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Baumeister: an apology for men (II)

Notes on Roy F. Baumeister’s “Is There Anything Good About Men?” (American Psychological Association, Invited Address, 2007) Part II

Text in black below is from Baumeister’s address. Text in blue is Luno’s commentary, unless otherwise noted.

I | II

Men and Culture

This provides a new basis for understanding gender politics and inequality.

The generally accepted view is that back in early human society, men and women were close to equal. Men and women had separate spheres and did different things, but both were respected. Often, women were gatherers and men were hunters. The total contribution to the group’s food was about the same, even though there were some complementary differences. For example, the gatherers’ food was reliably there most days, while the hunters brought home great food once in a while but nothing on other days.

Gender inequality seems to have increased with early civilization, including agriculture. Why? The feminist explanation has been that the men banded together to create patriarchy. This is essentially a conspiracy theory, and there is little or no evidence that it is true. Some argue that the men erased it from the history books in order to safeguard their newly won power. Still, the lack of evidence should be worrisome, especially since this same kind of conspiracy would have had to happen over and over, in group after group, all over the world. [Lesson in darkness no. 356: The idea of large scale conspiracies suffers from a presumption that there is a surfeit of intelligence in groups. Rather, the ultimate conspiracy is between intimate partners. Its effectiveness diminishes as the intimacy is diluted. Democracies survive as long as they do not because of any collective wisdom, not because they aspire to be “conspiracies” (would that that were true: then conspiracies “for good” might be possible), but because they become organic entities in themselves with specialized parts. They end up, more than just metaphorically, like Hobbes’s Leviathan: bodies with articulated anatomies, including wills of their own no longer owing anything but lip service to the will of any individual comprising them. Indeed, individuals become contrived as agents of validation to service the corporation, political or economic. But “conspiratorial entities” whether political (nations) or economic (private corporations) are not anymore that—evidences of applied wisdom—than a lichen or a moss. “Conspiracy” implies a pooling together of effort and intelligence for nefarious ends. How could a lichen or a moss be guilty of such a thing? Even as it slowly and inexorably erodes and crumbles the most durable monuments of culture: it has a biology, not a philosophy or anything resembling an ethic…

(To this extent we agree with Baumeister.)

Men have not conspired against women anymore than women have against the species by doggedly reproducing and thus prolonging its misery. Which is not to say that as individuals they are not profoundly guilty. But each in a proprietary way.

In fact, if we step back, pretend a view sub specie aeternitatis, forswear this impulse to see guilt everywhere, men in their murderous criminality have done well to compensate for the irresponsible profligacy of women. If men had not engineered periodic bloodbaths or institutionalized steady opportunities for homicide to keep the population in check, we no doubt would not have survived as long as we have (those of us who have). What do we have to complain about? Among species we are holding our own pretty well. As diseases go we are among the hardiest, most adept at developing resistance to the most septic of imperatives and their “guilt-trips.” Surely, the plan was never to bring down heaven to earth? Universal harmony and everlasting life are extremely unnatural concepts.

But, if we do anyway, if we can’t help but urge each other on to bettering our individual and collective condition, can’t we see that it is not merely that we have so smeared our self-interest onto the prospects of our as yet unborn descendants, gotten ourselves to think of them in our decisions, some of us even outdone ourselves by thinking of other species and the environment? This impulse leads somewhere that is supposed to be disturbing, to an inkling that maybe we can do the right thing only by not doing anything. By not being here at all to do it: consciousness reaching the conclusion that its time here is limited. I call that Weininger’s conclusion.

Those who resist this conclusion want to institutionalize idiocy and, I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, they mean well. I have to assume they don’t want us to keel over in fright prematurely. They perhaps think that culturally we are still in our prime, or even adolescence. They may be forgiven. Or not.]

Let me offer a different explanation. It’s not that the men pushed the women down. Rather, it’s just that the women’s sphere remained about where it was, while the men’s sphere, with its big and shallow social networks, slowly benefited from the progress of culture. By accumulating knowledge and improving the gains from division of labor, the men’s sphere gradually made progress.

Hence religion, literature, art, science, technology, military action, trade and economic marketplaces, political organization, medicine—these all mainly emerged from the men’s sphere. The women’s sphere did not produce such things, though it did other valuable things, like take care of the next generation so the species would continue to exist.

