What Makes a Man: Reflections on the Virtues of Manhood

Given that there are natural sex differences, it’s no surprise that those differences include some tendencies that can cause problems. This is true for both men and women. Yet the tenor of contemporary academic discussions about men, such as in the discourse about “toxic masculinity,” is much more negative. Properly understood, however, the problematic tendencies within the male condition actually present opportunities for virtue. Thus, they can form the foundation of a positive conception of manhood centered on the virtues of gentlemanliness, moral courage, and chastity.

In the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult comedy, The Big Lebowski, the following humorous conversation takes place between “The Big Lebowski” and “The Dude” (who, like The Big Lebowski, is also named Jeffrey Lebowski):

THE BIG LEBOWSKI: What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski? . . .

THE DUDE: Uh, I . . . I don’t know, sir.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI: Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn’t that what makes a man?

THE DUDE: Hmmm, sure. That and a pair of testicles.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI: You’re joking. But perhaps you’re right.

The humor here is due in large part to the contrast between a normative or ethical understanding of what it is to be a man (“being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost,” that is, having moral courage) and a purely biological view (having a pair of testicles). Interestingly, The Big Lebowski says that while The Dude is joking, perhaps he is right. There seems to be a suggestion that the normative and biological views are in some way connected.

I want to explore this thought by proposing and discussing three central virtues of manhood: gentlemanliness, moral courage, and chastity. I argue that these virtues, properly understood, are a legitimate part of a normative conception of “what makes a man.” This is not to say that women do not also need gentleness, moral courage, and chastity. Rather, the point is that there are general features of the male condition that make these virtues especially important for men and that require a particular interpretation appropriate to this condition. It’s also true that men, just like women, need all the virtues of character and intellect in order to realize fully their good as rational social creatures, which means that all the virtues can be regarded as virtues of manhood. Nevertheless, there is a point to talking in a more specific way about “the virtues of manhood” as those virtues that respond to distinctive features of the male condition.

I will build here on Philippa Foot’s suggestion in her essay “Virtues and Vices” that we think about the virtues as correctives, where each virtue stands “at a point at which there is some temptation to be resisted or deficiency of motivation to be made good.” For example, the virtue of temperance responds to the temptation to overindulge in sensual pleasure, the virtue of justice responds to motivational deficiency regarding giving others their due, and so on. I think we need to apply Foot’s point not only in a species-specific way—that is, with regard to problematic human tendencies—but also in a gender-specific way, given that there are natural sex differences, which include problematic tendencies, that is, tendencies that can cause problems. This is true for both men and women. However, I am focusing on men here because I want to counter the predominantly negative tenor of contemporary academic discussions about men, such as in the discourse about “toxic masculinity.” The same is not true of discussions about women, though I also think more reflection is needed on the virtues of womanhood.

Some conservative politicians and commentators—such as Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and Ohio Senate candidate and Hillbilly Elegy author J. D. Vance—have recently taken up a defense of a positive conception of masculinity. Here, I want to do something similar, but in a more academic and philosophical mode. While I acknowledge problematic tendencies within the male condition, I do not think these tendencies are simply problematic. Rather, I contend that they present opportunities for virtue, and thus for expressing a positive conception of manhood centered on the virtues of gentlemanliness, moral courage, and chastity.


One of the main problematic tendencies of the male condition is aggression, which is connected to the greater levels of testosterone in men compared to women and evidenced in the fact that an overwhelming proportion of violent crime is committed by men. The problem of male aggression is exacerbated by the fact that men generally have greater physical size and strength than women. The virtue of gentlemanliness can therefore be seen as a corrective to the problematic male tendency to aggression, especially in the form of domineering behavior. For this reason, it can be regarded as a restraining and pacifying virtue: as suggested by the term itself, it expresses a cultivated gentleness of manner in appropriate contexts, and so it offers a corrective to problematic aggressive tendencies. It also needs to be understood as connected with the virtue of chastity, since the lack of sexual restraint is often connected with ungentlemanly behavior. I will say more about chastity later.

The virtue of gentlemanliness is part of a civilizing ideal for men. Hence, in polite society women and men are addressed as “ladies and gentlemen.” As a civilizing ideal, it is meant to keep men from being barbarous, bestial, crude, rude, and the like. In his book Manliness, Harvey Mansfield writes: “The gentleman, as opposed to a cad or a lout, does not take advantage of those weaker than himself, especially women. He declines opportunities to push himself on others by means of a stronger will, to say nothing of greater brawn.”

