Chapter 6 The Goodness and Badness (Ethical) Aspect

Chapter 6 Learning Objectives

Upon reading this chapter, the student should be able to:

  • Recognize that joy or happiness is not the only good, and in some cases not even a good thing.
  • Indicate the qualities that make an act or relationship right or wrong, good, or bad.


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Insofar as pleasure, satisfaction, joy, contentment, happiness, etc. are good, and displeasure, grief, sorrow, disappointment, pain, etc. are bad, the satisfaction-dissatisfaction aspect of relationships is also a part of the goodness-badness aspect. But there is much more to life’s goodness or badness than just satisfaction and happiness on one hand and dissatisfaction and unhappiness on the other hand. Therefore it is necessary to look at more in a relationship than whether it, or its individual acts, are satisfying or not, in order to determine whether over-all it is a good relationship or not.

In support of my claim that there is more to good and bad than just satisfaction and dissatisfaction, let me just say for now that certain pleasures seem better than others, and some pleasures, such as pleasures from watching or doing violence or vandalism, do not seem very good at all. When Jeremy Bentham first published his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, he was vigorously attacked for his seeming belief that the pleasure of a pig rolling about in the mud was equal in value to the pleasure of a person’s playing chess or sculpting a work of art. We seem to think it all right for a child perhaps to have a good time playing in the mud, but should we come across an adult getting the same sort of satisfaction out of making mud pies, we might, in certain cases, be entirely justified in our disappointment of him. Further, if pleasure was the only good to be sought, and if we wanted the best for our children, we should rear them not to be industrious, conscientious, intelligent, sensitive creatures, but should teach them to be just the opposite. They could be far happier if they were insensitive to tragedy and the sorrows of others, if they never aspired to goals which they might fail to attain, if they essentially came home from whatever untaxing jobs they might hold in order to be able mindlessly to watch whatever was on television and drink beer in a contentedly cheerful state. We could probably fairly easily train people to like these sorts of things, but we do not intentionally do that because we, correctly, believe people are capable of better ways of living, even if less pleasurable ways. Likewise, we tend to feel that excessive drunkenness and debauchery are not quite conditions to be strived for regardless of how carefree and fun they may be. And neither would we wish to revive the Roman gladiatorial spectacles of fights to the death or of throwing people to the lions for the gleeful entertainment of spectators. And I do not think it would be very humane or good to cater to such glee even by throwing dummies or robots to the lions in order to make the crowds think they were watching real mayhem. The pleasure of such crowds is an unsavory pleasure. And there is something unsavory about people watching wrestling, auto racing, boxing, football, hockey or whatever if they are watching simply in order to get a thrill out of the brutality and bloodiness instead of out of the athletic skills being displayed. There is something wrong about their happiness over this even if the players involved in the brutality themselves do not mind the aches and bruises and battles.

With regard to relationships in this matter, it would seem that a sado-masochistic relationship, if there are any such, would be bad in some way even if both partners enjoyed it fully. And a very common kind of relationship which many people decry and hope to eradicate is the kind of relationship where one partner (usually the woman, in our society today) totally, or nearly totally, loses their personality or personhood into that of the other— a relationship in which one person’s life, goals, work, and happiness depend on the other person’s, rather than on anything they themselves seek, strive for, or achieve on their own. When it happens to a woman in a marriage, I tend to refer to it as the soppy, dependent housewife1 syndrome. (I am not, of course, talking about all housewives, only those who give up their own identities, growth, abilities, aspirations, etc. in order to provide a nurturing environment for their sons and husbands.)

