Men Are the Expendable Gender — Inspiring or Exploitative?

In the animal kingdom, it is common for a stronger member of one sex to sexually exploit or kill their weaker counterpart. In nature and human society alike, men are commonly exploited by women, whether in reverse or not. However some argue that vulnerability among males leads to better protection from predators than would be provided by females.

The “male disposability” is a term that refers to the idea that men are considered expendable in society. This article discusses the pros and cons of this topic.

Guard marching with tomb of the unknown soldier.

Perhaps none of the variables that have shaped masculinity — masculine biological essence — is more important or underestimated than this: wombs are more precious than sperm. A guy may impregnate many women at once, but a womb can only retain one kid at a time (sometimes two or three), hence twelve women and three men can repopulate a community considerably more effectively than three women and twelve men.

As a result, males are more disposable than women.

Male expendability — the survival-based calculation that men’s lives may be more easily committed to a larger goal — has had a disproportionate impact on what we consider masculine conduct and even on the structure of society.

Thousands of years ago, male expendability, along with men’s higher physical strength and testosterone-fueled urge for aggressiveness and dominance, pushed males into riskier occupations like hunting and warfare. This relationship may go a long way toward explaining patriarchy’s near universality throughout human history (and why it weakens in times of prosperity and peace). Before the birth of civilization, men’s physical power was required to accomplish the filthy and risky tasks that kept everyone alive in the harshest of settings. Men accepted their disposable status and performed what was required, but they anticipated at least a bit more power and privilege in exchange. Because they required men’s protection for themselves and their offspring, women accepted this arrangement (either gratefully or unwillingly, depending on one’s viewpoint). In ancient Rome, “the aggressive and self-aggrandizing will of the strutting warrior (with its potential to disrupt all bonds and balance within Roman society) was controlled by its expiatory, sacrificial aspects; a man atoned for expanding by expending his being, by wasting his breath of life,” writes Carlin Barton.

If you believe the concept of male expendability is obsolete in our post-modern culture, just watch a broadcast after a major disaster or terrorist incident. Inevitably, the reporter will state gravely that “women and children are among the dead,” implying that they are a particularly terrible type of victim, while men’s deaths are anticipated. 

Male expendability also explains why sin has long been linked with masculinity, much to the consternation of promoters of clean, upright life. Philosophers and pastors have urged men for millennia to recognize that smoking and drinking do not constitute a “true man.” The argument’s endurance and vehemence, of course, demonstrates how strong the link is! The link between masculinity and vice is predicated on the fact that engaging in potentially harmful habits (or even simple unsafe actions like riding a motorbike) demonstrates that he isn’t concerned with extending his life. Even if we may come up with academic justifications for why the conduct isn’t prudent and reasonable, such an attitude registers viscerally as uniquely male.


Male expendability, of course, explains our perception of the pinnacle of manly virtue. Many consider holding one’s life so lightly that one is ready to confront danger, to lay down one’s life for others, to be the peak of heroic masculinity. In fact, a complete philosophy based on masculine expendability arose in the past, and remnants of it may still be seen in the present world.

We’ll look at that concept today, as well as the intriguing and challenging concerns it brings about whether such thinking is inspirational or exploitative.

The Male Expendability Philosophy

“A man’s virtus is fortitude, which consists of two basic tasks: contempt of death and scorn of suffering. If we want to have virtus–or rather, if we want to be viri–we must exercise them.” –Cicero

Throughout history, arguments have been made that male expendability is more than a result of biological chance, and that it is, in fact, a greater truth, a philosophy of life. This concept is based on three principles: acceptance of expendability, flexibility, and adaptability. 1) is the highest manifestation of will, 2) indicates a value for something greater than life itself, and 3) is the ultimate source of strength.

These principles are best described using historical context and examples from ancient Rome, a civilization in which a fusion of the classical code of honor and Stoic doctrines elevated the concept of expendability to its pinnacle.

Willpower Exercising

A guy in ancient Rome achieved manliness — virtus — and became a man — vir — by unwavering effort and activity. In Roman Honor, Carlin Barton says:

“The purposeful expenditure of energy converted a guy into a man.” Above all, a guy desired to be disposable. A man, like the sun, fueled his honor’s fire with his own substance. The animus virilis, the magnus animus, spent itself in defiance of its own existence.”

Self-preservation is the most instinctive and powerful urge a person possesses. The greatest evidence of a man’s discipline — the ultimate test of self-mastery — was willing oneself to relinquish one’s hold on life, to vanquish the dread of death, which goes counter to natural urge. “For the Romans, it was the unnaturalness, the artifice of his deeds that indicated the intent of a vir,” argues Barton.

While we honor rank-and-file soldiers for accepting their expendability, we honor much more the general who places himself on the frontlines — since the former is ordered to face death, while the latter chooses to put himself in more danger than is required. The more purposeful the acceptance of danger and expendability, the more manly and heroic it is regarded to be.

