Research on Moral Reasoning Moral Orientation and Voice

Research on moral psychology shows that children are concerned with moral issues at a very early age. They care about "what's fair," and they are disturbed when someone has been hurt, suggesting that both justice and care orientations can be identified early in life. Research also shows that in Western culture, girls and women are expected to be more concerned with relationships and more in tune with their feelings than boys. However, a great deal of research since the 1970's has shown that girls and boys are not as different in moral reasoning and voice as Gilligan claims.

Studies using the Kohlbergian Moral Judgment Interview (MJI) reveal that males and females at the same age and educational levels are equally able to resolve moral dilemmas by appealing to justice principles. Similar results have been obtained with the Defining Issues Test (DIT), the most frequently used objective test of comprehension of and preference for moral issues. Meta-analysis on DIT scores reveals that education is 250 times more powerful than gender in predicting principled moral reasoning. Narrative and longitudinal studies also have shown that women are as likely as men at the same educational level to advance in the sequential order of development predicted from Kohlberg's theory. In sum, evidence does not support the assertions that, compared with females, males are more principled in their moral reasoning, more concerned with conflicts resulting from con flicting claims about rights, or more capable of using abstract principles of justice in their moral reasoning. Evidence does not support the claim that Kohlberg's theory or measure of moral reasoning is biased against girls or women.

Are women more caring or more relational than men? Are they more likely to be silenced, silence themselves, or lose their voice than men? The evidence to support or refute Gilligan's assertion that the ethic of care characterizes female morality or voice is inconclusive. In part, this is because there are so many different ways that care and voice as psychological constructs are measured; it is difficult to compare across studies that operation-alize the constructs differently. Different researchers view the ethic of care as a moral theory, an interpersonal orientation, a perceptual focus, or an epistemological theory. Voice is understood variously as a theory of self, a moral perspective, or a defensive posture. Furthermore, most of Gilligan's qualitative studies of girls' development only present girls' voices, and gender differences cannot be tested.

Research on the ethic of care suggests that the majority of people, both males and females, can and do use both care and justice orientations. Some studies, particularly those conducted using Gilligan's qualitative interview, report that females tend to focus on the care orientation and males on the justice orientation, particularly in self-identified moral dilemmas. While qualitative research is very important in developing theory and understanding a construct, testing specific hypotheses (such as that there are gender differences in voice) requires quantitative studies. Most such studies fail to support Gilligan's theory of gender differences in moral orientation.

Some researchers have found that whether someone uses an ethic of care or an ethic of justice depends on the type of moral dilemma they discuss. Lawrence J. Walker and his colleagues found that when participants talked about their own moral dilemmas, females were more likely to identify interpersonal dilemmas, whereas males were more likely to choose impersonal dilemmas. If respondents focussed on people and their relationships (a friend who betrays another friend), they were more likely to see that the ethic of care had been violated. If respondents focussed on issues in which the rights of others were violated or societal rules were transgressed (breaking a law), they were more likely to be concerned about justice. Interpersonal conflicts elicited a care orientation, while issues of conflicting rights elicited a justice orientation for both men and women. However, when asked to think about an issue differently, both boys and girls were able to change and use either justice or care reasoning.

Gilligan's studies of adolescent girls' voices, using her methods of interview, focus groups, and open-ended sentence completion measures, depict a conflicted adolescence, loss of voice, and growing dissociation from what girls know. While some girls resist, most strive to retain their relationships, and thus seek to please others even if it means developing an inauthentic self.

Research conducted by Susan Harter using more standardized measures and large samples of both boys and girls indicates that adolescence is a challenging time for girls, and that they are concerned about their relationships. Girls feel silenced by others and they silence themselves, but not more so than adolescent boys. Harter's studies of loss of voice indicate there are not gender differences in voice, that girls do not have lower levels of voice than boys, and voice does not decline with age.

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