Why? It has nothing to do with men having better abilities or talents or anything like that. It comes mainly from the different kinds of social relationships. The women’s sphere consisted of women and therefore was organized on the basis of the kind of close, intimate, supportive one-on-one relationships that women favor. These are vital, satisfying relationships that contribute vitally to health and survival. Meanwhile the men favored the larger networks of shallower relationships. These are less satisfying and nurturing and so forth, but they do form a more fertile basis for the emergence of culture.

Note that all those things I listed—literature, art, science, etc—are optional. Women were doing what was vital for the survival of the species. Without intimate care and nurturance, children won’t survive, and the group will die out. Women contributed the necessities of life. Men’s contributions were more optional, luxuries perhaps. But culture is a powerful engine of making life better. Across many generations, culture can create large amounts of wealth, knowledge, and power. Culture did this—but mainly in the men’s sphere.

Thus, the reason for the emergence of gender inequality may have little to do with men pushing women down in some dubious patriarchal conspiracy. Rather, it came from the fact that wealth, knowledge, and power were created in the men’s sphere. This is what pushed the men’s sphere ahead. Not oppression.

Giving birth is a revealing example. What could be more feminine than giving birth? Throughout most of history and prehistory, giving birth was at the center of the women’s sphere, and men were totally excluded. Men were rarely or never present at childbirth, nor was the knowledge about birthing even shared with them. But not very long ago, men were finally allowed to get involved, and the men were able to figure out ways to make childbirth safer for both mother and baby. Think of it: the most quintessentially female activity, and yet the men were able to improve on it in ways the women had not discovered for thousands and thousands of years.

Let’s not overstate. The women had after all managed childbirth pretty well for all those centuries. The species had survived, which is the bottom line. The women had managed to get the essential job done. What the men added was, from the perspective of the group or species at least, optional, a bonus: some mothers and babies survived who would otherwise have died. Still, the improvements show some value coming from the male way of being social. Large networks can collect and accumulate information better than small ones, and so in a relatively short time the men were able to discover improvements that the women hadn’t been able to find. Again, it’s not that the men were smarter or more capable. It’s just that the women shared their knowledge individually, from mother to daughter, or from one midwife to another, and in the long run this could not accumulate and progress as effectively as in the larger groups of shallower relationships favored by men.

What Men Are Good For

With that, we can now return to the question of what men are good for, from the perspective of a cultural system. The context is these systems competing against other systems, group against group. The group systems that used their men and women most effectively would enable their groups to outperform their rivals and enemies.

I want to emphasize three main answers for how culture uses men.

First, culture relies on men to create the large social structures that comprise it. Our society is made up of institutions such as universities, governments, corporations. Most of these were founded and built up by men. Again, this probably had less to do with women being oppressed or whatever and more to do with men being motivated to form large networks of shallow relationships. [“Creators of large networks of shallow relationships.” Baumeister is modest. What an epitaph for one half of the species. “Shallow” here is not merely descriptive in the way “shallow puddle” is. Rather, though inversely, like “better” in “my better half,” it is tinged with loving sarcasm. If we only wanted to be clinical, the “of shallow relationships” might have been left off. Assuming networks are good things, “large” ones, we might naturally believe, would be even better things. But “relationships”? Do men have these at all, shallow or otherwise? Morphologically, there are certain homologies between female and male reproductive organs. But how vastly different the function of the testes is from that of the ovaries. Maybe what Baumeister calls a “network” functions in a way that bears only the most superficial resemblance to a “relationship”? To speak in terms of shallow and deep is like saying that spermatozoa are like little tiny ova only with tails and a poor sense of the odds against them? This is what I mean, when we get down to brass tacks—to what matters, when I say how incomparable women and men are. We may cut Baumeister slack and say he only speaks loosely, but in so charged an area as this loose talk is fodder for quite serious mischief. (We might do better to keep our audience on it toes with talk so loose it fools no one yet makes everyone uneasy.)] Men are much more interested than women in forming large groups and working in them and rising to the top in them.