The idea of “polite society” provides a clue for better understanding the virtue of gentlemanliness. To be polite is to be courteous, that is, to show respect and consideration toward others through good manners. And so gentlemanliness can be understood as a gender-specific mannered ideal, which expresses courteous behavior and helps to civilize men. Otherwise put, it helps to humanize men by restraining impulsive behavior and domineering tendencies. In this way, it enables them to act for the sake of the noble and to realize distinctively human relationships of goodwill in family life, friendship, and political community. As the proverbial saying goes: “manners maketh man.”

Of course, there are problematic conceptions of gentlemanliness. It goes without saying that the so-called “gentlemen’s club”—a euphemism for a strip club and the caddish men who attend it—is at odds with the virtue of gentlemanliness. So too is the use of supposedly gentlemanly behavior as a cunning way to try to gratify one’s lustful desires. It is especially important to emphasize that using supposedly gentlemanly behavior to convey to women that they have inferior moral status is at odds with the virtue of gentlemanliness, since, properly understood, it is a mannered ideal that is meant to show respect and considerateness toward others, and especially toward women. On this point, consider the following remarks from Mary Wollstonecraft in her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman:

I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when in fact they are insultingly supporting their own superiority. . . . So ludicrous, in fact, do these ceremonies appear to me that I scarcely am able to govern my muscles when I see a man start with eager and serious solicitude to lift a handkerchief, or shut a door, when the lady could have done it herself, had she only moved a pace or two.

While I agree that we should reject any supposedly gentlemanly behavior that expresses disrespect rather than respect toward women, there is a danger here of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Just because there are bad conceptions of gentlemanliness does not mean that we should do away with gentlemanliness as a virtue of manhood. After all, we still have to deal with the problem of male aggression, and gentlemanliness is the virtue primarily concerned with restraining such aggression. Wollstonecraft, it should be noted, was herself very much concerned with male self-restraint, since she rightly saw the lack of it as a key source of the greatest individual and social harms. What we need then is a proper conception of gentlemanliness rooted in respect.

Like any Aristotelian virtue of character, the virtue of gentlemanliness needs to be understood as a mean between excess and deficiency, in this case with respect to gender-specific courteous behavior. There are excessive forms of courteous behavior where one ends up being too solicitous and deferential, which can express disrespect, but there are also ways in which one can be deficient in courteous behavior, and so express disrespect. It takes practical wisdom to know how to hit the mark.

One last worry: is gentlemanliness anti-natural in seeking to be a corrective to male aggression? We might frame this as a Nietzschean criticism that gentlemanliness expresses a problematic kind of weakness. Against this, I contend that the virtue of gentlemanliness in fact expresses strength through showing self-restraint and enabling one to act for the sake of the noble. It is also not anti-natural; indeed, I have said that it should be seen as humanizing. We need to see the self-restraint involved in gentlemanliness as part of an effort to channel male aggression toward noble and properly human ends, that is, goals that are fitting to us as the specific rational social creatures that we are: for instance, the goals of making and sustaining family life, friendship, and political community for the common good.

Moral Courage

Whereas gentlemanliness is the virtue primarily concerned with restraining male aggression, the virtue that is especially important for channeling male aggression toward noble ends is the virtue of moral courage. We can describe this, following The Big Lebowski, in terms of “being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost.” We have spoken so far about the problem of male aggression, but here we can speak of the blessing of male aggression, which we might also call male assertiveness, when it is directed toward what is noble and just.

Male assertiveness, at its best in the form of moral courage, involves taking a stand for what is right in the face of difficulty, demonstrating moral uprightness and a moral backbone. This suggests a close connection between moral courage and moral integrity. We can also frame this best kind of male assertiveness in terms of taking responsibility by ensuring that what is required to realize the good for oneself and one’s family and community gets done, even in the face of challenges. This also involves encouraging others to act for the good, including through modelling moral courage. These ideals of male assertiveness can be seen in moral injunctions to “be a man,” or “man up,” or “grow a spine,” which are directed at those “unmanly” males who are delinquent in their responsibilities or who demonstrate cowardice in failing to stand up for what is right.

I am speaking of “moral courage” here rather than merely “courage” in order to emphasize that it is courage for the sake of moral ends. There are conceptions of courage that see it as expressed in any form of acting to achieve some goal in the face of what is fearful or difficult, regardless of whether that goal is moral or immoral (as in the courage of the suicide bomber). Aristotle, by contrast, says that courage as a virtue is exercised “for the sake of what is noble” (Nicomachean Ethics, III.7), and so he can be understood as endorsing moral courage.

