Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

22 Sep 2012, 21:54 p.m.

A Commandment To Iterate

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2012 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Nearly twenty years after reading about Kohlberg's proposed stages of moral development (alongside reading Huckleberry Finn in a high school lit class), I'm finally reading the response: Carol Gilligan's In A Different Voice. (I consistently sing "In a different voice" to the tune of "In a future time," the first line from They Might Be Giants' song "Robot Parade". Join me!) Here's the extremely simplified apocryphal backstory:

Kohlberg: To understand how people decide their moral questions, I shall ask them how they'd deal with this dilemma: should a man steal medicine from a pharmacist to cure his dying wife?
Some participants: Yes, because [x]! or: No, because [y]!
Kohlberg: [scribbling notes] Yes, yes, mmm, very good. You can tell more developed from less developed levels of moral reasoning by whether they proceed from self-interest, societal expectations, or principles.
Some participants, many of them women: Hold on. What if the guy gets caught and goes to jail? That won't help his wife. What about going to charity, or asking for an installment plan, or something? [participant tries to figure out how to solve the problem in some creative way, often making use of personal relationships]
Kohlberg: Obviously you don't really understand the dilemma and your moral reasoning is underdeveloped.
Kohlberg's research assistant, Carol Gilligan: Wow, you're missing out on some pretty fascinating data there. [writes "In A Different Voice" essay, turns it into a book, discusses decisionmaking that focuses on avoidance of hurt, responsibilities, relationships, etc.]
(I imagine Carol Gilligan saying that sort of like police chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo. "I'm not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Larry.")

To me, the coolest thing about this story is the fix at the end, where Gilligan discovers that "noise" is signal. Science is not just discovery, it's iteration. Elliot Aronson wrote an outstanding sociology textbook, The Social Animal, that's full of this sort of progress narrative: Scientist A conducts a study, and twenty years later Scientist B redoes the study in a better way and finds stronger conclusions.

For a physical sciences example of noise turning out to be signal, consider how we discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation, a.k.a. evidence that there was a Big Bang. Or sing about it.

This is how we fight.


22 Sep 2012, 22:46 p.m.

In a Different Voice<br><br/>Science will work together<br><br/>To study social context!

Kohlberg's charade!<br><br/>Kohlberg's charade!<br><br/>Ignored the noise that<br><br/>The signal made! </br></br></br></br></br>

22 Sep 2012, 22:48 p.m.

(fershlugginer unpredictable formatting quirks)

23 Sep 2012, 0:00 a.m.

Avram, you made me grin. Thank you.