Against Chivalry

The thesis of this post is simple: Chivalry is bad. I think it is more praiseworthy to be extra courteous to others based on their attractiveness than based on their gender.*

*Don’t worry: I will try to justify this in a bit.

While riding a public bus for nearly every day of the past few weeks, I’ve been able to get a good sense of the bus dynamic. It is common that I’ll witness a man offering his seat up to a woman his age.* I understand offering your seat to a pregnant woman, an individual with a disability, or a senior citizen. I’ve done so myself. The cost to them of standing is vastly higher than the cost to you (assuming that my sense of the NPI demographic is fairly accurate); the benefit you get from sitting certainly doesn’t override the pain they are going through.

*I probably shouldn’t even use the term “woman” and “man” here: The vast majority of these bus riders are students or faculty no older than forty years old.

But, offering a seat to someone else purely based on gender (or an expectation to be offered a seat based on your gender) strikes me as wrong: It is needlessly discriminatory.* One possible justification for such chivalrous behavior is that the cost of standing for women is significantly higher for women than for men. I believe this is false. Women are not in such significantly worse shape than men that they merit any seat a man has and, even if they are, why should men be rewarding them for being out of shape by offering them a seat?** And, if you actually are discriminating based on the physical fitness of the relevant woman, wouldn’t it be quite insulting to a woman that you are choosing her—the out of shape one—to offer your seat?

*I say “needlessly” because there are certainly good forms of discrimination too. Discriminating between handicapped and non-handicapped individuals is one such form of discrimination. Of course, when to discriminate based on handicap is dilemma of its own as evidenced by Larry David Sunday night.

** One other note: Chivalry manifests itself in other ways, like holding doors or letting someone walk in front of you, that are even less dependent on physical fitness. So, even if you reject my premise that the difference isn’t significant, chivalry is about more than helping those who are in a disadvantaged position.

Admittedly, often chivalry isn’t done out of any noble motivation to help those with lackluster physical fitness but rather to signal to others that you are a good person. Or, even just “to be nice.” Some social norms that send a signal are beneficial: Saying “please” and “thank you” is a social norm, but it also is recognizing another person for a benefit they have conferred or are about to confer on you. Your gratitude for this benefit is signaled when you follow the norm and say the necessary words. But, offering a seat to a woman because she is a woman sends a signal based on an antiquated view of women as inferior: She ought to have this seat because she is a woman. It’s hard for me to understand how such a falsely discriminatory policy is indicative of someone being a good person. And, I don’t think “just being nice” makes the chivalrous man’s behavior any better. He’s still acting on the same premise as the signaler but is just basing his actions on tradition or the popular conception of “nice.” So, not only is the “nice” person acting on a faulty premise, but he is using a bankrupt methodology based on the actions of the blind collective.

At times, chivalry is downright rude. I’ve witnessed incidents where a man will hold a door open for several women but not for the man walking in behind them. They will actively discriminate against another man based solely on his gender. Is that really necessary?

I’m actually more receptive to exercises of forms chivalry that are less socially acceptable. Take the example of the man who only offers his seat to women he finds attractive.* He is not (implicitly or explicitly) subscribing to the view that women are inferior or blindly following a pretense of offering a seat to all women because they are women. Rather, he is behaving consistently based on the notion that offering a seat indicates interest in a woman; offering a seat is a fairly low-cost way of indicating that interest. There’s no false discrimination underlying the man’s motivation, there’s no following social norms for the sake of following social norms, and his intentions are obvious. While I don’t think he should be morally praised (well, unless you are using a hedonistic moral calculus), he deserves strategic praise. And, he certainly is more praiseworthy than the man who blindly discriminates based on gender.

*I told you I was going to come back to this!

Before concluding, I offer a couple of brief responses to potential criticisms:

  1. “The woman can always not take the seat, so what’s the problem?!” What I’m critiquing is not the woman choosing to sit or not. Sitting is more desirable so, given an offer, I don’t blame women for sitting down. The problem is with the offer the premise behind it, not the actual physical switch itself.
  2. “The more praiseworthy man is simply blindly giving up his seat based on women’s attractiveness, which is just as bad as blindly giving up his seat based on gender.”  I disagree that the “attractiveness” standard is blind. People need to gauge attractiveness based on each individual. Conceptions of attractiveness range from individual to individual (Although, there is more consensus among men than women.) Gender is—with a few exceptions—static; discriminating based on gender requires no thought or feeling whatsoever.

So, please, let’s stop praising chivalry.

13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John S on October 20, 2009 at 12:17 PM

    Men are physically stronger than women. This is a fact. They don’t get fatigued as easily. Hence, offering your seat or holding the door for someone less equipped for physical activity is a “nice” thing to do.


    • Posted by Josh on October 20, 2009 at 4:21 PM

      Two responses:

      1. Physical strength is different than endurance. There may be differences but I maintain the differences are not significant enough to merit holding the door or offering your seat.

