BOHANON & CUROTT: An economist’s remedy for toxic masculinity

Economic Analysis by Cecil Bohanon & Nick CurottToxic masculinity is a hot-button topic. One source defines it as “the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness.” Some say it is a pervasive part of our culture and the reason rich and powerful men harass and abuse women. Others believe the extent of the malady is wildly overstated and its “cures” are counterproductive. Who is right? We don’t want to wade into this controversy.

We will note, however, that the discussion of self-command by famous economist Adam Smith in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” offers some useful insights we think can advance the discussion and appeal to both sides. Smith tells us we would all do well to tamp down our concern for our own feelings and ramp up our concern for the feelings of others.

Smith never defines self-command, but his examples illustrate what he means. He describes a commander in battle “who has lost his leg by a cannon-shot, and who, the moment after, speaks and acts with his usual coolness and tranquility” as the epitome of self-command.

One might wonder if Smith’s example of self-command is just excessive machismo and emotional repression—all the things associated with toxic masculinity. But a closer reading of Smith reveals his concept of self-command goes well beyond a cardboard version of masculinity. He tells us: “Our sensibility to the feeling of others, far from being inconsistent with the manhood of self-command, is the very principle on which that manhood is founded.”

It is genuine consideration for others that makes a soldier truly brave. It is also genuine consideration for others that precludes the soldier from being a sexual harasser. Smith insists that being strong is not at odds with being considerate of others. This is because, to Smith, both virtues spring from the same fount: reducing regard for one’s own selfish feelings and elevating one’s regard for the feelings of others. Or, as Smith says: “The man of most perfect virtue … joins … the most perfect command of his own original and selfish feelings, (with) the most exquisite sensibility to the original and sympathetic feelings of others.”

So, what is good masculinity? To Smith, the key is for men and boys to practice becoming sincerely other-centered and less self-centered. Then, when the cannon-shot hits their leg, they really will be composed and tranquil—and moreover, they will not objectify or abuse women. Good advice we can all agree on.•


Bohanon and Curott are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to

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