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Are Some Virtues Bad for Society?

June 1, 2010

That seems to be the implication of Tom Hoffman’s theory of virtue.  Hoffman laments what he calls the feminization of men: too many men today, he says,  no longer celebrate the values of “rugged individualism, risk-taking, courage, bravery, loyalty, and reverence for tradition” and are no longer committed to fighting “the bad guy.” Instead, “warfare is demonized as violence and negotiation is raised to an art.”

Hoffman isn’t content to defend the “manly” virtues; he demeans what he calls the “womanly” virtues: “Caring, compassion, sensitivity, and understanding are virtues meant to blur the distinction between good and evil and drown out the call of manly conscience to ‘do the right thing,'” he writes. He continues: “All reference to the service of a higher calling — to God and country — has been replaced by the call to community service with the emphasis on care and compassion for the downtrodden.”

In Hoffman’s strange virtue ethics, men should extol one set of virtues that he associates with manliness, while avoiding another set that he associates with womanliness. Hoffman’s ideal man of virtue would be a psychopath.  Why?  Because his concept of virtue is grossly disordered.  He also mistakes virtues and vices.  Virtues are habitual dispositions to do the good. Having one doesn’t prohibit having another. One can be and should be both magnanimous and humble, courageous and prudent, loyal and wise.  One should seek them all.  Seeking only some and running away from others, Hoffman’s manly man is less than what a human being ought to be.  He’s a rugged warrior without care, compassion, sensitivity, or understanding.

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  1. Timothy permalink
    June 1, 2010 11:02 pm


    I followed this link back. I have only one thing to say: “Jesus wept.”

  2. June 1, 2010 11:53 pm

    Gotta love your on-going war with the American Catholic blog. With that out of the way, every time I see stuff like Hoffman’s piece, I always want to write the snarkiest thing imaginable, since I think this stuff is a parody of itself. Like those truck or beer commercials that come on during sports’ broadcasts. What would be the religious equivalent: WWJT? (What would Jesus tow?), WWJC (What would Jesus chug?) I am not quite sure. Last time I checked, man’s greatest achievement was, I don’t know, civilization. Somewhat a far cry from the dog-eat-dog, Levianthan-esque barbarisms where life was nasty, brutish, and short.

    Seriously though, this stuff is about two short steps away from saying that the real problem with society is that my wife gives me lip, isn’t barefoot and pregnant enough, or that I can’t beat her. Or the real problem with this country is that we ran out of Injuns to kill (Still plenty of Mexicans, though. That’s why I pack heat.) Why won’t those liberal pinkos let me unzip my pants and drink my beer in peace? I am the real victim here: sports-watching, meat-eating, pig-headed and brutish ol’ me. That’s what made ‘merica great!

    Maybe the fact that I am a Latino male makes me comfortable enough with my masculinity to think that I AM NOT a victim because I have a penis. I like eating meat, I am a slob (my wife can attest to this), I go to the gym to lift weights, and I even watch “the game” on T.V. But where I grew up, double standards on how the sexes were raised were still in force. I could stay out all night, but my sisters couldn’t even go within ten feet of the door without being asked where they were going. That’s the way it is in much of the world still. Does that mean that the conservative gringo finally envies me?! ¡Qué bárbaro!

    Really, I don’t get the whole masculine inferiority complex of the cultural right. They participate in the contemporary societal game of playing the victim, which is a mockery of real victims. If they want to be men, why don’t they start by staying home and raising their kids properly instead of letting the Xbox raise them for them? A not-so-wise monk once told me that the true mark of a man is to do what he needs to do when he needs to do it. Bitching and whining weren’t part of that equation. If men want to be heroes, they need to start at home.

  3. June 2, 2010 12:31 am

    Another clear, well-known criteria of fascism fulfilled by the folks at The American Catholic.

  4. June 2, 2010 12:42 am


    Cult of masculinity? Check.
    Horror at the prospect of “feminization”? Check.
    Fetishization of military virtues and the use of violence? Check.
    Longing for a Mythical past deemed more pure than the present? Check.
    Willingness to give the government unchecked power to exterminate the threatening Other? Check.

    You know, I seem to recall that there was some political movement or other, some decades past, that displayed just this set of characteristics. Darned if I can remember what they called themselves, though.

  5. Ronald King permalink
    June 2, 2010 3:32 am

    The ignorance is astounding. Men must become initiators of healing rather than continue in the power struggle of dominance and submission. Rugged individualism? Does it really mean a fear of being vulnerable and always being on the defensive?
    These “men” are afraid of what resides in their own minds. They are too afraid to see how afraid they really are and it is defended with an aggressive interpersonal style designed to keep from awareness the underlying shame of their own failure in their manhood.
    I have seen many of these rugged individualists sitting across the room from me. They are afraid of being discovered as not good enough.