      2. These activities don’t even come close to testing the limits of endurance for most people. It’s almost like saying members of Group A are generally more appreciative of differences in foods than members of Group B. So, if we want to tell the difference between a sausage and a slice of pizza, we should just select Group A members. The fact is even though the difference is relevant, it is relevant in such a trivial way that it doesn’t merit discrimination.


      • Posted by John S on October 20, 2009 at 4:45 PM

        Responses to your responses:

        1. Physical strength is different than endurance. OK, but men also generally have better endurance than women.

        2. Yes, standing and holding a door are not Olympic events. But I know from experience that some women DO get tired from standing a lot quicker than men do, even on bus trips of only moderate length. It doesn’t mean they are out of shape; it’s just different standards of physical activity are set for men and women. It’s not that women are necessarily incapable of doing these things, but that the exertion for them is greater than for men.


  2. Posted by Josh on October 20, 2009 at 5:11 PM

    2. From experience? Unless there’s something I’m missing, I don’t think you have much more experience than the rest of us men on the matter. And, you do qualify by saying “some women” but I could qualify and say that “some men” get tired a lot faster than “some women.” It’s a ridiculous comparison; the fact is if we take ALL men and ALL women w/o disabilities/pregnancy/etc. the differences are not THAT large and the point I’m making holds.


  3. Posted by John S on October 20, 2009 at 5:20 PM

    I can’t speak for your experience, but it’s just factually wrong for you to say that women don’t get tired more easily than men. Yes, even from standing for semi-long periods. Obviously there are exceptions, but on the whole, women find these activities more strenuous than men. Plus, you mention excluding pregnant women, but it’s not always easy or even possible to tell if a woman is pregnant. Granted, it’s a very small probability most of the time, but the cost of holding the door an extra second or offering up a seat is equally negligible.


  4. Posted by Dan on October 20, 2009 at 7:35 PM

    To John’s last – when the woman is not noticeably pregnant (i.e. showing), then the issue of being pregnant with respect to physical strength and stamina is not yet an issue, right? She just a woman who happens to have a couple of cells growing inside her. No big deal.

    To Josh – I tend to offer seats and hold open doors out of habit. On the latter, I do it for men too, essentially anybody passing through a door within dt of my passing. I don’t think I deserve praise for this, nor do I care if an individual doesn’t do so for me. Its just a habit and a norm I follow (somewhat blindly perhaps).

    Here’s a twist. There have been many times recently where I am in a group of people, and everyone rushes to sit (say on a tour with a large group). Then, some men relinquish chairs for women. A couple of women, when asked “do you want my seat?”, refuse and remain standing. When this happens, I actually feel embarrassed for having asked (and some guys actually press the issue and say “Hey, cmon why won’t you take my seat” – which is awful). They’re saying “no, I don’t need to be treated any differently; you got there first, (which is a good enough metric to determine who should sit down, so) its your seat.” When I see a woman do this, it actually DHV to me (I know thats usually supposed to be the other way around, but it gets the point across… i.e. its a positive signal for me) and makes me more interested in her (either just as a person or otherwise).


  5. Posted by priya on October 20, 2009 at 11:43 PM

    i more or less agree with you, josh, within your parameters. there are no real physical differences in ability to stand on a bus, as far as i am concerned (and if they exist, i would prefer them to be not acknowledged). but a man who offers a seat, as much as this may be by rote, is indicating that he’s conscious of and sensitive to his surroundings and your presence. this is a nice thing to see indicated. i think it says to women, ‘this is not a man who would not calmly wear his jacket while you’re cold, or eat the last bite of dessert.’ that is, it makes a man seem attractive – people tend to want to seem this way always, regardless of whether they are in the company of people they mean to attract.


  6. Posted by priya on October 20, 2009 at 11:44 PM

    * would calmly, obviously


  7. Posted by doc on October 24, 2009 at 2:19 PM

    Josh, I really do think that chivalry is about honor and courtesy in how men treat women. The presumption is that if men act this way, women will feel respected and will react in a similar respectful manner. I think it must start with the man and here’s why. It seems that there is a basic evolutionary element to chivalry that is not all that “good-intentioned”. If we look back to the middle ages and the knights that courted young lasses, methinks that part of their intention was sexual conquest. If one honors, respects, and acts kindly toward a young maiden, one might get laid or at the very least married. Now, I know this sounds a bit rude, but sexual desire (which you did allude to at one point) is at the basis of many forms of behavior that are quite civil and moralistic.
    After all these centuries I do believe that western society has evolved to the point where what once was an act of courtship is now simply a reflection of the norms and mores of western society. I think men and women just get along better when the former treats the latter with kindness, honor, and respect. (I don’t think men have this need nearly as much – men would much rather be recognized for achieving a goal). And isn’t that what it is all about anyway? I really don’t want to see you starting a brawl on the local bus in Chicago because you refuse to give up a seat to a damsel in distress. Sounds like the makings of an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm!


