White Paper: Paternalism and Protection, Women and Men

November 21, 2018

by Richard McGowan, Ph.D.

“Moral virtue belongs to all of them; but the temperance of a woman and that of a man are not the same, nor their courage and justice, as Socrates thought.” (Aristotle, Politics, 1260a 21-2)

Decades ago, when I was an undergrad and the world was different, what with society being more attentive to one sex over the other, many students set aside a day to skip classes and protest the Viet Nam War. Some students, however, preferred to attend class instead of gather on the quad and chant slogans. It’s not that all those who attended class were in favor of the war so much as they chose to do what they came to college for, get an education.

We could hear the noise outside, but the professor spoke over the commotion.

In burst a student, who proceeded to yell and gesticulate about how we should be out there with the protesters. I suspect he thought it was for our good and his exhortations would help us see the light.

The professor, on a Fulbright, was not sure what she should do about the intruder into her class.

One student, Bruce M., stood up from his desk and said, “We know what’s outside. We chose to attend class. Don’t interrupt us. Leave.”

What the intruder encapsulates is paternalism, the interference with another’s liberty and choices for the sake of that other person’s welfare, i.e., the good, happiness, needs, desires of the person. The other person’s consent or dissent regarding the interfering act is a matter of indifference or irrelevance to the paternalistic person. We could, as well, ask if the student who stood up to the intruder was paternalistic?

The paradigm of paternalism quite possibly is the old Hippocratic Oath of the medical profession. The physician swears that “I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required,” whether the patient consents or not, a ‘the doctor knows best’ approach to medical choice. Newer versions of the Hippocratic Oath recognize the necessity of choice by the patient and instructs the physician to attain informed consent before proceeding, a considerable improvement for the patient’s liberty.

The courts have a history of paternalism, too, especially regarding men and women. In 1872, Myra Bradwell was told that she could not practice law (U.S. Supreme Court, Bradwell v. The State, 83 U.S. 16 Wall. 130) The U.S. Supreme Court said that the “natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.” The Supreme Court followed the Bradwell decision in 1908 with the Muller v. Oregon ruling (208 U.S. 412), the case which limited a woman’s work hours—for her own good, of course.

In the Muller case, the Supreme Court observed that “history discloses the fact that woman has always been dependent upon man…she has been looked upon in the courts as needing especial care that her rights may be preserved.” The Court stated that “in the struggle for subsistence, she is not an equal competitor with her brother… She will still be where some legislation to protect her seems necessary.”

In other words, “it is impossible to close one’s eyes to the fact that she still looks to her brother, and depends upon him,” or, women need men to secure their own good, even if women’s choices and liberty are sometimes foreclosed.

Both strong and weak feminists railed against that sort of thinking—and with good reason. Paternalism interferes with autonomy and liberty. Philosophers took note of paternalism’s problems as the so-called women’s movement hit the 1960s. A quick search on Google Scholar shows that there were 579 articles between 1950 and 1959 for the topic, paternalism. The next ten years saw 1720 articles but the 1970s listed 5,024. Since 2010, over 17,000 articles are listed. Always alert for any breach in a person’s autonomy, philosophers quickly saw and understood the problems with and the ethical conundrums that paternalism would produce. For instance, when can someone legitimately interfere with another’s choices?

With little kids, the answer is easy: often. Grabbing a child as it runs into the street is proper and warranted. Dealing with adults is trickier.

For instance, I have a great friend, a female, and I always try to hold open the door for her. However, she often snorts in contempt and says, “I can do that for myself.” In my defense, I tell her that it is a matter of civility and that, if she noticed, I open doors to whomever is with or behind me, stranger or friend.

Is my act of opening a door an act of paternalism? She is a wonderful and capable woman, certainly not in need of my help to enter a building or room. Should men never assist women when a woman is capable of doing an act? Should men withdraw from acts of civility lest they be thought sexist? What about protection? Where were the men during Judge Kavanaugh’s youth who could have and should have stopped a man’s unwanted coercion of women for the man’s self-interest? And having brought up Judge Kavanaugh, I will refrain from pointing our how coercive and paternalistic mob rule can be in terms of interfering with freedom and coercing choices. Instead, I think of the kind of men John MacDonald described in 1964, the ones who want intimacy to “rest solidly on trust, affection, respect…because she is a woman, and valuable.”

