Masculine Virtues - and Their Dark Side

Updated: Dec 7, 2021



Masculinity is anchored in biological sex differences

Our biological sex - being male or female - is an integral part of our humanity. Trying to ignore it would betray our most intimate nature. Gender may be a social construct, but it is not arbitrary but intimately linked to our sex. Therefore, telling men that being masculine is wrong is every bit as heartless as telling gays to stop liking people of the same sex.


Saying that masculinity is wrong and has to be eliminated is hateful and sexist.

What we need are guidelines to develop a healthy masculinity.


In my previous article The Different Minds of Men and Women, I presented evidence that there are psychological differences between men and women driven by the sex hormones. The most important are:

  1. Anger is stronger in men and more likely to lead to aggression.

  2. Men are more prone to risk-taking and less sensitive to fear.

  3. Men have higher pain thresholds and pain tolerance.

  4. Men prefer things while women prefer people.

  5. Men have better spatial abilities and mechanical reasoning, whereas women have better verbal abilities.

These characteristics of men appear in childhood and are driven by testosterone. While it is true that masculinity is a cultural construct, it is anchored in these biological differences. There are different ways to be masculine, but they all relate to these basic properties of maleness.


Uncontrolled maleness is dangerous because of the propensity of men towards aggression, risk-taking and valuing things over people. Hence, there has to be a healthy culture of masculinity that channels these male characteristics toward their beneficial side and teaches men to control their negative impulses.


But women have these virtues, too!

Talking about the positive side of masculinity is venturing into a minefield of political correctness. Saying anything positive about femininity - like women are more nurturing, empathetic, emotionally intelligent, have better verbal skills, etc. - is fine. However, when we try to do the same about masculinity, this is automatically taken as sexist. Because, if men are better at something, this necessarily means that women are inferior at that. And we can’t have that, can we? So we have another form of “me too”: if I say that something is a masculine virtue, women would immediately raise their hand and say “I have that virtue, too!”


We could call this “the women inferiority trap”. To avoid falling into it, we should consider the following:

  • The only way for men to avoid falling prey to the dangers of maleness (aggression, risk-taking, social isolation) is to cultivate compensatory virtues. Women do not have that need.

  • Because of biological sex differences, men gravitate more towards certain values than women. This is okay. Not everybody has to be the same.

  • The same virtue - for example, self-sacrifice and playfulness - may manifest in different forms in men and women.

  • Masculinity is not exclusive to men. Just as men can be feminine (nurturing, empathetic, communicative), women can have masculine virtues. It’s up to everyone to find their right balance of masculinity and femininity, yin and yang.

Here are eight virtues that I think embody healthy masculinity.


1) Integrity

“Integrity is the practice of being honest and showing a consistent and uncompromising adherence to strong moral and ethical principles and values.” (Wikipedia).

In my experience, men tend to be moral absolutists, developing a moral code and then adhering to it, whereas women tend to be moral relativists, changing their judgement according to the situation and the people involved. In other words, men tend to be idealists and women tend to be realists. This is probably because ideals and values are more like things and moral codes have an internal mechanism, which are things that appeal to the masculine mind.


During the formative years of their youth, good men develop a moral code to which they will adhere during their adult life.


Values related to integrity are honor - having a reputation for being reliable and adhering to one’s own standards - and honesty - speaking the truth and acting in a way consistent with it.


An important part of my moral code is intellectual honesty: valuing truth and being able to change my beliefs when presented with facts and logic.


The dark side

A moral code may become too rigid, making men behave like zealots and vigilantes. Men are more prone to enforce their moral values on others due to an evolved mechanism called altruistic punishment, which is enhanced by testosterone.


2) Courage

I would define courage as acting according to our moral values in the face of fear.

“Courage (also called bravery or valour) is the choice and willingness to confront agony, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation.” (Wikipedia)

The problem with this definition in Wikipedia is that it dissociates courage from ethics. This is a problem for men because we are naturally risk-prone and pain-tolerant, so we may put themselves in danger when there is no reason to do it - the foolhardy behavior often seen in young men. Men have a complicated relationship with fear. They may avoid it or seek it because it leads to a state of joyful excitement: the adrenaline rush.


