The moral equality of combatants

Originally posted on IRRUSSIANALITY:

We do not accord a policeman and a criminal equal status: the criminal is committing an injustice, and so forfeits his right not to be handled forcibly by the policeman; the policeman on the other hand has done nothing to forfeit his right not to be attacked. Their rights are not equal.

In contrast, one of the bedrocks of the laws of war is the principle of the moral equality of combatants. Assuming that one can objectively decide that a given war has a ‘just’ and an ‘unjust’ side, those fighting on the ‘just’ side are still bound by the same rules as those on the ‘unjust’ side. Unjust soldiers are entitled to shoot at the just ones, and they have the same protection under the laws of war. Just and unjust warriors are morally equal, and should treat each other as such.

Not everybody thinks that this is how…

View original 529 more words

Notice of Peter Olsthoorn’s Honor in Political and Moral Philosophy

I’m very pleased to announce that contributor Peter Olsthoorn’s (Netherlands Defense Academy) Honor in Political and Moral Philosophy (SUNY) will be coming out soon.Olsthoorn, Honor in Political and Moral Philosophy

You can pre-order it here. You can peruse the Google Books preview here. Here’s the (U.S.) Amazon link. You can find more of Peter’s work here.

I read and commented on a draft of this book a couple years ago before I visited Peter in Rotterdam and Breda, and I can assure readers it’s a major contribution to the field that anyone interested in honor needs to add to his or her library. Peter’s careful and scholarly discussion of the intellectual history of honor is especially valuable for us, since books on honor (if they discuss history at all) tend either to focus on one epoch (say, the antebellum South), region (say, the Mediterranean), or author (say, Hobbes). Sometimes honor books provide us with useful snapshots of honor-psychology through the ages by discussing samurai for one chapter, medieval chivalry in another, etc. As an analytic philosopher who isn’t very strong on history, I have relied upon and cited all such books a great deal in my own work. But more rarely attempted has been a sustained story of how leading intellectuals have analysed honor in the West. The scholarly aspects of Peter’s book will be the go-to resource on that question for some time.

Peter’s book is also a polemic for reviving honor as a moral and political motivator. I have lots of good things to say about his argument there, too, but that aspect of the book is better handled in this summary Peter provided me:

Until not too long ago it was not uncommon for moral and political philosophers to hold the view that people cannot be expected to do what is right without at least some reward in the form of reputational gain. Authors from Cicero to John Stuart Mill did not dispute that we can be brought to accept the principles of justice on an abstract level, but thought that in concrete instances our strong passions, our partiality to ourselves, and our inability to be a good judge of our conduct, prevent us from both seeing and acting on what is just and virtuous. In their view, our sense of honor and concern for our reputation can help us in finding out what is the proper thing to do and, just as important, provide us with the much-needed motive to actually do what is right. Especially in this latter, motivational, aspect conscience appeared somewhat impotent to them.

Today, most of us tend to take a stricter view, and think that people are to be just from a love for justice, not from a fear of losing face. Considerations of honor and reputation are generally considered to be on the wrong side of the line. That diminished position of honor is at least partly a result of the fact that, as a motive, honor is somewhat inconsistent with the ideals of autonomy and authenticity, valued by most people in our day. Modern political and moral philosophy mirrors (and, to some extent, feeds) these ideals, and many authors are not too upset that the honor ethic gave way to more demanding forms of ethics that give central place to that notion of autonomy.

The aim of this book is to make the case that the old arguments for a role for honor are still compelling, and that also today, without deep roots in our present-day vocabulary, honor can yet be of use because it is less demanding, and that the articulated opinions of others remain important for making us see, and then actually do, what is right. The underlying assumption is that honor, although it has lost much of its appeal, is still a common motivator. If there is some truth in this, it is all the more regrettable that most modern theorists have turned a blind eye on the topic.