This still seems to be true today. Several recent news articles have called attention to the fact that women now start more small businesses then men. This is usually covered in the media as a positive sign about women, which it is. But women predominate only if you count all businesses. [The same goes for published writers… The point to be taken is that maybe a few good male writers go a long way. And we know that the very best writers are scarcely published in their life times and little read except after being dead a century or more, which pretty much precludes “the best” from also being “professional.” There is no reason whatsoever that professional writers should ever evenly split along sex lines. Women, by and large, read more: so why shouldn’t there be more female than male writers?

But this is only true because writers, least of all good ones, are rarely in positions of material power… (Editor’s note: Luno is gesturing to the consequences for political philosophy of this incommensurability of the sexes. As he sees them, they are strikingly different from the status quo as well as from the most common proposals of both “equality” feminists and their critics. On this score, see his comments on Sylviane Agacinski.)] If you restrict the criteria to businesses that employ more than one person, or ones that make enough money to live off of, then men create more. I suspect that the bigger the group you look at, the more they are male-created. Certainly today anybody of any gender can start a business, and if anything there are some set-asides and advantages to help women do so. There are no hidden obstacles or blocks, and that’s shown by the fact that women start more businesses than men. But the women are content to stay small, such as operating a part-time business out of the spare bedroom, making a little extra money for the family. They don’t seem driven to build these up into giant corporations. There are some exceptions, of course, but there is a big difference on average.

Hence both men and women rely on men to create the giant social structures that offer opportunities to both. And it is clear men and women can both perform quite well in these organizations. But culture still relies mainly on men to make them in the first place.

The Disposable Male

A second thing that makes men useful to culture is what I call male expendability. This goes back to what I said at the outset, that cultures tend to use men for the high-risk, high-payoff undertakings, where a significant portion of those will suffer bad outcomes ranging from having their time wasted, all the way to being killed.

Any man who reads the newspapers will encounter the phrase “even women and children” a couple times a month, usually about being killed. The literal meaning of this phrase is that men’s lives have less value than other people’s lives. The idea is usually “It’s bad if people are killed, but it’s especially bad if women and children are killed.” And I think most men know that in an emergency, if there are women and children present, he will be expected to lay down his life without argument or complaint so that the others can survive. On the Titanic, the richest men had a lower survival rate (34%) than the poorest women (46%) (though that’s not how it looked in the movie). That in itself is remarkable. The rich, powerful, and successful men, the movers and shakers, supposedly the ones that the culture is all set up to favor—in a pinch, their lives were valued less than those of women with hardly any money or power or status. The too-few seats in the lifeboats went to the women who weren’t even ladies, instead of to those patriarchs. [Baumeister is absolutely right about this. It is something that many liberal moral theorists, especially modern ones (at least from Mill onwards), have been afraid to touch. The special outrage that people feel when women and children are victims of suffering, murder, or brutality is difficult to fathom under any theory that presupposes the moral equality of sentient humans. Actually, children alone we might explain. Under some utility theories they just have more to lose than adults. And the mother as accessory to the child, gives her special status. A pregnant woman, who combines both notions, especially. But why a woman all by herself, or worse, a collection of women? Isn’t killing one in the same way as a man might be killed only as bad? In military or special police forces, why do we still have qualms about putting women in positions where they are just as exposed to death as men? Our moral intuitions have been trying for the longest time to tell us something. At birth a girl signs a lease for a full life. A boy’s lease is subject to periodic renewal. Men are free agents. No contract. There is a reason Kant felt that morality only applied to them. Only their lives are negotiable, revocable, performance-based, both free through and bound by the moral law. It is do or die—and when the chips are down, do and die.

But now we have to depart from Baumeister a little. It is not correct to say that men as individuals are less valuable than women—all chivalry aside. Again, we slip into the myth of mensurability to compare at all. There is a great deal of mediocrity, a vast amount of foolishness, no small amount of malice, and a tiny bit of greatness among men. I am inclined to be less bullish about them than Baumeister, and having read June Stephensen’s important book (Men are Not Cost Effective), am not at all sure that Baumeister’s attempt at offering a corrective to her sobering conclusion is adequate. Otto Weininger said many of the same things a century earlier without the benefit of the modern apparatus of social psychology (which has been busy reinventing the wheel for a good long time now) and Weininger himself was just repeating commonplaces (and, to his credit, knew it).

