Why Men and Women Fight, Part 3: Justice and Mercy

The research studies of Kohlberg and Gillian (See Why Men & Women Fight, Part 2) roughly approximate an age-old philosophical debate about how to evaluate right and wrong. Men and women do that  differently, too. Kohlberg’s study found that a typical male follows a deontological approach, meaning most men find something to be intrinsically right or wrong, based on principle. Gilligan’s study found that a typical female follows a teleological approach, meaning that she deems something to be right or wrong depending on how much good or harm results.

Philosophers have been waging this debate for ages. Perhaps both approaches are incomplete without the modifying influence of the other. Combining these perspectives results in more complicated moral justification, however. Justice would say that a certain principle should govern a decision. Adding the mercy perspective, requires that the anticipated outcome be considered as part of a decision. The combined approach balances the theoretical with the concrete, the universal with the particular.

Adding the mercy component to a justice orientation also requires that emotions be part of any moral decision-making process, as Aristotle posited in Nichomachean Ethics: “feeling at the right time, about the right things, in relation to the right people; and for the right reason.” Hume also described an ethic that includes both rational analysis and character.

Gilligan suggests that our approach to ethics is formed when we are little boys and girls. Our nature and our nurture, Gilligan contends, leaves boys seeking fairness, equality and impartiality when they encounter other males who want the same item. Girls, on the other hand, come into conflict due to competing responsibilities to the people in their lives. This guides them to a very different ethical approach.

In the end, males and females fight over these perspectives without even realizing it, and without being able to name the differences. Men come to their wives from an adversarial standpoint because it feels as natural as breathing. Women come to their husbands from an empathic standpoint because to consider anything else feels like putting on someone else’s shoes.

So what to do about all this? I don’t know. I know all this stuff, and I still fight with my boyfriend for the very same reasons I’ve outlined in these posts. We just see reality from different angles, and no matter how much you know the other’s perspective is wholly other, it’s really hard to remember this when you have to decide how to parent the kids, how to spend money, where to go for the holidays, or whether tonight’s the night for sex.

And of course, our disparate operating systems are only part of why we fight, so we need to address our differing software, as well.

For now, I’ll just put my longing out there, that we can learn to listen to the other from the standpoint of the other’s operating system, without having to agree with the other. It takes a hell of a lot of commitment, and both partners must have equal parts of that. It’s the only way I can imagine for cats and dogs to occasionally peaceably and amicably share the same bed.

I’ll start addressing various psychological software incompatibilities tomorrow…


2 thoughts on “Why Men and Women Fight, Part 3: Justice and Mercy

  1. Men are not adversarial needlessly or because they want to be competitive. It is not about being right or pushing an opinion. They test for truth to protect what is under their care. Home, clan or country – a man feels inwardly compelled to protect as a principle. The masculine principle is protection. Men are testing, women are accepting. Men think protection, women think connection. The masculine principle is protecting and keeping out what doesnt belong. The feminine principle is welcoming and inclusiveness, the opposite of men’s tendency to test someone’s merit before they can join the community of his home and family. Neither is wrong, both are right. But stand in opposition to each other as universal, rather than situational principles. No wonder men and women are more bound to fight than not!

    Liked by 1 person

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