An ethical lesson from Mike Pence refusing to eat alone with a woman other than his wife

I have a nasty secret I want to share with you: I had dinner with a woman who was not my wife the other night. That’s something that Vice-President Mike Pence would never do. It turns out that Mike Pence “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side.”

There are numerous ways in which this sort of approach from a man who is a heartbeat away from being President of the United States are wrong. Some of those include:

  • It assumes you can’t be friends or colleagues with a woman.
  • It sticks women with the role of sexualised temptresses just out to get a man.
  • It marginalises women in exactly the way Pence and other criticise Muslims for doing.
  • It limits the roles women can take in the White House or at least how they are treated – Pence can lunch with a man but not with the Prime Minster of the UK.

Look, the list goes on and others have covered it better than I want to here from the point of view of how this objectifies women and limits the roles they can take. No, the point I want to make is that this sort of rule is exactly what is wrong with fundamentalist religions and much of society today – they don’t have any ethical framework, just rules.

The sub-text to the idea that you can’t be alone with a woman is that, if you were, you’d immediately be pushing the salt and pepper to one side and having sex. The only thing stopping that happening is the rule that you can’t be alone (and, oh, the hubris in the idea that every woman who’s alone with Mike Pence would want to have sex with him – or maybe he’s suppressing a Trumpian approach to women’s bodies).

The thing about ethics is that you have a framework within which you act. You are not acting in a sensible and civilized way simply because of a rule preventing you from doing otherwise – you simply always act in a sensible and civilized way. Ethics is what you do when no one is watching you.

This isn’t just idle bemusement about Mike Pence, it’s indicative of an underlying problem with our society that manifests itself in the anonymity of the Internet. If the only thing constraining you from doing the wrong thing is an arbitrary rule, then when you’re not in a position to get caught, logic says you’ll do the wrong thing. If they need the rule, then their assumption must be that without the rule he would do the wrong thing. If Mike Pence has to have a rule like this so he and his wife can trust him to be alone with another woman over lunch, then he clearly cannot be trusted absent the rule.

This is why religion are behind so many atrocities in the World today and in our history. If you take a person and tell them the only reason they can’t steal, kill, and rape is because a god said so, and then tell them ‘actually now god says it’s OK’ – well then, they just look around and go and follow god’s new rule; because they have nothing to fall back on other than the published rules.

On the other hand if you have an ethical framework that transcends the current rules, maybe when you’re told it’s OK to set off a bomb, or to mistreat a refugee you might stand up and say ‘no’.

There are so many lessons we could take away from an examination of Pence’s approach to life. But the key one for me is that people need to have an ethical framework that means they can be trusted to do the right thing. They can be trusted not to steal just because no one is looking when they are using the self-checkout line at the supermarket, they can be trusted not to add on spurious tax deductions, they can (looking at you Australian politicians) be trusted not to abuse their commonwealth car allowance just because everyone else is doing it. It shouldn’t require constant revisions of rules and regulations to get people to do the right thing. Any more than it should require rules and punishments to get people to do the right thing on social media.

And if you wonder if this is harsh on Mike Pence, who has a public position to uphold in addition to his personal beliefs, just consider how anyone with his professed beliefs can stand alongside Donald Trump. That’s a textbook description of not having a strong ethical base.

There you go, just one more reason that Mike Pence’s position is truly deplorable.

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