Virtue Is Non-Binary

I often find myself quoting David French, a lawyer/author I read and respect. Despite the fact that I deeply disagree with certain of his positions, I find him thoughtful, civil and willing to concede the legitimacy of those with whom he differs–attributes entirely missing from the MAGA Rightwingers with whom, until recently, he shared a political party.

French recently published an important opinion piece in the New York Times on masculinity and in the process of that discussion, he made an (implicit) point that should be widely shared. The essay centered on current concerns over the perceived “crisis” in masculinity and the status of men and boys.

To understand the state of men in this country, it’s necessary to know three things.

First, millions of men are falling behind women academically and suffering from a lack of meaning and purpose. Second, there is no consensus whatsoever on whether there’s a problem, much less how to respond and pull millions of men back from the brink. Third, many men are filling the void themselves by turning to gurus to guide their lives. They’re not waiting for elite culture, the education establishment or the church to define manhood. They’re turning to Andrew Tate, Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson and a host of others — including Elon Musk and Tucker Carlson — to show them the way.

French describes the various “remedies” prescribed by these particular individuals, and dismisses them:

It’s as if an entire self-help industry decided the best cure for one form of dysfunction is simply a different dysfunction. Replace passivity and hopelessness with frenetic activity, tinged with anger and resentment. Get in the weight room, dress sharper, develop confidence and double down on every element of traditional masculinity you believe is under fire.

Yes, men are absolutely feeling demoralized, as Richard Reeves put it in his brilliant book “Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It.” But what is the influencer advice in response? Lash out. Fight. Defy the cultural elite that supposedly destroyed your life.

After pondering various definitions of masculinity, and considering their positive and negative attributes, French makes an incredibly important  point–the observation that led me to use the term “non-binary” in the title of this post. (Non-binary isn’t simply a description of one type of sexuality–it refers to matters that cannot be reduced to an “either/or” proposition.)

Can we sidestep the elite debate over masculinity by approaching the crisis with men via an appeal to universal values rather than to the distinctively male experience? In other words, is there a universal approach to shaping character that can have a disproportionately positive impact on our lost young men?

French quotes Jeffrey Rosen for the classical definition of “pursuit of happiness,” which–to the nation’s Founders– did not mean “pursuit of pleasure” but instead meant pursuit of virtue: being a lifelong learner, self-mastery, flourishing and growth. In this reading, the pursuit of happiness is “a quest, not a destination, in part because we are always a work in progress, even to our last days.”

And what are these classical virtues? Benjamin Franklin’s list included temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquillity, chastity and humility. I prefer the shorter and simpler formulation in Aristotle’s four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and courage.

French argues–persuasively–that the pursuit of these virtues, aka a “virtue ethic,” is far preferable to America’s prevailing “success ethic,” which measures manly success by materialistic metrics. He argues that the current obsession with an ideal masculinity diverts attention from the urgent need to provide children with “a purpose that is infinitely more satisfying than the ambition and rebellion that define the ethos of the gurus who are leading so many young men astray.”

What struck me about this conclusion is something French didn’t say: that the pursuit of virtue is ultimately non-binary. It is not the exclusive province of either males or females, but an aspiration appropriate to humans generally.

Discussions of masculinity and femininity are all well and good; I’m not blind to the biological and/or psychological differences between cis men and women. But a great deal of current male resentment–not to mention misogyny and homophobia– is a result of efforts to emphasize those differences and ignore the much larger human commonalities between (among?) the genders.

Franklin and Aristotle identify human virtues. We need a culture that elevates pursuit of virtue to a status that is at least equal to pursuit of material success, and avoids emphasizing what makes the genders distinctive rather than the human characteristics they share.


  1. Recently there was a post on a local community social media site offering an informational event about joining an, “Authentic Man,” program.

    After an internet search about this organization I was surprised about their “about” information.

    This phenomenon truly puzzles me.

  2. Building a virtuous life was the intent of your local church at one time, but I believe the message of Jesus was watered down by pastors who trained on preaching from the Bible but weren’t God inspired. They tackle the Bible as a college textbook versus a spiritual text requiring a minimum of spiritual enlightenment.

