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Gilligan’s Perception of Morality in An American Story

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Gilligan’s Perception of Morality in An American Story


Though individuals live by and react similarly to various situations, not all people have the same morals. I can relate to instances where I have supported a belief, regardless of the criticisms that arise, all because my choice is based upon personal morals. The same can be said regarding Debra J. Dickerson as she expresses in her novel, An American Story. In Carol Gilligan’s “Concepts of Self and Morality,” she states, “The moral person is one who helps others; goodness in service, meeting one’s obligations and responsibilities to others, if possible without sacrificing oneself” (170). After considering this statement, I strongly feel that Gilligan’s proposal lacks the depth to accurately characterize the moral person, but I am able to accept the argument raised by Joan Didion. Her essay entitled, “On Morality,” clearly provides a more compelling and acceptable statement in describing the moral person by saying, “I followed my own conscience, I did what I thought was right” (181). Joan Didion’s proposal is precise and acceptable. It is obvious that as long as people follow what they believe is the right thing to do, and approach the situation maturely, their actions can be considered examples of morality, and they can then be considered moral human beings.

A moral person goes beyond the phrase, “without sacrificing oneself,” provided by Gilligan in her essay. This is clear by looking back at a specific example. I can recall a time when an entire class of mine decided to play a trick on a teacher in high school. They planned on manipulating her by telling lies in regard to what she had assigned and made her feel embarrassed. I wanted not to be part of these hurtful actions, so rather than tagging along as most of the other students, I did something about it. I stood my ground and as the students told one lie after another, I raised my hand and made her aware of the prank that was being executed. Though everyone looked upon me as the one who spoiled everything, the simple gesture of raising my hand revealed my morals to the class. At the time, I followed my conscience and followed through with what I thought was right, whether others agreed with me or not. This clearly supports and exemplifies Didon’s explanation of the moral person. Gilligan’s argument, on the other hand, states nothing about doing what one thinks is right or wrong, rather she provides simple traits which are all too basic, making her argument weak, especially the part of not sacrificing oneself. On my part, it was a lot of sacrifice, standing up against what, I believe, was wrong.

Much like my personal example of the unlimited concept of morality, a literary example can be used to illustrate how Joan Didion’s argument is much more relevant. Debra Dickerson acquired strong beliefs and morals growing up, imposed by both her family and herself. Because her brother Bobby was always sheltered, he coincidentally was the most troubled of her siblings. Though Bobby was never one to help others, Dickerson accepted him for who he was and never turned her back on him, which would have been the easiest thing to do. Dickerson’s moral concept pertaining to her family was strongly revealed when she took him in under her roof, and provided him with the necessities of life, until he was able to provide for himself and do something positive with his life. Though she would have never associated herself with such a person in society, she loved Bobby; he was family and the moral obligation she felt for such a family allowed her to act on Bobby’s troubles to make him a better person. Dickerson in her novel claims, “Accepting my brother back into my life was the easiest thing I’ve ever done. In no time at all, we grew close and have stayed that way” (165). Some may view Dickerson’s acceptance of Bobby as a moral obligation, while others may believe she should have let him learn his lesson, the hard way, on his own, and become a better person that way. Both opinions could be considered moral by different people, and that is why it is so difficult to establish who a moral person is with just four simple conditions that Gilligan provides. However, with the ideology that Didion presents, we are able to characterize Dickerson’s actions as moral for she did what she felt was the right thing to do, and it is now clear that her choice was the best one as the relationship with her brother flourished wonderfully after her moral actions. The term of morality goes far past Gilligan’s interpretation and a moral person cannot be justified through one simple sentence, but rather by an individual’s own feelings, beliefs, and actions.

Much like the previous example, Dickerson helps prove that Carol Gilligan’s argument pertaining to morality is incomplete in many ways, and Joan Didion’s simplistic yet powerful assertion should be more widely accepted when analyzing the moral person. Different people perceive different circumstances and actions in different ways. Dickerson’s lifestyle was certainly not the most conventional, yet she proved to be moral in nature. When she purchased a car only to find that days later it would not run as it should, she took matters into her own hands. She did not want to be treated in a disrespectful manner, nor did she want others to be treated or to face the same problems she had encountered. She stood up for herself and all others who encountered similar problems by pushing to fix unfair circumstances such as the one she found herself dealing with. She knew what actions could be considered moral; she didn’t go over the line and resort to threats or violence, but rather acted in a civil way by writing hundreds of protest letters, until the Chrysler Corporation realized the hardships she, as well as, others had faced. In her novel, Dickerson states, “I could see now that all the little people got treated this way and would continue to be as long as we remained passive” (144). Though she made many sacrifices in gaining all that she had for herself as well as others, she never gave up, as she followed her conscience all the way and it eventually led to the establishment of laws which still exist today. Her actions are those of a moral person, according to Didion’s interpretation, whereas Gilligan’s proposal lacks the most important component of morality, which is sacrificing oneself.

Finally, each individual experiences a different lifestyle which creates different beliefs as well as circumstances. Through personal experiences, as well as, literary non-fictional ones, anyone can now see that people react upon situations differently, while both Gilligan’s and Didion’s approaches could still be considered moral, the argument that Gilligan presents fails to characterize all aspects of a moral person. However, Joan Didion’s entire concept of doing what one feels is the right thing to do, even if it involves sacrificing oneself, is a much more concise and convincing claim, to which I strongly agree.

Works Cited

Dickerson, Debra. An American Story. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000.

Didion, Joan. “On Morality.” The Presence of Others. 3rd ed. Ed. Andrea A. Lunsford and John J. Ruszkiewicz. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. 179-184.

Gilligan, Carol. “Concepts of Self and Morality.” The Presence of Others. 3rd ed. Ed. Andrea Lunsford and John J. Ruszkiewicz. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. 169-178.

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