There are at least two bad sides to a soppy, dependent relationship, whether the dependent person is a man or a woman. First, from a practical standpoint, the death or incapacitation of the independent member of the relationship sometimes renders virtually helpless the dependent person. There may be severe financial problems if the survivor needs to work but has no marketable skills. Some women are so dependent on their husbands that they do not even know how to drive a car; some men cannot cook or do laundry. Some women have no idea how much money the couple has or where it is, what bills have to be paid and when, or even what kinds of insurance or hospitalization covers them. Sometimes there is not even the will to live; and sometimes this lack of will leads to illness or death within a relatively short time of the death of the mate. Short of that, sometimes the dependent person simply cannot find goals of their own even to strive for or cannot find any kind of happiness or joy of their own in life, since all that depended previously on the goals, desires, and happiness of their mate. I am not saying one should not be saddened or grieved over the loss or incapacitation of a loved one; I am not saying that certain joys in life might not be lost or greatly mixed with sorrows over not being able to share them (any more) with the loved one. I am saying that the period of crippling grief, if there is such a period, should not be a lifelong one. One might be terribly saddened by the loss of a loved one without thereby losing one’s own life. This is the practical side or evil of soppy dependence— of submergence of personalities, goals, and of independent efforts. And though I have spoken of loss through death or incapacitation, loss through divorce or break up can be almost, or just, as devastating and in the same kind of ways.

But I think there is a more philosophically important, though less practical, tragedy in soppy dependence even when there is no premature breakup, divorce, incapacity, or death. That tragedy is the waste or loss of a person, a human being; and the greater undeveloped potential they might have, the greater is the tragedy of their not developing, but wasting, that potential. To live one’s life through children in the morning, soap operas in the afternoon, and a spouse in the evening is a terrible waste. And it is a waste even if the person doing it does not perceive it that way or does not feel the dullness of what Betty Friedan calls the problem with no name. It is a waste and a tragedy whether it is experienced as such or not. I am not talking here about the man or woman who is justifiably fulfilled at home, who delights in baking, sewing, rearing children, studying, writing, inventing, etc. because they are creative at it, find it challenging, and find time and energy to do growing and self-developing, self-fulfilling things while being at home. I am talking about the person who has given up their own identity for that of another person’s, about the person who lives their life some way because they do not know of any other way and so have not chosen their life but have settled for it by default. I am talking about the person who is wasting (unknown) talents that, developed, would make them more human, more alive, more fulfilled, and possibly even more excited and happy about life.

Soppy dependent people are not always those who have given their identity to their mate. They may have lost it to the “company store,” some religious cult, a bureaucratic mentality, or a drug habit. But far too many soppy dependent people are so because of their marriage; and many of these are women. But it does not have to be this way. There is nothing inherent in relationships or in love that requires loss of self, loss of personal development, loss of independence. In fact, I will argue later that a good relationship is beneficial to both parties, not just one. It has just been cultural norms that have tended, in our society, to stifle women (in particular) in terms of the way they have been required to act as wives. (Though, as I revise this edition, many women, in discarding dependence, have also gone to the other, equally unnecessary, wasteful and distressing, extreme and discarded any relationships that might require reasonable, legitimate, and humane obligations.)

Later, I will discuss ethics and some ideas for determining the goodness or badness, rightness or wrongness, of acts and relationships. Ethics need not be a difficult or esoteric subject. Let me just say here that we do, in our daily lives, judge things to be good or bad and acts to be right or wrong, and that we do so on more than a simple pleasure-pain or satisfaction- dissatisfaction basis. And though we do not generally consider ourselves philosophers, many of our judgments about what is good or bad, right or wrong, involve fairly complex and sophisticated (though that is sometimes unrealized) notions. To some extent it is the job of philosophers to identify and analyze those notions, and that is part of what I will try to do in the section on ethics.

1By the soppy, dependent housewife I do not mean every housewife, but only those for whom the role is stifling, non-stimulating, and/or a hindrance to realization of better potentials. And I am not advocating by any means that working in today’s market place is necessarily better than being a housewife. There are many jobs whose only merit is the money they provide; yet that merit is more than diminished by the toll those jobs take in the time and energy they drain from the person doing them, preventing that person from fulfilling better, more meaningful potentials. Women’s liberation has been a disappointment to me because in too many cases women have not become liberated, but have become simply shackled to new roles and new jobs which are equally stifling of their better capacities, though they may pay more money. Women (and men) who have to channel their primary efforts into selling services or products which are of no real benefit to society are often no personally better off than people who clean house, watch soap operas, read inferior fiction, gossip with neighbors, chauffeur children to school, baseball practice, and ballet lessons, and entertain at dinner or parties uninteresting business clients of their husbands.

