Banning Dads from Parent Groups: Some comments about philosophy

04/07/2011 By Shawn Burns

Start here for the background to this post: Daddy Dialectic: Parent with a Penis? Can’t Join the Golden Gate Mothers Group.

I don’t really have anything to add to the conversation except that it’s a hard philosophical position to take that would allow one to say “It is better that this world include mother-networking groups that exclude men and their children.”

What is the ethical system you adopt that lets you maintain that policy with consistency? Courses in Ethics tend to focus on three  broad categories of systems: Kantian, Utilitarian, and Virtue Ethics. I don’t think any of these broad systems offers a secure justification for the ban. If the ban is justifiable, it is going to have to be on some grounds other than our classic moral theories.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative

Kant’s ethical system is complicated, but for a slogan you are usually safe thinking about it like a modification of the Golden Rule: Act only on those maxims that can be universalized. If it’s not possible to universalize the maxim (the general intention behind the specific act), for any of a slew of reasons Kant lays out, then the action is not a moral one.

What kinds of maxims might the Golden Gate Mothers Group be operating under? Maxims are ways of expressing actions as intentional statements: “I will do X for R reasons.” The action in the GGMG case is “Exclude Men”, and the reasons are to do with comfort and security of new mothers (as far as I can tell from the Daddy Dialectic post). Can such a maxim be universalized, to pass a Kantian test for moral worth? The universalizability test comes in a few stripes, but the last two both have to do with the possibility of willing the maxim, that is willing to perform X for R, in a world where everyone holds the same maxim. What if everyone, for the purpose of promoting the comfort and security of new mothers, excluded men from their groups? Imagine that is the way the world works. So, then, I form a group, and I try to will the maxim “I will exclude men for the purpose of promoting the comfort and security of new mothers.” Can I actually engage my will, unproblematically, to do so? I must be able to, if the maxim is universalizable. But I don’t think I can, if for no other reason than I would have to will that I exclude myself from my own group. Why would I even try to start a group in the first place, if I just had to exclude myself? The maxim fails the universalizability test on the grounds that it is impossible to will if it’s a universal law. (There are other ways a maxim might fail, but since it only takes one, I’ve only mentioned one.)

Of course we’re stuck with either taking Kant’s word that the universalizability test is a good one for determining the morality of an action, or letting him convince us. He gives lots of reasons, and a very detailed argument, but his standard isn’t the only game in town. Further, there might be ways of rigging the game so that even by Kantian standards the GGMG manages to hold a maxim of action that does give its actions moral worth: changes to the maxim might let it pass all of the Kantian tests. There’s no obvious way to make those changes, that I can see, that still preserve the maxim formulation. But it’s possible one is out there.

Utilitarianism

An alternative to Kant’s very rigid, and unforgiving style of moral evaluation is utilitarianism. Often formulated in either of two ways, Act, and Rule, the general idea is that the Good is achieved through the maximization of something. That something is usually “pleasure” or “happiness”, understood in various ways. Act Utilitarians think an act is moral insofar as it results, specifically, in more good overall. Rule Utilitarians allow for some specific net-decreases in the Good, because the general policy they are disallowed under tends to increase good overall.

An Act Utilitarian analysis of the GGMG ban on men would simply (ha!) do the math: is more happiness gained through banning men from this group than from allowing them? If the calculation bears out that there’s more good in the ban, the ban is moral. It is a tricky thing to try to do a calculation like that, but I think a lot of people would have an intuition that the negative outweighs the positive: excluding kids outweighs making new mothers comfortable in group settings. But even if this turns out to be the case, the act might still be permitted on utilitarian grounds if considered as a rule.

A Rule Utilitarian analysis of the ban would strain a littler farther, and even recognize that in this case there might be a net decrease in goodness: the unhappiness of the men, the hurt feelings of the excluded children, the uneven distribution of resources, might all add up to more good lost than gained in comfort and safety for new moms. But since maintaining such a ban as part of a more general policy of creating comfortable spaces, reducing male oppression of women in social spheres, or even just tipping the scales of social justice the other way for a while to even out history, the specific ban in GGMG might be permitted.

In both cases, though, it’s really difficult to see how the calculations could fall on the side of maintaining the ban. Even in the Rule case, what is the rule that is really being forwarded by this specific ban? Is it really to reduce male oppression? Then why not let unoppressing males in? Is it because it’s too hard to tell who they are? Why not have a probationary period? The blanket ban, at the least, seems like a nuclear solution to what might be a severe problem, but not one that cannot be addressed through less discriminatory policies. The Rule, whatever it is that is supposed to be doing the justifying of the ban, most likely does not work in the way it would need to in order to increase the good overall.

