Six Stages of Care-based Relationships

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Following the work of Lawrence Kohlberg on the nature of morality and the six stages of ethical deliberation, other scholars conducted studies. His views on women’s inability to move to higher levels led his research assistant, Carol Gilligan, to decide that there was a blind spot in psychology about gender.

The photograph shows a businesswoman over city background.
Carol Gilligan proposed care-based steps of morality development.
(Image: Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

Carol Gilligan posited that there is not just one way of being in the world. Instead, there is a way that concerns traditional male gender roles in Western society and one stressing traditional female gender roles in Western society. Both ways focus on a central virtue, but these virtues are different.

Masculine Way of Living Based on Contracts

The masculine ways of interacting center on justice because men’s roles in society are mostly in business or legislature. Everything revolves around the idea of following the rule to guarantee that society can perform effectively and smoothly. Through justice, humans find harmony and flourish.

The fundamental concept underlying this masculine picture of humanity is that a contract has to be made. If one party fails to fulfill their duty stated in the agreement, the other party can bring in the authorities or sue them. If both parties execute their duties, they are freed from the contract and have no relationship with each other. There is nothing personal involved in this kind of interaction. After the contract finishes, you are free to take your business anywhere you want.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Feminine vs. Masculine Relationships Based on Gender Roles

On the other hand, the female relationships formed, based on their traditional gender roles are different. Women had roles like secretaries, nurses, teachers, and, most importantly, mothers and wives. The nature of the relationship in these jobs is not contractual. Rather than justice, it is about caring. There is no contract here to specify the expectations and the duration of the relationship clearly.

A care-based relationship is different, though. The terms do not explicitly state what you should do. Everything that you do is because you care about the other person, their needs, and their well-being. A contract-based relationship satisfies your needs and benefits. A care-based relationship meets the other person’s needs and interests.

The photo shows a teacher and three young children using wooden shapes in a Montessori school.
Traditionally, women had jobs that were related to caring. (Image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

Another difference is that in a care-based relationship, fulfilling duties does not free you from the contract; it further strengthens and extends it. If you perform a caring act, you will deepen the relationship and make the other person expect you to act because you care for them.

So Gilligan believes that Kohlberg was right when he said women deal with morality more concretely. But it doesn’t mean that they are not ethically advanced and cannot move up to higher levels. It’s because their development follows a different model.

Learn more about the rediscovery of the mind.

Gilligan’s System of Care-Based Morality

Based on this model, Gilligan proposed a system of moral development for care-based relationships with the same stages as Kohlberg’s model. The pre-conventional stage centers on the self that is not part of a whole. All actions are driven by self-interest and can involve self-centeredness, greed, and jealousy.  

The second stage is a conventional one where self-centeredness is replaced by selflessness. The person looks for things and actions to do so that they can protect others from getting hurt. Self-sacrifice comes into play to solve problems of others so that they don’t suffer. The relationship always revolves around the benefit and good of the other party. Everything is focused upon the well-being of the other person, not the one who is acting.

Woman and a child sitting and interacting with each other inside a play tent in a room.
The highest level of care-based moral development is when we care for ourselves and others we love. (Image: Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock)

The final step is when we realize that we are a part of a larger whole in which the relationship with ourselves is the focal point along with our relationship with others that we care about. At this stage, we learn to strike a balance between our own development and needs as well as those of people we love.

This stage does not involve the selfishness of the first stage or the selflessness of the second stage. We see ourselves and others moving toward development, and our actions contribute to the development of everyone else as well as ourselves.

At this level of development, we realize that taking care of everyone is not possible and that we should take care of ourselves, too. This understanding is wisdom in care-based development.

Gilligan does not state that either the masculine or feminine approach is superior to the other. She believes that there is nothing wrong with either world view.  

Learn more about the birth of psychology.

Common Questions about Six Stages of Care-based Relationships

Q: What is Carol Gilligan’s theory?

She posits that there are two different ways of being in the world, one that stresses the experiences of traditionally male gender roles in Western society and one that focuses on the experiences of traditionally female gender roles in Western society. Both focus on a central virtue, but these virtues are quite different.

Q: Why was Carol Gilligan critical of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development?

Carol Gilligan was critical of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development because he thought that females could not progress to the highest levels of moral development.

Q: How does Carol Gilligan differentiate between male and female morality?

Carol Gilligan posits that male and female morality is different because men’s and women’s gender roles are different. While men’s morality is based on contracts influenced by their jobs in society, women’s morality is based on care and traditional feminine roles.

Q: What are the three main tenets of ethics of care?

The first stage involves actions that are selfish and self-centered. The second stage involves selfless activities, and we engage in relations to protect others. The third stage is when we find a balance between taking care of ourselves and others that we love.

Keep Reading
Evolution and Behavior: Fear, Aggression, and Overeating
Evolutionary Psychology and Fundamental Human Needs
How Evolutionary Psychology Informs Behavior