There is nothing inherent in rearing children or being a spouse or staying home to do homemaking chores that makes one have to give up one’s personality and personal pursuits, or that requires those pursuits to be inane. A housewife can improve her mind or learn important skills. I had hoped, and still hope, that women’s liberation would bring more opportunity for women, and men, to be able to pursue the kinds of things that would benefit and enrich their lives, whether it makes them wealthier or not. A housewife who reads good literature and who is rewarded by reflection on it, a mother who creatively teaches her children and imaginatively stimulates their development, a housewife who creates beautiful things, a housewife who learns and grows and teaches what she has learned, these people are far better off than the woman, at whatever salary, whose potentials for excellence are being stifled by any employer, job, or husband. In the ethics chapter (26) I mention some of the kinds of things that have been said to add to the goodness of life. Any job, relationship, or situation that helps people’s lives improve in these or other ways is, to that extent, a beneficial relationship. In seeking a good relationship, one is seeking a relationship that is beneficial; and this sometimes involves more than just being satisfying. And in seeking a loving relationship, you are not only seeking a partner who is attracting and satisfying, but one who is also good for you (and for whom you are attracting, satisfying, and good).

I think John Stuart Mill gave perfect expression to the sentiment that people so often simply put, or find, themselves in positions that waste their talents when he said in his book Utilitarianism:

“Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favorable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying. It may be questioned whether anyone who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures ever knowingly and calmly preferred the lower, though many in all ages, have broken down in an ineffectual attempt to combine both.” (Warnock, 1965)

Unfortunately it has worked out that many women have equated not being a soppy, dependent housewife with going to work. What I suspect many of the pioneers of the women’s movement would have wanted instead was that women simply be allowed and be able to pursue whatever worthwhile course would be good, whether it was employment or not. Much of the complaint was that perfectly good minds, some with perfectly good educations, were going to waste. Well, this is also true of men who work. Most jobs, as things are now, are not particularly edifying, enlightening, or stimulating. That is equally true for men as for women. Men’s minds and men’s educations are often just as wasted and just as repressed as those of housewives who subordinate their identities and capacities to their husbands and children. Women who go to work at a job just to make money or just to achieve financial independence or just to see that they can do a job, are not going to fare much better. Although a restroom wall scrawl I once saw is generally true: “It is better to be rich and healthy than it is to be sick and poor,” money is not necessarily the measure of the good life. I have a friend who says Americans seem to confuse convenience with quality, and I believe it was Disraeli who once said: “Americans mistake comfort for civilization.” In a similar vein, I would hope women, and men, would not mistake (apparent) financial security and a nice, comfortable, efficient house managed by an uninspiring, soppy, dependent housewife as the greatest lifestyle to be sought, and I would hope they also would not mistake employment alone for either liberation or civilization. Minor satisfactions, creature comfort, and money that are earned at great personal cost, and at the expense of things of higher value are not what people ought to seek or to settle for. (Return to text.)

Key Takeaways

  • Realize that some joys can be bad in addition to the goodness of the pleasurable feelings they provide, and that in some cases the harm or wrong done by an act or relationship can seriously outweigh the good that comes from its joy, satisfaction, or pleasure.
  • Realize that ethics and right and wrong or good and bad are not as simple as they may have seemed.

Key Terms

  • Soppy dependence refers to a relationship in which one person’s life, goals, work, and happiness depend on another person’s, rather than on anything they themselves seek, strive for, or achieve on their own.  This can occur from a personal relationship (such as in a marriage), from the goals of an employer or supervisor in a workplace, or from the general culture.

Chapter Review Questions

  • Question: What are some ramifications for the dependent individual in a soppy dependent relationship?
  • Question: What is considered a good relationship?

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Chapter 6 The Goodness and Badness (Ethical) Aspect Copyright © 2017 by Richard Garlikov. All Rights Reserved.

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