ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
Feb 24, 2011

Are Males and Females Different Morally?

No wonder the clash between Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan is so confusing. Each seems to be using a different metaphor in their moral thinking. (See my blog 2 weeks ago or, better yet, H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Responsible Self’.) For the most part, Kohlberg uses ‘man-the-lawmaker’ to guide his description of the development of moral consciousness—justice and the order of community are two of his driving ideas. This metaphor requires answers to these three questions: 1. What is the law governing this situation? 2. What authority requires obedience to this law? and 3. What is the punishment for disobeying this law? Even in stage 3 when he talks about good motives and intentions, man-the-lawmaker is being followed because these are an important part of determining punishment in any court of law. This stage and further stages note that it is human beings who make and enforce the rules and that human beings are not as rigid as the legalist morals might imply. Justice has a human side.

That is, this metaphor is based on the legal system in any community or society and justice is its key concept. Some legal system is required for any society to maintain order. Throughout history and throughout the world (with some remarkable exceptions) males have been in charge of developing and maintaining the legal systems. From claiming authority to make the laws to punishing those who do not obey them, males predominate. My hunch is that this developed from a basic ‘might makes right’ process.

Thus, Kohlberg rightly uses males to test his theory of moral development because ‘man-the-lawmaker’ embodies the metaphor from the legal system.

However, what is confusing to me about Kohlberg’s theory of moral development is that the developmental aspect of his theory itself assumes a ‘man-the-maker’ metaphor. That is, he pictures what a person with the highest ideal of moral consciousness looks like and describes how individuals through their lives get closer and closer to the ideal he posits! Where does he get this ideal? Apparently from his understanding of an ideal, orderly, just society.

I am always suspect of any theory of moral (or spiritual) development which puts the one developing the theory in the highest, most developed stage. (Theories of evolution often use the same kind of language assuming that human beings are the ‘highest’ on the evolutionary scale.) Stages 5 and 6 in Kohlberg’s theory seem to me to fit comfortably an academic setting where moral issues and dilemmas are presented, discussed and decided on.

I would argue that, perhaps, an alternative stage might be higher than his stage 6: violence could be a result of an even higher moral consciousness—an attempt to change conditions which require more immediate and forceful actions than ‘civil disobedience’—the Buddhists who burned themselves protesting the Vietnam War; suicide bombers who try to protest the invasion of a Moslem country by a Christian army; Jesus and Paul and Jeremiah and Joan of Arc and Malcolm X and countless others. Does ‘civil disobedience’ represent a higher moral consciousness than this kind of self-sacrifice? But then a college professor would get into trouble if he or she suggested such a thing instead of stopping a ‘civil disobedience’ as the ‘highest stage’ of moral development.

On the other hand, Carol Gilligan seems to use the metaphor ‘man-the-maker’, or perhaps more accurately, ‘woman-the-maker’ as her guiding metaphor. Her emphasis on caring, relationships and the conflict between the self and others seem to be guided by this metaphor. This metaphor requires answers to these four questions: 1. What is the ideal? 2. What authority defines the ideal? 3. How close to ideal am I? 4. How can I match the ideal more closely?

The clash between Kohlberg and Gilligan reminds me of the contrast between the laws in the Torah (the first 5 books of the TANAK) and the book of proverbs (and much other wisdom literature)—the former offering laws for regulating the life of the Israelite community; the latter painting a verbal picture of what an ideal, wise person looks like. Note especially the description of a ‘good wife’ which the book ends with! One offers God as a law-giver; the other pictures God as ‘Sophia’—wisdom.

However, so much of the debate between these two psychologists misses the mark because these two metaphors are simply incommensurate. A similar situation is noted by the techniques of Neurolinguistic Programming when they describe the difficulty two individuals have trying to communicate when one uses visual imagery and the other understand aural imagery better. ‘Don’t you see what I’m saying?’ ‘No; and you don’t hear what I’m saying either.’

Since much of Kohlberg’s theory is presented as the development of moral consciousness, let’s see how his use of the ‘man-the-lawmaker’ metaphor guides his theorizing.

The answers to the 3 basic questions above using this metaphor provide the opportunity to discern variations in the use (=development) of this metaphor. The variable answers to those 3 questions are what Kohlberg then can use to work out his stages of development. In order words, one can have different rules; one can refer to different authorities; and one can have different punishments. Since Kohlberg is interested in an individual’s discussion of moral justification, rather than looking at the content of the morals, he looks primarily to possible responses to the second and third questions: What is the authority behind the rules? and What punishment would result from transgressing and how is that punishment determined? His development of moral consciousness is a development of awareness of different authorities and different punishments. Included is the realization that justice often has a human face. It is not surprising that Kohlberg suggests that individuals need to experience democratic groups to develop their morality—that is, they need to experience themselves as a member of a political community which is well-ordered.

It is important for counselors to note that under stress, either personal or social, that the human face of morality tends to disappear and we rely more and more on the force of the law to keep the social or personal order which is being threatened. (‘Law and order’ is the cry.) A client who feels like his or her world is seriously threatened or falling apart tends to become much more conservative morally as well as politically and religiously—back to a strict interpretation of the laws so that order can be maintained.

Note that if one is committed to a particular religion, then that religion will supply the rules, the authoritative source for those rules (often called God)—a source which is beyond the community—what punishments are required for breaking those rules and how those punishments are determined. Religions put much effort in making sure children are taught these things so that that faith community will remain ‘ordered’ through the generations; otherwise the very identity and existence of that community is threatened.

As mentioned above, Gilligan primarily employs the ‘woman-the-maker’ metaphor for her discussion of morality. She asserts that women more often use this metaphor for their guidance of what is good and bad. If her assertion is correct, then we would expect females to more frequently exhibit Kohlberg’s stage 3 where he first brings in the human side of justice using some of the same language that ‘man-the-maker’ metaphor uses. And indeed that is the case. But this is an illusion. Gillian’s theory is of an entirely different kind. Almost none of Kohlberg’s evaluations will give any information relevant to one who uses ‘man-the-maker’ metaphor. And in doing moral evaluations, we must always be careful of what metaphor we are using and how that directs out attention and our evaluations.

I hope I have given enough direction so that you can continue to develop your discernment of the factors and processes involved in thinking ‘morally’. And that you can be aware of what metaphor your client might be assuming if they refer to what they think or feel they ought to do or ought not to do.

Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at

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