Carol Gilligan

I have come to understand that Carol Gilligan, whom I thought would be a passing fad when she first published, has come to be treated as a serious psychological theorist, taught along with Freud and Erikson, all of these psychological theorists treated as purveyors of what are, after all, just their own opinions about the driving forces in human psychological life. Well, that is not what theory is about, and any sensible theory of theory would not find room within it for Gilligan.

A theory, whether in the natural or social sciences, is a set of fundamental propositions that when related together explain a subject matter. The theory of evolution is a theory. So is the theory of climate change (whether or not I think it is true), Newton's laws of motion, Marx's theory of social class, the atomic theory of matter as that is elaborated in the Periodic Table, and Freud's theory of personality. These theories are not matters of opinion but are either true or false. They are objective and scientists come up with evidence that either supports or refutes them.  Freud, for example, can be reduced to the following set of propositions that grow increasingly uncertain as you move down the list: 1. people are motivated by unconscious desires; 2. children are sexual creatures; 3. boys want to sleep with their mothers and girls want to sleep with their fathers; 4. neurosis is the set of symptoms that result from conflicts between what is socially acceptable and what is unconsciously desired; 5. the transference relationship between patients and their psychoanalysts is therapeutic because old traumas get re experienced and resolved. Freud provided a wealth of data to back up his findings. He interpreted dreams to always have a sexual etiology; he noted everyday behavior, such as slips of the tongue, to reveal the existence of the unconscious; and, most of all, he provided more than forty detailed case studies of patients to show that what he said was correct. Freud is thought of less well these days because almost all of his premises are in dispute as psychology has moved on to look for chemical causes of mental illness, and chemicals have proven effective therapy, even though there is no highly developed theory of the chemical causes of psychosis, much less of neurosis. Freud did not think he could cure psychosis but that he could cure what he called "hysteria", which seems to no longer serve as a distinct diagnosis. So there is much to be said on both sides of the debate about Freud.

Now to Carol Gilligan. She does not have a set of interlinked propositions, but only one, which is that women have a more profound sense of justice than do men. This idea is conceptually flawed and she does not supply satisfactory supporting evidence. Justice is a concept philosophers following the lead of Immanuel Kant have defined as at the same time a feeling, a moral code, and a legally enforceable obligation to do the right thing. So punishing people for murder is justice because people also feel it is the right thing to do and it is part of the moral code most people follow. It is also fair to say that enforcing equality between the sexes is an application of the idea of justice. But Gilligan criticizes men for their harping on a categorical idea of justice, that something is either wrong or right, when that is the essence of what justice is, and certainly those who favor women's right to an abortion as categorical would invoke a man’s sense of justice by becoming outraged at those who thought differently.

What Gilligan prefers is the kind of justice which females practice, which is not, strictly speaking, justice at all, but the practical day to day negotiations whereby you work around an issue until you find a way to accommodate both sides. Kant recognizes that form of practical reasoning, but considers that prudential rather than just. It is a good thing in that it resolves disputes by finding practical solution to deal with seemingly intractable oppositions, but these negotiations and arrangements are not up to being called “justice”. So Gilligan is not talking about two ideals of justice but about justice and something else, each of which gets identified with one of the sexes. In her mind, a concern for justice is bad, what men want, while what women want is a good thing, which is compromise.

Now Gilligan could claim that women come to do prudence rather than justice because they are traditionally in the inferior or less powerful position and so the best they could do is find a way to sweet talk their men into doing the sensible thing rather than men just being so sure of themselves that they strike out in the name of their sense of justice. But that is not what she says. She says these two senses of morality are endemic within their sexes, and so it seems a natural attribute rather than a socially nurtured one.

The evidence she supplies to support her view is mighty skimpy. She does interviews at a girl's school and finds that the women there are given to compromise rather than categorical reasoning. But she does not do a similar study of a boy's school to see if their moral reasoning is different, just assuming that it must be, when, on a practical day to day basis, most people engage in prudential reasoning and resort to questions of justice only on really important matters or on politically fraught matters. In the family, we are all prudent; when we enter the public arena we become much more assertive that our own point of view is the just one and that the other is just wrong if not evil. So Gilligan is just inserting her feminist prejudices into a very difficult inquiry about the ways to understand how men and women think.

The problem with Gilligan, leaving aside her failure to understand the concept of justice and her failure to appreciate how morals work, and her lack of scientific method, is her failure to appreciate the true role of theory. It is not to provide ammunition for a point of view or a particular finding or for a political agenda. Rather, it is to increase the tool chest of concepts that can be borrowed for the analysis of any and all related phenomena. So William Graham Sumner was a leading proponent of laissez faire economics in the late nineteenth century. But he invented the ideas of the functionality and dysfunctionality of institutions and of the unanticipated consequences of social actions, both of which were picked up more than a generation later by the Conservative Talcott Parsons and the Liberal Robert Merton. It is the ideas that count, not what they are used to prove, even if you approve of the way in which they are used, as is the case when Sumner uses the idea of dysfunctional institutions to show why slavery was bound for the scrap heap of history.

We are back in an age of ideology, just like the Thirties and the Sixties. This time, it is centered on gender and race. But unlike as was the case in the past, when there was, in the Thirties, the Marxist tradition, and in the Sixties, the Frankfurt School Marxists such as Herbert Marcuse, I don’t see any outstanding Feminist theoretician developing new concepts to deal with new conditions. There were, during the Eighties, good Feminist theorists, Angela Davis and Shulamith Firestone, both of whom worked in the Marxist tradition and so were able to provide some key insights. Angela Davis was leery of picking on men because she remembered when black men were lynched and so black women were in solidarity with their brothers. Firestone argued in the 1970 “The Dialectics of Sex”  that women’s bodies were a means of production, in their case, the means of reproduction, and so that was why men had to control them, which is still a good insight, if not the whole picture. The book provided a very good case for why biology should not be destiny, that reproduction should be separated from sex for its own sake, and that has more or less come to pass, but its main theoretical accomplishment was to provide reasons why men and women were in opposition to one another, something that could only come to an end if people lived in collectives, rather than men and women just given to misunderstand one another, and so it made a contribution to general social theory, while Gilligan’s book “In A Different Voice”, published in 1982, has not, being just confused and insufficient. Why Gilligan’s book has risen to the top of the heap beats me.