A Philosopher's Blog

Being a Man III: Manly Morals

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 29, 2010
Hume made the famous is-ought distinction

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When considering what it means to be a man one approach is to consider what is meant when someone says “be a man.” This is usually presented as either a criticism (in response to non-manly behavior) or to provide inspiration and guidance (in the hopes that the person will man up).

This sort of command is a normative imperative. That is, it tells a person what he should do and contains an element of value judgment. Presumably being a man is good while not being a man is bad (at least for those who would be men). This part is easy enough. The challenge lies in figuring out how to obey such an imperative-that is, how to be a man.

Since this is a normative imperative it seems reasonable to consider that there might be a moral aspect to being a man. Aristotle, for example, rather explicitly links being a man and being good. As he sees it, a man is a rational animal and to properly be a man is to develop excellence as a rational being. This, of course, assumes that there is a human nature and that what people should do is to achieve excellence in accord with this nature.

The idea that there is a natural foundation to being a man does have considerable appeal-after all, being a male is a matter of objective biology and it is very tempting indeed to link being a man and being a male. However, there are a few problems here. First, being a male is simply a matter of biology and seems to have no normative aspects to it.  After all, to be a male simply involve having the right parts (be these macro parts or micro parts like genes). Second, there is the old Humean injunction against deriving an “ought” from an “is” (although Hume never really gives an argument for this).  From ‘I am a male” it seems problematic to infer what I should do. Third, it seems to be at least possible that a person could be a man without actually being male. For example, a soul could perhaps be a man but would lack the biology to be a male. Despite these problems considering the nature of maleness might be an avenue worth exploring. In fact, Male Studies has gained some slight traction as an academic discipline in the United States (and is distinct from Men’s Studies).

However, if a foundation for being a man cannot be found in biology, perhaps it can be found in ethics. That is, perhaps being a man is a matter of being good. This idea does make sense. After all, when an intuitive list is assembled of what it is to be a man it will tend to include the classic virtues: honesty, integrity, courage, compassion, strength, loyalty, and so on. Obviously enough, women an children (and genderless beings) could also share this traits, thus indicating that they are not unique to men. This is hardly surprising since being a good person and being a good man would seem to overlap a great deal.

But, it might be asked, are there virtues specific to men (the manly virtues) that cannot be possessed by non-men? An easy (and easily refuted) manly virtue might be that of being a father. However, this can be refuted by arguing that this would fall under being a parent and also that a woman (or even an intelligent machine) could have the qualities of being a father. We already distinguish between being the biological father of a child and being a father (for example, in cases of adoption). As such, it would seem that a non-man could be a father and fulfill the functions of that role.

It seems possible that all the manly virtues could be possessed by people who would not, on the usual view of things, men. After all, there are women who seem to be better men than most men. For example, I know many female athletes who are physically and mentally tougher than the majority of men. They also exhibit the classic virtues of integrity, character, and so on.

Of course, these female athletes are still regarded as women and perhaps this indicates that there are some virtues that are unique to men. Then again, it might be that they are regarded as women not because they lack certain manly virtues but because they are still biologically female. As Locke noted in his discussion of personal identity, people can mean many things by terms like “man” (and presumably “woman”). As such, part of the problem might be that “man” and “woman” are used to refer to normative roles (ethical, legal, and gender) but also to biology.  As Locke suggests, clearing up our terminology can go a long way in clarifying matters.  I will not, however, endeavor to do this here.

One plausible approach is that being virtuous is largely neutral when it comes to men and non-men. So, for example, being a good man and being a good person would be the same thing. However, there still seems to be a residue of manliness left to account for. This is, to be honest, mainly just a feeling that there is still something to being a man that is distinct from being good in the general sense. That is, if a person were perfectly good there would still be some qualities that would be needed to truly be a man.

However, I must confess that suspect this feeling is primarily the product of my social conditioning. I have, as has everyone, been trained and conditioned to accept that certain roles and behavior are fitting for men and others for non-men. As such, perhaps the residue I mention is merely the results of these smudges on the lens of reason.

That said, this interests me enough to ask this question: what virtues and qualities could be unique to men? Naturally, I am not asking what is unique to males-this is a different question.

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3 Responses

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  1. freddiek said, on April 29, 2010 at 7:00 am

    “what virtues and qualities could be unique to men?”

    “Unique” and “specific” in the sense that no non-man, anywhere, ever, has, could, or ever would, possess those virtues and qualities? Great question. I’m anxious to read the answers to that one.

  2. michaeleriksson said, on April 29, 2010 at 7:23 am

    Interestingly, the etymology of “virtue” goes back to the latin “vir” (“man”, see e.g. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=virtue).

    However, I would also consider the word “man”: In a modern sense a man is a male human; in an older sense it often was a human in general. From this angle, questions like “When is a man a man?” or “How many roads must a man walk down?” can take a drastically different meaning. It could also be argued that “man” should not be seen in opposition to “woman”, but to “boy”—in fact, I suspect that this is the differentiation that is intended most often.

    In the end, there may well be virtues that are more or less common in the respective sexes; however, IMO, virtue is something sufficiently abstract that any characteristic that is virtuous, is so irrespective of who carries it. Further, while I have myself pondered the question of what makes a man a man (in particular, in my late teens/early twenties, when I was not sure whether I was a boy or a man), I nowadays feel that the more relevant question is what makes an adult an adult.

    (Which is not in anyway to say that I buy into the gender-feministic bull-crap about gender roles: There are, on average, very large and largely inborn differences between men and women—I just do not consider them relevant for the determination of what is virtuous/good/right/whatnot.)

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 29, 2010 at 11:22 am

      The meaning of “man” is certainly part of the problem. After all, “man” means many things. As you point out, it can mean an adult, male human. Or the whole species. Or it can be more of a normative thing-what it is to be a good or proper man. And so on.


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