To make that case the first part of the book describes the early, aristocratic argument for honor made by, among others, Cicero and Sallust, and the conversion of honor into a more modern, democratic form by later thinkers, from John Locke and Bernard Mandeville to Michael Walzer. Even in that more democratic form honor still comes with some serious drawbacks, mainly lying in it being something external (which potentially reduces morality to not being caught), and in its exclusiveness (limiting the number of people that matter to someone). To address the first shortcoming, honor should be internalized, at least to some extent; otherwise honor is, indeed, reduced to not being found out. As to that second weakness: to avoid that too much priority is given to the interests of those who are near and dear to us, it seems that we should define our honor group as broad as possible. Finding out if these two goals can be accomplished is the aim of the second part of the book, which focuses on three virtues related to honor: loyalty, integrity, and respect.

Congratulations on the book, Peter!

Here we are again


This is written from a Canadian perspective. I cannot say to what extent the logic applies to other countries, but would be interested in opinions. Paul

Originally posted on IRRUSSIANALITY:

Here we are! Here we are! Here we are again!
We’re fit and well and feeling as right as rain.
Never mind the weather, now we’re all together.
Hullo! Hullo! Here we are again.

(Song by Frederick Wheeler, 1915)

Here we are again. The Canadian Parliament has voted in favour of sending the air force to Iraq to wage war against the Islamic State. This will be the fifth war fought by Canada since the end of the Cold War: the Gulf War (1991); Kosovo (1999); Afghanistan (2001-2014); Libya (2011); and now Iraq (2014). Since a few Canadian servicemen and women were also involved in Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia (1995) and the invasion of Iraq (2003), one could even make that seven wars. This is an extraordinary total for a country which enjoys almost complete safety from external attack.

Not even the Canadian government pretends that it’s going to…

View original 495 more words

A Definition of Honor?

One of the first things my students ask me when I bring up the subject of honor is to give them a short definition. What do I mean by honor? A member of the military recently asked what is academia’s definition of honor, as opposed to the military’s definition? I found myself immediately jumping to a historical explanation. I talked about how the idea of honor had changed over time. I am supervising a class right now that takes students from the Homeric warrior ideal all the way to Existentialism, in which I suppose the whole idea of honor (or of an ideal) is “absurd.” But of course, it is not this type of historical explanation that students are looking for when they ask that question.

The question itself says a lot. We are not quite sure what we mean by honor now. There is less shared understanding of many things in modern liberal society, and certainly honor is one of those ideas for which there is no common understanding. Not only that, but for many it is not an important concept at all, having been replaced with the more democratic “morality.” For others, it holds mainly negative connotations–chivalric honor, which reminds us of sexism, warrior honor which sounds dangerous and destructive, and of course the honor of women as understood in modern political Islam, generating violence against women.

But before we can get to the question of whether or not honor can be a useful concept in Western society, we have to have a discussion about exactly what that term means. When I backed up and tried to give my students a more concrete definition, I had the feeling that it was my own personal definition. I told him that honor has an internal and an external dimension. The internal dimension is that sense of integrity and self esteem that says to us “this is what I won’t do, not because of any reward or punishment but because this is who I am.” The external component strangely contradicts the internal manifestation of honor–it is the social recognition of people of a certain character or with certain behaviors, and of course what is valued in a given society varies. The reason why it seems strangely contradictory is because if we were truly motivated by an internal sense of honor, would we need external recognition of honorable behavior? But of course, the reason for the external signs of honor is to educate, train and shape people to become internally motivated. Without that societal reinforcement, where do people get a strong sense of honor?

I suppose that is why there seems to be a disconnect between the military sense of honor and how the general population thinks about honor. In the military, honor is constantly being “drilled” into people. It may not always take, but overall,  it instills a common understanding of what is honorable and helps to guide our military personnel’s behavior. Perhaps our over-attention to individual autonomy and privacy has made it hard for any collective sense of honor to be passed down to new generations via recognition.

I would like to hear what other people have to say just about the definition of honor, and I’m excited about collaborating with others on the upcoming volume Perspective on Modern Honor and in the series that Dan Demetriou and I co-edit, Honor and Obligation in Liberal Society: Problems and Prospects. I’m also very excited to have Dan come to visit K-State October 21st as part of the Primary Texts Certificate lecture series. He will face that mixed crowd of military and civilians, both eager to come to a more complete understanding of what honor means to society and what it means to them. Thanks for keeping the conversation going!

