Mark D. White responds to Tom Matlack’s Post “What Is a ‘Good’ Man?”
Thank you, Tom Matlack—I see the point now.
Though I never asked him personally, I was one of the people to whom he responded in “What Is a ‘Good’ Man?” I have been wondering what the difference was between being a good man (in particular) versus being a good person (in general), or what elements of goodness were unique to men and not universal to men and women. Every time I tried to imagine traits that made men good, I could not see why they would not make women good as well. Good is good, right is right, virtue is virtue, and none of them depend on gender. What could be more obvious?
But then Tom wrote the following:
Yes, being a good parent and good spouse has universal elements, but the challenges faced by dads in a world where stuff like The End of Men is the frame of reference is different than the struggle by women to be good mom’s in a world so heavily influenced by the feminist revolution.
And I smacked myself on the forehead. Idiot. (Me, not Tom.) He hit the nail on the head, but let me put my own spin on it.
In moral philosophy we talk about ideal and nonideal theory. Ideal theory tells us what we should do in a world in which everyone is doing the good or right thing. Don’t lie, don’t hurt people, love your neighbor, and so forth—assuming that everyone else is doing the same. But let’s face it, a lot of the time we are tempted to lie or raise our hands in violence in response to someone else’s immoral action. We often use violence to defend ourselves against violence, we lie to shield ourselves from the impact of someone else’s lies, and so on.
Ideal theory would forbid these actions, but c’mon—what are we supposed to do? Nonideal theory recognizes that the world is not perfect and there are people in it who do not follow the rules of morality (or, at least, not the same ones as you do). There are people who will lie to you, steal from you, and hurt you, and nonideal theory recognizes that you are allowed to do the same things in response. (This does not automatically sanction every act of retaliation, but at least it keeps the option on the table.) It’s not ideal, but that’s the point—the world we live in is not ideal, and good people do not deserve to suffer at the hands of bad people just because they cannot fight back.
So what does this have to do with the “good man”? In an ideal world, in which the beliefs and preconceptions we have about men and women are the same, the moral expectations and judgments we would make of them would be the same too. Strength and courage would be longer be considered male virtues, and kindness and warmth would no longer be considered female virtues, but they would all be considered human virtues. And that’s the world from which I had so much trouble answering the question of what traits are unique to a “good man.” But that’s not the world we live in, and that was my mistake.
In the real world, there are different expectations made on men and women. There are different preconceptions of how a man and a woman will likely behave—or should behave—in certain situations, preconceptions which are unfair to everybody. We are working to change those preconceptions, and they are changing and will continue to do so. But even as we work to change them, we have to accept that for most of the world right now, they are very real. And that’s the world is which we can justifiably ask what is unique to a “good man.”
As Tom wrote, “…as a man I am not destined to a script of bad behavior but am capable of something better.” It is against the background of this “script” that the concept of a “good man” necessarily differs from what a “good woman” or “good person” is. The concept of a good man is a response to the negative expectations and prejudices about men, just as feminists have been responding to the negative expectations and prejudices about women.
These expectations wouldn’t matter so much if so many of us didn’t succumb to them, internalize them, and then pass them on to our peers and our children. Not all men behave like pigs with women—that’s the myth—but of course some do. And those who do may have bought into the myth that all men are pigs and said “hey, I guess I’m supposed to be a pig. And you oughta be a pig too, buddy—and you too, son. It’s what they expect of us; it’s just what we are. Why fight it?”
I’ll tell you why. We fight it because we want to be better. When we fight the expectations and choose who we want to be instead, we start on the road to goodness—and when we fight the expectations concerning “bad men” in particular, we start on the road to being good men.
The meaning of a “good man” is unique because the preconceptions about the “bad man” are unique. But even though the problem may be easy to see, the answer is not, and that’s why defining the “good man” in general and universal terms is futile. In the end, each man has to decide for himself whether he wants to follow the script he’s given—or write his own lines. And that’s where the project of the good man begins.
photo: carbonnyc / flickr