  6. Rodak permalink
    June 2, 2010 5:54 am

    I preferred the Robert bly, “Iron John” version, which had, at least, a creative component to it. “Hoffman,” eh? Isn’t that a…German name? (heh-heh-heh)

  7. Jeff permalink
    June 2, 2010 6:55 am

    Yes, what was Aristotles’s term for that awesome classical virtue, “rugged individualism”?

    Isn’t that just plain old narcissism being marketed with an honorable-sounding name?

  8. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
    June 2, 2010 7:32 am

    Perhaps secondary to the main point, but Hoffman’s “analysis” of the fall of the Roman Empire is simply wrong. Besides ignoring the host of economic and demographic factors that plagued the empire, it completely mischaracterizes the men who were empires. There were great emperors who were great generals (Trajan), there were great emperors who were great administrators (“back room deal makers”) and there were terrible emperors in both groups.

  9. Mark Gordon permalink
    June 2, 2010 7:56 am

    I guess the opposite of demonizing warfare is sanctifying it. But that hasn’t gone out of style at all. That “virtue” is still dominant in American culture.

    Question: What do Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, Michael Medved, William Bennett, Phil Valentine, Dennis Miller, Fred Thompson, Hugh Hewitt, Neal Boortz, Tammy Bruce, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, and Michael Reagan, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Liz Cheney, Michael Steele, Michelle Bachman, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Brit Hume, Andy McCarthy, Mark Thiessen, Rich Lowry, Jonah Goldberg, Mark Steyn, Richard Perle, Fred Kagan, Robert Kagan, Kathryn Lopez, Emmett Tyrell, Larry Elder, Pat Buchanan, Brent Bozell, Tony Blankley, Victor Davis Hansen, and George Will have in common?

    Answer: They all sanctify war without ever having bothered to put themselves at risk in uniform. I’m guessing Tom Hoffman is just like them. His talk about “manly virtues” is likely just that. Talk.

  10. June 2, 2010 8:22 am

    Funny, I wrote about this yesterday, having had the same reaction. I think a certain brand of conservatives have gotten so reactionary to liberals that if we said liberals were completely opposed to eating kittens, they would eat kittens on live TV just to show how notliberal they really are.

    Seriously, who’s against compassion?

  11. M.Z. permalink
    June 2, 2010 8:35 am

    Gotta love your on-going war with the American Catholic blog.

    And I thought we were a bunch of pacifists. lol

    The idea of “manly men” seems to have a cowboy/western ideal. Those aren’t virtues that families are raised upon. Occasionally you’ll see Chesterton thrown in there. He was town centered though, and you only get there by ignoring his social communitarianism.

    There is a real contrast present though. If we are going to go on the extreme end of love of family and kin and putting the family first, you’ll find the mafia.

  12. Gerald August Naus permalink
    June 2, 2010 12:15 pm

    Mr. Hoffman’s wife probably told him to stop being such a slob and made him take out the trash.

  13. Gerald August Naus permalink
    June 2, 2010 12:36 pm

    Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. Except for Sarah Palin, she’s a Martian, too.
    This guy sounds a lot like a certain Schickelgruber from Braunau.
    “A German boy must be lean and mean, quick like a greyhound, tough as leather, and hard as Krupp steel. He must learn self-denial, to endure reproaches and injustice, to be reliable, silent, obedient, and loyal …”
    –Motto of the Hitler Youth

    I’ve always found the insecurity of macho men laughable. Apparently, this Mr. Hoffman isn’t going to heaven but to Valhalla.

    “A man may conquer a million men in battle but one who conquers himself is, indeed, the greatest of conquerors.”
    Siddhartha Gautama

    “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” *
    Jesus of Nazareth

    * not referring to the gun by the same name. At least that’s my humble exegesis.

    I think the armchair warriors missed out on seeing manly men crying for their mothers as they watched their intestines exposed, their disembodied limbs strewn across the field of “valor”, the blood of “good guy” and “bad guy” joining in the soil. Young men’s hair turning white like that of their mothers who went through pains for naught. Spilled mother’s milk. Widows and orphaned children left with nothing but a folded flag. It was a sacrifice alright, but to Mars, god of war and his profiteers.

    Interestingly, the president of Germany just resigned after criticism of a statement mildly favorable of war for national interests. They have some manly men left, mainly in the East, where a “shortage” of women and economic problems have resulted in Neo Nazi tough guy syndrome. Much like the American version, just wrapped in a different flag. Only the weak and insecure need to wrap themselves in a flag. Empty shells are prone to drool over shotgun shells, until they get shell-shocked. (I do have one gun, but I don’t make sweet, sweet love to it)

    Man is something to be overcome, said Nietzsche. The constant pecking order squabbles and posturing should be a little beneath humans. These man-children never got past cowboys-and-indians except that now the guns are real and instead of “Bang! You’re dead” there’s now brain matter flying through the fog of war.