At the material level, it is not clear to me that, despite their potential for greatness and its relatively sporadic realization, men really are worth it. Baumeister thinks that men enrich the material culture sufficiently to compensate for all the death and mayhem they cause. (Of course, he doesn’t dwell on the darker side: consult Stephenson for that.) I don’t think that even men really believe this. For this would be to confine their contributions to what is comparable—if only quantitatively—to hers. She can and, every once in awhile, does find the motivation (or it is forced upon her) to match or exceed what he can do culturally, as if to remind us that if she, as a sex, typically doesn’t, it isn’t for lack of anything intrinsic to her. For those who need reminding, I offer the bit of trivium that the first and, for a long time, the only person ever to win two Nobel prizes in physics (or any field) was a woman, Marie Curie. (And there are some who think she had a lot to do with the work than won a third prize.) Or consider, if IQ tests measure anything of merit, the case of the highest ever recorded, that of Marilyn vos Savant…

Even so famous a disser of women as Schopenhauer (whose mother, Johanna, a successful writer herself, much more so than Arthur ever was during his life time, found his writing unreadable), toward the end of his life, grew less bitter and even hazarded the opinion that if a woman could only overcome all that nature and culture and nature and culture combined placed squarely in her path, she might rise to cultural heights no man could scale. It is just so rare that this happens for all the reasons that Baumeister and a few others offer, and that we don’t need to repeat here.

(Editor’s note: Elsewhere, Luno expresses the conviction that at least in the field of literature, if not in arts such as music, women, at least over the course of the last two centuries, have more than matched, they have surpassed their male counterparts. He considers Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath the premier poets of their centuries and language. He specifically rates T. S. Elliot and Wallace Stevens as second tier by comparison. Perhaps only Georg Trakl, Fernando Pessoa and Antonio Porchia come closer to the level of these women. Among writers, Luno has higher regard for Gertrude Stein, Clarice Lispector, Flannery O’Connor and Virginia Woolf than for almost all their male contemporaries with the possible exception of Kafka, Proust, and Beckett. He is inclined to agree with Stein’s famous and often ridiculed comment that her novel The Making of Americans was worthy of being placed beside the work of Joyce and Proust. No doubt Luno’s is a minority opinion, but it expresses his confidence that women in those areas of culture where openness and sensibility are less confined (than in music composition, for instance) the feminine vision is at least as capable of sublimity and revelation as the most penetrating masculine one.)]

Most cultures have had the same attitude. Why? There are pragmatic reasons. When a cultural group competes against other groups, in general, the larger group tends to win out in the long run. Hence most cultures have promoted population growth. And that depends on women. To maximize reproduction, a culture needs all the wombs it can get, but a few penises can do the job. There is usually a penile surplus. If a group loses half its men, the next generation can still be full-sized. But if it loses half its women, the size of the next generation will be severely curtailed. Hence most cultures keep their women out of harm’s way while using men for risky jobs.

These risky jobs extend beyond the battlefield. Many lines of endeavor require some lives to be wasted. Exploration, for example: a culture may send out dozens of parties, and some will get lost or be killed, while others bring back riches and opportunities. Research is somewhat the same way: There may be a dozen possible theories about some problem, only one of which is correct, so the people testing the eleven wrong theories will end up wasting their time and ruining their careers, in contrast to the lucky one who gets the Nobel prize. And of course the dangerous jobs. When the scandals broke about the dangers of the mining industry in Britain, Parliament passed the mining laws that prohibited children under the age of 10 and women of all ages from being sent into the mines. Women and children were too precious to be exposed to death in the mines: so only men. As I said earlier, the gender gap in dangerous work persists today, with men accounting for the vast majority of deaths on the job.

Another basis of male expendability is built into the different ways of being social. Expendability comes with the large groups that male sociality creates. In an intimate, one-to-one relationship, neither person can really be replaced. You can remarry if your spouse dies, but it isn’t really the same marriage or relationship. And of course nobody can ever really replace a child’s mother or father. In contrast, large groups can and do replace just about everybody. Take any large organization—the Ford Motor Company, the U.S. Army, the Green Bay Packers—and you’ll find that the organization goes on despite having replaced every single person in it. Moreover, every member of those groups knows he or she can be replaced and probably will be replaced some day.

