Beware Female Praise

Philosophers of the logico-linguistic or Oxford tradition have spilled a lot of ink discussing what it means to call something “good”. Are we judging the good man under some objective standard of value that may have nothing to do with our interests, recognising his status in a transcendent ethical realm? Or are we perhaps merely making a noise of subjective approval, like when we eat something tasty and go “Mmm”? Or are we perhaps recognising his conformity to something external, but a something strictly related to our purposes. For instance, we call a physical object “good” when it answers to what we need it for. When we call a man good comes to the same thing as when we call a screwdriver good – he is fit for purpose.

Which can only mean, fit for our particular purpose. Although he is not generally studied in Philosophy 101, Friedrich Nietzsche may serve to remind us that ethics are not just about ourselves and the passive objects of our value judgements. They are a three-handed game, for us, the objects and another person who has his purposes for us. The point of our having an ethical standard may not be, as Aristotle would have held, that we become wise and truly happy ¬– the point may be that are then more ready to give this other guy what he wants. Who wants us to possess the virtue of trust? The con-man, of course. If truthful people are more ready to believe what they are told than are habitual liars, the grifter would like us to be virtuously honest, so that he can better sucker us.

With this in mind, we should reflect that being called a “good man” may make us feel warm inside but may actually be a bad sign. Certainly we know that when parents called us a “good” boy, they meant an obedient one, or one that raised their social value in the eyes of their peers. This was all that many parents ever cared about. For us to become “good” in some Aristotelian or theological sense that would stay with us for life, after they were no longer able to enjoy the brownie points, was well beyond their interests or even comprehension.

But even after such self-interested commenders have had their day, the program is still there to be run by someone else. Thirst for approval by the mother becomes thirst for approval by some other woman. She knows that she can say, “You are a good man” and we will roll over to have our tummy tickled. Our task is, therefore, to be on our guard against the grifter saying “good dog” and patting us on our head whenever we do something that serves her interest, while at the same time endeavouring to live an ethical life for its own sake. For that is not remotely the same thing.

(Fiddle date-stamp to September 1, 2016)

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