Multi-faceted male-female dichotomies warp our ways of thinking, perceiving and acting. We are well-seasoned with gender assignments such as blue-pink, strength-fragility, cars-dolls, etcetera. Thus, there are a range of discrete attributes that characterise male(ness) or female(ness) in association with a particular individual.
It is important to ask a few questions in this context – ‘Is this characterisation a natural undertaking?’; ‘Is it learnt?’; or ‘Is it imposed?’ These questions, broadly allude to the theme of the elementary phenomenon of moral development which begins since early childhood. Children acquire gender specific perspectives and patterns within the brackets of their domestic affiliation. They learn, embrace and sustain gender roles from home.
Numerous developmental researchers argue that there is a vertical interplay between children and the stereotypical conditioning they undergo within their homes. One such conditioning touches on a hierarchical polarity, namely, the reason-emotion dichotomy. The rational has consistently been at odds with the emotional. This separatist leaning could be sketched out even in the realm of morality; especially moral development.
This gender based assignment of thoughts, beliefs and attitudes have dispensed a prejudiced, differentiated and uneven path to moral development for both boys and girls.
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Psychologists and philosophers have extensively researched the nature of moral development in children. However, the academic works of multiple moral development theorists are indicted for floating a gender-biased assessment of moral development and morality, altogether.
Carol Gilligan, a professor at the Harvard University, in her seminal book, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, outlines the significance of restoring the perennially lost voices of girls. Her research fundamentally focuses on a systematic comparison of moral development between male and female children. Gilligan writes:
“It has been long that we have been listening to the male voices and have ignored the voices of women.”
One may wonder now, ‘What is the male voice all about and why is it being interrogated in the moral context?’ The answer to this question revolves around the problem that has been triumphing since forever. In plain terms, the male voice is assigned inflated values like rationality, lucidity and assertiveness, unlike the female voice.
In academics, the male voice was computed as the “universalised” subject and thread for the estimation of child moral development. Thus, the basal issue was two-fold; first, negligence of the female voice and second, generalisation on the basis of the male voice.
The word “development” suggests a type of maturation, evolution and change. The process of “moral development” indicates qualitative changes in children as they become conscious of concepts such as right-wrong, good-bad, fair-unfair, etcetera. According to Gilligan, the most cardinal theme which is acutely associated with the moral development of children and has also been routinely overlooked by mainstream theorists is – the inclusion of the voices of girls.
Gilligan conducted interviews with girls (between 5 to 18 years of age) and evinced the value of vindicating a girl’s perspective within the domain of morality. Her extensive work indicates that moral reasoning for boys and girls differ. In her view, boys/men and girls/women are moulded different on account of their individual tone and temperament.
A glaring question transpires – What does this detection and celebration of the moral voice of female subjects utter about the emancipatory facets associated with this endeavour? In unadorned terms, we may discern four facets that are furtively knotted with Gilligan’s consideration of the female voice. Squarely placed, the four facets are as follows:
Inclusion: First, by arguing in favour of the girl child’s voice, Gilligan is able to manufacture an all-embracing and all-inclusive version of child moral development.
Individuality: Secondly, she talks in favour of the first-person account of the self; self or sense of being of the female child. This first-person perspective echoes the value of care, concern and other emotions.
Equality: Thirdly, additionally, as a moral theorist, she is also able to contribute towards the attainment of certain socio-political goals. The most encyclopedic of them all could be ticketed as the fruition of gender equality.
Vocalisation: Fourthly, she could provoke a shift from the status of the girl child as a passive listener to an active speaker. Thus, the voices of the girl child could procure a loftier standing; in the realm of morality and eventually, in the vast sense. Curtly put, we now understand- Who speaks? What does that voice convey? Whose story it is? Why is it important to listen?
Lastly, in Gilligan’s words:
“Children must be taught to “value their hearts over their heads” rather than disregard their natural emotions in fear of resorting to subjection which defies the traditional male-oriented “ethics of justice”. In sum, women and children may exhibit more moral depth than men.”
Gilligan, C. 1982. In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Sullivan, S.O & Pecorino, P.A. 2002. Feminist Ethics, What it is?
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Aastha is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Delhi. You may find her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn