Morality and values

  • men act morally more likely out of fear of punishment
  • women act morally rather due to feelings of guilt
  • empathy + sense of responsibility = feelings of guilt
Overview of topics:
Reason for moral action
Feelings of guilt
Model of the Hierarchy of Values

Reason for moral action

A study by Gross, 1971 (according to Bischof-Köhler 2006) examined whether men and women gave back something they had found on the street. Women returned it more often, men only if they were watched.

These findings suggest that men act out of fear of punishment. If they are not observed, they have no consequences to fear and act to their advantage. Women, on the other hand, seem to develop feelings of guilt imagining how the person who lost the object must feel. The degree of guilt depends on the ability to empathize and the level of responsibility. Why should feelings of guilt be more pronounced in women?

Feelings of guilt

Here we go again, assuming that predominantly females took care of children and members of the communities. If something went wrong, the she as a caregiver had to learn quickly from her mistakes, which requires a combination of these two qualities:

  • a high degree of empathy helps the caregiver to feel the suffering of the protégé
  • a deep sense of responsibility helps the carer to understand the suffering of the protégé as a consequence of her actions (one also speaks of an internal attribution of failure)

So, empathy and responsibility might have been more important for the functions that females fulfilled and therefore prevailed more in the female sex. But it happens that the combination of empathy and responsibility also are the ingredients for the unpleasant feeling of guilt. The deeper the compassion and awareness of one’s own cause (sense of responsibility), the higher the resulting feelings of guilt1, which in turn leads to a stronger internalization of a moral attitude. So, if we believe that women are more empathetic and responsible then men, then we can also assume that women´s moral values are in average stronger.

Model of the Hierarchy of Values

Morality serves as a guideline for how to behave and feelings have to bend. Laws, for example, are a model for moral ideas.

According to Kohlberg (1976, see Bischof-Köhler 2006, p. 331) every person learned a hierarchy of values in order of the following stages:

  1. Orientation towards punishment and obedience
  2. Instrumental-relativistic orientation (tit for tat)
  3. Orientation towards interpersonal agreement
  4. Orientation on applicable laws
  5. Legalistic orientation (greatest benefit for all)
  6. Orientation towards universal ethical principles

Children and adolescents move from one step to the next, but very few crawl the pyramid all the way to the top. Only philosophers can do that. Most people reach the fourth level.

No gender differences

Carol Gilligan criticizes the model for the fact that derivation tests were performed exclusively on male subjects. The staircase model as a one-way street also does not quite work with levels 3 and 4. Initially, researchers believed they did find a gender effect after more women used the third level (interpersonal agreement) and more men the fourth level (legal templates) as a basis for their judgements. They already had an explanation for that. So, it could be that women tend to think holistically and consider more details in their decision-making (´We must also consider his intention. He only wants to help his wife´), while it is easier for men to work according to schemes (´He commits theft, which must be punished´). After grouping the sexes according to educational level, however, there was no gender difference anymore.

If one also compares topics such as abortion and conscientious objection to military service, it turns out that people with little knowledge of the topic tend to orient on the third level, people with more knowledge the fourth level. So, it turns out that the pyramid is not a one way street for level 3 and 4 and that education on the subject is the factor relevant for choosing level 3 or 4.

» next topic:

Cognitive performance

Why should it be easier for girls to see things holistically and for boy to abstract? Learn more now »

source: Bischof-Köhler 2006, p. 328

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