The Family Forum: A Feminine Perspective on Moral Reasoning

By Michael Farnworth

The previous issue’s Family Forum explored parenting from the perspective of moral theorist Lawrence Kohlberg. His research argues that we initially base our motivations to be moral on fear that something bad with happen to us if we don’t obey the rules, but then we move on to behaving in order to gain rewards. Later, we behave in order to gain the acceptance of our peers, and then move on to reverencing authority. However, the final stages of moral motivation are based in relationship, commitment, and moral imperatives anchored in one’s own sense of self.

Too often, parents are stuck in the earlier stages of moral motivation without knowing it and unconsciously teach their children to behave according these earlier stages. They teach their children to be fearful or to covet rewards rather than to value relationships and to build an inner sense of self. The more rigidly parents enforce obedience, the less chance the children have of discovering their own deeper moral motivations.

I remember a conversation I had with my father-in-law about my daughter Camie. She was about three years old at the time and Rich and I were discussing what a “fire-cracker” she was and how to reign in her lively personality. I distinctly recall exploring strategies to gain control over her. I now regret my mentality and the behavior associated with it. I wish I had been more morally mature as a young father.


Carol Gilligan worked with Lawrence Kohlberg as a graduate student and has since become a professor at Harvard. As Gilligan started doing her own research—interviewing people and developing studies—she learned that females often process and interpret moral concerns differently than males do. She realized that Kohlberg studied only privileged males, and that he focused on logic and legal rights. Gilligan started to see that feminine morality was based on a feeling of responsibility toward others—a sense of care and protection. In contrast to justice as being the highest moral value, Gilligan offered compassionate responsibility.

Before we go any farther, I want to point out that I don’t feel that justice and compassion are necessarily opposing forces. Alma 42:24 reads, “For behold justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; and thus, none but the truly penitent are saved.” According to this scripture, justice and mercy make up an equation that must be balanced. One without the other creates an imbalance, and imbalance leads to sickness both in life and in relationships. And although mercy cannot rob justice (Alma 42:25) it can certainly overpower it (Alma 34:15) if the relationship is good.

Carol Gilligan’s model of moral development has three stages. The first is the Selfish Stage where the person is concerned only with the self and getting their own way. The second level is the Conventional Stage where the person learns that selfishness is wrong and that they need to value the interests and desires of others instead of their own. The third level is the Post Conventional Stage where the person comes to understand that it is just as wrong to ignore their own interests and concerns as it is to ignore another’s interests and concerns. This leads them to place the highest value on relationship. They decide that the connection between self and other should be most valued and protected.

According to Gilligan, ignoring one’s self is just as injurious and immoral as ignoring the other. This model resonates with me since it fits in with the doctrine that we are all God’s children. We all have worth. None should be ignored. Moral motivation and behavior stems from honoring the dynamics of our relationships whether they are personal, familial, professional, or communal.


Gilligan argued that females are often socialized to get stuck in stage two. Early in life, they are taught to be sensitive to other people’s feelings and desires and to ignore their own. Those who take their own feelings into account are called selfish. So females disconnect from themselves and get absorbed into other people. Losing one’s own identity and joining with another’s is known as enmeshment. It is a hungry and powerful psychological process whereby others hijack a person’s sense of value and replace it with their own agenda. This arrangement works well for many people such as boyfriends, husbands, and the culture at large since it allows them to use pliable females to meet their own selfish needs—indeed, females use it as well. But enmeshment wreaks havoc on the victim’s emotional and psychological life. In Mormon culture, virtually all females learn the lesson that selfishness is bad and that taking care of others is good, but few are encouraged to continue their moral journey to level three.

Thomas G. Plummer described people stuck in stage two as suffering from the Ophelia Syndrome: a chronic condition where, like Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a person feels inferior, always looking to authority figures to be told what to think, feel, and do. The reason women suffer from the Ophelia Syndrome is because many of them were not allowed to differentiate their personality while growing up. They were chased out of level one by strong parental and cultural admonitions that they should not be selfish, loud, or strong-willed. As the years went by, they became more and more disconnected from how they really felt and lost their unique sense of identity.

A person trapped in level two often feels objectified, as if she is a robot whose task is to fulfill the bottomless roles of wife, mother, and caretaker. She is taught that her purpose in life is to give service. She never gains a sense of self since her prescribed role dominates her thoughts and actions. Her spiritual and psychological boundaries are taken from her and she learns to ignore what she is feeling. She experiences an intense inner hunger to find acceptance and love in other people’s lives—especially a man’s life. She believes that her only value lies in being nice, pretty, and helpful to others. She learns to not have opinions that differ from those of others (especially males) and to acquiesce quickly if she does. She hungers to be desired by a man: idealized and enthroned as the most desirable woman in the world. She quickly abandons educational plans and professional dreams if she is lucky enough to be chosen for marriage (the beautiful ones always are).