Putting a higher value on anything than life itself

“Here is a soul that despises the light of life and regards the honor you want as a bargain if all it costs is life.” —Virgil


While we are used to considering life itself to be the most valuable commodity, men have frequently regarded other things – family, nation, freedom, and honor — to be even more valuable. Death was not the worst thing that could happen to a man at the time; it was losing such things without a struggle that was the worst. Cicero argues that a man should be “driven by the grandeur of honor” and accept danger and risk above safety and prudence, since “what seems most glorious is done with a noble and elevated spirit and in disdain of the worries of mortal life.”

Seneca uses the example of a young man who would sooner die than forfeit his freedom in Letters From a Stoic:

“The Spartan lad’s story has been preserved: taken captive as a stripling, he kept crying in his Doric dialect, ‘I will not be a slave!’ and he kept his word; for the first time, he was ordered to perform a menial and degrading service — and the command was to fetch a chamber-pot — he smashed his brains against the wall.” Is anybody still a slave when liberation is so close? Wouldn’t it be better for your own kid to die this way than to live to old age by meekly yielding? Why are you upset, when even a little lad may die valiantly?”

We are so used to considering the extension of life at any costs as the highest good that such a scenario is likely to seem strange, if not downright alarming. As will this one, according to Barton:

“When a strange gap formed in the Forum in the fourth century B.C.E., soothsayers said that the Romans would have to surrender their greatest source of power if they wanted the Republic to exist forever.” Marcus Curtius, a brave young warrior, went forward. After admonishing his fellow citizens that Rome’s power resided on virtusque arma, he committed himself to a sacrificial death. He jumped into the gap, fully armed and riding a magnificently caparisoned horse. For the Romans, the voluntary death of a Curtius or Decius Mus was “a pregnant and birth-giving death,” in Bakhtin’s words.

“The willful waste of oneself and one’s powers was a type of charity,” writes Barton, “a gift to someone or something bigger than oneself.” It not only had the potential to rescue that person or ideal directly, but it also had the potential to stiffen the bravery and conviction of others. Many an enlisted soldier has been moved to action by the sight of a senior officer refusing to spare himself and sprinting into fire, to return to the example of a general on the frontlines.

However, being willing to give oneself as a sacrifice was not wholly selfless. A man’s hatred for the dread of death allowed him to fully appreciate life. “He never longed to live who did not wish to die,” Seneca says. And, if death was necessary, a noble sacrifice guaranteed immortality. “He who dies by virtus nonetheless does not perish,” Plautus says.


The Ultimate Power Source

“He who despises his own life is your ruler.” –Seneca

Holding one’s life too dearly was a weakness for the Romans; it made a man more inclined to avoid danger and less willing to offer his best. He who clung to the prospect of survival — the possibility of escaping unharmed and/or being taken prisoner — would never fight as furiously as he who had willed his expendability in combat. Thus, the individual who had a casual attitude regarding mortality had a better chance of surviving; “his trump card,” argues Barton, “was his readiness to forsake what he loved most in the world.” ” “The less you spare yourself, the safer you will be,” Sulla said.

The Roman believed that the one who went the farthest would be the one who didn’t store anything for the return journey. 

Is it Inspiring or Exploitative to be Expendable?

The old maxims above are difficult not to be moved by. However, some contemporary men argue that such platitudes only serve to legitimize and ennoble the exploitation of men as “cannon fodder,” and that we should not be tricked by them.

It’s simple to understand how we’ve come to believe that men are expendable. Since ancient times, wars have become more distant from directly protecting home and hearth — one’s own people — as well as anonymized and mechanized, leaving less room for individual action and glory; it’s difficult to believe the men who were mowed down during WWI had much honor, or that the cause for which they gave their lives was worth the price. At the same time as self-sacrifice has lost its luster, our perception of personal value has risen. Because we have learned to see each individual as distinct and precious, each possibly preventable death is viewed as much more sad and wasteful than when men were more submerged into a mass of men. Finally, it seems that there are less rewards for laying down one’s life; in an egalitarian society, there are no unique abilities or benefits associated with being disposable. Why should males be the only ones who register for the draft if they have equal rights? Why should males continue to undertake the most hazardous and filthy professions in society, and account for almost all workplace fatalities?

From this viewpoint, the expendability concept is really a gleaming veneer covering something that began as a biological necessity, a survival strategy, and has now become obsolete.

Is this true, or is there something heroic about living life on the edge? Is male expandability just a product of human evolution, or does it hint to a greater, metaphysical truth — a nobler, better way to live independent of biology?

The answer basically boils down to the individual guy and his particular perspective on life’s purpose.

Today, we tend to consider the amount of life to be the most important factor. We pay close attention to our health, experimenting with various diets and supplements in the hopes of prolonging our lives. We’re ready to go through any medical procedure, even if it means only a few extra months of misery and impaired mortality. Seatbelts, air bags, security systems, and smoke detectors are all standard equipment. Only a tiny percentage of the population will participate in activities that are judged harmful or excessively life-threatening; for the majority of people, even having a motorbike is entirely out of the question, and simply foolish. We just wish to live to a ripe old age and pass away quietly in our sleep. Scientists, both amateur and professional, are even attempting to “treat” that inevitability, in the hopes of extending our life spans by a few decades and, finally, making us immortal.