Still, taking unnecessary risks can be justified, because courage needs to be developed by confronting our fears in a controlled situation. Was Alex Honnold being foolhardy when he climbed El Capitan without a rope? I think it would be a shame to dismiss what is one of the biggest athletic feats of all times. At a much more modest scale, I rock-climb and practice other dangerous sports like skiing and free-diving. The rewards of these sports are not just having fun, but also confronting my fear, learning about myself and training my emotional control. We cannot just wait to be confronted with a dangerous ethical quandary and expect that we will then do the right thing. If we don’t confront our fear on a regular basis and train our courage, it will not be there when we need it.


Courage as a virtue has an ethical dimension: it’s doing the right thing even when is dangerous. This has also been called “moral courage” defined by Wikipedia as “the ability to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, shame, scandal, discouragement, or personal loss.” Here, courage connects with integrity. We need to avoid doing wrong but also do right as dictated by our values. And that often requires courage.


The dark side

Apart from the foolhardy behavior that I mentioned above, a dark side of courage is when we try to impose it on others. The accusation of cowardly is one of the most shameful that can be leveraged to a man. Many boys and teenagers have been wounded when they get it from their fathers or their peers. This problem is being denounced these days as toxic masculinity.


However, we risk falling to the opposite problem: denying the value of courage altogether. I think the key is to have the freedom to confront our fear and develop our courage the way we want, not the way others tell us we should do it.


3) Stoicism and resilience

Stoicism means being impervious to pain. Men are prone to stoicism because they have higher pain thresholds than women. A deeper form of stoicism is to be able to carry on doing something despite it causing us pain. For example, many sports require a certain degree of pain endurance.


I refer here to stoicism with lowercase ‘s’. Stoicism with capital ‘S’ is an ancient philosophy of Greece and Rome that taught to develop Virtue by cultivating logic, emotion control, and working for the good of society.


Resilience is the ability to recover after an injury, trauma or setback. It is closely related to stoicism but different from it because it consists of the ability to go back to our normal state and to resume our effort after a trauma, instead of enduring pain.


Stoicism has a bad reputation these days, being considered part of toxic masculinity. However, it is necessary for integrity and courage because most worthwhile endeavors require effort and thus a certain amount of pain.


“A colossal swindle of the ‘New Age’ movement is the notion that gaining a state of effortless being and doing requires no effort. In fact, great conscious effort, discipline, and patience are normally required to enter the ‘flow zone’ where previous frightening challenges start taking on an aspect of relaxed ease.” - John Long, climber.

Unfortunately, our current culture of victimism sees weakness and vulnerability as virtues. This grew out of the tendency of Western culture to see pain as something that must be avoided. But pain is an inevitable part of human activities. Warrior cultures taught that pain must be understood and endured.


“Suffering builds character and impels you to penetrate life’s secrets. It is the path of great artists, great religious leaders, and great social reformers.” Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind.

The dark side of stoicism

Stoicism can be harmful when it is not based on understanding and accepting pain, but on ignoring and repressing it. This is particularly true when it comes to emotional pain.


4) Self-sacrifice

Masculine self-sacrifice is a healthy counterpart of the aggression and social isolation to which men are prone. It works together with integrity, courage and stoicism to impel men to act for the common good. History is full of examples of men that went to extreme self-sacrifice to defend their values. I am not just talking about first-responders and soldiers here, but also of men like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Dedicating one’s life to cultivate wisdom and virtue is a more subtle form of self-sacrifice, as done by sages like the Buddha, Lao-Tzu or the Stoics.


Women have their own form of self-sacrifice: the abnegation with which they engage in nurturing and care-taking.


The dark side of self-sacrifice

Sociobiology argues that males are expendable because once they have deposited their sperm into the females, they are no longer needed for the survival of the offspring. This is true for some species, but completely wrong for others in which both parents are need to take care of the offspring. In the case of humans, not only the parents but a whole tribe is necessary for children to survive for 15 years until their reproductive age.


Men are not expendable, but throughout history they have been treated as such. They are the hunters, the warriors, the workers and the soldiers that put their lives at risk. And, since risk acceptance is part of the male biology, self-sacrifice is deeply embedded in most cultures. For example, we see it in the “women and children first” code to rescue people from dangerous situations. Or in the dangerous working conditions imposed on miners, construction workers, firemen, policemen and other dangerous jobs during the Industrial Revolution.