Two Ways of Failing to be Honorable

One aspect of honor that cuts across many issues is the question of what it takes to fail at being honorable. We can fail to be honorable by not living up to the standards of honorable conduct—this is probably the most natural and familiar way of thinking about it. But there is another way of courting dishonor, which I think is important for how we view negative instances of “honor”. By way of parallel, consider Aristotle’s definition of courage. We can fail to be courageous by being cowardly, or we can fail by being reckless. Those might be described as emotive or will-based failures. But significantly, one can also fail to be courageous in another way, which doesn’t depend on our willingness to act or our passion for doing so. One criterion of bravery (and other virtues) which Aristotle stresses is that it must be done for the sake of what is fine. Additionally, what really is fine is something about which people may be correct or mistaken, such that one might fail to be courageous not by failing to act nor by acting too unthinkingly, but by valuing the wrong things and acting in service of them.

A historical example of this sort of question concerned the 9/11 attackers. Bill Maher was subject to a lot of criticism when he famously rejected the idea that the terrorists were cowards—they stayed on the planes and died for their cause, he argued, so how is it accurate to depict them as cowardly? Even if one accepts that view, however, it is important to remember that ‘not-cowardly’ is not equivalent to ‘courageous’. The actions of the terrorists were vicious for many reasons, and they specifically failed to be courageous because they were done for the sake of wicked ends.

Similarly, it is important for us to remember that it is possible to be dishonorable not only through inaction or lack of care, but by having a perverted sense of what honor requires in the first place. It seems to me that in cases such as so-called “honor killings”, or the kind of entitlement and perceived disrespect that seems to have motivated Elliot Rodger’s recent rampage in California, this is the operative issue—a twisted sense of what is valuable, what is owed, what is worth living, dying, or killing for. For those of us who, like myself, conceive of honor in general as a positive framework which can provide grounds and motivation for genuine virtue, this is an important distinction.

Should conscientious writers use scare quotes around the phrase “honor killings”?

Pakistani human rights activists protest against the killing of pregnant woman Farzana Parveen for marrying a man she loved. Photo: Getty

Since honor killings are so-called, they present honor theorists interested in rehabilitating honor with perhaps our greatest rhetorical challenge. One strategy would be disassociating honor with honor killings: to say that they are honor killings in name only, but not in fact. As part of that strategy, we might decide to put scare quotes around the phrase “honor killings.” A recent, excellent article on honor killings by Aisha Gill exemplifies this liberal use of the scare quote approach.

[A note for non-writers and students: using quotes to mention a phrase qua term (as I did two sentences ago), and using quotes to draw attention to a term (as I do in the next sentence), are different from using scare quotes, which signal that you’re not endorsing the attitudes that might come with a sincere use of the quoted term.]

So this post isn’t devoted to condemning honor killings so much as making a “meta” point. Suppose a writer

  • Condemns honor killings,
  • Finds them even to be dishonorable, and
  • Wants to communicate both her condemnation of honor killings and yet her endorsement of the importance of being honorable.

Such a writer will inevitably contemplate using scare-quotes around the phrase “honor killing.” I want to argue that the scare-quote approach is incorrect.

My argument is premised on the claim that the word “honor” really is a descriptive term. It is not like “justice,” which is a “morally thick” term that has both descriptive and normative content. “Honor,” at least in the sense being used in the phrase “honor killings” (both in the mouths of those who condemn it and those who approve of it) simply refers to esteem, good standing, respectability. And these things supervene on the opinion of the honor group. Honor killings really are done for honor. Not faux-honor, but actual honor. Thus, using scare quotes around the phrase “honor killings” is not correct, even for a writer of the sort we’re imagining.

Objections and replies

OBJECTION: But these killings are not honorable—in fact, they’re dishonorable!

