While her findings support the outlines of this large framework, Gilligan found that, as they moved through these stages, women’s moral experiences demonstrated important differences. For our purposes, the most important differences are as follows. For Kohlberg (and, to be fair, for most ethicists in the modern West), the key to moving beyond conventional morality is the critical use of reason – where reason is understood to focus especially on general principles, including rules of social justice and individual rights. So a Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, can argue that segregation laws are unjust because they violate the basic principle of justice in a democracy and the modern liberal state; only those laws that rest on the consent of the governed are just. But segregation laws were passed by a white population, in states where the people of color also affected by these laws had no vote – and hence no possibility of exercising consent. Hence such laws are unjust. On the basis of such arguments, King can then justify disobeying the law of the land – in developmental terms, going beyond conventional morality to a postconventional morality based on clear principles of justice and rights.
To be sure, Gilligan found that women certainly employ reason – minimally, the capacity for inference and the recognition of important general principles – in confronting their ethical quandaries. But, in addition to reflection on general principles, she found that women as a group tended to make three distinctive maneuvers. To begin with, as Piaget had already observed, little girls may be less concerned than their male counterparts with making sure, for example, that all the rules of a game are followed (justice), while they may be more concerned that everyone within a given group has the feeling of being treated fairly, of being included, etc., even if this sometimes means breaking the rules. But this means, second, that women as a group tend to focus on the emotive dimensions of an ethical problem. Third, a problem is seen to be ethical especially as it involves a web of interpersonal relationships, not simply individuals as “nodes” in those relationships marked only by defined sets of rights, etc.
So, for example, Kohlberg asked his (male) interviewees to respond to the “Heinz dilemma.” In this scenario, a husband (Heinz) needs to obtain life-saving medicine for his wife; but he cannot afford to do so, and so his pharmacist refuses to provide him with the medicine. In Kohlberg’s analysis, men as a group tended to analyze this dilemma in terms of the rights and principles involved – e.g., the right of the pharmacist to protect his property (and sources of profit and livelihood) vs. the wife’s ostensible right to life. But, as young women were presented with this dilemma, as a group they tended to want more information – first of all, about the relationships between the three protagonists. For example: would Heinz’s wife really want him to risk going to jail for her sake? Is it possible that they could talk with the pharmacist and work out a way to pay for the drug over time?
In these ways, the women’s questions often teased out specific details about the possibilities and relationships in play that might otherwise be ignored through an exclusive focus on general principles of justice and abstract rights. In doing so, the women’s questions may suggest alternatives to the simple, either/or dilemma presented at the outset – i.e., either respect the law (and lose your wife) or disobey the law (but save your wife). So, as some of my own students have suggested: if the pharmacist is a friend who knows and trusts Heinz and his wife, why couldn’t he arrange for Heinz to pay for the needed drug over time, rather than insisting on an all-or-nothing payment?