It is noteworthy that the Greek term for courage is andreia, which literally means “manliness.” For Aristotle, courage was displayed above all on the battlefield. We can see why there is a connection with manliness, given that throughout human history war has been almost exclusively fought by men. Indeed, other dangerous occupations, such as firefighting and law enforcement, have been done overwhelmingly by men, and in these occupations one can also demonstrate moral courage in acting for the sake of the good in the face of fear or difficulty. (We should note that women have also displayed great courage throughout human history in giving birth, which prior to modern medicine was quite risky, and it still of course has many difficult and sometimes dangerous aspects.) But returning to courage on the battlefield, we can take this as a metaphor for moral courage: we need to fight for the good in the face of opposition, to combat what is evil and unjust. Both men and women should demonstrate moral courage so understood, but there is a point in regarding it as a central virtue of manhood.

As already indicated, we need a way of channeling male aggression or assertiveness toward noble ends. Here it is important to highlight another Greek term, thumos, which was seen by Plato and Aristotle as closely connected with andreia (courage, manliness). Thumos is often translated as “spirit” or “spiritedness.” Both male and female human beings as well as non-human animals have a spirited capacity, but it can especially be seen in male assertiveness. At its most primitive, it can take the form of aggressive protectiveness of oneself and one’s own as well as seeking conquest and domination, even at the risk of life and limb. These primitive forms of thumos reveal its moral ambiguity, as it can be used for good or ill. We see the bad in the predatory and domineering behavior of some men. However, we see the good in men who take up the ideal of the male protector and look after their family, their community, and those who are most vulnerable to harm and predation.

To realize the good and avoid the bad, thumos needs to be cultivated so that it aims at and is shaped by what is noble rather than what is shameful, which is also connected with a sense of moral pride. Another way to put this is that thumos should aim at the morally honorable rather than the morally dishonorable. Thumos is often expressed in status-seeking, which can be seen in male ambition, competitiveness, and single-mindedness. However, whether such status-seeking is good or not depends on the kind of status that is sought. The status that should be sought above all is that of being morally honorable. In her book Plato and the Hero, Angela Hobbs describes our distinctively human thumos as follows:

[The] human thumos is the need to believe that one counts for something, and . . . central to this need will be a tendency to form an ideal image of oneself in accordance with one’s conception of the fine and noble. If one’s behaviour reveals this cherished image of oneself to be a sham, then anger, self-disgust and shame are likely to be the result. This ideal of oneself also needs to be confirmed by social recognition: others must treat one in accordance with one’s self-image. . . . The obtaining of this recognition will require self-assertion and perhaps aggression; and any offence committed to one’s self-image by others will prompt anger and a desire to retaliate.

While receiving deserved honor or recognition is a genuine good, I contend that it is in fact more important to be honorable than to be honored. As Aristotle says, “people seem to pursue honor in order to be convinced that they are good—at any rate, they seek to be honored by practically-wise people, among people who know them, and for virtue. It is clear, then, that according to them, at least, virtue is better” (Nicomachean Ethics I.5). Virtue is better than honor because it is inherently noble and fulfilling, and it should be pursued for its own sake, even though it is also good to receive honor for doing so. But receiving honor without virtue is worthless. Hobbs is right that we want our lives to count for something. To properly achieve this, we need the ability to uphold our moral identity as agents acting for the sake of virtue. Thumos (spiritedness) is the quality by which we do so, and moral courage, by which we stand up for what is right in the face of difficulty, is the virtuous form of such spiritedness. Of course, we do not always live up to who we think we should be, so we also need the courage to humble ourselves and repent, making ourselves receptive to grace and recommitting to the good.

We can see then how male thumos (spiritedness, assertiveness) can and should be channeled in the direction of taking a stand for the good. In the contrast between the male protector and the male predator, we also see that we need to channel male strength toward noble ends. There are pseudo-conceptions of manhood that see it merely in terms of physical and often also emotional strength. However, it is important to channel such strength toward expressions of moral strength, in “being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost.” It is worth noting here that another word for courage is fortitude, which comes from the Latin fortitudo, from fortis, meaning “strong.” We can also say then that manhood requires moral fortitude.


