Why Men and Women Fight, Part 2: Ethical Development

If you take how men and women view the world and how they arrive at what they know (see blog post titled: Why Men and Women Fight, Part 1) into relationship, you get some hotly contested battles. When people, more typically men, employ objectivity and reason in decisions about character and decision-making, they will tend toward conclusions of rights, fairness and justice. When people, more typically women, employ emotions along with reason, context and responsibility to arrive at how people should act and choose, they will tend toward conclusions of responsibility to others, empathy and mercy.

While Perry and Belenky studied the differences between the sexes in the way they come to know what is “true,” Kohlberg and Gilligan identified differences in moral and ethical development. Kohlberg, studying males, identified three stages of moral development: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional.

In the preconventional stage, subjects first decide what’s good by what has the most power, and then by reciprocity. What brings pain or pleasure determines right and wrong.

In conventional morality, the focus shifts from self to others, measuring what’s good against the expectations of family and society. Approval and acceptance guide morality at the beginning of this stage, and by the end of it, law and order are even more important.

In the post-conventional stage of ethical development, Kohlberg’s males demonstrated autonomous, self-determined thinking, most valuing principles such as utilitarianism, the “social contract,” agreements, democratic processes, fairness, respecting the rights of others, and promoting the common good. As this stage develops, individuals often adopt more general, universal principles, such as the Golden Rule, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, justice, reciprocity, human equality and dignity. Kohlberg called living by such principles an ethics of justice, and it is a rational, impartial, objective, non-emotional stance.

Gilligan’s studies, on the other hand, found that women tend to stop at stage three, developing care and responsibility to others, rather than justice and individual rights. Helping others and minimizing harm take center stage in this ethics of care. From this ethical perspective, every situation is different and how to respond must be determined on a case-by-case basis. Every problem requires a tailor-made solution.

While Kohlberg’s stages show male development from a simple to an increasingly abstract way of ethical thinking, Gilligan’s stages show female development from caring only for oneself, moving into a sense of responsibility to others, and ending in an acceptance of the principle of care for others and oneself.

Like Perry and Belenky et al., Kohlberg and Gilligan observed that both males and females start in the same place, external authority and self-centeredness, and move toward forging one’s own ethics.

But there’s the rub: males and females tend to forge a very different ethic, in the end. Men tend toward justice; women tend toward mercy. Treating people with impartiality based on the abstract principle of justice is part and parcel of the (typically) male detachment I describe yesterday. Mercy, on the other hand, with its emphasis on reducing the amount of pain and suffering in the world, is more personal…and more (typically) female.

The journey of Western women toward a more mature ethic requires them to pass through a step that most Western men don’t encounter. In order to reach autonomy and independence, women have to question socialization that says their role is to subjugate their interests for that of their loved ones. Learning to apply an ethics of care as much to herself as anyone else is a critical step on a woman’s development to ethical maturity.

And we wonder why men and women fight? How we ever reach consensus is the greater wonder!

More tomorrow….


2 thoughts on “Why Men and Women Fight, Part 2: Ethical Development

  1. A key point in the male epistemic view of skepticism, proof and justice is…Merit. At some point the female epistemic position must also take this into account. Helping and caring cannot forever be a unilateral action. It must be reciprocal between the giver and receiver or a codependency is formed. At some point the helper must compel the helped into self-care. “Give a man a fish…”


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