Who’s in Charge Here?

A few years ago when Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, resigned her seat on the U.S. Supreme Court to care for her ailing husband, I argued that Justice O’Connor’s first duty was to her country, and only secondarily to her husband. A friend argued that if I had an opportunity to succeed in an endeavor I was involved in at the time and my wife fell ill, would I not feel obligated to forsake the endeavor to care for my wife. My answer had been “yes, but only because my endeavor did not have the immediate importance or long term effect of being one of nine justices who sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

I recently read of a statesman who said that were he to betray either his country or a friend, he hoped he would betray his country. This morning’s Indianapolis Star ran a headline, quoting Indiana governor Mitch Daniels’ rejection of his supporters’ encouragement to run for president in 2012, saying, “I love my country; I love my family more.”

These instances of opposition between personal and professional obligations brought to mind the dispute between Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan. Kohlberg suggested that moral development proceeds through six stages, beginning with simple obedience to authority, and ending with a principle of what he called universal morality or conscience. In the classic example of Heins whose wife is dying for lack of a drug that is available but which he can’t afford, the principle is that he is justified in stealing the drug because saving a human life is more important than property rights.

Carol Gilligan objected to Kohlberg’s stages, saying that his study was too heavily weighted with male subjects and was invalid because of the absence of female values. Whereas Kohlberg insisted that he stressed universal values, Gilligan emphasized relationship values. By extending these two categories a bit, we come up with “Thinkers,” or those who stress universal values, and “Feelers,” who focus on relationships. (The Thinkers/Feelers used here is not the category of the Myers-Briggs Psychological test.)

I have been faced with a dilemma of this kind recently in quoting emails in a book I’m writing, that a friend and I exchanged over a period of several years. The friend was a Catholic priest and pastor, who expressed some thoughts to me, a resigned priest, that he might not have expressed to other lay people. The friend has since died. My reason for wanting to include his opinions in the book about the Catholic Church is that I believe that lay people should know what their clergy honestly think about hierarchy and other church matters. My friend revealed his opinions in honest expressions of his thinking and I believed that by including the emails in the book, I might lessen the gap between clergy and laity. In sharing his thoughts with me, he exacted no promise that I would keep them confidential even in the event of his death.

Those who objected had been close friends with the former pastor and based their resistance on their belief that the pastor would not have wanted his thoughts made public. I based my thinking on the hope that a greater good might result from their publication, and the fact that he had shared his thoughts with me via email. Thus the sides were drawn between “Thinker,” me, and “Feeler,” the pastor’s friends, between Kohlberg’s “universal” standards on the one hand and personal relationships on the other.

I believe that Gilligan is correct in her criticism of Kohlberg, that his standard is not truly universal because feminine values were not included in his study. Therefore Kohlberg’s theory can be called a theory based on general values of males, but not on universal principles agreed upon by women and men alike. Historically, the values of men have been the only values that have mattered and thus might be conceived of, erroneously, as universal values. It’s likely that Kohlberg relied on that historical context that no longer prevails.

I suspect that, more than we have hitherto acknowledged, difficulties between men and women have their source in this general difference between “Thinkers” and “Feelers,” with feminine values tending to be more relationship weighted, and male values more heavily weighted toward the “Thinker” and conscience-based values of men.

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