Banning Dads from Parent Groups: Some comments about philosophy

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.


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.


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.


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.


16 thoughts on “Banning Dads from Parent Groups: Some comments about philosophy”

  1. I agree with everything. Except that you seem to think that the policy is "philosophically weak". To me, it just seem weak, that is, rationally weak, that is, possibly not rational. I don't see that that has anything to do with philosophy.

    1. I used "philosophically" there instead of "rationally" because rationality

      is a loaded term outside of philosophical circles. It comes with old gender

      comparisons between rational men and irrational women, and I didn't want to

      have the discussion even hint at turning in that direction.

  2. You always lose me a bit when you talk philosophy (cause I not smarts) but I went and read the original post and to me the GGMG just comes across as petty and elitist. While I can appreciate that the dynamic is different when only women come together, I also believe that a group whose purpose is supposed to be for the benefit of children should think first and foremost of all the children and not of any possible moments of discomfort or awkwardness. I sincerely hope that the attention GGMG is getting will have them re-evaluate their position and make apologies for forgetting their "manners".

  3. Bravo, Backpacking Dad. You've demonstrated the ethical value of your graduate degree. And made a few other good points, but especially why male primary caregivers should keep Kant in their back pocket.

    1. But can a primary parent's pocket properly keep Kant quite contained, or could a Panopticon prison possibly be preferred?

  4. A few thoughts…

    The group is asserted to exist to aid women to parent, which is a good.
    The means, limiting the group to women, is asserted to further that goal, but it has consequences that are not good, i.e., excluding men parents from access to the group's valuable parenting aid.
    Other means that reach the desired good without the negative consequence would be preferable, as a higher good, leading to greater happiness.
    Other untapped means exist.
    One subordinate good apparently desired by (some in) the group is, to pick a term, the “comfort” of (some of) its women members. The assertion that this comfort is a value to be accommodated is suspect. The assertion that that comfort is best achieved by excluding men is suspect. Perhaps one preferable/greater good would be for the group to seek to aid those women to resolve the discomfort, rather than accept the negative of refusing parenting aid to all men. Said differently, maybe the uncomfortable women will discover greater happiness via a different approach that has as a coincident allowing men. If a little more thought/work gains you a greater good over a lesser good, it makes sense to test it and weigh the cost/work versus the gain in happiness.
    What may you do? The value of freedom to associate with whom you choose means that you are free to (“may”) choose to exclude men, but that it is not somehow forbidden does not make it moral or right. A gov't funded group will be more restricted, but a private group won't be prevented from doing a lot that is not nice.
    What ought you do?

    The exclusion of men appears to be a pretext for a subsurface true aim. Is it true that the assertion that the group's aim is best served by excluding men parents who desire its aid? What does your gut say? For example, you may desire to form a club of, say, “real Americans,” because you claim you are virtuously proud of your country. But if you discover that your instant gut reaction on hearing that the outsider in question who wishes to join is a Canadian is even slightly different from hearing that the outsider is Mexican, then your motive is not truly “I love America” but something less virtuous, and your asserted aim sounds like a pretext. An element of good character is to be who you say you are, particularly in front of kids. “Girls just wanna have fun” is also a pretext, and yes, lazy.

    Is members' happiness a higher good than excluded men's unhappiness? That appears to violate the Golden Rule to treat others as you would want to be treated. How would you justify to your child why their (or your) friend's SAHD can't belong? If you model that a man can be told he can't belong because he is a man, why wouldn't your child then fairly conclude that the same can be valid for excluding girls sometimes?

    How does the club define woman? How do you enforce this? It may be true that you rightly conclude that you derive happiness from the company of women and the children in their care. However, at some point, as the population of women club members grows, here some 4,000, the likelihood is high that some of those women are less than some men to match your image of the people who you enjoy being with. At some point, the definition of woman doesn't fit your asserted good. What combination of gender identity, sexual orientation and biological sexual “parts” does the club accept or not? If anyone else's attributes make you “uncomfortable,” do you feel that is a valid criteria for excluding a prospective member? If one member of 4,000 is “uncomfortable”? Ten? Fifty-one percent?

    Groups just for women have been asserted as a means for the value of repairing unfairness or disadvantages to women (“male oppression”). True, fair does not always also mean equal. The boy may not join the girls' basketball league despite his great hook shot, but the girl may play on the football team if she's got the skills to make the team. The assertion has been made that some men will dominate. But reparation comes close to eye for an eye—too easily invites viciousness, as in vice—and who keeps the score sheet? This club does not appear to be asserting that eventually men will be admitted when things have been evened up (whatever that might mean). And I hope no one is telling their child to go smack the kid who just smacked them. With discrimination, similar to bullying, at some point someone must say stop. A better means, and a more defensible behavior model, for righting discrimination against women is to start non-discriminating. A group of this size has the power to assert itself in ways analogous to the bystander-crowd that acts in unison to stop a bullying incident by jointly asserting a different value. Separating people, by gender or bully/victim, masks the problem without remedying it. A remedy will result in greater utilization if women and men and their children benefit.

    Vote with your feet. Don't join a club that defines belonging in a way you don't like. Dare to speak up. Expand the pie. Find others or start a club with the same goals but that values belonging over discomfort.