There is a another way of looking at life — one that is far more alien to us — and that is to measure it by its quality rather than its quantity. Spending a little period of time in a cause bigger than oneself, or merely experiencing a flash of fame, excitement, and/or adventure, even if the outcome is an early death, is worth more than decades of a safe but mediocre life, according to this viewpoint. What good is it to gain years by monitoring calories and looking both ways if nothing noteworthy or profound occurs during that time? “What! are you alive now?” Seneca questions individuals who are stumbling through a sad, mediocre life while claiming to be terrified of death. It’s difficult not to recognize the irony in the fact that, at the same time that scientists try to prolong life expectancy, an increasing number of individuals consider their present life span as empty and worthless. We have forgotten what General Creighton Abrams said in condensing down what has been considered the warrior’s credo: “There are many things in life worse than death.”

The benefits of living recklessly, of considering one’s life as throwaway, are worth the risk, according to this second viewpoint. Captain John Alexander Hottell, commander of the Army’s 1st Calvary Division during Vietnam, composed the following letter to his wife, which was to be opened in the case of his death, soon before dying in a helicopter crash:

“I’m writing my own obituary… [because] I’m the final authority on my own death,” she says.

I adored the Army; it raised me, nourished me, and provided me with some of the most fulfilling years of my life. It has allowed me to live a lifetime in only 26 years. It’s only appropriate that I die while serving it. We all have only one death to live, and if it has any value at all, it is found in the service of friends in arms.

Despite this, I deny that I died for anything—not my country, my army, my fellow man, or any of these things. I LIVED for these things, and the way I decided to do it meant the very real possibility of dying while carrying out my responsibilities. I was aware of this and accepted it, but my passion for West Point and the Army—and the prospect of one day being able to serve all of the principles that mattered to me via it—was strong enough for me to embrace the possibility as part of the price that must be paid for all things of great worth. In this sense, there is nothing worth living for if there is nothing worth dying for.

The Army allowed me to reside in Japan, Germany, and England, giving me opportunities to travel to locations that most people only dream about. I’ve climbed Mount Fuji, seen the ruins of Athens, Ephesus, and Rome, and received a master’s degree from a foreign institution. I’ve been a father, priest, income-tax advisor, confessor, and judge to 200 men at a time; I’ve played college football and rugby, won the British national Diving Championship two years in a row, and boxed for Oxford against Cambridge only to be knocked out in the first round. I attended the German Military Academy as an exchange student and the German Jumpmaster School. I’ve jumped out of anything from a balloon in England to a plane at Fort Bragg thirty times. I have studied philosophy and have authored an essay for Army magazine.


All of these things happened to me because I was in the Army and grew up as an Army brat. The Army is my life; it is such a big part of who I am that whatever occurred was a natural result of my existence. I’d never known what it was like to fail, or to be too old or exhausted to do anything. I spent my whole life in the Army, and it has cost me dearly. It’s only fair.”

Male Expendability: Life, Death, and the Difficult Questions

There are no clear solutions when it comes to deciding between these viewpoints and weighing up on the merits or drawbacks of male expendability. There are a lot of tricky questions.

A man may accept the danger to his own life that comes with a certain pursuit, but when does his death impose an undue burden on others? Is it worthwhile for a guy to go to war if he is single but not married? What happens if he has children? How do you balance a man’s net contribution to his nation vs the cost to his own family when he dies? Is it just if the cause for which he fights directly affects his loved ones and/or is merely that the scale tips towards the former? What if he puts his life on the line not for the purpose of a righteous conflict, but just to go on an adventure? Is it possible to justify going on a risky, voluntary adventure solely if you’re a bachelor? When does expendability’s generosity turn into selfishness?

Is it preferable to “be ashes than dust,” as Jack London phrased it? Is a lifetime of mostly positive memories and decent experiences worth more or less than a short period of significance and excitement followed by an early death?

Did a strong culture of male expendability abuse men in the past, or did it encourage more of them to live a shorter but more meaningful life – to realize their genetic destiny? Does a military conscription eliminate the virtue of masculine expendability, which is partially based on the demand of willpower mastery? Can male expendability only have value if the man chooses to be expendable and submits to a voluntary death rather than having that choice made for him?

Is masculinity even viable in the absence of expendability in the end? Is it feasible to live a masculine life in an age free of danger, since so much of masculinity has been fashioned by the male impulse to embrace risk and hold life cheaply? If you have an excessive dread of death?

Perhaps the only answer to that last question that can be agreed upon is “No.” “The line between life and death was at the core of existence for the Ancient Romans,” Barton says. Life is in the center for us, while death is on the outside.” Perhaps we can all agree that greater masculinity necessitates bringing death closer to the pulsating center of things.


It’s up to you how close you get.



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Frequently Asked Questions

What is Expendability theory?

A: The theory of Expendability states that a society will require fewer resources to support its population as technology advances. This means less people working and more machines taking on our time-consuming tasks, but it also has the potential for greater economic growth in the future

How is masculinity different from male?

A: Masculinity is a social construct whereas male refers to biological sex.

Is masculinity an attitude?