Thus, men create the kind of social networks where individuals are replaceable and expendable. Women favor the kind of relationships in which each person is precious and cannot truly be replaced. [I think a closer look at what it means to be precious to someone and the conditions in which a precious person might be replaced, to the extent that happens, would reveal qualitative differences that would again make comparison across sex lines inherently misleading. (I know this is not relevant to Baumeister’s larger point here with which I do not quarrel. But it is to mine which is about normative incommensurability.) For example, a woman might replace a husband or do without one much more easily than she might, in her affections, a son. A man, especially, an older one, would survive the loss of an offspring longer than he might a mate. Men will draw more from the women in their lives reasons to live than they will from their children. The difference lies in who may or may not be as easily replaced or whose loss is more fatal.]

Earning Manhood

The phrase “Be a man” is not as common as it once was, but there is still some sense that manhood must be earned. Every adult female is a woman and is entitled to respect as such, but many cultures withhold respect from the males until and unless the lads prove themselves. This is of course tremendously useful for the culture, because it can set the terms by which males earn respect as men, and in that way it can motivate the men to do things that the culture finds productive.

Some sociological writings about the male role have emphasized that to be a man, you have to produce more than you consume. That is, men are expected, first, to provide for themselves: If somebody else provides for you, you’re less than a man. Second, the man should create some additional wealth or surplus value so that it can provide for others in addition to himself. These can be his wife and children, or others who depend on him, or his subordinates, or even perhaps just paying taxes that the government can use. Regardless, you’re not a man unless you produce at that level.

Again, I’m not saying men have it worse than women. There are plenty of problems and disadvantages that cultures put on women. My point is just that cultures find men useful in these very specific ways. Requiring the man to earn respect by producing wealth and value that can support himself and others is one of these. Women do not face this particular challenge or requirement. [Virtue theorist, Rosalind Hursthouse, for example, writes, while discussing the gravity of abortion for women, that nature bears down harder on women than it does on men. I think this is true. Something does bear down on men quite hard, but it is not raw nature. If we believe Kant, it is the felt imperative that the thing that bears down on him ought to be himself as he brings his free agency under the heal of a mandate born of self-conscious reason. Kant was inclined to excuse women from the full force of this imperative. Mistakenly, he is sometimes viewed as “sexist” in a bad sense for suggesting the moral adiaphorousness of women.]

These demands also contribute to various male behavior patterns. The ambition, competition, and striving for greatness may well be linked to this requirement to fight for respect. All-male groups tend to be marked by putdowns and other practices that remind everybody that there is NOT enough respect to go around, because this awareness motivates each man to try harder to earn respect. [So long as Baumeister confines himself to behaviors and dispositions, it is not clear what “respect” would mean in this context if not the ability to inspire fear in others, to leave a wake. At the most rarefied reaches of culture there is a conception of the term that is not reducible to anything like fear, however. This conception is rare but not scarce. Let me mince words: “scarce” will mean a fixed, limited quantity, a currency in a zero-sum game. “Rare” will mean so difficult of attainment that it almost never is. Fear or its inspiration is never rare. The rarefied sense is what Kant meant by respect for the moral law, his only criterion for self-aware ethical behavior. It is so demanding that he frequently confesses that perhaps no act in human history has ever measured up. But the idea is always aspirational. Only by being such can it escape the ever-present temptation of mercenary service to self-love.] This, incidentally, has probably been a major source of friction as women have moved into the workplace, and organizations have had to shift toward policies that everyone is entitled to respect. The men hadn’t originally built them to respect everybody. [Then perhaps it is time the organizations were remodeled to include respect for everybody. To dredge up yet another commonplace: women have been known to bring civilization to their environment. What are men afraid of? That their manliness shall go begging? Think of it this way: if it was that fragile, if treating every one with respect will do it permanent damage, perhaps this form of sissiness will not be missed if it is bred out of the species. (I say this to women as much as men: maybe you should refuse to breed with these jerks.) The point is: having to respect everyone will just raise the ante for the real man who (as he always has) will find—or, failing that, create—new frontiers to test his mettle. Kant suggested just such a thing when he intoned, “the ethical is the highest.” That was nearly three centuries ago. We are still in the moral foothills to suggest that treating people with respect should be default behavior. Don’t misunderstand me, it is not the that ladies want to make us Kantians: for their part, if we were merely decent, it might suffice. Men, of course, being what they are, will make it into a contest. This world is just too small for them. Thus, Kant made a little room in the empyrean. ]

