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Masculinity & Master Morality


Michelangelo, Study for Adam, 1510-1511

1,731 words

In a Scientific American article titled “When Men Are Less Moral Than Women,” [2] psychology professor Cindi May recently claimed that men were more likely to “cut ethical corners” when they felt their masculinity was at stake. She concluded by recommending that, “if ethical standards are a significant factor in your choice of financial advisors or real estate agents, it may be safer to go with Bernadette than with Bernie.”

I first skimmed this on the UK’s Daily Mail [3], and immediately wondered if advocating sex-based discrimination would legally be considered “hate speech” in Britain, but quickly discovered that May is safe from the truncheons of the British thought police in sunny Charleston, South Carolina [4]. Whether in the colonies or the motherland, it’s safe to say that similar claims made about women or a protected ethnic group would explode into public melodrama and end in tears, resignations and staged apologies. However, it’s become not only acceptable but fashionable in the mainstream media to claim that discriminating against men and hiring women is better for business and that, theoretically, doing so would solve all of “today’s problems.” [5]

May’s biases were obvious from her use of loaded, snide language:

“Apparently manhood is relatively fragile and precarious, and when it is challenged, men tend to become more aggressive and defensive.”

That’s feminist boilerplate, and seems a little out of place (even today) in a publication as august and ostensibly scientific as Scientific American. Referring to masculinity as “fragile” (compared to what?) is the kind of intentionally emasculating banality more at home in gossip columns and trash zines like Slate [6], Feministing [7] and Gawker [8], and in the desperate cries for help “work” of comic train wrecks like Hugo Schwyzer [9].

May glossed over complex issues and presented them as settled science. She asserted that the “evidence” doesn’t suggest that testosterone or genetic differences between men and women has much to do with male status competition.

Careful readers might want to have a look at, say, “Influences of Serotonin and Testosterone in Aggression and Dominance: Convergence with Social Psychology,” by Paul C. Bernhardt, which suggests that high testosterone correlates with status-seeking behaviors, like winning a negotiation. (Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Apr., 1997), pp. 44-48) Some of May’s colleagues to the North noted more recently that, “During negotiations testosterone increases in those who think  they have a chance of gaining or maintaining status, and it decreases among those who think they are about to lose.” (Testosterone and Social Behavior Alan Booth, Douglas A. Granger, Allan Mazur and Katie T. Kivlighan. Social Forces, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Sep., 2006), pp. 167-191). There’s also evidence of stock traders performing better [10] when testosterone is higher, which is probably one of the reasons why testosterone therapy is popular with men who work on Wall Street [11].

Testosterone is probably only part of the reason why men might behave differently than women in negotiating scenarios. However, before we move on, I’d like to make a point about testosterone, masculinity, feminism, historical analysis and contemporary studies concerning sex differences. If, as some studies have shown [12], current male testosterone levels are artificially low – due to a variety of factors including environmental toxins, sedentary lifestyles and widespread obesity – then current studies that show minor differences between male and female behavior tell us less about historical differences between the sexes than is often argued. Basically, if men today are less chemically manly than their predecessors, many masculine stereotypes from the past may have been even more valid than contemporary data would seem to suggest. There is good reason to believe that men and women were more different even a few decades ago.

Instead of dealing with a complex reality, May took a carefree cruise down to the Margaret Mead Memorial Theme Park on the tropical island of Ma-king Shitup. She predictably pointed to vague “cultural” associations between masculinity and winning, and the implied conclusion is that we must reduce cultural associations between masculinity and winning to increase male morality.

May is either a little slow for a professor or she is willing to misrepresent evidence that any layman can find on JSTOR to achieve a perceived “win” for women. That doesn’t help her claim that men are less moral than women, but her rationalization hamster [13] could probably explain to us all why she is still morally superior to men, no matter what she writes or how she conducts herself. At any rate, she makes a good case for revisiting the proposed 1995 law [14] that would have required psychologists to dress as wizards in court.

There is a better explanation for the results of these studies. Women are not more “ethical” in any noble sense of the word. They’re more timid — more “risk-averse”—and more empathic.