So far, we have considered two virtues of manhood, gentlemanliness and moral courage, both of which offer correctives to natural male aggression or assertiveness, channeling it toward noble and properly human ends. In this last section, I want to address another problematic aspect of the male condition: namely, the greater natural unruliness of male sexual desire, focusing specifically on its heterosexual form. In order to channel such desire toward noble and properly human ends, I contend that we need the virtue of chastity. Thus, this too should be regarded as a central virtue of manhood (contra David Hume, who maintains that it is only strictly required of women, given paternity concerns). The virtue of chastity, as I understand it, is concerned with properly restraining and directing sexual desire.

As is widely acknowledged, men generally have a greater sex drive than women, are more attracted to novelty, and are more apt to want to separate sex from love and commitment. Observers of the human sexual condition have often noted that men seem to be naturally polygamous (or promiscuous), whereas women seem to be naturally monogamous. There is a basic biological reason for this: women have much more at stake in heterosexual intercourse, since they can become pregnant. Prior to effective birth control, women had a strong incentive to look for a monogamous relationship, where a man is expected to provide care and support. Even with easy access to reliable birth control, women’s natural dispositions have been shaped by an evolutionary process that has rewarded monogamous tendencies in women.

Traditional sexual ethics takes the side of monogamy and has been especially concerned with getting men to commit to it, and, I think, for good reasons. To make my case for chastity as a central virtue of manhood, I want to draw on two traditional defenses of monogamy that seek to address the non-monogamous tendencies of men. I will argue, however, that these defenses are not entirely sufficient, and I will explain what else is needed.

To begin with, consider William Tucker’s defense of monogamy in his essay “Monogamy and Its Discontents” (which he developed into a book titled Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human). From a sociobiological perspective, Tucker identifies important benefits of monogamy. First of all, it is better for rearing children, for the following simple reason: “The task is better handled by two parents than one,” and so monogamy is adopted “for the sake of the children.” A second benefit of monogamy is that it adds a further desirable characteristic to look for in prospective mates for females: the willingness to be a good provider. A third benefit is that it fosters social peace and cooperation. It does this through reducing sexual competition (and thus also violence) among males, since everyone has a reasonable chance to mate, and this means it fosters a more democratic, egalitarian society. Monogamy also fosters cooperation by reducing sexual tension between males and females, allowing them to work together in non-mating settings, which contributes to greater economic productivity.

However, Tucker also notes that monogamy has its discontents: “First and foremost, monogamy limits the mating urges of high-status males. . . . [The] experience in all societies has been that the male urge to be polygamous is the weakest link in the monogamous chain.” Women also can experience discontent in the difficulty of trying to find a man who is both attractive and a good provider (though “high-status” females can just go for the most attractive among “high-status” males without bearing the cost that could be there for “low-status” females). Additionally, “low-status” males and females, as well as those chronically dissatisfied with their social status, can feel “cheated by the relatively narrow pool of mates available to them”: “Their resentments and underlying desire to disrupt the rules of the game form a constant undercurrent of discontent in any monogamous society.” Generally, monogamy’s discontents can be seen in the rates of infidelity, divorce, single motherhood, sexual violence, and the use of prostitution and pornography.

“Family values,” Tucker says, express “the belief that monogamy is the most peaceful and progressive way of organizing human society.” But monogamy is also a fragile social institution that can unravel if its discontents become too widespread. Indeed, Tucker describes it as “an ancient compromise whose breakdown only lets loose antagonisms that society has long suppressed.” In his conclusion, he writes:

It is probably not too alarmist to note that societies that have been unable to establish monogamy have also been unable to create working democracies or widely distributed wealth. No society that domesticates too few men can have a stable social order. People who are incapable of monogamy are probably incapable of many other things as well. . . .  [It] should . . . be clear that, beyond the personal dissatisfactions we all may feel, each of us also retains a permanent, private stake in sustaining a system that creates a peaceful social order and offers to everyone a reasonable chance of achieving personal happiness.