    I turned toward living a spiritual life around 40, so for the past 22 years, I’ve been living a virtuous life. Transitioning from a material world to one that prioritizes spiritual matters is difficult. Everything in our culture shapes men’s and women’s egos. Unless parents are enlightened, they pass down toxic versions of how the male and female are supposed to be. Satisfaction of ego is the main priority of a self-centered life. Resentments are common. We blame others for our circumstances. I could go on and on about how our material world drives our neurosis, but I won’t.

    What I find ironic is that right-wing men and women stress that “wokeness” is a liberal ideology that is evil and crushing society. Some Democrats claim to be woke but haven’t a clue. The purpose of life is to be awake and make better decisions for ourselves and others. At least my education in leadership was mostly about being more enlightened and virtuous. This requires a true commitment that runs contrary to society’s norms.

  3. A New York City clergyman said: “The church is the only organization in the world which has a lower entrance requirement than those for getting onto a bus.” 🤔

    “Whatever things are of serious concern, whatever things are righteous, whatever things are chaste, whatever things are lovable, whatever things are well spoken of, whatever virtue there is and whatever praiseworthy thing there is, continue considering these things.” Philippians. 4:8,

    “Supply to your faith virtue, to your virtue knowledge, to your knowledge self-control, to your self-control endurance, to your endurance godly devotion, to your godly devotion brotherly affection, to your brotherly affection love.”​ 2nd Peter. 1:5-7.
    The fruitage of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, 23 mildness, self-control. Against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22 and 23

    When one follows there gurus and influencers, how are they going to get a balanced idea of how they should conduct themselves, and or the benefits of it? Delusional self-worth, self-a-grandized narcissism, The desire to have power and be the privileged few, is completely opposite of having virtue. One can have values, values can be anything, but virtue cannot be misunderstood. Virtue is the innate goodness the striving for excellence in moral conduct.

    This is absolutely something that’s lacking in human conduct. And you cannot seek out those who do not express virtue and expect to gain it from that source. History is littered with authoritarianist fascistic leaders that devalued human life for their own personal gain. They were self-righteous but not righteous, there’s a huge difference. And that’s the problem with willingly allowing one’s self to be brainwashed on one side or the other.

  4. As the only girl in my family, I have witnessed no end of the contradictions of “masculinity”. Sometimes I think my brothers have evolved and sometimes it seems they haven’t. I can’t explain it, but I can happily say I see much more of the former than the latter. What causes this dichotomy is anybody’s guess. My father was a card carrying misogynist, who also loved reading and musical theater.

    So what’s the point? It’s that we’re all a mix of differences. Our role models were, too. How and when we decide to be who we are might just be the key. Are we dealing with young men or are they older? What do they think are attributes they need to be a “real man”?
    How do they define manhood?

    Why do I always have more questions after reading this blog?

  5. The word “manhood” seems to be a vague term. Are we talking more about “Arrested Development” in the process of becoming an adult man or woman rather than a teenager? Seems there is a lot of that whether it’s a boy or girl.

  6. As a male early proponent of feminism (I helped start the first NOW chapter in NC), I find it striking that young women today are adopting and often encouraging some of the worst aspects of “masculinity” and its sexism. Women are buying guns like never before. They buy and wear clothes that exhibit them as “sexual objects”. They “hook up” for instant pleasure and move on through continued mostly physical relationships. They speak routinely in profanity. So cool, so….manish!

  7. Pursuit of Virtue

    In life, does one stalk
    Integrity and dignity

    Choosing to hide behind and follow
    As a Labrador Retriever tailing a pheasant

    Or does one chase the prey
    Like a Bluetick Coonhound gives chase to a fox

    Perhaps one can fall upon goodness
    Floating downward slowly as a fading magnolia blossom

    Tell me, how does one accomplish a desire
    Without knowing what to use to get there

    Besides, is life better lived by being honorable
    Is there merit to the rewards

    Surely, the pursuit is what life requires
    Instead of being in wait for what is in store

    As though sitting on a rock, watching a stream
    Reflect the colors of the sky
    While playing a song for you to hear

  8. Dragging the republic to the extreme right requires instilling a huge helping of anger and resentment in order to stop progress, return to the past, and separate from the rest of the world. Look no further than the Middle East now.