REPLY: Agreed. But honorableness is not the same as honor. Honor is analogous to wealth, or any other goodie (pleasure, freedom, candy, whatever). A capitalist thinks capitalist principles correctly say how the goodie of money should be gained and distributed. A socialist thinks socialist principles say how the goodie of money should be gained and distributed. They both see money as a goodie, but they disagree about the “ethic” that governs that goodie.

Honorableness concerns the correct way to get and distribute the goodie of honor. Unfortunately, honor theory is undeveloped at this point, and there are no handy names such as “socialism” or “capitalism” to denote different comprehensive and integrated theories about what’s honorable. All you and I know right now is that, whatever the correct theory is, it doesn’t permit honor killings.

Thus, the conscientious writer we’re imagining holds that the ethic governing honor says that honor shouldn’t be given to those who kill helpless, usually already-victimized girls and women. But just as it would be silly for a socialist to announce that, say, managing hedge funds isn’t about money but rather “money,” it would be incorrect, even for the conscientious writer above, to say that an honor killing isn’t about honor but “honor.”

OBJECTION: But we’re trying to shame people out of the practice of honor killings through our writing, and using scare quotes around the phrase helps drive home the message that we condemn honor killings.

REPLY: I think that this strategy perpetuates shallow and ultimately unpersuasive talk about values. No capitalist is (or should be) persuaded out of his capitalist beliefs by calling his money “filthy lucre”: that filthy lucre still pays the bills. And I doubt any proponent of honor killings will be persuaded out of his ancient beliefs by calling honor killings “honor killings,” especially when his honor group continues to honor him for what he does. The debate needs to turn to the ethics of honor. What are the principles that should govern our distribution of honor? Who should we honor, and why? These are questions about the meaning “honorableness”: “honorable,” like “justice” and unlike “honor,” is a morally thick term.

If I’m right about this, here are examples of correct usage:

“According to the U.N., 5,000 women are slain in honor killings every year.”

“These ‘honorable’ killings are often carried out by the victim’s family.”

“The so-and-so believe these acts to be honorable because of such-and-such.” [Acceptable because belief is a propositional attitude, and whatever you put in its scope isn’t an assertion of its truth.]

Rebranding vs. reclaiming vs. rehabilitating “honor”

Richard Martinez, father of Christopher Martinez, who was shot in the UC Santa Barbara spree killing. Photo credit: Jae C. Hong (AP).

A recent blog post by “resilience expert” Ken Druck connects honor to the aftermath of the tragic UC Santa Barbara shooting last month. In applauding the grieving Richard Martinez for meeting Peter Roger, the gunman’s father, Druck says that whereas the old honor code was about revenge and war, the “new honor code” is about “peace and non-violence” and “[m]aking our lives an expression of peace and love.”

The false promise of revenge is that hurting or killing someone will satisfy our deepest sense of grief, loss and violation. Revenge and retribution masquerading as honor is often the popular driving force for justifying war and hatred. […] Making our lives an expression of peace and love, rather than hatred and revenge, may not be an easy thing to do. But it is a good and noble, as well as civil and honorable choice we must learn to make if we’re to break the cycle of unprocessed grief and violence.

The entry was re-posted by the Good Men Project, which seems irresistibly attracted to any content that rebrands honor.

It isn’t at all clear to me what is distinctively “honorable” about peace, non-violence, and healing. That doesn’t mean I’m against those things, of course. It seems that there are many ways something can be good without being honorable. Not being honorable doesn’t make it dishonorable. It’s a good thing that Mr. Martinez and the father of his son’s killer got together to commiserate and discuss ways to prevent future spree shootings. I applaud them for it. I “honor” them for it. It’s certainly not easy to do what they did. But this has nothing to do with honor. We don’t have to associate all good things with honor.

Rebranding is different from reclaiming what philosophers call a morally “thick” term. Reclaiming seems to retain the descriptive content, but replaces the negative evaluative content with a positive spin: “queer” is an example of successful reclaiming. In contrast, rebranding changes the descriptive content of the term in order to redeem it.

