Question

A Philosophical Debate

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As part of this discussion it might be helpful to go back in recent time and look to the famous philosophical debate on how our moral minds develop.

During the 1980s psychologists Carol Gilligan’s and Lawrence Kohlberg’s dispute revealed subtle and complicated understandings of the early development of criteria that we use to judge and interact with others (human and other-than-human).

The importance of this debate is that it brought the concept of relationality to the fore as a key element in the development of our ethical maturity. Kohlberg understood our moral compass to be based in an impartial formal rationality—one placing the masculine perspective at its center. He argued that our ethical development is marked by a series of pre-programmed developmental stages, and the time we reach ethical maturity is marked by our ability to apply abstract rules and principles to our moral challenges. According to this theory, our highest level of ethical reasoning must transcend and disregard immediate and particular experiences and circumstances. The immediacy of our experiences with others in time and place do not matter for morality. Relationality, for Kohlberg, was merely incidental in the developmental process of becoming ourselves.


Gilligan rejected Kohlberg’s systematization of our ethical behavior, arguing that his theory valued detachment and separation, ideas commonly associated with the dominant masculine order. She saw his theory as a tool for avoiding the messy contextual realities of day-to-day life, stemming from the infinite variety of situations where no two ethical dilemmas are alike.

In contrast to Kohlberg, Gilligan argued that our moral development has very little to do with the unfolding of set, logically progressive steps that follow the same course for all. Instead, she insisted that particular, contextual relationality is the key to moral development. Gilligan’s approach recognized that each dilemma has its own spatial, historical, and situational context. Our identities, including our moral selves, develop through the daily interactions we have with others. Gilligan emphasized that we develop our ethical maturity through closeness and attachments to others. This perspective regards self-identity not as a self that is reducible to merely subjective self-interest, and not as an identity that accepts the perfunctory reproduction of external social laws.

Kohlberg’s theory gave us rules that are inflexible and therefore make it difficult to respond to the changing subtleties of particular contexts. On the other hand, the ethical maturity Gilligan speaks of requires something else of us. It stresses that we tap into another kind of knowing, packed into our evolutionary toolbox, namely our heartfelt feelings. Emotion, rather than reason, facilitates closeness, attachment, and intimacy with the other.

More recently, conservation psychologists Susan Clayton and Gene Meyers offer insight into a new discipline that seeks to understand how humans relate to, and care for, Nature. They reiterate the importance of the Humean approach: that emotion drives actual moral behavior and that rational thought is secondary. Understanding others, both human and non-human, is therefore not the domain of rationality alone. Deeper understanding requires a feeling for the other.

Visit the following link for a series of videos of Carol Gilligan sharing her different, emotional voice: http://www.makers.com/moments/validated-neuroscience.

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  • Anja Katina Claus

    As Senior Editor of the Center's journal Minding Nature, Anja guides strategy for content creation, art curation, and journal events, as well as manages the publication of both the online and print versions of the journal. Anja also writes and searches out stories that help us reimagine our relationship to each other, to planet Earth, and the larger Universe.
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