06/09/2014 04:14 pm ET Updated Aug 09, 2014

What Is So Bad About Being Good?


When people say "act like a lady," we know what they really mean. They mean act in the manner that society -- that is to say, our patriarchal society -- has determined that women should act. Because you know, women are not allowed to define that for themselves. Men must do that for them. And when men tell other men to "man up," we know that means to do nothing that resembles a woman. Here lies the myth and the burden of what is called "feminine virtues" and "masculine virtues".

Ancient philosopher Aristotle defined virtues as excellence of character. For him, virtues are the mean between two vices. While rashness and cowardice are vices, the virtue that lies in between them is courage. (Think Goldilocks: not too hot, not too cold, but just right). Aristotle believes we all can be virtuous although it is difficult and therefore rare. And a specific virtue can look different for different people. A 5-year-old can have courage when they put their feet in the kiddie pool, but we would not say a lifeguard has courage when she decides to do the same.

Unfortunately, our culture makes the mistake of gendering the virtues, suggesting that women and men are excellent in character in different ways. This is very problematic.

I believe "masculine" and "feminine" are social constructions. They are merely made up by the cultural gender police that say, "To be nurturing is feminine. To be emotionless is masculine." (I'm pretty sure the virtues were arbitrarily assigned to genders like this). But I think there is really nothing essential about masculinity and femininity, hence anything masculine or feminine, for that matter. To use these terms to refer to moral actions is unintelligent and irresponsible to a social constructionist like myself.

Moreover, the very notion of "feminine virtues" and "masculine virtues" creates a double standard. What is considered a vice for women (i.e. promiscuity or sexual freedom) is at times considered a virtue for men, or at least not a vice. While ambition and being in command is a virtue for men, it can be considered a vice for women. Men and women are therefore put into different moral categories and held to different standards. Unfortunately, the cultural expectation is that men should exercise "masculine virtues" and women should exercise "feminine virtues."

Now some may say, "If there can be a double standard for the 5-year-old and the lifeguard, why shouldn't their be one for men and women?" I believe there is a cognitive and experiential difference between a 5-year-old and an experienced adult lifeguard. Aristotle took this into consideration. Therefore, their excellence of character will look different. However, I do not think there is an essential cognitive or moral skill difference between men and women not to the extent that men and women can not and should not possess certain virtues that culture have regulated for specific gender categories.

But unfortunately in our society, they do. When we think of "masculine virtues," we think of toughness, strength and ambition. When we think of "feminine virtues," we think of chastity, modesty and obedience. For any of the self-identified genders to cross over into the other territory, it is for them to lose their excellence and to risk being perceived as not acting "their" gender. How limiting is this?

Not only does having concepts such as "masculine virtues" and "feminine virtues" create a double standard, it also puts whatever gender you identify with in a "character box." Instead of being fully good, we limit our ability by being only "gendered" good. Men stick with ambition and never think of ways to be obedient. Women stick to modesty and never think of ways to be in command.

Gendered virtues also perpetuate patriarchy. To have "feminine virtues" like chastity, modesty and obedience is what it means to act like a lady. A woman who is not modest is said to be asking for attention or "asking" to be raped. A woman who is not obedient is believed to be a b*tch. A woman who is not chaste is considered not a lady at all. To be good in our society, a woman must possess these virtues. If she doesn't she will be victim-blamed, told she will not get married or accused of hating men. These feminine virtues can be described as what Lisa Tessman calls the "burdened virtues," because although these virtues may create some good in the end they morally damage the lives of the agent in the process.

How does adhering to the myth of "feminine virtues" morally damage a woman? Not only does the blind possession of "feminine virtues" perpetuate patriarchy but they also limit the lives of women. Complete modesty limits free expression and autonomy of women. Complete obedience limits women's ability to be critical thinkers. Complete chastity perpetuates a purity myth that is not only unrealistic but is used to sacrifice a woman's moral freedom for the standards of society and the pride of men. To be "good" by adhering to these "feminine virtues" is just so wrong.

Men are also limited by adhering to "masculine virtues" and are also victims to patriarchy when they do. Michael Kimmel, Darnell L. Moore, Bell Hooks and Byron Hurt have done great work in explaining how this is the case. For example, it forces them to wear a mask and never be their true selves and it also causes dysfunction in their relationships and also within themselves.

I am not arguing that we should throw away the very virtues that are found within the feminine and masculine categories. I say we should stop distinguishing between "masculine virtues" and "feminine virtues." If a self-identified woman desires to take on modesty for modesty's sake, I recommend she do as Aristotle says, "practice it at the right time, towards the right person, for the right reason, and in the right degree." She should not become modest because that's what a lady is expected to be. If a self-identified man decides to be assertive he should do so not because that's what a masculine man should do, but he too should do it for the right reason, at the right time and to the right degree.

End virtue segregation! Let's all work on being the best people we can be not the best feminine or masculine cultural productions we feel we must become in order to fit into masculine or feminine categories. Trying to make morality fit gender categories is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Morality should not be risked for the sake of this twisted gender game.

The sacrifice will be great but the only way to truly flourish is to allow moral reasoning to be our guide and not cultural, patriarchal expectations. Lets get rid of gendered specific moral expectations and instead do the right thing because it is the right thing.

Lets widen our moral options by not only refusing to follow gendered virtues for the reason culture says we should but also by not expecting others to play by the "Gender Virtues Rule Book".

In the end I think we will have a freer, more loving, and morally creative society as a result.