Rebranding is also different from rehabilitating. Like some contributors to this blog, I want to rehabilitate honor. But that doesn’t mean changing the meaning of the term. Rehabilitation has a reclaiming aspect—we want to restore the positive spin “honor” used to have. But rehabilitation does this by arguing that honor has always referred to a particular sort of good. So, for instance, I think that honor has always concerned the virtues around ethical agonism: essentially, honor is about doing conflict right. That’s perfectly recognizable as “honorable,” so it’s not rebranding.

I guess I have a conservative streak when it comes to usage. But rebranding “honor” seems to me to be a bad idea for a few reasons I think I can articulate.

First, we have a robust vocabulary for the goodness of peace, non-violence, and healing. Moreover, there are well-established ethical approaches (such as care ethics and Christianity) that speak to these values and give them primacy. Calling peace, non-violence, and healing acts “honorable” adds nothing to our understanding of their goodness.

Second, rebranding “honor” erodes our sense of the distinctive moral contribution of honor. A rebrander of honor is caught in this dilemma: if “honor” denoted a genuinely bad thing in the past (such as revenge killing, etc.), then why rebrand “honor” to mean something that is good? That’d be like taking “cruelty” and rebranding it to mean some good thing. Why on earth would you choose the word “cruelty” out of all the possible words to choose from? On the other hand, if “honor” did denote a genuinely good thing in the past, then why rebrand it to mean some other good thing?

My third reason—and I think this is the explanation for why attempts to rebrand honor are so common—is that people who don’t really care for honor invoke term merely for rhetorical purposes. Would the Good Men Project have re-posted Druck’s blog entry if it used any other word than “honor”? I don’t think so. The word “honor” has become a sort of shibboleth that people utter to invoke a vague moral tone. It’s like background music, which doesn’t say anything so much as create a moral ambiance. If you want to seem caring and cooperative but also “tough” or “masculine,” you toss in a meaningless use of the word “honor.” It’s manipulative and soft-minded, but it works I suppose…


Honor for introduction to ethics courses


This blog is meant to be a resource for bouncing ideas around and alerting honor researchers to new work on the topic. In that spirit, I just completed a working draft of this Freshman-level introduction to honor ethics, and I thought I’d share it here.

It’s written somewhat in the style of Russ Shafer-Landau’s Fundamentals of Ethics, which I use as a textbook. Like many contemporary introductory ethics texts, this piece focuses on ideas, principles, and intuitions and ignores scholarly figures and intellectual history.

Please note that it’s an “opinionated” introduction, as it reflects the agonistic conception of honor I favor. It distinguishes between honor as a good and honor as a deontological moral theory. It connects the agonistic elements to honor’s associations with integrity, anti-bullying, and forceful resistance.

I’d certainly welcome any suggestions for improvement. Also, please let me know if it is of any use to you in your courses.

Welcome Craig Smith

On behalf of, I’m pleased to welcome Craig Bruce Smith as a contributor.

Dr. Smith is an instructor at Brandeis University and an adjunct professor at Emmanuel College. He recently earned his PhD in American history from Brandeis University. He specializes in early American history with a focus on honor, virtue, and ethics.

He is currently submitting his book manuscript, “Rightly to Be Great: Honor, Virtue, and Ethics among America’s Founders,” for publication. This project examines changes in honor and virtue from the coming of the American Revolution through the early republic. It traces the development of honor and virtue in the lives of people such as Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and other individuals from the elite, middling and lower classes—featuring those who had previously been excluded, such as women and African Americans. This project illustrates that honor was regarded as an ethical ideal.

His next book project, “Redemption: The American Revolution, Ethics, and Abolitionism in Britain and the United States,” examines British and American abolitionism as a matter of national honor. For the British, anti-slavery policy was a means to prove themselves the Americans’ ethical betters on the world stage. In turn, this new British offensive made Americans react similarly by supporting abolitionism to maintain national honor and virtue.

Dr. Smith has also been published in the Massachusetts Historical Review, the Journal of Military History, the Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, the Encyclopedia of War, and the Westchester Historian. In addition, he has presented talks on honor for a variety of institutions, including the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and Washington and Lee University.

For more information:

Welcome, Craig! We look forward to your contributions.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 48 other followers