Women with Addiction: Are They Inherently Less Moral?

Women with Addiction: Are They Inherently Less Moral?In 1982, a psychologist named Carol Gilligan published the book In a Different Voice. Gilligan’s work was in large part a response to Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development in children. Kohlberg’s work had expanded upon Jean Piaget’s theory of development, and his work had opened a new field in psychology: moral development. But Kohlberg’s theory argued that girls reached a lower level of moral development than boys, and it was to this that feminist and ethicist Gilligan responded. In her book, Gilligan remarked that the participants in Kohlberg’s studies had been overwhelmingly male, and that the method Kohlberg had used to score participants favored the ways boys reason as opposed to the ways girls reason. Her argument went approximately as follows: boys tend to utilize principled reasoning, while girls tend to use moral reasoning around relationship values. She proposed, essentially, that females and males develop ethical awareness differently.

Gilligan’s Stage Theory

Gilligan called the first stage of female development the pre-conventional stage in which female morality is predominantly comprised of selfish concerns, at which point girls or women are concerned with survival, searching to discover “who they are,” and are primarily involved with getting what they want. From there Gilligan proposed that women transition to the conventional stage at which point they begin to equate goodness with self-sacrifice. Here, the care and nurturance of others begins to take precedence in many women’s lives, and they begin to try to find solutions to life problems in which no one is hurt. At this point, Gilligan posits that women have reached the stage of ethical thinking. Gilligan suggests that the final stage, called the post-conventional stage, is not always reached. It involves recognizing the consequences of one’s choices and taking responsibility for them. Women at this stage feel in control of themselves and their lives, and have adopted a “least harm” ethic.

After it had been published, Harvard University Press described In a Different Voice as “the little book that started a revolution.” Gilligan’s work inspired applause in both the academic and feminist communities, but it also attracted criticism. Fellow feminists and ethical theorists, particularly Christina Hoff Sommers, criticized Gilligan’s work as relying too heavily on societal stereotypes of men and women and the way they communicate rather than presenting sufficient data to support her theories. The data Gilligan had collected was largely ethnographic and anecdotal, and has yet to be replicated or disproven, which means that Gilligan’s stage theory of female moral development is still taught in psychology courses and women’s studies courses around the world.

The relevant question for women, of course, is not whether we think differently than men do, but to what degree. We are socially conditioned by a culture to think in gender determined ways, whether or not our biology drives us to do so, although science and evolutionary psychology strongly suggest that it does. When it comes to our moral development—the ways we consciously and ethically evolve as individuals—what part of that development is shaped by the fact that we are women, and to what degree does our status as women in society dictate the pace of our development?

Moral Development and Addiction

Depending on one’s ethical lens, addiction may be seen as a moral failure or an incapacitation of development due to trauma, of mental and emotional strength, or simply one of awareness. When considered through Gilligan’s stage theory of development, we may see a time in our lives when we were actively addicted as fitting into the pre-conventional stage. We were concerned about survival and getting what we wanted—the object of our addiction. In a world riven with cultural malaise, addiction is a growing problem for people of all classes and races, and women comprise the fastest growing group of people experiencing problems with addiction.

If we are actively recovered or recovering, we may be more aware of the needs of others—in fact, developing a more other-centered awareness and evolving beyond our former self-centered thinking may have prompted us toward our recovery. If we have been actively recovered long enough, we may feel in control of our lives in a way we never would have imagined possible in the days when our addictions ruled our lives. Achieving this post-conventional stage of development in Gilligan’s terms, allows us to care for ourselves and for others, and to communicate with others in ways that would never have been imaginable at previous stages.

What is important about considering stage theory—female-centric or otherwise—is that it allows us to recognize that the path of human development is one of consciousness and not just biology. Addictions and other self-harming behaviors serve to stunt our progression. If we know where on the path of human development we want to be, and are willing to take an honest assessment of where we are, we can more fully continue to grow—spiritually, consciously, and in every way that will allow us to become more whole.

Posted on July 12th, 2013
Posted in Women

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