“Ethic of justice”/”ethic of care”


Thomas I. White, Ph.D. 

This Ethical Style Survey lets you know which of two approaches to ethics you automatically  prefer—and how strongly. One approach, which prizes reason and objectivity, applies the same rules impartially across the board. The ideas of rights, justice, and fairness are paramount here. The other approach, which combines reason with emotions, holds that we should do what is most appropriate within the particular circumstances of the case. This approach stresses responsibility to people in need; its central moral principle is care, rather than justice. 

The self-inventory you just completed shows where you fall along a continuum. Scores from 0-4 show a preference for an “ethic of justice.” Scores from 5-9 show a preference for an “ethic of care.” The lower [justice]/higher [care] the score, the stronger the preference. The higher your J score, the more your ethics are based on the need for justice. Some would call this approach typically “masculine.” The higher your C score, the more care underlies your ethics. Such ethics have been identified as typically “feminine.” 

Actually, it is unclear just how closely these different styles can be correlated with gender. In practice, many men and women cross from one to the other. Furthermore, some people are very strongly Justice or Care, while others are more balanced. Nonetheless, the odds are high that within any typical group, more men will have higher J scores than C scores, while women’s scores will usually be in the reverse. 

The debate over whether there are two ethical styles that can be related to gender arose as an unintended result of research done by the late Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987). Kohlberg sought to discover the process by which we develop our sense of morality. His research convinced him that to go from an undeveloped to a mature sense of ethics, we pass through a series of distinct stages. When Carol Gilligan, also at Harvard, discovered that Kohlberg’s system placed women lower than men on his ethical ladder and that all of Kohlberg’s subjects were male, she decided to see if a female sample would yield different results. She thinks they do. We start with Kohlberg’s research, because that is what led to Gilligan’s work. 

Kohlberg’s “Masculine” Ethics of Justice 

Kohlberg’s research was inspired by the work of the great Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who had tried to connect the development of a child’s moral judgment to its overall cognitive development. Kohlberg believed that as the whole human personality matures, our thinking about right and wrong starts at a preconventional level, progresses to a conventional level, then finally arrives at postconventional thinking. Each of these three levels has two specific stages. Kohlberg’s research included subjects from many cultures, and therefore he believed he was uncovering a universal, innate, developmental structure of the human personality. 

Stages of Ethical Development 

At the preconventional level, we understand “good” and “bad” in a very primitive way. This level runs from about age 4 to 10. (Kohlberg does not see anything of consequence taking place in ethical development before age 4.) In Stage 1, all that counts is power. “Good” is what the person with the most power says is good. We do what is right only to avoid punishment, and we regulate our dealings with others so as not to provoke anyone who is stronger than we are. In Stage 2 we advance only a little. Now something is “good” because it will satisfy some need we have. We come to value reciprocity, a notion well put in the proposition “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” This notion, of course, is still totally self-oriented. “Right” and “wrong” are just labels that indicate whether something brings us pleasure or pain. 

Conventional morality, the next level, marks a major advance in that we shift our focus from ourselves to others. The expectations of our family, or the rules of our society, now become our moral standard. At Stage 3 of this level, an action is “good” if it pleases other people, helps them, or at least tries to. Generally, we adopt traditional and stereotyped ways of behaving without questioning them. Our purpose is to act in ways that will make other people like and accept us. Next, in Stage 4, authority, law and order become more important. Now we think that respecting authority, obeying rules, doing our duty, and maintaining the status quo are morally right for their own sake—no matter what the circumstances. Conforming to the traditions of our group is a major virtue. So many people are so comfortable at this level that only one in four advances to Kohlberg’s final level. 

When and if we move into the third, postconventional level as adults, we develop an appreciation for moral principles that do not depend on what anyone thinks but are valid in and of themselves. This level of autonomous, individual ethical thinking, like the earlier levels, also has two stages. Stage 5 thinking utilizes the ideas of utilitarianism and the “social contract” which promote free agreement, individual rights, and democratic processes and institutions. As Kohlberg notes, “this is the ‘official’ morality of American government, and finds its ground in the thought of the writers of the Constitution.” At this stage, we decide whether an action is right or wrong by an impartial assessment of how fair it is, how well it respects the rights of others, and how far it advances the common good. Stage 6 goes beyond this to individually realized ethical principles that are abstract and universal, the Golden Rule, for example, or Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. These, says Kohlberg, “are universal principles of justice, of the reciprocity and equality of human rights, and of respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons.” Now we assess the ethical character of actions in terms of the principles we have chosen to apply and to which we have a deep, personal allegiance. Something is right or wrong depending on how it measures up to these principles. 

