The Problem With “Don’t Eat Alone With Women”: Good Character is Better Than Strict Rules

An evangelical university professor on the controversy around Vice President Mike Pence’s rules of conduct.

It is prudent, too, not to get too bent out of shape over one man’s good-faith efforts to guard his marriage wisely. If our shared goal is equality for women in the workplace and protection of marriages and families, we cultivate the virtues in ourselves — and model them for others who are struggling to do so along with us — for the good of all. In all things, moderation — even in our responses to those we wish were more moderate.

 

Several years ago, a male colleague and I left a meeting on one side of campus at the university where we both teach to return to our offices, a 15-minute walk away. Since I had driven my car to the meeting, I asked my colleague if he’d like a ride back. After an almost imperceptible hesitation, he politely thanked me and said no.

Walking to my car, I suddenly realized I’d just had my first encounter with the “Billy Graham rule,” a concept highlighted in recent news as a result of reports of Vice President Mike Pence’s longstanding principle of not having meals alone with a woman or attending events serving alcohol unless accompanied by his wife.

The rule, famously articulated by the evangelical minister Billy Graham, is basically a guideline that says men and women should not meet alone, whether in offices, or cars, or other places in order to avoid illicit temptations or appearances of impropriety. It’s been adopted by other evangelical pastors and leaders (a history of its origin is here): The late founder of the evangelical university where I work was known for saying that he’d pass by a female member of his church walking in the rain if he were alone in his car to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Once I realized why my colleague had turned down my offer, I felt a twinge of embarrassment and awkwardness, as though I’d invited him to a game of strip poker instead of a three-minute ride to the other end of campus. Besides, I thought in an imaginary retort, “I’m just not that into you.”

But the good part of this story is that despite working for nearly two decades at an evangelical university, I’ve had only two or three such encounters with the Billy Graham rule. While I have tremendous respect for men who place their marriages before their work, such a rule befits the world of Mad Men more than the modern-day work world where women are to be treated as equals. But even more importantly, good character is even more trustworthy than the most well-intentioned rules.

Virtue ethics is better than the Billy Graham rule.

Virtue ethics relies on moral character that is developed through good habits rather than rules or consequences for the governing of behavior. Aristotle defined virtue as the mean between two extremes, one of excess and one of deficiency. It is a habit of moral character, which, because it is a habit, becomes a kind of second nature. As Aristotle explained, it does not depend upon rules.

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