Increased testosterone in men correlates with decreased empathy and increased optimism about a man’s chances of success. The evolutionary reasons why are pretty obvious if you think for a minute about what kinds of jobs men would have been most likely to do not only in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), but also in most economic  and social classes throughout most of recorded history.

Men spent more time at the edge of the tribal perimeter in scenarios where they stood to benefit (eating dangerous game, triumphing over external enemies) from a higher risk threshold and a focus on winning – in the context of a male group – above all things. When competing (within a group) or fighting against other men, too much empathy is a handicap. To take another man’s life, you have to care more about your own success and less about his feelings. Winning comes first, empathy comes second.  It’s absurd to posit that this is some kind of novel cultural invention, when it’s obvious that the ability to dehumanize a competitor is a survival skill. There is every reason to believe that men have been selected for being successful at dehumanizing competitors, because the men who failed to do this would have lost to men who were able to cut down their foes.

There is a twist to this, though, because men have always been cooperative hunters and fighters. Men needed to be able to care less about their enemies and competitors, but to function as a group, they also needed to care a lot about what the gang of men they fought and hunted with thought of them. They had to be willing to take risks and possibly even sacrifice themselves for men they had bonded with. Men compete with each other to attain a higher status within the group – a sense that they are valued by other men – and there is every reason to believe that men who were highly valued by other men would have acquired a greater share of the booty (in both senses of the word).

Darwin believed that this ability to sacrifice for the group in battle was the kernel of altruism. He wrote in Descent of Man that, “A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.”

That may be true, but practically speaking, this is also the basis for honor – a concern for one’s reputation as a man among men – and a strong desire to avoid dishonor.

Here are some general ideas about men that we can extract from all of this, which explain the results of the cited studies in a less crass “women are angels and men are devils” way than that charlatan from Charleston did.

  1. Men, when threatened with losing, tend to place a higher value on winning than empathy for competitors or following abstract moral codes.
  2. For men, avoiding dishonor – defined as a loss of status as a man within the group of men – is a stronger motivator than avoiding being perceived as immoral or less empathic.  
  3. (Hypothetical) Moral codes probably have a stronger influence on men when they are directly linked to status within the male group, and/or avoiding dishonor. (Western chivalry and samurai codes are examples of moral codes bound to masculine gang status.) 

In a survival scenario, when men lose, the entire group loses. Failure is starvation and death. Winning must come first; finer points of morality are a luxury afforded by success.

It also follows that women would be less likely to take risks and more empathic. Women haven’t traditionally been judged on their competitive obstinacy or their ability to win, but on their conduct round the campfire within a secured perimeter. They’ve had less reason to dehumanize enemies, and every reason to try to gauge what others are thinking and feeling, and every reason to behave with an eye to avoiding potential social costs that have nothing to do with male honor, winning or bravery. A woman who is socially despised and shut out for being exceptionally undesirable, unlikeable, or socially undependable finds herself in an outcast and at-risk position similar to the man who has been revealed to be disloyal, a coward or a weakling.

In The Way of Men [15], I made a point to present masculinity “amorally,” because most people think of morality in civilized, quasi-Judeo-Christian terms that incorporate aspects of guilt and asceticism that Nietzsche would have associated with ressentiment [16] – the priestly, inverted values of the meek and jealous. What these studies reveal about men is what Nietzsche would have called a “master morality [17].” For the “master,” that which is good is first of all that which wins and the rest can be sorted out later. It is the “right” of the mighty.

Cindi May’s feminist interpretation of those studies is thick with ressentiment. It betrays a jealousy of strength – of winning  –  and a desire to make the weaker sex appear to be morally superior for seeming less concerned with winning and more concerned with feeling, empathy and the avoidance of risk.


Jack Donovan’s new book, The Way of Men [15], is now available in paperback and various e-book formats. If you enjoyed this article and would like to keep up with his work, please “like [18]” his author page on Facebook or visit his web site at http://www.jack-donovan.com [19]

Source: http://www.the-spearhead.com/2012/06/25/masculinity-master-morality/ [20]