From Xu Mu to Donald Trump: Do We Need An Ethics Just For Women?

In the second GOP debate, candidates were asked an inconsequential question about what woman they would want to see on the $10 bill. Three mentioned family members who were caregivers and one mentioned Mother Theresa. Other candidates did mention women who were political leaders, but it is worth noting how difficult it is for some to imagine, even now, a great woman who is not caring for others. Rather, it is still hard for too many people to imagine that leading and fighting for justice and rights is a form of caring for women that is worthy of admiration.

The idea that women should be good, as women, but not in the same way that men might be good, is about as old as civilization. Men have placed women in an impossible bind forever. For striving to be the best person possible, they are often denounced, attacked, or even murdered for stepping above their station. In the seventh century BCE, Chinese poet and princess, Xu Mu found herself in a position where she felt she must defend her kingdom (Wei) against the Di people (see Barbara Bennett Peterson’s essay about dutiful daughters of ancient China here). She successfully rallied her brothers and friends from neighboring kingdoms to preserve their home.

A man in her position would simply luxuriate in the waves of honor and gratitude flowing over him, but Xu’s position was more complicated. She is remembered for her chinese poetaccomplishments, but she also faced the wrath of the men in her community. She recorded her mixed experiences and feeling in a poem, “Speeding Away”:

Harshly though you may judge me,
From my course I will not veer.
Compared to your limited vision,
Do I not see far and clear?

Harshly though you may judge me,
My steps you never can stay.
Compared to your limited vision,
Am I not wise in my way?

I’ve climbed the heights of A Qiu,
Gathered herbs on the slope alone.
All women are prone to sorrow,
Each follows a path of her own.
The people of Xu still blame me,
Such ignorance has never been known.

Out of necessity, she stepped out of the role of good wife, daughter, and mother to save her homeland only to be criticized, but she didn’t accept the criticism. She said, “O listen, ye lords and nobles, Blame not my stubbornness so,” but she was denied the opportunity to emerge as an unvarnished hero. If she had been a man, she would have been good, but she could not be considered a good woman without qualifications. Her society had two concepts of virtue: one for men, and one for women.

A couple of centuries later, Plato advocated for a single measure of virtue and goodness. He felt that the ideal form of the good was universal, so it wouldn’t make sense for some people to aim at one ideal and others at another ideal, as there can only be one ideal. Consequently, women and men should aim at the same ideal, and men, just by chance, seem to have an easier time getting close to it. In Plato’s Republic, women would be trained and educated in the manner of men in hopes of achieving their highest possibilities of human perfection. Women who succeeded in being the most like the best men would be the best women. Men who resembled women, on the other hand, were the worst of men. In Plato’s world, then, Xu Mu might be admired for embodying the virtues of men, but she may still be censured for failing in the virtues of womanhood.

Plato’s unusual conception of a single standard for virtue for men and women didn’t last long. His student, Aristotle, found insistence on a single standard for goodness unnatural and unfair. Men and women, being different, should strive for different ideals. A woman should be a good woman and a man should be a good man. To judge a woman on her ability to be like a “good man” would be as absurd as judging a musician on his ability to make good shoes. Women should do what is right and natural for them, he believed. Under Aristotle’s guidance, Xu Mu would do better to leave saving the kingdom to the men, who would be more rational and better prepared for war.

Those who feel women have different strengths than men will insist that they are not misogynistic. No, they love women for the things women do best. These men (and women) say that women have civilized men, make peace in families, and rear children for greatness. They love their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters as they make it possible for men to achieve greatness in war, politics, business, science, and philosophy. For example. Ronald Reagan explained his high regard for women by saying, “If it wasn’t for women, us men would still be walking around in skin suits carrying clubs.”  The problem is that the things these men suppose women excel at doing are also denigrated by society precisely because women do them, which means that women are devalued as well. In the third century BCE, another Chinese poet, Fu Xuan, summed up the problem nicely:

How sad it is to be a woman!!
Nothing on earth is held so cheap.
Boys stand leaning at the door
Like Gods fallen out of Heaven.
Their hearts brave the Four Oceans,
The wind and dust of a thousand miles.
No one is glad when a girl is born:
By her the family sets no store.

By this measure, to be the best woman possible is still to be something inferior to even a mediocre man. Women may not attain the highest levels of virtue.

Upon reading the works of many men claiming that women are inferior at birth, Christine Pisan, wrote a rhetorical query to God in 1405 CE:

“Alas, God, why did You not let me be born in the world as a man, so that all my inclinations would be to serve You better, and so that I would not stray in anything and would be as perfect as a man is said to be? But since Your kindness has not been extended to me, then forgive my negligence in Your service, most fair Lord God, and may it not displease You, for the servant who receives fewer gifts from his lord is less obliged in his service.”

Trapped in a paradox, extreme virtue is demanded of women while it is simultaneously denied them. By asking God to resolve the paradox, Pisan brilliantly illustrates that it is men, not God, who created the paradox, for no God would be so irrational. The binary is not only absurd; it is impossible.

