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What happens when a porcupine moves in with a load of moles? Using a hypothetical dilemma from the animal world, Dr Graham Haydon explores the perspectives adopted by female and male students.

The American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg studied the development of young people’s moral reasoning, by giving them hypothetical dilemmas and asking what the people in the dilemmas should do, and why. Kohlberg’s subjects were generally male. Other researchers – notably Carol Gilligan – presented dilemmas to males and females, and compared the results. The following scenario was used in that kind of research, and the subjects came up with a wide variety of suggestions, which fell into two broad classes.

Scenario: A community of moles give shelter to a homeless porcupine. But the moles are constantly stabbed by the porcupine’s quills. What should they do?

Two perspectives

Some subjects approached the whole dilemma in terms of rights. The moles had built their own home; it was theirs; they had a right to decide who could live in it. The porcupine had no right to be there (he was only there at all through the moles’ charity). So the moles would be perfectly within their rights to demand that the porcupine leave. Some young people thought that if the porcupine refused to leave, the moles should shoot him. (This research was done in the USA, and no one has claimed that it is culture-free.)

Other subjects tried to find solutions that would make the best of the circumstances and enable all concerned to go on living together: like wrapping the porcupine in a blanket, or digging a bigger hole to accommodate him.

The first approach has often been called the ‘justice’ perspective (not really the best label, because it assumes that justice is all about who has a right to what). The second approach has been called the ‘care’ perspective. Let’s see in more detail what they involve.

Justice

This perspective tends to see any dilemma as a conflict between different claims. They moles want one thing, the porcupine wants something incompatible. They can’t both have a valid claim on the burrow, so only one of them can be in the right. A solution to the dilemma is not a resolution of the conflict; it’s a verdict, in which one side gets everything and the other side nothing. The assumption tends to be that there are certain impersonal principles (principles of justice) that are valid independently of the circumstances. The task in thinking about the dilemma is to put the details of the particular case into the formula and work out the right answer – a kind of ethical algebra.

Care

This perspective starts in a different place. Rather than seeing all the parties as separate individuals with their own valid or invalid claims, it sees them as already in a difficult situation together. If there is a conflict between them, that is part of the problem; the point it, not to decide the conflict one way or the other, but to find a way to get around it or remove it. This persepctive has little interest in applying abstract principles to the particular case. It starts from the particular case and the actual people within it, and hopes to find a solution that will not damage anyone. It will be ready to embrace compromise and creative solutions.

Whose perspective?

Researchers have found a tendency for males to adopt the justice perspective and for females to be more likely than males to adopt the caring perspective. There is nothing in this research to indicate any biological basis for tendency; it may well be rooted in differences in upbringing, and that leaves room for education to make a difference. Teachers can help boys and girls to see that both perspectives exist and that each may be appropriate in different circumstances.

Caring or justice?

In many personal and family relationships, caring plays a large role, and rights quite a small one (do you feed your children because they have a right to be fed?). In the wider society, it is likely that some people will always fall outside anyone’s circle of caring (as I asked in a previous article, what about the other porcupines that might be wandering homeless out there?).

So we need the remendously important notions of justice and of human rights, even if these can sound abstract and impersonal. And we need to recognise that rights to your own property are not the only rights: there are rights to food, to shelter, to be treated with dignity. Large institutions, including governments, can’t really care for people in the same way that you might care for people close to you, but they can try to see that everyone’s rights are respected.

Caring and justice

So perhaps caring is for personal life, and justice for public life? Then, if we take what I called in Issue 51 the Ofsted view of the relationship between PSHE and citizenship, we might say that PSHE lessons should look at caring, and citizenship lessons at justice and rights. But life doesn’t divide into such neat compartments.

Even when we care for people we can be unfair to them and not respect their rights as individuals. And it sometimes makes sense to criticise large institutions for policies that look right in principle but are uncaring in their effects.

Since most people’s values don’t come in separate sets labelled ‘personal’ and ‘public’, it would be a pity if the organisation of the curriculum encouraged an either/or view about justice and caring when what we would be teaching is that both are always relevant.

Dr Graham Haydon is course leader, MA in values in Education (Philosophical Perspectives) at the Institute of Education, University of London.

This article first appeared in – Dec 2006

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