One of the basic, most widely accepted gender differences is agency versus communion. Male agency may be partly an adaptation to this kind of social life based on larger groups, where people aren’t necessarily valued and one has to strive for respect. To succeed in the male social sphere of large groups, you need an active, agentic self to fight for your place, because it isn’t given to you and only a few will be successful. Even the male ego, with its concern with proving oneself and competing against others, seems likely to be designed to cope with systems where there is a shortage of respect and you have to work hard to get some—or else you’ll be exposed to humiliation. [Weininger, picking up where Kant left off, concluded his very will to live required humiliation out of respect for something higher.]

Is That All?

I have not exhausted all the ways that culture exploits men. Certainly there are others. The male sex drive can be harnessed to motivate all sorts of behaviors and put to work in a kind of economic marketplace in which men give women other resources (love, money, commitment) in exchange for sex. Cultures also use individual men for symbolic purposes more than women. This can be in a positive way, such as the fact that cultures give elaborate funerals and other memorials to men who seem to embody its favorite values. It can also be negative, such as when cultures ruin a man’s career, shame him publicly, or even execute him for a single act that violates one of its values. From Martin Luther King to Don Imus, our culture uses men as symbols for expressing its values. (Note neither of those two came out the better for it.)


To summarize my main points: A few lucky men are at the top of society and enjoy the culture’s best rewards. Others, less fortunate, have their lives chewed up by it. Culture uses both men and women, but most cultures use them in somewhat different ways. Most cultures see individual men as more expendable than individual women, and this difference is probably based on nature, in whose reproductive competition some men are the big losers and other men are the biggest winners. Hence it uses men for the many risky jobs it has. Men go to extremes more than women, and this fits in well with culture using them to try out lots of different things, rewarding the winners and crushing the losers.

Culture is not about men against women. [On this point, Baumeister and I agree. Our differences have probably more to do with the lessons we should take. Baumeister is saying something that in our time needs to be said. (It has been said at times in the past.) I think feminists have something equally important and consequential to say. I think it is time we put it all together. Baumeister does not draw the moral (and even larger philosophical) implications for the way society should be structured, I do. Of course, as a social scientist, it is not his role. It is mine.] By and large, cultural progress emerged from groups of men working with and against other men. While women concentrated on the close relationships that enabled the species to survive, men created the bigger networks of shallow relationships, less necessary for survival but eventually enabling culture to flourish. The gradual creation of wealth, knowledge, and power in the men’s sphere was the source of gender inequality. Men created the big social structures that comprise society, and men still are mainly responsible for this, even though we now see that women can perform perfectly well in these large systems.

What seems to have worked best for cultures is to play off the men against each other, competing for respect and other rewards that end up distributed very unequally. Men have to prove themselves by producing things the society values. They have to prevail over rivals and enemies in cultural competitions, which is probably why they aren’t as lovable as women. The essence of how culture uses men depends on a basic social insecurity. This insecurity is in fact social, existential, and biological. Built into the male role is the danger of not being good enough to be accepted and respected and even the danger of not being able to do well enough to create offspring. The basic social insecurity of manhood is stressful for the men, and it is hardly surprising that so many men crack up or do evil or heroic things or die younger than women. But that insecurity is useful and productive for the culture, the system.

Again, I’m not saying it’s right, or fair, or proper. But it has worked. The cultures that have succeeded have used this formula, and that is one reason that they have succeeded instead of their rivals. [“But it has worked.” What is that supposed to mean if we are not implying it was “right” or “fair” or “proper”? It appears to be how we got this far. There may have been other ways to get here. There may well be other places to be. There may well have been others, not us, here. Or elsewhere. But here we are, saying this way “worked” to get us here. In almost every context I can think of, to say something “worked” is to speak with approval, to insert value into a world that could care less.

I have to believe Baumeister is doing that. If he is, he has done nothing conceptually untoward. Unless he also means by his approval to say that the world had to have the character it does and we the one we do.

I suppose he might be just uttering nonsense in his disclaimer, too. Or I am just being male.]

I | II

Posted by luno in philosophy and sex, sex differences, feminism (Wednesday October 6, 2010 at 11:00 am)

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