When her husband becomes less available, whether because of the demands of school, work, or church callings, she begins to feel the pangs of baby hunger, needing someone else to define her since she is unable to define herself. And a baby is the perfect being to enmesh with: it is helpless, tiny, and demanding. If she ever has time to do so, a woman in this position may wonder why she harbors feelings of ambivalence and confusion. Why doesn’t she feel better about her situation? Why does she feel lonely and depressed? Is there something wrong with her?


Women who reclaim their sacred sense of self can no longer remain in level two. They have awakened to the dynamics of level-three living and have learned to embrace their essential role in relationships but without abandoning their own inner self in the process.

Carol Lynn Pearson wrote two poems depicting women waking to level-three morality. The first, “Throw It Away,” tells the story of a recently divorced, middle-aged woman who, because she feels powerless, useless, and without meaning, has planned out her own demise by overdosing on pills .


She had traded herself for him

And now he was gone and she was empty

And had collapsed around her emptiness

Like a shopping bag without its bread.

It would not be a sin

For she would not be killing a living thing.


However, to get ready for her suicide, she takes time to clean herself up—putting on a nice dress, doing her hair and makeup—all in preparation to look presentable for whoever would find her. But something in her catches fire and she feels deep rage over the injustice of having lived a life that was not her own. Instead of throwing herself away she starts throwing the bottle of pills she had planned on taking into the bathtub, promising


She would fill herself

Quarter inches at a time

Until she was full and real and


and beautiful

and marketable!


As she watches the pills dissolve and disappear down the drain the phone rings.


“Hello? Jolene? . . .

Yes, you can take me out to lunch. Surprise.

Right now. I’m already dressed.

Oh, anywhere. No . . . “

It must have sounded strange, she thought,

To hear a woman say with a voice

Shaking and sobbing,

“I . . . want . . . Mexican!”


In another of Pearson’s poems, “Millie’s Mother’s Red Dress,” a woman notices a red dress in her dying mother’s closet. Her mother tells her about the day she found the dress, and how, in a daring moment, she had bought it instead of paying $20 more toward the washing machine. But she had never worn it. Why?


“Well, I always thought

That a good woman never takes her turn,

That she’s just for doing for somebody else.

Do here, do there, always keep

Everybody else’s wants tended and make sure

Yours are at the bottom of the heap.

Maybe someday you’ll get to them,

But of course you never do.”


The narrator’s mother makes her promise to not follow in her footsteps.


“Oh, Millie—I always thought if you take

Nothing for yourself in this world,

You’d have it all in the next somehow.

I don’t believe that anymore.

I think the Lord wants us to have something—

Here and now.”


The woman in the first poem awakens to the rage she feels at having not lived her own life, and instead of throwing her own self away, she begins the ordeal of reclaiming her inner life with a simple first step: honoring what she wants for lunch.

As the dying woman in Pearson’s second poem argues, mothers who are stuck in level two of Gilligan’s morality model do their children a great disservice. They teach and reinforce the lower-level moral reasoning from both Kohlberg and Gilligan’s model. They may unknowingly teach their sons to let selfishness guide their treatment of women. Although the selfish, egotistical male attitude often finds success in public endeavors, it can wreak havoc on family life and marriage relationships.

Level-two mothers can unintentionally teach their daughters that their personhood doesn’t matter, that they should sacrifice their interests, talents, and dreams to those of other people. When you combine the low-level motivations of avoiding punishment/ coveting rewards from Kohlberg’s model with being stuck in the second level of Gilligan’s model—taking care of everyone else but yourself—you end up with a typical construct of how Mormon culture encourages women and mothers to behave. Sadly, too many Mormon females have been gorged on lower-level moralities for modesty, sexual purity, and self-negation, and at the same time starved of a healthy sense of psychological boundaries, personal identity, and equality in intimate relationships.

But times are changing. Many young females are rethinking traditional female roles. They aren’t rejecting the roles of wife and mother but they are bringing their own interests, goals, and dreams into the equation. Marjorie P. Hinckley (late wife of Gordon B. Hinckley) made a statement along these lines: “A woman should have more in her hand than a broom and more in her head than laundry operations. I’m grateful for a husband that lets me do my own thing—he has no choice.” Bravo for Marjorie, she understands.


Christ is a good example of one who lived level-three morality. His tender behavior might be considered more feminine than masculine by current cultural standards. He was often giving comfort to the poor and outcast, and championing the cause of weak and disenfranchised. His moral behaviors and teachings were based upon heart rather than ego.

The Pharisees of Jesus’s time are good examples of people dominated by their egos. They were preoccupied with strict obedience to the Law of Moses, but they were morally bankrupt. Christ was not impressed by their appearance of righteousness; he saw the corruption of their inner being.

Jesus saves us through the relationship we create with him. He first becomes a loving parent by spiritually begetting us in his image; later, he becomes a loving spouse whom we can metaphorically embrace by taking his name upon us in a symbolic marriage. In all cases, the relationship between us and Christ is paramount. He respects, even prizes, our moral agency. Some people may think that justice and conformity ranks as the highest moral value. But my heart tells me that awakened parents know the wiser way: entering into loving, compassionate relationships where both entities are equally valued and protected.