    Resisting that requires confidence, knowledge, support, and, yes, love. Also reinforcing simple morality. Do unto others……

    Certainly around our liberal family and friends I see many examples of those traits.

    I think getting past the church of anger and resentment is technically easy but socially hard. Get rid of Fox News and other media like it. The church of Fox is ruining the republic.

    Fox has become religion to many by turning lies into beliefs.

    Unfortunately, like drugs, those lies build on one another and are addictive because what is ugly on the outside, fear and anger, feels liberating on the inside for it creates a simple pseudoworld of revenge and retribution for the cause of confusion and rejection.

    Want to get rid of negative feelings? Watch Fox and feel better. It makes it good to feel bad by building a false world that welcomes you into the fold.

  9. What was that quote from “The King and I,” something like “It’s a conundrum?”
    I like the Aristotle quote.
    When I think of an “Authentic” man, I think of someone with a heart, and not afraid to show it. It was that massively muscular character in “Rocky Horror,” who could handle the fragile contraption without breaking it up!
    I am guessing that many men are feeling so threatened because of the loss of their jobs, livelihoods, to exported jobs. If one can not make a “decent” living, and support a family HIS sense of effectiveness will go missing. That may be a binary perspective, but it is what the traditional male’s role was all about. Absent that, sadly he finds a loud car, and a gun, and a fake swagger.
    There is a quote that I can only paraphrase: “Those who are empty on the inside, are fancy on the outside.” Or, they pose, on the outside.

  10. So much discussion about this “crisis” for men and boys who think that they are heading for some sort of horrible precipice. The only evidence I ever have observed is that it is horrible for them to think about a world in which they are not automatically the center of everything around them. A world in which they are expected to cooperate and to collaborate with people who are not just like themselves, including a world where women are respected and have something to say to which the men will listen with an open mind, just is anathema to them. They view equal status and equity as a demotion from the previous self proclaimed superior status.

  11. William A. Poppen. I love the imagery. I would respond by saying thought is the genesis of virtue and I have done some of my most productive thought “sitting on a rock, watching a stream”.

  12. Holding girls/women back so boys/men won’t feel bad about themselves is not virtuous. It does no one any good and causes major problems in the long run.
    Thankfully we have the freedom to progress past that sexist mindset and find our own virtue.

  13. So many fundamentalists refer back to “nature” and that is where the illusion of male cultural dominance originates (no pun intended). If “nature” dictates our cultural outcomes, then the odds are with the female, not the male – more births are male predicting an outcome that will result in more male deaths and/or lack of procreation. In other words, “nature” is hedging its bets.
    Secondly, western cultural philosophy uses a linear approach – male at one end and female at the other – while a more objective and rational theory is more circular. Sex (biological, psychological, and emotional) is better judge on a circular framework where the scientifically proven identification can range more realistically.

  14. Anita Kirchen. I think that even better than the image of a circle is the image of a web with interactions and influences running in all directions.

  15. Regarding virtues as a foundation for society, I recommend the book, “The Lakota Way” by Jonathan M. Marshall, III. The author weaves the story of his People as told to him by his grandparents through the 12 virtues that are the foundation of Oceti Sakowin cultural ways. These 12 virtues are Humility, Perseverance, Respect, Honor, Love, Sacrifice, Truth, Compassion, Bravery, Fortitude, Generosity and Wisdom. (This was a society, culture, & spirituality that Western “masculinity” tried to quash.)

  16. Divide and conquer is the control method. This method is used by the rulers, by the churches, and in America most successfully, by the marketers of schlock, the grift-industrial complex.

    Education is the cure.

  17. In my undergrad philosophy class I remember asking how you argue against the Solipsism argument of singular conscious mind. Answer: You do not. But try living by that philosophy. So, as one who has tried to pursue virtue instead of “success”.
    I put it to you. As a male in the current United States. Try living by that philosophy.

