Noddings, Nel, and Carol Gilligan Essay

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The work of Nel Noddings (1929– ) and Carol Gilligan (1936– ) on the ethics of care (and caring) and gender and moral development have been quite influential in a variety of spheres. Unlike other ethical systems, the ethics of care (and caring) emphasizes the relationships between and needs of people as opposed to rules and laws of right and wrong.

While neither Noddings nor Gilligan focus specifically on criminology and/or criminal justice in their research, their ideas and findings certainly have implications far beyond their immediate areas of focus: education and psychology, respectively. This chentryapter first presents brief biographical and professional descriptions of both Noddings and Gilligan, then describes the main tenets of the ethics of care (and caring) perspective, and finally illustrates the ways in which this framework is compatible with contemporary approaches to criminology and criminal justice.

Nel Noddings

Noddings earned degrees in both mathematics and education and has taught primary, secondary, and higher education. Since her graduate work in the 1970s, her research has focused on the prominence of relationships, caring, and need in the area of education, both teaching and learning. She has written numerous books, articles, and chapters illustrating the importance of viewing education through an ethics of care. Her work has been lauded as highly influential in both education and ethics and she has won numerous awards and has held prestigious positions as a result of the importance of her work.

Carol Gilligan

Gilligan is a trained psychologist who earned degrees in literature, clinical psychology, and social psychology. As a graduate student in psychology at Harvard University, Gilligan trained under renowned psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg and was influenced by his work—the study of moral development. She identified some problems with his work (notably that he only studied the moral development of privileged white males), which motivated her long-lasting study of care ethics and the moral development of girls. She has written numerous influential texts and articles and she has been identified as a leader in the area of gender studies, acknowledging and embracing differences in the ways in which males and females develop their morality. Gilligan has held several prestigious positions at top universities and received a number of awards for her body of work.

The Ethics of Care Perspective

At its most basic level, the ethics of care system defines ethical and moral behavior as that which serves to meet the needs of all parties involved, while specifically focusing on maintaining and enhancing the relationships between all parties. This perspective has been characterized as feminine morality by many, including both Noddings and Gilligan themselves. More specifically, it is generally acknowledged that many issues related to care and caring likely arise from the fact that women are the child bearers in all cultures and societies, and thus are more aware of and in tune with providing care, beginning with their helpless newborns—referred to by many as natural caring. This is not to say, however, that developing or adhering to an ethics of care system is a female-only enterprise. Research conducted by Gilligan and others has found that both men and women identify and espouse care-related issues when confronted with various ethical situations and dilemmas (although this work is not without its critics). It is generally agreed upon by care ethicists, though, that matters of care-related ethics (e.g., compassion, responsiveness, need, reflection) are more commonly found and are stronger within the female sex.

As mentioned briefly above, Noddings’s work has focused mainly on highlighting the importance of providing an educational experience that is ingrained in the ethics of care perspective. She has argued that there are four necessary mechanisms for doing this: modeling, dialogue, practice, and confirmation. Generally speaking, modeling involves educators acting in sensitive and caring ways in order to provide an example to their students about how individuals must act to establish caring relationships with others—especially the relationships between educators/teachers and students. Next, Noddings points to the importance of dialogue throughout this process. She suggests that simply talking about caring and how to care along with receiving feedback (through dialogue) on how one cares is a critical component of providing an educational experience within an ethical care framework. Noddings’s third mechanism, practice, means just that; providing opportunities in an educational setting to practice and reflect on caring is critical. Finally, providing confirmation—affirmation, positive reaction, and encouragement—of others’ and one’s own caring behavior is what Noddings suggests results in the achievement of a teaching and learning environment characterized by an ethics of care.

Gilligan’s work in the area of ethics of care has primarily revolved around acknowledgement and acceptance of the different ways in which males and females develop morally and make moral and ethical decisions (i.e., difference feminism). This perspective is considered by some to be more easily translated than Noddings’s work into examinations of ethical decision making within the criminal justice system—at the very least it has drawn much greater attention in criminology and criminal justice. Expanding upon (and altering in important ways) Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, Gilligan has explored the ways in which females and males advance through the stages of moral (ethical) development and come to make ethical and moral decisions. Similarly to Kohlberg, she suggests that female morality/ethics develops sequentially through different stages; however, Gilligan’s stages and the main achievements within them differ from those presented by Kohlberg (who studied only males). During her three stages, Gilligan argues that females progress from self-interested orientations (considering their own personal needs over any caring/moral/ethical issues) to self-sacrifice (putting others’ needs, especially children and family, ahead of their own). In the third and final stage, they adopt a comprehensive ethical system of care in which they define all situations and any decision to be made in terms of benefits to others’ needs, maintaining, strengthening, and enhancing interpersonal relationships, and utterly avoiding harm to any and all involved.

Gilligan’s research to test her gendered moral development theory (i.e., care perspective) has highlighted the importance assigned to care issues (e.g., responsibility, compassion, attachment, interpersonal relationships) by women facing ethical dilemmas as contrasted to the importance given to issues of justice, rights, and rules cited by men facing the same situations. As with most other highly influential work, Gilligan’s work is not without subsequent contradictory findings and critics. The main criticisms are based on the following: (1) the inability of various researchers to replicate Gilligan’s findings of different values placed on care versus justice factors by men and women faced with similar ethical/moral dilemmas, (2) a recognition of the ability of people to develop morally in ways other than those based on ordered/hierarchical stages of psychological development (e.g., imitation, modeling), and (3) concerns about the scientific rigor of her work and its implications (e.g., use of small samples, potentially harmful stereotypes of women as emotional/nurturing). While recognizing the existence of these critics and their views, it is also important to briefly note how the main tenets of the ethics of care (and caring) perspective may translate into and are compatible with contemporary concepts in criminology and criminal justice.

Compatibility of the Ethics of Care Perspective With Contemporary Criminal Justice

Two concepts currently receiving renewed attention and discussion in criminology and criminal justice are restorative justice and peacemaking justice. These approaches (as well as the classical rehabilitation approach) certainly involve important aspects highlighted in the ethics of care system developed and pursued by Noddings and Gilligan. Both peacemaking and restorative justice approaches to crime, offenders, victims, and the community emphasize care-related issues, including (1) considering the needs of all parties involved, (2) restoring relationships and balance (that have likely been altered by crime/victimization), and (3) acknowledgement of personal and community accountability, forgiveness, and compassion.

Through the use of these criminological and criminal justice approaches, at least some elements of the ethics of care perspective may help frame decision making by a variety of key actors in today’s criminal justice system.


  1. Albanese, Jay S. Professional Ethics in Criminal Justice: Being Ethical When No One Is Looking. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2012.
  2. Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.
  3. Gilligan, Carol. “Moral Orientation and Moral Development.” In Women and Moral Theory, Eva Feder Kittay and Diana T. Meyers, eds. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1991.
  4. Gilligan, Carol and J. Michael Murphy. “Moral Development in Late Adolescence and Adulthood: A Critique and Reconstruction of Kohlberg’s Theory.” Human Development, v.23 (1980).
  5. Held, Virginia. The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  6. Noddings, Nel. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
  7. Pollock, Joycelyn M. Ethical Dilemma and Decisions in Criminal Justice. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning, 2012.

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