    Teach kids that the happiness from being protected from things that make you uncomfortable is short lived. Real happiness is a byproduct of choosing near term to take on the un-fun work toward a greater good, for seeking virtue, for maxims that work.

    We all can do better.

  5. As a member of a couple mothers groups that exclude dads (not the GGMG though I do live in Bay Area), I have to say that I would not belong to these mothers groups if they included dads because they would have no purpose to me. I can't ask a dad about incontinence after childbirth, or sex after childbirth, or keloids after a C-section, or breastfeeding issues (yeast infections, abscesses), or pumping at work, or any number of things that are unique and personal to women. I can't even ask another mom about these things if a man is present to overhear. What do men think we talk about that they are so eager to join mothers' groups? Do you really want to participate in conversations about Kegel exercises? or about the funny discharge I got from my breasts yesterday?

    If mothers' groups all included dads, then we would have no forum to discuss these issues. My mother (age 67) talks about how lucky I am to have a mothers group because she had to navigate all these "mother" issues alone and sometimes to her detriment. Surely the inclusion of men would again isolate women again — leaving them unable to discuss in a group the unique experiences of women.

    Show some initiative like the original mothers' group founders and start a co-ed parenting group or a dads' only group if that's what you want.

    1. It's called a mothers group, but it's not a circle of conversations about

      post-partum issues. It's playdates, parenting resources, professional

      recommendations. Although you might only join a group like this for the

      conversations about incontinence, there are a ton of other reasons to join.

      If you wouldn't join a group like this that permitted men to join because

      you don't want to talk about biology in front of them, that's

      understandable, but it's not a nail-in-the-coffin argument against letting

      men join.

      If I call my group the "Whitey McWhiterson White Persons Only Let's Talk

      About White People Group" but then hold functions, activities, and provide

      resources for members that have no logical relationship to their

      whiteness, but instead use whiteness as a reason to exclude non-white

      members for so that the white people don't feel uncomfortable talking about

      their whiteness, I'm using an unethical standard of exclusion from the *

      resources*, even if at the end of the day everyone decides it might be okay

      to have a group that just sits around talking about whiteness and white

      people issues.

      1. You're right on about dads getting short changed on resources. I remember when my oldest was a 4 year old in preschool. Everyday I would drop him off and pick him up. One day a woman pulled me aside as if telling me a secret. She said that some of the children went to a trampoline gym on day off school at a certain time each week. Well that was an understatement. Every single child from the class was there and obviously all of them were familiar with the place. That was when I first realized that I would always find out about things too late. That I would perpetually be too late to sign my kids up for activities their friends were doing. That I would have to explain many times to my children that many activities are arranged for the moms to get together and that they have nothing to do with purposely leaving someone out.

    2. The statement "Surely the inclusion of men would again isolate women again — leaving them unable to discuss in a group the unique experiences of women" is at the root prejudicial, and hence is the basis for the comfort with discrimination in this case. In all truth, you can't know that allowing interested men to participate in such a group would have this effect. There are men who have other issues with early childhood parenting that are just as urgent and personal, but from which others would benefit in knowledge of. Gay adoptive fathers? Transgendered parents? There are a lot of assumptions about what spooky effect "men" would have, should they even choose to join. I'd go so far as to say that, even if a straight, white male working dad who was legitimately concerned with his wife's or sister's post-partum issues wanted to join a group, then he should be allowed. Everyone would benefit.

    3. The statement “Surely the inclusion of men would again isolate women again — leaving them unable to discuss in a group the unique experiences of women” is at the root prejudicial, and hence is the basis for the comfort with discrimination in this case. In all truth, you can’t know that allowing interested men to participate in such a group would have this effect. There are men who have other issues with early childhood parenting that are just as urgent and personal, but from which others would benefit in knowledge of. Gay adoptive fathers? Transgendered parents? There are a lot of assumptions about what spooky effect “men” would have, should they even choose to join. I’d go so far as to say that, even if a straight, white male working dad who was legitimately concerned with his wife’s or sister’s post-partum issues wanted to join a group, then he should be allowed. Everyone would benefit.

      1. Speaking of discomfort, if I see a man with a little girl who needs to use a public restroom, I tell him to go ahead and take her into the women's side. He may hesitate, but I'll assure him I'll man (!) the door. I want a girl to use the ladies' room regardless of the gender of her caretaker. I don't want her in the men's room picking up on her male caretaker's uneasiness while she's in “male” territory. I don't want her to get the message that him in the ladies room is so terrible that her in the men's room is preferred. No, it's not better if I take her for him. My female gender shouldn't trump his role or ability to assure and supervise her. If a woman comes along who's uncomfortable, she can wait. If she fusses, that little girl will see one woman tell another woman to chill, that that man is fine, and that little girl shouldn't have to use the men's room so the woman doesn't have to be uncomfortable while a man is caring for that girl. Incidentally, most women smile and are fine with it, and many march right on in.

  6. Nothing like a philosophy on mean-mommy-groups to make me feel dumb. I say make your own group- and exclude them. I'm sure that's beside the point.

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