And where might they be today? People may think helping women in tough situations is an intrusion—“she can take care of herself”—but wouldn’t helping a person, male or female, in a difficult situation be proper?

It is certainly true of men and women, though, that men’s secondary sex characteristics can typically provide greater protection. Therefore, men have a greater responsibility than women to use their strength to help people out of physical difficulties. I’d like to think Aristotle had in mind men’s strength when he wrote about courage, for men are more capable of taking greater physical risks on behalf of the good.

I do not think it is misplaced thinking to expect more from men. Our society seems to think so—and that means our society, including women, relies on men for protection, perhaps a paternalism of sorts but largely defendable. According to Pew Research, in 2015 the United States military on active duty was 84.5% male and 15.5% female. If 2013 FBI data are correct, then law enforcement employees are 73.4% men and 26.6% women. The Boston Globe, relying on data from the United States Department of Labor, reported that in 2017, men comprised 96.5% of firefighters. It also reported that women were 90% of the registered nurses, a ‘maternalistic’ occupation, a topic for another discussion.

The data suggest that our society, i.e., women and men, rely primarily on men for protection.

The legal history of the United States also suggests a special need for protecting women and not due to the condescending paternalism of early Supreme Court decisions. Of recent note, Joseph Biden’s “Violence Against Women Act” is an example of the perceived need for and actual protecting of women, even if, in 1993, men were about 1 1⁄2 times more likely to be the victim of violence compared to women. Also, if the data on Statista are correct, in 2013, people under the sentence of death are roughly 98% male and 12% female. Yet, corresponding data from the FBI show that homicide offenders are roughly 89 % male and 10% female. We should expect a higher percentage of women on Death Row but the sentencing appears to protect women compared to men. Scholars have noted the disproportion with regard to capital punishment and the sexes for some time now. For instance, Gruhl, Welch and Spohn published a paper in 1984 entitled “Women as Criminal Defendants: A Test for Paternalism.”

My sense of it is that our society has the matter correct by way of occupations but wrong by way of legal punishment. I suggest that men, because of their secondary sex characteristics are well-disposed to help those in physical need, even at the risk of being charged with paternalism or sexism, even at the risk of being resented by women or others who need help. An exemplar of what that claim might mean in the real world can be found in the November 5, 2018 Chicago Tribune:

A yoga student is being lauded as a hero for wrestling with a gunman who entered a yoga studio in Florida and began firing.

Joshua Quick spoke to ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Sunday and said he grabbed Scott Paul Beierle’s gun after it jammed, and hit him. Tallahassee Police have identified Beierle as the man who posed as a customer to get into the studio Hot Yoga Tallahassee during a Friday night class and started shooting, killing two and wounding six. Police say Beierle, 40, then turned the gun on himself but authorities have offered no motive in the attack.

Quick said Beierle was able to grab the gun back and then pistol-whip him.

“I jumped up as quickly as I could,” said Quick, who had visible facial injuries. “I ran back over and the next thing I know I’m grabbing a broom, the only thing I can, and I hit him again.”

As the female yoga students fled to safety, Joshua Quick acted to protect others. Men have a greater responsibility to help the vulnerable and dependent, whomever they may be. A professor from another country embroiled in a contentious issue far from home, unsure of cultural practices? Bruce M. did what a man should do.


Boston Globe, March 7, 2017 https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/03/06/chart-the-percentage-


Bradwell v. the State 83 U.S. 16 Wall. 130 (1872)Chicago Tribune, November 5, 2018

FBI Uniform Crime Reporting https://www.ucr.fbi.gov
J. Gruhl, S. Welch, C. Spohn (1984) “Women as Criminal Defendants: A Test for Paternalism,” Political

Research Quarterly 37.3: 456-467
John D. MacDonald (1964), The Quick Red Fox, Ballantine Books, p. 64Muller v. Oregon 208 U.S. 412 (1908)

Statista: the Statistics Portal https://www.statista.com/statistics/199014/gender-distribution-of-prisoners- under-sentence-of-death-in-the-us-in-2009/


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