On February 6th, Cheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, authored a post discussing the ‘Mike Pence Rule.’ The Pence rule is Vice President Mike Pence’s refusal to eat alone with a woman other than his wife, and his refusal to attend events that serve alcohol unless his wife is present with him.

Sandberg said; ‘If men think that the way to address workplace sexual harassment is to avoid one-on-one time with female colleagues – including meetings, coffee breaks, and all the interactions that help us work together effectively – it will be a huge setback for women.’

Sandberg articulated the survey results from her organization, LeanIn.org, that said men who are senior career professionals are unlikely to feel comfortable having solo meals with women and are even more uncomfortable traveling alone with women.

To her, this is a huge problem, because it undoubtedly will decrease the opportunities women have at work. The last thing women need right now is even more isolation. Men vastly outnumber women as managers and senior leaders, so when they avoid, ice out, or exclude women, they pay the price.

Sandberg is fearful that by implementing the Pence rule, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the rule will place restraints on male/female relations, hampering possible benefits and advancements for many women in the workplace.

Sandberg’s point is fair and accurate. But that’s not the real issue raised here. To understand the real incongruence between the Pence Rule and Sandberg’s qualm, we have to understand the moral foundations that liberals and conservatives clash over.

The single most important clash between the two sides is the following: In the vein of their patron saint and godfather of liberalism, Jean Rousseau, liberals believe that we as human beings, are born pure, benevolent, and naturally good, but society corrupts us. Society corrupts us because it imposes restraints on us that prohibit the natural goodness of men from shining through. By removing these immoral societal restraints, our natural goodness can reach entelechy.

As Rousseau said; ‘The fundamental principle of all morality, upon which I have reasoned in all my writings and which I developed with all the clarity of which I am capable is that man is a being who is naturally good, loving justice and order; that there is no original perversity in the human heart, and the first movements of nature are always good.’

Rousseau’s natural goodness means that all of his impulses and intentions are pure. To the disciples of Rousseau, those impulses are prohibited by restraints imposed on us via society. They must remove those societal restraints to enable our natural goodness to flourish, allowing us to follow our impulses and passions. Rousseau said, ‘the first of all goods. . . is freedom.’ Melzer said of Rousseau that his goal is, ‘to bestow on virtue the splendor of self-creation, absolute freedom, or what later came to be called autonomy.’ Autonomy and freedom are the hallmark of human action for Rousseau and his disciples, believing it is the first and most important step towards transforming human nature and society for the better.

Conservatives, on the other hand, do not believe in the natural goodness of men. Conservatives believe in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the dualism. That within each of us, there is a struggle for good and evil; an angel on our right shoulders, and a devil on the left. The devil is in charge of our unruly passions and appetites.

Edmund Burke, the original conservative, believed that when left unchecked, our passions and appetites run amok, he said; ‘Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites. . . . Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.’

Burke believed that we must voluntarily accept restraints on our passions and appetites, lest they lead us to dire straits. He further felt that when you, “Leave a man to his passions . . . you leave a wild beast to his wild and capricious nature” . Burke, ever fearful of our unruly passions and appetites, believed restraint was of the utmost importance in life because hard-wired in human nature is our evil inclination that cannot be eradicated.  

For Burke, the highest form of human action was the cardinal virtue of temperance. For Rousseau, the highest form of human action was autonomy. For Pence, his rule is predicated on the idea that he acknowledges his unruly passions and appetites, as well as his evil inclination. He accepts that he, like all men, have an unruly passions and appetites. He therefore voluntarily places restraints on them. In doing so, he is able to better preserve his marriage. For Sandberg, these restraints imposed on men prevent the natural goodness of men, or in this case, women, from shining through. She is unhappy at the thought of prohibiting the freedom and autonomy of women in the workplace.

Pence is concerned with preventing harm. Sandberg is concerned that good might be prevented. This conflict of visions leads us to a question. What’s more important: preventing the harm, while simultaneously preventing some of the good, or allowing the good to flourish while simultaneously allowing the harm to arise?

According to psychologists Kahneman and Tversky’s ‘Loss Aversion’ theory, the answer is clear. ‘Loss Aversion’ is the idea that the sting of a loss is stronger than the elation of a victory. Winning is less powerful than losing. The application here is quite simple, encouraging women and men to have alone time to enable mentorship and career achievement will be significantly less powerful than the sting of the harm caused by workplace scandal between them.

Throughout history, men and women had forever been segregated for this very reason, although in some cultures more than others. Preventing misconduct among the sexes due to the unruly passions and appetites of humanity had long since been understood as paramount. So long as the left is intent on tearing down Chesterton’s Fence, we will forever struggle with basic issues surrounding human nature that had long since been settled through the wisdom of ancestors.

Another issue regarding Sandberg’s complaint with the Pence rule is that it is an imperfect and unbalanced solution. We must understand that in the real world, there are no solutions; there are only options with trade-offs . In life, we cannot discredit an idea, a policy, or a suggestion on the grounds that it’s imperfect. We will never have a perfect solution, so we must do the best we can with what we have. The Pence rule is not at all perfect, but to him, it’s the better option.

To conclude, as Burke opined, people like Sandberg think they are combating prejudice, but are in fact at war with nature. Until those left-of-center begin to acknowledge the unruly potential of the individual, and the hard-wired nature of men and women, we will continue to clash over ideas long thought settled.