In 1694 CE, Mary Astell eschewed literary maneuvers and stated directly that men are to blame for the situation of women. In her Serious Proposal to the Ladies, she remarked, “That therefore Women are unprofitable to most, and a plague and dishonour to some Men is not much to be regretted on account of the Men, because ’tis the product of their own folly, in denying them the benefits of an ingenuous and liberal Education, the most effectual means to direct them into, and to secure their progress in the way of Vertue.”  She goes on to say, “For since God has given Women as well as Men intelligent Souls, why should they be forbidden to improve them?” Astell issued a call to arms for women. Many have responded, and continue to respond.

In the late 19th century, Mary Wollstonecraft repeated the call: “To account for, and excuse the tyranny of man, many ingenious arguments have been brought forward to prove, that the two sexes, in the acquirement of virtue, ought to aim at attaining a very different character: or, to speak explicitly, women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue.”  Wollstonecraft argued that two standards of virtue only serve to cement the power of men over women. A single standard will liberate both.

Simply choosing between a singular or dual ethics does not resolve the problem of misogyny, masculine power, or the systematic devaluing of anything “feminine.” If we choose to embrace a single ethics, the default position is to embrace the ethics previously associated with “masculine” virtue. To do so, women must themselves then disparage “feminine” virtues, which will mean debasing the activities traditionally associated with women. Thus, both women and men engaged in such pursuits are permanent held in reduced stature.

On the other hand, to embrace a dual system of ethics is to preserve the status quo. The male system of ethics continues to be the good and noble ethics while the female ethics is valued only for its contributions to maintaining the power and worth of male activities.

A single ethics that values all virtues and activities that are, in fact, valuable demands a complete deconstruction of gender and power so that it can be replaced with a non-binary system that embraces and venerates all activities that aid human flourishing. If nurturing children is a good, then it is good for both men and women. Such a system can have no concept of “women’s work” or “men’s work.” The idea that activities or dispositions (caring, assertive, protective, sensitive) are “masculine” or “feminine” must become a foreign idea. This will require radical resistance. Xu Mu and others like her began this battle nearly 3,000 years ago. After watching the second GOP debate, I believe it may take another 3,000 years to finish the war.

The Social Dimensions of Gaslighting

In the last few years, it seems the term “gas lighting” has become nearly ubiquitous. The term was first used in the 1950s to mean some kind of emotional manipulation, but more specifically to mean making someone doubt his or her own sanity by repeatedly presenting a false narrative about events within the relationship. At least one person, (you can see Alfred MacDonald’s blog here), claims that gaslighting actually requires someone to tell an outright lie in order to convince someone their memory or perception is faulty. Others believe the manipulation can be more subtle, and still others use the term so loosely that almost everyone is guilty of gaslighting (e.g., telling someone they are over-reacting to a minor event or episode).

I don’t think anyone has provided strict diagnostic criteria for gaslighting, and I won’t try, but I think we can agree that it does involve manipulating someone to question whether abuse-800pxtheir perceptions are accurate. It is a form of abuse and a means of exercising control. When one person complains of some behavior, the other partner may question it by saying, “I think you’ve been working too much—that never happened.” Or they may say, “Did you remember your meds this morning?” Or they may say, with an air of concern, “Honey, that didn’t happen. Do you think it is time to see a psychiatrist or something?”

This type of manipulation can be extremely subtle. We all over-react sometimes, and who can claim to have a perfect memory? With any given instance, we may doubt our memory or perception. When you start carrying around a voice recorder or considering keeping security cameras in your home just to verify your account of things, though, you are either a victim of gaslighting or you really are suffering from some severe psychosis. If you are psychotic, you are probably having more than relationship problems, so if you do all right around other people, you probably live with an abusive partner.

If you are lucky, your friends, family, and coworkers can help assure you that your memory and grip on reality are firm; unless, of course, your abuser has gotten to them first. In early stages, her or his campaign against you may appear to be genuine concern. He or she may tell close friends, “I’m worried about my husband. He never seems happy anymore.” Or, the abuser may become more assertive: “I can’t get him to go to a doctor. If you see him, maybe you can find out why he is so reluctant.” By making such comments, the abuser raises suspicion that you are not in your right mind, and you may also begin to doubt whether you are in your right mind.”

As things progress, the abuser may begin to portray herself or himself as the victim, saying things like, “She keeps track of everything I do,” or “She controls all the finances. I don’t even know how much money is in the bank.”

A blog on AngieMedia (attributed only to Rob) describes how far abusers sometimes go: “An abuser who is using gaslighting on you is also likely to behave similarly with others to make them dislike you. This is a common attack used during what can become tremendously damaging distortion campaigns that these abusers will use against people close to them to maintain control and a sense of superiority. Such abusers may report you to police to get you falsely arrested and perhaps prosecuted for absolutely no reason other than they want to be in control of you and how others perceive you. They are likely to make remarks to their friends, family, neighbors, and others to “prove” they are being abused, often behind your back for years until you learn what they have been doing. “

The abuser may then come back to you and say, perhaps accurately, “All my friends think you are a bully.” Or, “Your Mom thinks you need to see a psychiatrist.” Living in an intentionally distorted reality, it becomes impossible to verify or even corroborate claims about your mental state, others opinions of you, or what has been said about you. Your alleged mental breakdown may, indeed, be imminent. Under the stress of this type of relationship, you are likely to doubt yourself, question the loyalty of your friends and family, and withdraw from all social contact. Once you are isolated, you are under the control of your abuser. You will no longer have access to the solid moorings of reality, and will drift in a cloud of confusion as you become more depressed, anxious, and desperate.

