Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

Becoming a Better Man

Men, family, and character

I recently came across a book by Walter R. Newell, called The Code of Man. I'm a little over halfway through the book, which argues that part of the reason many young men seem lost is that in our society we have lost touch with 5 important ideals related to "manliness": love, courage, pride, family, and country. This is not a defense of some of the misguided ideals often included under masculine virtue, but rather the book is an attempt to examine some of the ancient virtues as they relate to a happy life.

Last night, I came across the following thought-provoking passage:

"The family is the source of almost all of the substantial roles a man is called upon to play in his life. As a father, son, brother, or husband, a man finds himself confronted with complex and often competing sets of relations and obligations...It is these complexities that make the family a lifelong school in which a man can develop his own character; it is a classroom for the soul."

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Newell doesn't deny that the same is also true for women. But he is emphasizing that it is the case for men. I think this is important to recognize today. Even though much progress has been made with respect to the expectations of men and women and their family obligations, it is still much more common for women to be asked about how they balance their family and work responsibilities.

But if Newell is right, men attending to their obligations as sons, fathers, husbands, and brothers is important not only for those relationships to flourish, but also for the individual man himself to flourish. This is because it is in these relationships that the moral and intellectual virtues are needed and tested. If a man is intentional about these relationships, giving them sufficient care and attention, he will find that he is called upon to be wise, patient, compassionate, loving, and courageous in a myriad of ways.

A friend of mine who also works on a college campus says that "26 is the new 18," and I fear that he is right. (This would mean that 18 is the new 12, perhaps.) In any case, we need all young adults to pursue good character. Yet many women in their late teens and early twenties are much more mature than their male counterparts. And a good portion of those males never make significant progress, including moral progress. I think that one reason for this is that they don't have anything to live for larger than themselves. They don't give their lives to anything larger than the self.

The family is a place to learn the value of a life of both fulfillment and sacrifice. It is time that more men not only value and seek to cultivate character, but also see the family as a primary place to develop and express it.

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Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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