Australian General Semantics Society Inc.


   Seminar Summary - 25 September 2011


“Ethical self-Development - Kohlberg and Gilligan”

Presented by Prof. Dr Gabriel Donleavy

Graciously hosted by Gavan and Pauline at "Clifftop View"

Within GS, ethics and morality are second level inferences from descriptions we make of the object level or of other people’s descriptions thereof. 

Important philosophers agree with Hume that there is in semantic usage such a thing as the naturalistic fallacy whereby someone tries to infer a value from a fact or vice versa when the two belong in different domains and it is invalid to abstract from one to the other without revealing the assumption that has been hidden.

For example, a fact is that speeding can kill. I cannot validly infer from that the value judgment that speeding should be banned unless I first reveal that I assume the root value that it is good to reduce the incidence of killing. The root values come from ethics.

Ethics was the study of what people believe is good or right, but has come to mean the morality being studied rather than the act of study itself. Secular ethics predate recorded history as people have always had preferences which they impose on those they can affect such as offspring or subordinates.

Secular ethics in recorded western history begins with the Greeks, themselves influenced by the earlier Egyptians and Babylonians. Religious ethics is a different type of paradigm in being deontological and authoritarian; the former meaning acts are labelled good or bad because the religious source so decrees without any further rationale; and authoritarian because the source of right is taken to might, namely Almighty God.

Secular ethics can be classified into a very small number of principal paradigms thus, virtue ethics – the good is what good people do and we ‘instinctively’ recognise them; consequential ethics – an act is good if it has good results; motive ethics – good intentions trump bad results; and deontological but without God – some things just are good. Kant’s categorical imperative attempts to combine the lot but does not quite succeed.

A second way of partitioning ethics is of more practical importance in our era and that is between universalism and relativism. Universalists hold that inherent in an ethic being an ethic is that it binds all sane adults everywhere (as a minimum). Relativists hold that ethics is like aesthetics and are a matter of personal taste, specific upbringing and anthropological background; so it is invalid to have an ethical view of any ethic as if it were in any way privileged – even when looking at rape, murder and genocide.

The rise in neuro-scientific knowledge of how the brain works and which parts are systematically associated with ethical responses to situations has complicated the struggle between relativists and universalists. On the one hand all normal brains show ethical areas in the same places and these areas are aroused by the same stimuli across all genders, cultures etc. On the other hand neuroscience has demonstrated the key trigger for ethical responses is whether we feel the victim or hero is “ours” or not. This has paralleled the rise of care theory as an ethical paradigm which is feminist and which holds that effective ethics are driven by caring and that is quite natural and also quite ethical to care for some much more than others.

Finally we will consider Weber’s division between what I think is right – my ethics of conviction – and what actually guides what I actually do – my ethics of responsibility.


Applying Ethical Frameworks to Decision Making
  • Ethics of responsibility
    At home and at work, to pay basic bills


  • Ethics of Conviction
    When discharging a public role or duty, often also a business role when company policy is internalised.

Kohlberg’s Three Phases and Six Stages

- Fear of punishment (Stage-1)
- Stick and Carrot (Stage-2)

- Membership group, eg Family (Stage-3)
- Society (Stage-4)

Post Conventional
- Contractarian or Act Utilitarian (Stage-5)
- Deontological or Rule Utilitarian (Stage-6)

Stage 1

  • No sense of other’s wants, needs etc.
  • Selfish, possibly solipsistic
  • Fear of power to cause pain and humiliation
  • Memory of pain prevents repeated misconduct
  • Codes for Stage-1 require expensive vigilance and assume human nature is selfish at best, criminally vicious at worst.


  • Treat people like dogs and cats (stick and carrot used for donkeys)
  • Fear of punishment is matched by hope of reward
  • Still selfish or solipsistic
  • Encourages kowtowing (lick:bite proverb)
  • Root of behaviourism, economic and NLP


  • Peer group sources primary ethical norms
  • Can be secondary groups: friends, family parts, class, profession, workmates, gang, town, football team, company.
  • Boundary of care around the group
  • Anchors on Need to belong (N Aff) so “free radicals” do not have it.


  • The membership group becomes the whole public, all of society, whole nation, the People.
  • Law of the Land is coterminous with ethics.
  • Companies etc must comply with society rules.
  • Can extend to future generations but one generation only is Stage-3 not Stage-4.
  • Can extend to the whole planet.
  • Bad is illegal or abnormal or antisocial.


