When the financial crisis first broke out, some people wondered if the fact that Wall Street was dominated by men — who are more prone to risk-taking and aggressive behavior — had contributed to the crisis. Perhaps the evolutionary advantage that enabled our ancestors to better hunt game and win battles, did not, in the end, conduce to building a stable financial system. Maybe all Wall Street needed was a shot of estrogen?
Now Harvey Mansfield and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, respectively our age’s greatest theorist and greatest exemplar of manliness, have taken up the question of whether or not courage is a specifically masculine trait. Hirsi Ali offers up the more interesting argument, noting that conceptions of virtue — be they masculine or feminine — have become unmoored from the contexts of family and community in which they made sense. She contrasts the uncertain and “ambiguous” roles of men and women in today’s society with those in her native Somalia:
As a child, when I owned up to naughty deeds as an instigator or participant, knowing that physical punishment could follow, my father often exclaimed in admiration, “She is my only son.” This hurt my brother’s feelings . . .
Hirsi Ali goes on to introduce a whole string of non-sequiturs, but her basic point — that men and women no longer have a clear context in which to express their virtues — is a good one. This makes me think that while we may need more women working at banks and hedge funds, this won’t make much of a difference unless both men and women connect their aggression, risk-taking, and caution to the interests of real families and communities, especially their own. Indeed, the problem with the misleading financial instruments that led to the crisis was, in part, that they obscured these human connections.