Gilligan’s Theory of Moral Development

Gilligan’s Argument

Caorl Gilligan was one of the students of Kohlberg. She criticizes Kohlberg’s theory on the basis of approaches made by both male and female towards morality. On the basis of her studies and researchs, she criticises Kohlberg’s theory which is only based on male bias and his studies are of typically male preoccupation with general rules and rights.

She also suggests that men are always more interested in resolving moral dilemmas by applying some most important moral rules.

But women always want to keep up the personal relationships with all those involved in a situation and they always give attention only on the circumstances responsible for that critical situation and not on general moral rules.

She also states that Kohlberg’s theory is only an ethics of rules and rights. But her theory is known as ethics of care. i.e. context oriented emphasis required to maintain the personal relationship.

Levels of Moral Development

Gilligan recasts Kohlberg’s three levels of moral development on the basis of her own studies of women, as follows :

The Pre-conventional level : This is more or less the same as Kohlberg’s first level i.e. Right conduct is a selfish thing as solely what is good for oneself.

The Conventional Level : This level differs from Kohlberg’s second level. According to her, women don’t want to hurt others and want to help others i:e., women always want to give up their interests in order to help the others to fulfill their needs.

The Post Conventional level : This level is also differed from Kohlberg’s level. In this level, individuals (particularly women) want to balance between caring about other people and their own interests. The main aim here is to balance an individual’s needs with those of others on the basis of mutual caring. This can be achieved only through context-oriented reasoning and not by abstract rules.


Gilligan’s criticism on the Kohlberg’s theory can be made very clear with the help of a famous example used by Kohlberg in his questionnares and interviews. This is called Heinz’s Dilemma.

This example was about a woman and Heinz, her husband, living in Europe. The woman was affected by cancer. The doctors told her to use an expensive drug to save her life.

The pharmacist who also invented that medicine charged ten times the cost of making the drug. In spite of his poverty, Heinz took a lot of effort to borrow money, but he could get only half of the amount needed.

He approached to the pharmacist and begged him to sell the medicine at a cheaper price or allow him to pay for it later. But the pharmacist refused to do so. Finally without any hope, Heinz forcibly entered into the pharmacy and stole the drug. The question here is “Was the theft morally right or wrong?

By asking this question among the males, Kohlberg has received two sets of answers: One is based on the conventional level i.e. Heinz did a wrong thing.

Another one is based on the post conventional level i. e Heinz was correct as the life of the wife is more important than the property right of the pharmacist.

But when the same question was asked among the women, they gave (all women) same answer. They replied that Heinz was wrong. They further told that instead of stealing the medicine, Heinz could have tried alternative solutions. They also told that Heinz should have convinced the pharmacist to give the medicine.

From the above, Kohlberg concluded that women’s decisions are always based on conventional rule and also they always have different opinions in applying the general moral rules and principles about the right to live.

On the basis of the Kohlberg’s comment on the women, Gilligan came to a different conclusion. She tells that it shows greater sensitivity to people and personal relationships.

She concluded that the decision taken by women is context-oriented and not on the basis of general rules ranked inorder of priority.

Now, the question here is, how Gilligan’s theory of moral development relates to moral autonomy as a goal of studying ethics at the college level?

Autonomy requires independent reasoning on the basis of moral concern and not separated from other people. As per Gilligan’s theory and Kohlberg’s theory, moral autonomy should be consistent with ‘context-oriented’ and also with an awareness of general moral principles and rights.

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Santhakumar Raja

Hi, This blog is dedicated to students to stay update in the education industry. Motivates students to become better readers and writers.

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