One of the key works of culture then is to get men to commit to monogamy and thereby help to “domesticate” (that is, civilize) them. One traditional approach to doing so is to appeal to female modesty. Consider Leon Kass’s essay “The End of Courtship,” where he describes female modesty as “a form of sexual self-control, manifested not only in chastity but in decorous dress and manner, speech and deed, and in reticence in the display of . . . well-banked affections.” It is a virtue “made for courtship,” which serves “simultaneously as a source of attraction and a spur to manly ardor, a guard against a woman’s own desires, as well as a defense against unworthy suitors.” However, it has been largely lost as a result of the sexual revolution, and with this loss, Kass says, comes a loss in crucial benefits for both men and women:

Once female modesty became a first casualty of the sexual revolution, even women eager for marriage lost their greatest power to hold and to discipline their prospective mates. For it is a woman’s refusal of sexual importunings . . . that is generally a necessary condition of transforming a man’s lust into love. Women also lost the capacity to discover their own genuine longings and best interests. For only by holding herself in reserve does a woman gain the distance and self-command needed to discern what and whom she truly wants and to insist that the ardent suitor measure up.

Kass says that what this really leads to is a kind of male “liberation,” namely, “from domestication, from civility, from responsible self-command.”

In my view, Kass is on the right track with his concern about transforming lust into love. Indeed, the central aim of the traditional sexual ethic, in the version I endorse, is to ennoble and humanize sexual desire by transforming mere lust (which is common to animal life) into committed romantic love (which is distinctively human), which, at its best, is one of the most fulfilling modes of human experience. I also think that the cultivation of sexual virtues, such as modesty, chastity, and fidelity, plays a crucial role in bringing about this transformation. As Roger Scruton puts it: “Sexual virtue does not forbid desire: it simply ensures the status of desire as an interpersonal feeling.” In other words, it helps to avoid problematic forms of objectification or depersonalization that are contrary to romantic love.

Where I take issue with Kass is that he puts too much focus on female modesty and neglects to emphasize equally the importance of male chastity. These are mutually supporting virtues. However, the cultivation of male chastity does not have to wait on expressions of female modesty. Men are responsible for themselves and for their own wayward sexual desires. If they are to ennoble and humanize their sexual appetites, then they need to cultivate the sexual restraint that is a key part of the virtue of chastity. This is a matter not only of guarding one’s behavior, but also of guarding one’s thoughts, and chastising (that is, disciplining, purifying) one’s unruly desires. As David Carr says, “we can hardly regard agents as chaste—however sexually self-controlled—if they are also given to lewd, degrading, exploitive, abusive, or criminal attitudes towards potential sexual partners.” Chastity is an ideal of moral purity—namely, what we might call purity of heart in the realm of sexuality—and it aims to guide sexual desire toward committed romantic love, and then to sustain and protect such love.

In the experience of genuine, well-discerned romantic love (which comes about through the courting or “dating” process), we can in fact discover the most compelling case for monogamy, which is overlooked in Tucker’s sociobiological defense of monogamy. Tucker takes an observer standpoint in discussing the social function of monogamy. Thus he asks men to “take one for civilization,” so to speak. However, he says nothing about romantic love, and this shows the limits of his sociobiological approach. If we attend to the experience of genuine, well-discerned romantic love, we can discover that it has what Scruton calls an inherent “nuptiality.” That is, when we really love someone romantically, we do not want to live without her or him. Rather, we want to bind our lives together. This demands exclusivity as befitting the profound intimacy of the romantic loving relationship. Romantic love therefore finds its proper expression in the vow of marriage. (It should also be noted that this bond can be further enhanced through having children and the making and sustaining of family life.) It is in this way, through the marital vow, that we ennoble and humanize sexual desire and achieve properly human sexual fulfillment. Therefore, insofar as male sexual desire takes the form of romantic love rather than mere lust, we can say that men are in fact disposed to monogamy rather than to polygamy or promiscuity. And it is chastity that makes this possible.

Ideals of being a good husband and a good father, as ideals of manhood proper to our rational social nature, can also inspire men. That is, they can activate male thumos (spiritedness, assertiveness) to take up the responsibilities involved in being a loving, supportive, and faithful husband and a loving, supportive, and protective father who seeks to raise his children to walk in paths of righteousness. A lack of chastity, by contrast, undermines one’s ability to take up these noble roles. As Tucker says: “People who are incapable of monogamy are probably incapable of many other things as well.” In other words, men who are unable to control themselves will be unable to take up the necessary responsibilities of manhood.


So, what makes a man? I have argued that the virtues of gentlemanliness, moral courage, and chastity are each a key part of a normative ideal of manhood. These are not the only virtues needed (indeed, all the virtues are required), but they are especially important, since they offer correctives to problematic tendencies within the male condition, particularly regarding male aggression and male sexual desire. These virtues of manhood help men to channel such tendencies toward noble and properly human ends.

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