    Sent from my iPhone

  14. Gerald August Naus permalink
    June 2, 2010 12:40 pm

    * Note: I phrased that misleadingly – The president of Germany had made the following statement and was criticized for it. “ emergencies military intervention is necessary to uphold our interests, like for example free trade routes, for example to prevent regional instabilities which could have a negative impact on our chances in terms of trade, jobs and income.”

    In the USA, that’s not reason for resignation but part of the campaign platform :P

  15. Richard A permalink
    June 2, 2010 1:58 pm

    Over at the TAC website, there was actually a real discussion of the article, with some responders making similar points to those made here, and others suggesting (with some justice, I think) that those were misreadings of the article. Here, just a simplistic misreading of the original article and a lot of pilers-on.

  16. Rodak permalink
    June 2, 2010 3:40 pm

    Richard A–
    So, do you intend to share with those of us in the pile a few of those aspects in which the discussion here is based on a “misreading?”

  17. phosphorious permalink
    June 2, 2010 4:24 pm

    Over at the TAC website, there was actually a real discussion of the article. . .

    No there wasn’t. Just the usual conservative cries of “You libs deliberately misunderstand things just so you can smear a good man.”

    Meh. . .

  18. Arturo Vasquez permalink
    June 2, 2010 5:16 pm

    The reason that we are not having a conversation about this is because there is nothing to discuss. Let us examine the intellectual gems that Hoffman leaves us with:

    “John Wayne epitomized the rugged individual who was committed to fighting ‘the bad guy,’ but he was only one of a whole host of competing figures cut out of the same cloth.”

    “When warfare is demonized as violence and negotiation is raised to an art, the end is near. Today, we are there.”

    “Exit the cowboy and enter the mama’s boy… All reference to the service of a higher calling — to God and country — has been replaced by the call to community service with the emphasis on care and compassion for the downtrodden.”

    With rhetoric like that, any message he had he lost in the first paragraph. To try to siphon out a point after that would be like discussing the moral of Debbie Does Dallas. There is no way you won’t come out dirty afterwards.

    The article was filled with so many straw men that crows were not seen for miles around, but I digress. I think one person said it best when he said that Mr. Hoffman watches too much T.V. John Wayne? Seriously? Did he even fight in a war? The essayist sort of reminds me of the closeted neighbor in that movie American Beauty. Seems like the kind of guy who would write such drivel.

    American masculinity is a product, just as Chevy trucks, flannel shirts, and chewing tobacco are products. The only person left out of Mr. Hoffman’s group of “rugged individuals” was the Marlboro Man. This is what “American men” are all about: they don’t cry, they kill Injuns and Messicans, and don’t take nutin’ from nobody.

    What an artificial construct! Heck, real men used to go to ballet, and used to be the only ones who went to ballet. Real men knew how to dance, sing, and discuss art and literature. And I would say that the real REAL men would rather negotiate than send vast numbers of their own boys to be slaughtered on a battle field. If that makes us pansies, well, let the “real men” kill themselves off.

    But I guess we ARE just a bunch of pansies. Are those fighting words? Maybe we ought to call them out on it. Pistols at fifty paces at dawn!

  19. June 2, 2010 6:22 pm

    I think Kyle’s reading (and that of some others here) of Hoffman’s post is flawed, and I have taken issue with it in his blog

    Click Here to seek Kyle’s post

    I will re-post my comment here, and add one point at the end:

    Kyle, with due repect to your philosophical acumen, which I respect not a whit less than my own, I must take issue with your reading of Hoffman’s piece. To me, it seemed unlikely that you would read a blog piece like that in an unfair way and interpret it wrongly, but it seemed no more likely that someone would take the very odd position you described. In order to relieve the dissonance of two equally absurd possibilities, I read it for myself. I speculated that the quote you lifted might possibly be redeemed by its context, and my suspicion seems to be confirmed by the actual blog post. I did not think it very plausible that someone would argue that caring, compassion, sensitivity and understanding are in and of themselves, deficient and incorrigibly prone to blur the moral conscience. I did not find it very likely that Hoffman was advocating manly virtues to the exclusion of the ones that he deems unmanly. The way I read the piece, he is pointing out a problem with the way academia and the media promote one set of virtues to the exclusion of another set which they reject, but he is not necessarily doing the same from the opposite direction (promoting what they reject, rejecting what they promote).