  18. So what role does the never-ending quest for pelf have in the crisis of the male? I think it’s like the dog chasing the car. When such canine “catches” the car, then what? What’s next for a Musk and the future world’s first trillionaires? There is no next, since, inter alia, he and/or they will have attained his or their goal and are now free to buy corporations and advise governments on how to run their businesses. The crisis may be rooted in selection of the “goal,” which brings us back to what we through our greedy lens may think the culture demands of us, but we are the “culture,” and if we equate the acquisition of assets over helping the poor, for instance, then we have positively institutionalized the horrors of how such wealth was acquired over the humane alternatives for which such wealth could otherwise have been spread.

    I recently quoted a writer who wrote that “All is philosophy, and that if true all the rest is noise.” I think that observation shortchanges the potential for cultural change, which could in turn provide an Aristotlesian environment within which the modern male could be rescued from his current plight, though our history is not reassuring. (See Hitler, Atilla, Genghis Khan, Mao, Trump et al.).

  19. Thanks! It never hurts to extoll virtue although I would ask French is Franklin who we want to follow for “temperance, moderation, chastity”- really🤣 ??? Aside, I see less of men struggling with masculinity than with the ebb of power and automatic privilege as equality progresses. I’m OK with that. But maybe it needs to be properly named? Like “I’m pissed that everybody doesn’t do what I want to do all of the time anymore, sometimes they listen to women and that shit!”

  20. Andrew Tate, et al. are simply trying to find a way to regain the “toxic” in “toxic masculinity.” It’s telling for any person that the loss of the toxic is the problem. It’s like a confederate-flag belt buckle telling on a person.

    In any case, I’ll be happiest when we no longer use phrases like “authentic man,” and think only about phrases like authentic person or decent individual or wonderful being. It’s true there are statistical differences between the genders, but they are not key to what is most important, character. After all, there are differences in hormone levels, or strength, or intelligence, or drive, or empathy (etc., etc.,…) among those within the boundaries of the existing social definitions. Ultimately, none of _those_ differences is what’s really important about being a good human being.

  21. Oooo, men are hurting. Just laughable. They are not hurting unless they have brown or black skin because the patriarchy demands they fall in line with their beliefs. They were raised to believe they could be anybody and do anything they wanted and nobody could stop them. They get paid more than women, have more opportunities than women yet complain that they are competing with women for jobs.

    It’s a bunch of b.s. honestly. Women are finally out-performing men and they don’t like it. They go to Andrew Tate because he says the things they think out loud…sexist b.s. stuff about being a “Man.” This is the culture that is giving these man-children a voice. I know there’s “free speech” but they are trying to turn the clock back and women are finally brave enough to say, “no way Joe, we are not going back.”

    Cry me a river.

  22. I see a relevance in the currently high interest in Stoicism. Not the grit-your-teeth-and -get-through-it kind, but the true philosophical kind from thinkers such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius and others. Similar virtues valued.

  23. This brings to mind my “political incorrectness” of long standing.
    The “Women’s Movement” of the ’60s and ’70s tried to model itself after the Civil Rights Movement, but that was a misunderstanding of the world. While the many aspects of discrimination tracked, redefining the role of women in society properly had to mean redefining the role of everyone. Equal rights for women, I had argued, meant to free men to not fit the previous definitions of “manly”.

    Maybe we are finally reaching the point where we can thing about universal virtues, not defined as a “man’s role” and a “woman’s role”.

  24. There are so many problems inherent in David French’s first statement — and in the assumptions that went largely unexamined. “First, millions of men are falling behind women academically and suffering from a lack of meaning and purpose.” 1st: the implication of “men are falling behind women” is that that men are losing their rightful position. Two parts to that: the losing — not that women are rising to their rightful position as fully 50% of humanity — but that women’s position means men are losing, “falling behind”. The second part is that men have the agency to fall behind, rather than that women have the agency to rise. The 2nd assumption going unchecked is the implied link that women in higher academic status is a cause of men’s “suffering from a lack of purpose.” Since this statement is his foundation for all that follows — the first of 3 things to “know” to understand the “state of men” — this primary statement is so flawed. . . the rest is but a house of cards.

  25. This is one of your best ever blogs and that’s an amazing accomplishment in itself. Being a virtuous person makes one a more attractive and successful personality in life regardless of gender.