Kohlberg’s scheme is often called an ethic of justice. Like the statue of Justice wearing a blindfold, the person at Stage 6 refuses to see anything that could sway his or her decision. There are no extenuating circumstances, no special cases, no emotions. Everything must be rational, objective, and impartial. 

Carol Gilligan’s “Feminine” Ethic of Care 

Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan studied Kohlberg’s findings and found them wanting. Because all of Kohlberg’s subjects were male, he could not have taken into account the different socialization of little girls and little boys in our culture. Males are traditionally socialized to be autonomous and independent, while females are supposed to be passive but loving caretakers for the members of their group. Gilligan argues in her book In a Different Voice that these differences lead to different values. 

She writes, 

“For the men, this had led to a morality based on equal rights and devotion to abstract principles even at the sacrifice of people’s well-being. For the women, it had led to a morality based on caring, in which increasing maturity broadened the scope of the person’s sense of responsibility and compassion. For mature women, the goal became not equality but equity, in responding to people’s differing needs.”* 

Gilligan’s subsequent research suggests that Kohlberg missed an alternate way of thinking about right and wrong, an approach used by both men and women, but far more frequently by women. In this outlook, care and responsibility to others, rather than justice and individual rights, become the fundamental ethical principles. 

Gilligan claims that this ethical outlook defines an ethical issue mainly in terms of helping others and minimizing harm. The most basic moral command becomes “an injunction to care, a responsibility to discern and alleviate the ‘real and recognizable trouble’ of this world.” If ethics is essentially a matter of getting involved with other people’s lives in order to reduce their troubles, then we have a responsibility to help others. Thus, in the view of most women, she says, “the moral person is one who helps others; goodness is service, meeting one’s obligations and responsibilities to others.” 

From this ethical perspective, every situation is different, and appropriate responses will vary from case to case, depending on the details. Every problem, then, calls for a tailor-made solution, not something “off the rack.” In fact, Gilligan’s “care” outlook is often called a “response” orientation. 

Like Kohlberg, Gilligan thinks that people develop through a series of stages on their way to “moral maturity” (although the stages are less central to her thought than to Kohlberg’s and are given briefer treatment). Whereas Kohlberg’s stages involve a progressively more abstract way of thinking about ethics, however, Gilligan describes stages that involve a woman’s developing an advanced sense of responsibility. 

The first stage is characterized by caring only for the self in order to ensure survival. This is how we all are as children. Then comes a transitional phase when others criticize this attitude as selfish and the individual begins to see connections between herself and others. The second stage is characterized by a sense of responsibility. “Good” is equated with caring for others, a value readily captured in the traditional role of wife and mother. Such devotion to caring for other people often leads to ignoring the self, however, and this ultimately gives way to a second transition in which the tensions between the responsibility of caring for others and the desire to have one’s own needs met are faced. The final stage is defined by an acceptance of the principle of care as a universal ethical principle that condemns exploitation and hurt in the lives of others and ourselves. 

*Gilligan points out that her research shows that “(1) concerns about justice and care are both represented in people’s thinking about real-life moral dilemmas, but people tend to focus on one set of concerns and minimally represent the other; and (2) there is an association between moral orientation and gender such that both men and women use both orientations, but Care Focus dilemmas are more likely to be presented by women and Justice Focus dilemmas by men.” Carol Gilligan and Jane Attanucci, “Two Moral Orientations,” in Mapping the Moral Domain, edited by Carol Gilligan, Janie Victoria Ward, Jill McLean Taylor, with Betty Bardige (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 82. 

Related readings 

For Lawrence Kohlberg’s work, see: ThePhilosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice: Essays on Moral Development, 1 (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981), and The Psychology of Moral Development: Essays on Moral Development, 2 (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984). Gilligan’s thesis is set out in her In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982); it is developed and explored by Gilligan and other writers in Mapping the Moral Domain, edited by Carol Gilligan, Janie Victoria Ward, Jill McLean Taylor, with Betty Bardige (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988). Women and Moral Theory, edited by Eva Feder Kittay and Diane T. Mayers (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1987).