Self-sacrifice is responsible for the fact that men do not respond to the men-hatred that often passes as feminism these days. Instinctively, a man reacts to it with thoughts like “there may be something right about this”; “I am strong enough to take this criticism and use it to improve myself”, or “I cannot allow others to be hurt by my response.” Unfortunately, in doing so, they tolerate hatred - betraying their values - and sacrifice not only themselves but also other men.


5) Self-reliance

For many men, it’s important to be able to solve problems by themselves, to have confidence in one’s skills. There are several reasons for that.


  • Personal autonomy: if I not depend on others, then I am free to follow my own path on my own schedule.

  • Self-reliance means that I am responsible for my failures and successes, and therefore able to correct my course of action.

  • Hierarchy is important for men, and being self-sufficient means that I don’t have to place myself under the influence or owe favors to other people.

I cultivate my self-reliance when I paddle out into the Pacific Ocean in my kayak to scuba-dive; when I go hiking in the mountains; when I write on my computer; when I self-publish and market my books. Other activities, like rock-climbing and skiing, I do with friends, but my skills and self-reliance provide safety for both me and them.


Self-reliance ties into integrity because it enables me to follow my own values. Having my own skills and resources increases my courage and my resilience.


The dark side of self-reliance

Too much emphasis on self-reliance can lead to social isolation and not cooperating with others, which are constant temptations for men, particularly when they are introverted.


6) Self-restraint

Since rage and risk-taking are such powerful forces in men, it is important that we restrain our impulses.


To control anger, we need to have mindfulness in order to recognize it in its early stages and nip it in the bud. We also need to develop patience, because impatience and annoyance are the seeds of anger.


Distinguishing between foolish risk-taking and true courage takes a special kind of wisdom. It should be anchored in integrity: when we know our values and are deeply committed to them, then we would know when to act and how to do it more effectively.


The dark side of sel-restraint

Too much self-control can inhibit our spontaneity and creativity.


7) Playfulness

Playfulness is a forgotten quality of masculinity, even though men are most attractive when they are playful and uninhibited. Masculine playfulness is rambunctious, joyful, energetic, humorous and not self-conscious. It is different from women’s playfulness in that it is less focused on bonding and communication, and tends to be centered more around physical activity, contact with nature and using objects. This grows out of the orientation of men towards risk, moving in space, and using things. Men love their toys: tools, musical instruments, weapons, sport gear, bicycles, cars, boats, planes… They like to play with their things, tuning them to make them better, perfecting their skills at their use.


The roughhousing and mock fighting that we see in boys is driven by vasopressin, the other social neuropeptide together with oxytocin. While oxytocin promotes social bonding in females, vasopressin plays a similar role in males, but also drives territoriality and a form of play consisting in mock fighting and trying to grab the opponent by the back of the neck.


The dark side of playfulness: competition

Playfulness loses its joy and becomes a source of stress when is turned into competition. We live in a society that encourages it in almost all aspects of life. It’s gotten to the point in which we cannot conceive sports without competition. Even activities like rock-climbing and free-diving, which are primarily about getting in touch with nature and with our bodies and emotions, have been turned into competitions to see who can climb the hardest routes or dive to the deepest depths. We compete at work in our “careers” - a synonym of “race” -, in our relationships - to see who can get the most desirable mate -, and even in our spiritual life - to see who is more mindful and enlightened.


8) Humbleness - letting go of the Ego

Humility has been used throughout the ages as a way to control men, to harness their aggression so that, instead of using it to rebel against exploitation, it’s put at the service of the powerful and their wars. We were told that being humble is to let go of our ideas and values, and just accept those of the dominant culture and the powerful. That way, the virtue of humility is used to enslave us. Even the Mafia uses the word omerta (humility) to mean loyalty to the capos.


True humbleness, however, is about freedom and not slavery. It’s about freeing ourselves from the tyranny of the Ego.


The Ego is formed when we interiorize shame from our failures and pride from our successes into a driving force to achieve more things that will earn us praise and to avoid being shamed. Since our focus is on external validation - or the rewards that we have internalized - this takes us away from our natural playfulness and joy and from our values. Since the Ego is made of automatic reactions driven from the opinions of other people, it prevents us from upholding our values - integrity - and makes us less resilient and self-reliant.


Conclusions

For men, masculinity is an essential part of our humanity. The idea that we can shed our masculinity is a dangerous contemporary myth that only leads to the raise of uncontrolled maleness. Instead, men should cultivate masculine virtues in accordance with their inner essence and their values.


Copyright 2021 Hermes Solenzol


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