In our new world of choice Dad seems to have gone, departed, left the scene, flown the coop. Many dads are literally gone, and they make up the statistics of male abandonment, the dead-beat dads whom we denounce. Other dads are physically present but are no longer really dads. They have lost their authority as dads and become something much smaller, feebler, and ridiculous. Sensitive males, they are: new-age guys.

I exaggerate, if you look around at the many functional dads who still do what dads used to do. But I do not exaggerate if you consider the trend of things and the dominant ideas in our time, particularly the idea of choice.

What is the new world of choice? It is something more general than the pro-choice position in the abortion debate, though it does have to do with women because it arises from the movement of women’s liberation that began in the 1960s and 1970s. It is women who have deprived themselves of dads. Or, better to say, feminist women have done this.

The women’s movement wanted above all to liberate women from any definition of woman. All previous definitions had left women dependent on men, suffering under them and behind them as the second sex (the title of Simone de Beauvoir’s famous book). The feminists did not propose a new definition of women, one that would put women over men and thus reverse the injustice of millennia and repay men for always having oppressed them.

Perhaps they could not think of a new definition powerful enough to overturn male oppression; perhaps there was none to be conceived. Instead, they rebelled against definitions as such, not only definitions of woman, and adopted a theory (derived from Nietzsche, one of the most egregious male chauvinists who ever lived) which says that a woman can construct her own identity. Under that theory she can and must choose, and she chooses not only the life that suits her self but also her very self.

Here is radical freedom for women. They get to choose the principles guiding their lives as well as the lives themselves. They not only cannot be ruled by anyone else — by men, that is — but they also cannot even be judged from the outside. With so extreme a conception you cannot speak of what is in a woman’s interest because that implies woman is a definite being. To do so implies that woman has an essence, and the feminist theorists denounce nothing so shrilly as “essentialism.” In this situation it becomes difficult to make a choice because when you do so, having chosen, you reduce the range of choices previously open to you.

If choice is what you want, it is paradoxically better not to choose, so as to keep your options open. If someone does choose to do something important, like get married, people today tend to call that choice a commitment. A commitment is a step taken in a certain direction that need not have been taken, that could have gone either way. It is not following your duty, nor pursuing an end, nor even taking pleasure in satisfying an inclination. It is quite arbitrary: You just decided.

Consequently it remains a question whether you will decide to honor your commitment. To do so would be consistent with your self as you have made it, but we know also that the self is a bundle of inconsistencies. If it weren’t, it might be as fixed as an essence — and we must never have an essence.

The exhalations from this expanded notion of choice make up our moral climate today, except in the most conservative religious (or military) settings. My statement may once again seem extreme, but that is because it is intended to describe the logic of choice and the idea of radical autonomy it supports.

The idea is not confined to feminists. It has spread to pop psychology and it infects the fancy ethical theories devised by professors. Its influence is seen in all the attention paid to one’s precious identity, and in the simple fact that young people these days are waiting until well into their thirties before making a “commitment” to marriage. The consequence of putting choice foremost is that no woman has to put up with anything she doesn’t like. In particular, her autonomy protects her from the unreasonable demands of her husband; she does not have to tolerate his bad habits or even his foibles. When everything you encounter in your life may be judged by the standard of whether you would choose it, the chooser becomes more choosy.

Now, what about men? How will they react to the world of choice? It is amazing, but I think true, that feminists have not seriously put this question to themselves. They seem to haw been confident that men would adjust to an equal and independent status for women without too much difficulty. They believed their own rhetoric when they said that alleged sexual differences were nothing but stereotypes, as if stereotypes were easy to erase. But most of all they relied on sensitivity. This was their implicit answer to the question they did not face squarely.

Instead of lording it over women, men would be sensitive to them. Male sensitivity would replace male authority, and a good thing too. Sensitivity as opposed to authority is unselfish. The man in authority pretends to be acting for your good, but in fact he is pleasing himself. If only he can be made sensitive to women in the same way that women are sensitive to men — observing what they do, anticipating their likes and dislikes, sympathizing with their troubles-then the problem will be solved. Reversing the words of Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, the feminists asked, “Why can’t a man be more like a woman?”

Like Higgins, they found no answer. The feminists have successfully put across their idea that men and women are exchangeable. They did this not with public protest in the streets (like the suffragettes), but by the quieter, more feminine method of “raising consciousness,” which teaches men equality by embarrassing them. The result has been triumph of a sort: Many or most American men are now embarrassed for having denied women their equal rights. Men’s sensitivity both reveals and conceals their embarrassment. They feel obliged to make amends and at the same time to show they mean to avoid such behavior in the future.

Or is there something more sinister lurking in the soul of the sensitive male — the thought, perhaps, that the new dispensation might be convenient for him too? It should have been suspicious to feminists that they gained their point so easily. Long-established prejudices, however unjust, do not fade away as quickly and painlessly as male chauvinism seems to have done.

President Clinton shows the situation clearly. One could not find a man more favorable to feminists and more sensitive, as we say, to their issues. But his issue-sensitivity is combined with personal insensitivity that reminds one of the old Adam — and the old chauvinist.

Not only was he reckless with the happiness of his family, and with the example he sets for the country — these are traditional male failings- but he also treated a woman as an inferior sex object. That is no peccadillo; in the new feminist canon law it is mortal sin. That the acts were consensual makes them still worse, for it means that the President corrupted a woman’s soul to get her to consent, which feminists would say she could never do on her own. The President illustrates both the sensitive male and the reprobate male’s reaction thereto.

Of course feminism did not create male irresponsibility, and it is not the only cause that Dad is so often no longer around. But it gave him a license to take off. Women’s liberation is liberation for men too, and not of the best in men. The feminists should have known that a tendency to promiscuity is in the nature of a male. You can call that tendency a “stereotype” and suppose that it need not be. But what if you are wrong? You are taking a big risk with the happiness of women who do not want to be deserted.

And the feminists should also have known that democracy by itself is hostile to paternal authority as it tends to make women equal to men and children equal to parents. That was writ- ten by Tocqueville in 1840 — so no excuse for ignorance!

Democracy needs to find a way to keep Dad at home instead of leaving his equal wife to fend for herself and take care of the children. Somehow men, for all their faults, are still handy to have around. A deep voice, a manly calm, an occasional frown can have an effect that no amount of help with the housework can achieve.

Male responsibility needs to be built on the strength of men as men. It needs to transform the typical male vice of wandering (not always a vice, by the way) into the deliberate virtue of staying home. But the power of that virtue needs to use the energy of the vice by appealing directly and without apology to a man as a man.

The sensitive male is a pathetic weakling because his sensitivity is at odds with his maleness. He is not allowed to be a man in any responsible way, and so he shows his dignity, in the world of choice, by suiting himself. Until quite recently women were taught this obvious truth. Now, thanks to feminism, they have to learn it for themselves.