    Here is the quote you gave in its context (disregarding the further quote, which only serves to emphasize whatever point he is actually making):

    ” … Academia, with the help of the media, has labeled all reference to manly virtue as patriarchal, sexist, and homophobic. Womanly virtue, on the other hand, is extolled. Caring, compassion, sensitivity, and understanding are virtues meant to blur the distinction between good and evil and drown out the call of manly conscience to “do the right thing.” Like a mother who refuses to see the evil in her son, the feminist professors cast all moral standards as relative and subjective.”

    I think the key to understanding what Hoffman is saying is the verb “meant”, which I have italicized above for emphasis, along with what I take to be the subjects of that verb, the doers of the action: “Academia…the feminist professors…with the help of the media”. It is a critique of what they are trying to do with those virtues, not of the virtues themselves.

    I doubt he would disagree with your point, that all the virtues must be practiced. He is simply correctigng an unbalanced excess in one direction by promoting an emphasis on those virtues which he judges to be marginalized. There is no good reason to insist on a reading of Hoffman as denying a legitimate place for compassion, sensitivity and understanding. I hope he will weigh in on our different interpretations of his piece. He, of course, would know what intended.

    At the end of his post, Hoffman offers Jesus Christ as a model of what he takes to be the ultimate in manly virtue (he also offers a link to a fairly inoccuous web site). Our Lord is not generally believed to have displayed, during His earthly life and ministry, a notable lack in compassion, sensitivity or understanding.

    My final point is simply this – the root of the word virtue, vir is an accurate rendering of the classical Greek ἀρετή (aretē), which is literally about manliness, and referrs to general excellence of character. It encompasses morality, but is not limited to it. It signifies excellence in any and all attributes.

  20. June 2, 2010 6:44 pm

    Another cowboy heard from.

  21. June 2, 2010 6:57 pm

    Oops – I attributed an appended comment by TAC author Tito Edwards to Hoffman! Kyle pointed that out on his blog. Mea culpa!

  22. Gerald A. Naus permalink
    June 2, 2010 7:58 pm

    “warfare is demonized as violence and negotiation is raised to an art”
    The horror! O tempora! O mores! What is the world coming to ?

    “You know, I seem to recall that there was some political movement or other, some decades past, that displayed just this set of characteristics. Darned if I can remember what they called themselves, though.”
    It hasn’t been that long, Matt. It was called the Bush Administration.

    There is no such thing as a “manly virtue”. There is only behavior most commonly exhibited by/attributed to/demanded of men. Like there is for women. It’s unlikely that one’s personality completely coincides with any such set of expectations, therefore twisting oneself into matching them can only result in neurosis. The Germans gave mothers a medal (“Mutterkreuz”, ranked by number of kids) for having many children and the children medals for killing other mothers’ children. Clearly set roles. Cannon fodder factory.

    Only the most feeble of men worry about women’s influence and power. A piece like that screams of insecurity. A mail order bride must be next on his bucket list.

    Re: pansies. Mine survived a (rare) California frost. No pansies, they.

    I’d call the classic macho personality the ultimate “pansy”. Easily offended, quick to rage, constantly marking his territory…that’s not a “real man”, that’s a prisoner of his own device. And, for Christ’s sake, that archetype is so-not-Christian. When I read the “Syllabus of Errors” a few years back thought it was a list of recommendations :) Seems this “Macho-Christian” shtick views the Sermon on the Mount as such a syllabus of errors.

  23. June 2, 2010 8:01 pm

    Gee, thanks Rodak! :)

  24. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
    June 3, 2010 11:56 am


    the problem with your reading of Hoffman’s piece is twofold. First, it ignores the underlying social construction of the “manly virtues” he praises. I find no fault with loyalty, bravery, risk-taking, in and of themselves. But by linking them to John Wayne and setting them against “radical feminists” he is clearly not discussing these virtues as virtue but rather invoking them as short-hand for a weltanschauung that he believes is under attack. As others have pointed out, this trope of the “oppressed rugged American man” is common in many conservative circles, but is more rhetoric than reality.

    Second, our defense fails to deal with Hoffman’s straw man attack on academia. I simply don’t buy the argument that these virtues are under attack by liberal/feminist/radical academics. As a member of academia, I know up close the nuance and shades of grey among my liberal colleagues. To say that they have “labeled all reference to manly virtue as patriarchal, sexist, and homophobic” is not true. Have many of them questioned the broader weltanschauung and pointed out that it has, historically, been closely linked with racism and sexism? Yes. But the Church has also criticized these and other aspects of it as well. Does this mean that the Church rejects manly virtues? Of course not.

  25. Gerald A. Naus permalink
    June 3, 2010 2:08 pm

    Virtues don’t need an adjective.

  26. Rodak permalink
    June 4, 2010 11:37 am

    Virtues don’t need an adjective.

    That’s good! I like that!

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