With all of the recent media reports about powerful dirtbag men assaulting and harassing women, and all of the outrage over it, a common criticism is that men only think of women as appendages to men, not as whole persons in their own right. So when a man says, “As a father of a daughter, I’m appalled [at dirtbag X’s behavior],” he is not being woke, as it were, to injustice toward women. He only cares about women if they remind him of his daughter, or his wife, or his sister, or his mother; he doesn’t view women as truly human as men.

I understand why this formulation–“If woman X were my daughter/sister/etc., I (as a man) wouldn’t want someone to treat her that way; therefore, treating women that way is wrong”–bothers some people. Men often use the women in their lives to prove a point about women in general, not acknowledging that their daughters/wives/whoever are individuals and don’t necessarily represent women in general. (I see this a lot in Mormonism. “My wife is a very strong woman, and she doesn’t want the priesthood.”) But the problem isn’t men thinking of the women in their lives who are personally important to them and concluding that women in general deserve respect, but men thinking of the women in their lives as the exception: “My women are important. Other women are not.”

I get why it troubles people, men thinking in terms of their women versus other men’s women, even if the conclusion is that all women should be treated with respect. Women are persons in their own right and should be treated with the respect due to any human, regardless of any men they might be related to. But I’m not convinced that all men who reference their daughters/wives/etc. really think in terms of “my women/their women”–not when their conclusion is that all women deserve respect. If all that mattered were the woman’s relationship with some man, the degree to which she deserved respect would depend a great deal on how much deference that man required. But I believe most men who think of their daughters when pondering the treatment of women in general actually are relating to their daughters as people, not some form of (their) property.

Imagine Donald Trump saying, “As the father of a daughter, I’m outraged.” He wouldn’t. His own daughter is the exception. He has said he’d date his daughter if she weren’t his daughter (and I think we can safely take “date” as a euphemism). She’s a person to him only because she’s his; she’s not a reminder to him that women are people.

Maybe it’s not as morally evolved to have to think of one’s daughters and wives before thinking of women in general as people. But it’s much better to have men who bother taking this extra step–“my daughter is a person and she’s a woman; therefore, women are people”–than men who never get to the place where they can empathize with women at all. And I’m not convinced that it is less evolved. Our relationships are a huge part of our humanity. It’s not just men who find their personal relationships helpful for increasing their empathy generally. As a woman, having sons has definitely helped me relate better to men and have more empathy for men in general. It’s not that women who don’t have sons can’t have empathy for men, but for me, this helped. I don’t think that makes me morally inferior. I think it means I’ve evolved as an individual.

As I said to a friend, when the subject is abuse or discrimination against the disabled, I sometimes reference my children with autism. I don’t do it because my autistic children aren’t persons in their own right; it’s only to express why this issue is personal for me. It’s not that I wouldn’t be outraged by such stories if I didn’t have a personal connection. (I mean, I know I was outraged by child abuse before I had children.) The point of mentioning my children is not to appeal to my own authority as a parent, just to express a personal stake in the story. We all have relationships of some kind, and unless we’re sociopaths, our relationships are important to us. So while referencing one’s father(of-daughter)hood can be problematic in some cases, it is not inherently problematic. What matters is the conclusions one draws from that experience.