  • Contractarian
    * Everyone has rights and responsibilities as a result of deciding to live together.
    * Bad is a failure to honour those rights or responsibilities.


  • Act Utilitarianism
    * The greatest happiness (or satisfaction) of the greatest number of people is the primary ethical principle.
    * This is specific to each decision.


  • Rule Utilitarianism
    * The rule of conduct which leads to the greatest good etc if always applied.


  • Deontologialism
    * Universal rules such as the Biblical Ten Commandments, the Buddhist Eightfold Path, the Islamic Sharia, the Laws of Karma (when known), the Churches’ moral dogmas, and, especially Kant’s Categorical Imperative, thus

Kant’s Categorical Imperative (KCI for short)

  • Regard your actions as right only if you would truly accept everyone doing the same in comparable circumstances.
  • KCI is completely incompatible with Stage-3 peer group morality.

Gilligan’s Female Ethics

  • Preconventional
    - Selfish


  • Conventional
    - Sacrificing for family
  • Postconventional
    - Balancing interests of self and others.

Ethical Frameworks

Actions and Results
Ethical Frameworks

  • Relativism
  • Anthropological or Positivist
  • Contractarianism (Hobbes and Rawls)
  • Care Theory


  • Virtue Ethics
  • Teleology
  • Enlightened Self Interest
  • Utilitarianism


  • Deontology
  • Universalism (Religion, Rights, Kant)

Teleology aka Consequentialism

  • Considers acts as morals right or acceptable if they produce some desired RESULT such as pleasure.  Knowledge assesses moral worth by looking at the consequences.


  • Utilitarianism is the main version of this.
  • Lutheranism is consequentialist – “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

Categories of Teleology

  • Enlightened Self Interest
    • Acceptable behaviour is defined in terms of consequences to the individual.
    • Maximises PV of personal interests.
    • It takes a long-term perspective.
  • Utlitarianism
    • Concerned with consequences for many – not just the self.
    • Calculates total costs and benefits to all stakeholders so as to promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people.



  • Act Utilitarianism
    • Calculates the net social benefit of an act, project or campaign, so prevails in electoral politics.
    • Does not require consistency over time.
  • Rule Utilitarianism
    • More abstract and does not calculate
    • Designs and consistently enforces rules which would produce maximum net social benefit, so underlies much in legislation and regulation.


Deontology aka Deontics

Certain behaviours are inherently right at all times and in all places – they are universal and universalisable.

Rights Theories
            Make rights of the individual the primary concern of ethics.

            As God commands is what is right.

Ethical Relativism

  • The peace of Westphalia (1648) principle
  • cuius regio, eius religio – When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
  • No universal ethical principles exist, only similarities across different cultures.
  • Ethics and morality are anthropolical and sociological constructs, so validly vary between societies (therefore there is no such thing as human rights on a global basis).

Contractarianism - Hobbes

  • Left to themselves, people would hurt each other to grab more land, food, sex, drink and power.
  • Societies therefore form to domesticate human nature and create a ruler who is given power to keep good and fair order – a type of “social contract”.
  • If he fails to keep that order, then his authority is destroyed and it is ethically correct to replace him.

Contractarianism - Rawls

  • Consent is a pre-requisite of ethics.
  • If people met before birth without knowing whether they were going to be born rich or poor, then they would agree to:
    • Maximum freedon and opportunity for all, and
    • High level of welfare support for the worst off in society.


  • Ethics’ scope is only what could reasonably be agreed between reasonable people, NOT what could be imposed upon them (NB: This applies to all Contractarianism).

Care Theory

  • Ethical behaviour arises from feelings of attachment to the people in question.
  • There is no ethical duty to strangers unless in obvious distress.
  • It is OK to feel and act on a stronger attachment to family than to friends, and to friends than to others – ethics both do and should distribution of caring.

Virtue Ethics

  • What is moral in a given situation is what a “moral” character would deem appropriate.
  • Elements include truthfulness, trust, self control, empathy and fairness.
  • Attributes in contrast to virtue include lying, cheating, fraud and corruption.

Morals and the Human Brain

(See article by Jorge Mol, Ricardo deOliviera-Souza and Paul J. Eslinger).

Recently converging lines of evidence from evolutionary biology, neuro-science and experimental psychology have shown that morality is grounded in the brain – a product of evolutionary pressures.

These advances stem from the analysis of patients with drastic changes in social behaviour as a result of acquired brain lesions, as well as from the study of normal and pathological behaviour with structural and functional neuroimaging.


Updated 30/09/2011 by RJ
Web site by RLJamez