If you are doubting yourself, it helps to hear of the experiences of others. If you have survived this type of abuse, please help others by sharing your story. For example, I suspect Princess Diana helped many people when she described her marriage in her famous BBC Panarama interview:

DIANA: Well, people were – when I say people I mean friends, on my husband’s side – were indicating that I was again unstable, sick, and should be put in a home of some sort in order to get better. I was almost an embarrassment.
BASHIR: Do you think he really thought that?
DIANA: Well, there’s no better way to dismantle a personality than to isolate it.
BASHIR: So you were isolated?
DIANA: Uh,uh, very much so.

This is how people become trapped in toxic and destructive relationships. The only way out, really, is to find others who can verify your sanity and help you see the campaign against you for what it is. This is why it is important for survivors to speak up about their experiences. When people speak about what happened to them, victims who feel trapped may recognize the techniques of the gaslighter, and may gain some strength.

Finally, when you encounter others who seem unhappy in a relationship who may feel trapped, try to remember they may be victims of a gaslighting campaign. Things may not be as they seem. Your patience and understanding may save a life.

Attribute Substitution and Public Health

Partly in response to a series of posts in the New England Journal of Medicine dealing with conflicts of interest in medical research, Austin Frakt wrote a piece for the New York Times titled, “A New Way to Think About Conflicts of Interest in Medicine.”  In the end, he claims that too many critics dismiss a study simply because it received industry funding, and he says this is a kind of attribute substitution (this is a fallacy whereby something may be rejected because it is associated with something negative, rather than on its own merits).

This is a bit of red herring, because attribute substitution is not always such a bad thing. If I am negotiating to buy a new car, it may be that everything checks out regarding the engine, interior, paint, brakes, and so on, but I may reject the car simply because I happen to know it is stolen. The fact that it is stolen doesn’t make it a bad car, but it does make it spectroscopeone I would not want to buy. In the same way, the fact that a study is industry funded does not prove it is a bad study, but it is possible for a reasonable person to object to it simply on the grounds that its funding encourages unethical behavior.

Also in his essay, Frakt mentions that research is often tainted by many things that are not industry funding: things like personal relationships, religious bias, and overweening personal ambition. On the other hand, industry-funded research often yields excellent, well-controlled studies with beneficial results.

All this is true, of course, and there may be critics out there who believe that no industry-funded research should be published, but I think that is an unusual view. What is more common is to call for disclosure of financial ties to industry. With such disclosure, readers can evaluate the data with an understanding of the possible bias of researchers. More importantly, in my opinion, is that disclosure helps us see whether anyone from outside of industry is working on the same problem.

Disclosure does nothing to eliminate bias. If I know that someone is working for Pharma Co. X, I know she is trying to develop profitable products for her employer. The best path to a high profit is probably through rigorously controlled research. The bias of the researcher is to develop a profitable product, and disclosure will not change that bias; it isn’t a conflict of interest as profit is really the only interest driving the research.

The problem is that most research is now funded by industry (in 2012, industry funded about 59 percent of medical research in the US).  When researchers are hired to create marketable products they are, indeed, motivated to show bias both in how they conduct their research and in what kind of research they begin in the first place. Unethical practices can happen both within and without industry, but we are better to have a variety of ways to fund research, and we are better to have transparency about how research is funded and how it is conducted. We need to know how research participants were recruited. We need to know what data was and was not used. On the issue of transparency, I agree completely with Frakt: “To the extent research design and methods are not up to snuff, that’s the red flag — the door through which conflicts of interest enter and exert undue influence. More rigorous, transparent and reliable research from both industry and nonindustry sources would reduce the need to lean so heavily on mental shortcuts like attribute substitution in judging scientific merit.”

Finally, we need to know whether research was aimed at reducing human suffering or merely at generating profits. On a good day, these two goals are perfectly aligned. On a normal day, reducing human suffering is at odds with creating products. I’ve mentioned before philosopher Thomas Pogge’s efforts to create incentives for companies to develop drugs for conditions that may not be profitable, and I think it is worth mentioning his Health Impact Fund once again. Pogge’s solution is one that works fairly well with market-based thinking. Love it or hate it, it is a good effort. Other solutions are possible, though. Governments could pool resources to simply set up labs and hire scientists to develop cures for diseases that affect global health. Capitalist investors might also want to develop cures in order to capitalize on improved human resources as John Rockefeller did about a hundred years ago.

Yes, I realize government funding and charitable institutes still exist (Rockefeller’s legacy continues), but research for profit (and only for profit) threatens our ability to continue advances in public health. We need greater transparency (of financial ties and data transparency) in research, greater protection for research subjects, more variety in funding sources, and more checks to replicate and confirm findings. It may be expensive, but mistakes are expensive, too.