  26. I wish I wasn’t so late to this discussion, but it’s been a hectic last couple of day.
    I think I can speak with some authority here as, as far as I know, the only non-binary, gender fluid transwoman who follows Professor Kennedy’s blog.
    Let’s start with men’s relationships with the world. Stereotypically men envision possibilities from what they understand of the world, and act to make those visions real. And, again, stereotypically, women find their way into community and open up emotionally and connect with one another. Through those connections, women understand what is going on in their communities.

    Under the patriarchal model, men were not to connect emotionally with anything, and women were not allowed to act on their visions or the understanding.

    Remember the Donna Reed show? Here is the typical plot. Donna Stone (Donna Reed’s character) had this idea that there was a some kind of a problem. She would take her concern Alex (her husband) and attempt to enlighten him, and he would, very politely of course, blow her off. She would then proceed to go around the community (could be the hospital staff, or the neighbors, or any other group, and ask questions of people, learning what was going on and eventually identifying the problem, and realizing what needed to be done to fix it.

    But she would never ever fix it! That was the man’s role! So she would go back to Alex, and ask him a series of question, and tell him some of the things she had learned, until he got it! And then he would go and solve the problem! The women’s movement has broken the patriarchal model for the urban population by encouraging women to use their knowledge!

    Unfortunately, the women’s movement did not teach the men to be emotionally open and come into community with the people they were envisioning and acting for. Many urban men are figuring it out, but not all. And most rural men aren’t figuring it out.

    Here’s a primary example of a situation that has been right in front of men for 174 years, and they still aren’t connected enough to get it. The first “modern era” public toilets were installed at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park London at the Crystal Palace in 1851. How many women here have been to a public event where there were enough toilets for the women at the event that they didn’t have to stand in line and wait, while the men walked in did their business and walked right out? I can’t recall any although I don’t go to a lot of large events. So male architects have been watching women stand in line to use the restroom for 173 year and still aren’t building adequate restroom capacity for women.

    So the first point is that both men and women should be aware of their emotions and establishing relationships with the people who are affected by their visions and actions so that they know how what they are planning to do will impact those people.

    The other thing is that this is a feedback loop. Your relationships feed your brain’s understanding of the people you are in relationship with. And if you want to understand what’s most important to those people you need to have an relationship that includes feelings, because people have feeling about the things that are important to them. And then, and only then will you be ready to act on your visions.

    Women already get this stuff, and are rapidly learning the vision and action side of the cycle. And because they have a deep understanding of the people they interact with, because most of their relationships have an emotional component, they are ahead of the guys. The guy stuff is easier to learn than the emotional stuff.

    And finally, as proof of the emotional stuff being harder, I offer story from a transwoman friend.

    Part of her transition was a therapy group with 8 transitioning transwomen. Three or four years later, four of them had committed suicide. So the other four got together to try to figure out what happened. These transwomen were all in their late 30s to mid 40s, and they were professional people. What they decided was that their women colleagues were so good at emotional management of the people working for them that they were struggling with feeling competent in their fields. I avoided that problem because my career was in engineering and computers, and after I transitioned I was working with architectural and engineering firms, and almost everyone I worked with was a man.

    I want to briefly talk about sex/gender characteristics and the nature vs nurture argument. When I went on testosterone suppressants and estrogen, first, I got more emotional, and then about 3 months in I woke up one morning, and thought, OMG the world feels right for the first time in my life! I also noticed that I was becoming much more emotionally connected, especially with the women in my life. My thinking also became less linear, and more network.

    Fast forward about 6 years, I had remarried a bisexual cis woman and we were talking about having a child together. I had been on hormones for 6 years, but had not had any surgeries, so we talked to my endocrinologist and he said we can try and see what happens. So I stopped my testosterone suppressant and my estrogen, and over the next 6 months I went back to linear thinking became much less emotionally present to my spouse, was angry and short tempered, and the world didn’t feel so right, and Lisa was saying, “I really miss you!” and I was saying that I really missed me to. At that point the endocrinologist said it didn’t appear to be going to happen, so I restarted my hormones and got my life back.

    My conclusion is that hormones have a powerful affect on the factors that I was talking about for masculine and feminine above. But they aren’t so powerful that men can’t learn to be caring and sensitive and emotionally connected, and that women can’t learn to be assertive, powerful, smart, think linearly, etc. We CAN claim both!

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