Philosophers often use an approach Gilligan calls the ethics of justice. According to her, this concept is focused on the decisions people make when coming up with rational solutions to abstract moral problems.

Think of this approach as mainly involving concepts such as fairness, equality, rights, and freedom. The ethics of justice is primarily interested in universal moral rules that can be applied across the board. An example would be the principle that cheating on a test is wrong. It's a universal rule because it's not just wrong in some situations; it's always wrong.

The researchers were using an ethics of justice approach in their test. Children who could make decisions based on universal principles were considered to be the most morally developed. The boys were doing well at making decisions based on these principles.

Ethics of Care

Gilligan argues that the girls have likely learned another way to look at ethics. They have typically learned an ethics of care instead of justice. The ethics of care is focused on how to respond to the needs of others in complicated real-life scenarios. Think of this approach as mainly involving concepts such as responsibilities, compassion, and relationships.

The ethics of care recognizes context rather than universal rules. The context of a situation is very important in determining how we should respond. For example, think of a situation where you have to decide how to address too many family obligations in your life. Is there any universal principle for this? Not likely. You have to consider the context of the specific situation, your needs, and the needs of others. Rather than focusing on the consequences of actions or our duties, this theory considers our response to other people in various circumstances.

Gilligan points out that women have historically been excluded from discussions on ethics. As a result, she claims that the field of ethics tends to focus on abstract justice rather than caring. Caring has been undervalued.

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