Sociological issues

One of the most frequent criticisms of Kohlberg's theory of moral development is that it draws universal implications from the life histories of a relatively privileged stratum of Western society, namely well-educated Caucasian males. As Carol Gilligan put it, Kohlberg's scheme hid the thoughts and feelings of all people who were considered to be lesser, less developed, less human, and we all know who these people are: women, people of color, gays and lesbians, the poor, and the disabled.. . . the only way you could be different within a hierarchical scheme was, you could be higher or you could be lower, and all the people who had historically been lower turned out—surprise, surprise—to be the people who did not create the scheme.

Gilligan herself is best known for her work in comparing Kohlberg's emphasis on justice and rationality to what she defined as an ethic of care. In a frequently cited example from In a Different Voice, Gilligan contrasts "Jake," an 11-year old who scores at Stage 4 on Kohlberg's scale, with "Amy," a girl of the same age who is rated a full stage lower on the grounds of her apparent "cognitive immaturity." "... her responses seem to reveal a feeling of powerless-ness in the world, an inability to think systematically about the concepts of morality or law, a reluctance to challenge authority." Gilligan proceeds, however, to analyze "the different logic of Amy's response," based on the girl's concern to protect a network of relationships rather than to set up a hierarchical order of concepts regarding laws or duties.

To the question, "What does he see that she does not?" Kohlberg's theory provides a ready response, manifest in the scoring of Jake's judgments a full stage higher than Amy's in moral maturity; to the question, "What does she see that he does not?" Kohlberg's theory has nothing to say.

Gilligan's later work represents a departure from standard methods of psychological research as well as a rejection of Kohlberg's specific theories.

Others have noted that Kohlberg's stage theory relies heavily on the verbal and conceptual skills of test subjects, to the disadvantage of younger or less well educated persons. Jerome Kagan, one of Kohlberg's colleagues at Harvard, thought that Kohlberg simply "didn't make sense" in maintaining that children below the age of four do not possess any moral reasoning abilities. Kagan attributed Kohlberg's position to his reliance on children's ability to respond verbally to moral dilemma stories. He said, "I could imagine a child who could not put into words, or into coherent sentences, his or her take on a moral problem, thus scoring at a lower stage [on Kohlberg's scale] than is actually the case." A similar problem surfaces with adult members of ethnic or racial minorities, in that some cultures do not place a high premium on verbal communication, abstract thought, or self-reflection; however, these characteristics hardly justify evaluating members of these cultures as morally underdeveloped or inferior. Anthony Cortese, a professor of sociology at Southern Methodist University, has pointed out that the scores of ethnics in the United States on Kohlberg's tests reflect their degree of assimilation into mainstream society rather than their level of moral development. "As ethnics enter middle and upper class in Western societies, they become more mainstream and their ties to [their] old culture tend to weaken."

Lastly, some studies of the moral development of educated professionals indicate that Kohlberg's scoring system favors those with some training in philosophy as well as highly developed general verbal skills. A study of Canadian medical students that was initially interpreted as suggesting that medical school actually hindered moral development was criticized for its overreliance on Kohlberg's stage theory. The critic remarked, "[According to Kohlberg], post-conventional stages are a rarity requiring philosophical sophistication. Is it fair or reasonable to expect medical education to provide a philosophical training as well?"

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