Virtue

Both of the prior accounts have focused on whether the act of the ban itself is a good one. Virtue ethicists, following Aristotle, focus rather on the question: “What makes a life good?” There are lots of answers, but Aristotle, at least, started with the idea that human beings have a function, and whatever enables this function is a good, a virtue, and the realization of this function in the best way possible is good in itself. Virtues are cultivated through habitual choices, until the person can say they’ve had a flourishing, purpose-fulfilling life. Acting viciously harms the integrity of the agent, making it more difficult for them to achieve their human purpose.

Which virtue is demonstrated by enacting a ban on men in a parenting group? Aristotle has a long list of virtues to be cultivated, and other philosophers have embellished or contracted his list over time. But it doesn’t seem easy to point to the policy-makers here and say “They promoted their virtue of X by instating the ban.” Is it something like “caring for others”? Not quite, since at the same time it might demonstrate that virtue, it also demonstrates its opposite with regard to the men. Is it something like “protecting the helpless” (modified  in such a way to recognize that this is a social setting and not a gladiatorial one)? It’s possible. But at the same time the policy-makers demonstrate that virtue by protecting the women in the group from potential psychic or physical harm, they again demonstrate its opposite, but this time with regard to the children of those banned men.

It’s not that the policy demonstrates viciousness rather than virtue overall. It’s that it’s too hard to see such a policy as a reflection of virtue alone. And to pass the moral test here, the person must be acting virtuously, developing habits of character that will promote the fulfillment of the human purpose. Acting viciously does not do this.

The problem with a virtue-ethics approach to this situation is that it doesn’t focus on the act, but on the individual: Is the person good? No one wants to say “no”, I think, especially when we don’t really know the policy-makers personally. But from within virtue ethics itself, if it takes meeting certain criteria in order to be good, and it seems the criteria aren’t being met, then a philosophical “no” might be permissible. The problem is that so many of us fail to meet that standard every single day. If everyone gets tarred with the same brush at the end of the day, it’s hard to credibly complain that GGMG policy-makers aren’t virtuous and use that as an argument for change.

Conclusion

I think the policy banning men from joining the Golden Gate Mothers Group is philosophically weak. It doesn’t seem defensible on any of the classic moral grounds, and it would be very difficult for someone to adopt a consistent moral perspective on the world that included this ban as a specific element.

It is probably based on something like an Act Utilitarianism justification, that the immediate good outweighs the immediate bad. Many policies we develop in our social and political lives seem to start from this very intuitive form of moral reasoning, so it’s not at all unrealistic to think that this was in the back of the policy-makers’ minds when they were deliberating. If pressed, supporters of the policy might retreat to a Rule Utilitarianism defense, because when everything is laid out it is hard to point to something like “comfort and security of new moms” as an overwhelming good compared to the other evils the policy stirs up in that calculation. But even a Rule Utilitarian defense would suffer from some pretty significant problems when we lay out exactly what the general rule is that is being appealed to in order to justify specific decreases in goodness.

On Kantian grounds I think the ban fails because it cannot be universalized. It cannot be universalized, specifically, because a world in which we ban men from groups for the comfort and security of new moms would be one in which I couldn’t will that maxim while also trying to create every other group I conceive. (This might seem like a trick, or a semantic game. But there’s a lot of machinery in the Kantian moral theory that all boils down to a few tests. Without putting the machinery on display, the method doesn’t seem utterly convincing. But it’s not a good use of this time to explain every complication in the theory. That’s what a course (or four) on Kantian ethics is for. The simple picture of universalization will have to do for now.)

The strongest justification for the ban might be on Virtue Ethics grounds, but not because it really employs the principles of virtue ethics or assumes virtue ethics are really at work in our moral calculations. Rather, because the standards of virtue are so high, the virtue of the policy makers doesn’t seem quite so reduced by the ban when compared with every other person and the ways in which those people violate their own virtues. But for this justification to actually hold water we’d have to be convinced that virtue was the right moral standard in the first place, and that even though it was the right moral standard we didn’t really care that much. If we cared too much, even slight differences in virtue would seem glaring and grounds for actual change. A kind of lazy acknowledgement of the value of virtue might permit the ban on men, but only because it’s not worth the trouble to really enforce a moral system we only care a little about.