  8. Posted by Douglas on September 22, 2010 at 2:16 PM

    I assume that you, Tim, and John S are all notified of any comments on the blog? If not, then I should explain that I’ve been re-reading (or in some cases discovering) old posts as of late, having had a few slow days at work. (This is a re-reading, in case you were curious.)

    I think I generally agree with you. Here’s a hypothesis that probably comes into play at least some of the time: Men who offer their seats to women or the elderly are signaling that they are, well, men. The man who gives up his seat does so because he doesn’t need it, and perceives himself as stronger and more capable of standing than those around him. It’s also interesting to note that, and this is just from limited personal experience and observation, that men are more likely to stand even when there are plenty of empty seats, while a woman will be more likely to sit. Of course, this doesn’t always apply to men. As Dan mentioned, some women will reject the offer for a seat, and I think this functions exactly the same way. The woman is signaling that she is not weak and has a confident perception of her physical fitness.

    Of course, the obvious flaw with this is that you don’t often see men offering seats to their male peers, so certainly some type of blind gender discrimination exists. But I’m not trying to offer a complete explanation, just a factor that may come into play.

    Also, while Priya’s point is generally misguided, there is something to be said for signaling an understanding of social norms and manners. By not doing it, you’re not necessarily a rude or amoral person, but by doing it you demonstrate an adhesion to an “ethical” system–I’m using that word loosely, but I would suspect that there is a correlation between adherence to those kinds of social norms and to larger ethical beliefs.

    Finally, a stray thought occurs to me and I don’t know if it applies here–but I think that many people try to appeal to whatever gender they find attractive on a general basis, regardless of the attractiveness of the individuals involved (think, stereotypically, of a woman’s insistence on wearing make up or styling her hair regardless of her audience). Certainly this effort can increase or decrease based on the individuals, but it’s also possible that some men, out of the habit of always trying to appear attractive to females categorically, will offer a seat to a woman regardless of attractiveness simply to confirm to themselves that they are exhibiting the right type of social/sexual value.

    Thoughts? Did you manage to figure out the answer in this extended interim?


  9. Posted by Mary on November 21, 2010 at 3:25 PM

    I think that this is an interesting post, and as a modern, western woman I kind of agree with the point that Josh is making, especially when cross-referenced with Doc’s point about the origins of Chivalry being a courtship ritual. Personally, I thank anyone who opens a door for me, regardless of their gender, and will, in my turn, open the door for anyone else, their gender is irrelevant to me. It’s just my way of being nice, and since I work in hospitality, opening the restaurant’s stiff doors for people is part of my job (and it’s a great work out for the biceps, lol!).

    As for being offered a seat on a bus, this rarely ever happens to me, but if it does, I always say no, exactly because I am young (27) and strong and I don’t see why some poor man, who may have had a long day at work, has to give up his seat for me, just because… It is, as Dan says, because I don’t want to be perceived as weak, which I would assume most women would agree with. On the other hand, some women could think ‘oh, well, if the mug is willing to give up his seat for me, it’s his loss’. There are some women who do play the ‘I’m just a little woman’ card – it’s their way of making men feel important, and not having to get their hands dirty in the process. Conversely, even in this day and age, girls are brought up with a ‘if you want something doing, get a man to do it’ mentality, which I think is insulting to both men and women, but that’s another issue altogether… Personally I will offer my seat to the aged, children, pregnant women or parents with young children.

    Speaking of pregnant women, I had an illness which made me go from 9stone to 13stone in weight in just a couple of years, ages ago now, and I went out to see my folks in South Africa with my then boyfriend. I had IBS which caused my stomach to swell badly, and I carried all my weight on my front. Everyone, my parents included (!), thought was pregnant, and the worst part was when a woman offered me her seat on the airport bus, to the plane coming back to Blighty. It’s funny to look back on, and I am losing the weight, but I’ve since looked very closely at how a woman holds herself before assuming she’s pregnant. Lol!

    Chivalry aside, men and women are different, in all sorts of ways, especially physically, because we have to be smaller and retain more fat in order to have children. Also, when a woman, or most female animals for that matter, are with child, they are weaker and more vulnerable and so it made sense, from an evolutionary point of view, to have the male bigger and stronger so that he can defend the female and children, when she is at her most vulnerable. We need each other to survive, so where there is mutual and equal benefit, how can one be ‘better’ than the other?
    Also, women now have the tools to look after themselves, even during vulnerable times, so a bigger, stronger counterpart takes a massive backseat to the affectionate, gentle partner, lover and/or father which is what the average man’s role should be in civilized society. How men decide to express their masculinity is entirely up to them, hence football, wrestling, etc, but using women’s perceived ‘weakness’ and lesser physical strength as a benchmark for ‘superiority’ is not very chivalrous at all. What do you recon, Gents?


  10. Posted by Mary on November 21, 2010 at 3:59 PM

    Ooops! Posted twice by mistake. Best read the lower one, I’ve edited it better 🙂


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