[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, August 2013]

We’ve all heard the Hans Christian Andersen story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, and most of us understand the lesson of the story has to do with being honest and plainspoken in a world where those around you are evasive and self-serving.  Most of us probably identify with the outspoken little boy character in theory, even if not always in day-to-day fact.  He’s the one who points out that the emperor has been taken by hucksters, that he isn’t wearing “invisible material;” he’s just naked in public.

As I’ve moved further into the professional world, though, I’ve come to have more sympathy for the emperor’s ministers and his people, even though they do not come across as at all admirable in the course of the tale.  After all, we are told the emperor is a vain, possibly meglomaniacal character.  Therefore, speaking baldly and plainly may well be grounds for very real retaliation from him.  At very least, the unfortunate diplomatic ministers could be dismissed from their positions, and the peasants might be deprived of their lives.  Now, go a step further, and assume that not only their own well-being, but that of their families also rests on their behavior toward the emperor.  How many of us would let our families suffer privation just to be honest and plainspoken?  In other words, what’s the real “right” thing to do here?  Honor a remote moral principle of “honesty,” or do what is best for close, real people in our lives?

At the crux of this kind of question rests an alternative theory of moral reasoning put forth by Carol Gilligan in her 1982 book In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development.  Although she was initially addressing differences in women’s moral reasoning from the man-centric psychological theories of the day, Gilligan herself eventually acknowledged later that while the “different voice” may often be characteristic of women, it can exist in both sexes.  The “different voice” is reasoning that is more relationship-based and less principle-based.  That is, instead of asking if the boy in the story was right to speak out to the emperor because the principle of honesty and authenticity says he must, one would instead ask who would be influenced for good or ill in speaking out?

From the different voice we might wonder: Who in the story is really being harmed if everyone decides to let the emperor walk around naked?  He stays in power.  His ministers keep their positions.  The peasants live.  The swindlers get their money.  Really, nobody loses here; they just have to live with a bit of absurdity in their lives.  We chuckle and roll our eyes at absurdity, but we don’t suffer for it.

By contrast, other than one person getting to be smug about living up to the remote moral principle of honesty, what is gained by pointing out the obvious?  Other than to embarrass a bunch of people?

Of course, I doubt that Gilligan’s theories about moral reasoning will ever make for as interesting a story as those based on idealistic moral principles.  Still, she brings home that we all live in a webwork of social relationships, and that any act, even a high-minded one, may result in the sacrifice of people we care about on the altar of our consciences.  Just ask any whistleblower.  From “a different voice,” we hear reasons to understand why real people act–or fail to act–as they do in life, even when they may chastise themselves and history in hindsight snarls at them for not living up to their principles.  In the end, Gilligan helps to contextualize our decisions, and make us face our very humble human foibles.  Sometimes, we all make moral compromise in the name of those for whom we hold most dearly.  Perhaps this theory is more about empathy and sympathy than integrity.  Which is more valuable?