Carol Gilligan’s model for moral development shows that human beings generally move from being selfish to being able to care for others in their near environment to, in rare cases, showing genuine care for a large number of people they don’t know.
When we compare her model to others in the same vein—including Piaget, Loevinger, Erikson, Steiner, Beck, Graves, Kohlberg, Peck, Fowler, Wilber and others—moral growth corresponds with people’s ability to see the world from an ever-increasing number of perspectives and act accordingly; a classification that rhymes with the human ability for compassion, defined as the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.
Simply put, moral growth leads to increased compassion and care, both of which are central to the development of social harmony.
Let’s take a quick look at the progression.
Stage 1: Selfish (Self-Care)
At stage one, a person that is selfish can only see the world from his or her point of view. The healthy version of selfishness produces self-care and win-win situations while the unhealthy version produces battles and win-lose scenarios, where selfish desires are achieved at other people’s expense. Society has a number of names for this behavior, including narcissism, vanity, egotism, and self-absorption. While selfishness is generally frowned upon, it is often celebrated in popular culture.
Stage 2: Care
At the second stage, individuals are generous towards those who are within their circle of care, including spouses, family, and friends. A person that has begun to care for another is willing to sacrifice time, energy, and money unselfishly so that another may grow and flourish (M. Scott Peck’s definition of love). The ability to care for others epitomizes the underpinnings of civilized society. Without a tapestry of caring, civilization would collapse into a chaotic every-man-for-himself battlefield.
Stage 3: World-Care
The third stage of development, world-care, is relatively uncommon. It depends on people’s ability to show care and compassion for others they do not know. World-care can start with minor things, such as a genuine willingness to pay taxes for the greater good or reducing personal consumption to curb carbon emissions, but, as empathy grows, people at the stage of world-care will genuinely attempt to care for everyone, often at their own expense.
For world-care to be authentic, it has to spring from an internal stage of moral development, not from an external dictate. Many high-minded ideals have failed in the public square because moral development was not factored into the equation—especially the hold that selfishness has over most people—nor was there made an intentional effort to foster people’s capabilities for empathy, care, and growth.
Expanding the Circle of Care
If individuals want to increase their aptitude for care and compassion, they need to establish self-care and then expand their abilities outwards. The most common metaphors for the first step are:
The underlying principle is always the same. Caring is an ability. If you cannot care for yourself, how can you care for others?
As the circle of care expands (see image above), each successive circle denotes an increased ability to care for more and more people. Simultaneously, each expansion asks for additional sacrifices; a term used here in the dictionary definition, to connote a willingness to give up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.
"How Far Am I Willing to Go?"
With this in mind, ask yourself: “How far am I willing to go in the expansion of my circle of care?” There is no right or wrong answer here. Nobody is forcing you to grow morally and care for others at your own expense.
For instance, there is nothing inherently wrong with deciding that you want to focus primarily on self-care. By taking care of yourself (without taking advantage of others) you won’t be a burden on society and may end up contributing to the world around you.
Nor is there anything wrong with focusing all your energy on your family. World peace could be easily achieved if everyone took good care of their children and loved their relatives.
The question of how much you are willing to sacrifice only has significance when you feel an internal need to expand your circle of care and compassion.
Hopeful and Forgiving
A person that decides to grow and expand needs to step into the role with open eyes like a willing parent who is ready to accept both the challenges and joys that come with caring for others. Among other things, that entails being hopeful for our potential as human beings and forgiving of our inherent flaws.
Rev. Gudjon Bergmann
Founder and Lead Educator at Harmony Interfaith Initiative
This article was adapted from my new book:
Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides
Ideas that promote social harmony and bridge-building across divides.
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