Gilligan's Theory of Moral Development in Adolescent Girls

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Morality views can change throughout the lifespan. But are these changes different for boys and girls? In this lesson, we'll examine critiques of Kohlberg's theory of moral development as well as Gilligan's alternative theory.

Moral Development

Heinz loves his wife, but she has cancer. The pharmacist at his local drug store has created a drug that can save her life. It costs the pharmacist $200 to make, and he's charging $2,000 for the drug.

Heinz asks all of his friends and family for money and borrows every cent he can, but he can only get together $1,000. He goes to the pharmacist and explains, and then asks the pharmacist to sell him the drugs for $1,000 or let him pay the rest later.

'I created the drug,' the pharmacist says, 'and it's my right to make money on it.' He sends Heinz away without the drug. Later that night, Heinz breaks into the pharmacy and steals the drugs. Did he do the right thing?

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg was interested in how people view moral dilemmas like this one. He studied moral development, or the way that people's view of right and wrong change as they grow. Let's look closer at Kohlberg's theory, common criticisms of it and an alternative theory of moral development proposed by Carol Gilligan.

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  • 0:01 Moral Development
  • 1:12 Kohlberg's Theory
  • 2:48 Gilligan's Theory
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
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Kohlberg's Theory

So, did Heinz do the right thing? Though Kohlberg was interested in how people view Heinz's moral dilemma, he wasn't interested so much in their answer to that specific question. Instead, he wanted to know why people answered the way they did.

Based on why people believe that Heinz was right or wrong in stealing the drugs for his wife, Lawrence Kohlberg came up with Kohlberg's three stages (divided into six substages) of moral development: preconventional morality, conventional morality and postconventional morality. Essentially, according to Kohlberg, children in the preconventional morality stage look at rewards and punishments: Heinz shouldn't have stolen the drug because he will be put into prison, which will mean that he's a bad person.

Adolescents in the conventional stage of morality look at what it means to be a good person and what society's rules are: Heinz did the right thing in stealing the drug because it makes him a good husband. Finally, people who are the most morally developed are in postconventional morality. They focus on justice and balancing human rights with the good of society: Heinz should not have stolen the medicine because others might need the medicine, and Heinz's wife's need is no more important than theirs.

So, according to Kohlberg, people develop by going from thinking about rewards and punishment to thinking about justice. But is this an accurate description of all people?

Gilligan's Theory

One big criticism of Kohlberg's theory of moral development is that it is based on the answers of mostly white, Western men. Do his stages of moral development apply to everyone?

Carol Gilligan didn't believe so. She argued that men and women are raised differently, and therefore experience moral development differently. Specifically, Gilligan pointed out that while men are raised to see morality as being about justice and fairness, women are raised to see morality as being about compassion and sacrifice.

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