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.

Call for Abstracts: Perspectives on Modern Honor

The editors of Perspectives on Modern Honor (Lexington Books/Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming 2015) invite abstracts on the topic of honor and liberalism. Invited contributors include:

  • Amitai Etzioni (Sociology, George Washington)
  • Sharon Krause (Political Science, Brown)
  • Richard Ned Lebow (International Relations, Dartmouth & King’s College)
  • Stephen Forde (Political Science, North Texas)
  • Joseph Vandello and Vanessa Hettinger (Psychology, Florida State)
  • Paul Robinson (International Relations, Ottawa)
  • Ajume Wingo (Philosophy, Colorado)
  • Andrea Mansker (History, Sewanee)
  • Mark Griffith (University of West Alabama)
  • Tony Cunningham (Philosophy, College of St. Benedict/St. John’s)
  • Ryan Rhodes (Philosophy, Oklahoma)
  • Dan Demetriou (Philosophy, Minnesota-Morris)

Guidelines: Please send a 300-500 word abstract (appropriate to a chapter length of 7,500-9,000 words) to the editors by Feb 15, 2014.

Laurie Johnson (Political Science, Kansas State) at
Dan Demetriou (Philosophy, Minnesota-Morris) at

Replies will be given by March 1, 2014, and completed manuscripts will be due to the editors by April 15, 2015.

More about the project:
Honor is, for many, an outdated concept that clashes with modern, liberal, priorities. Honor is associated with medieval chivalry, the warlike virtues, and in our own times such reprehensible acts as terrorist attacks and honor killings. None of this is very attractive in a world in which women have made great gains towards full equality, where war can be total, and where terrorism beleaguers Western societies. Even early modern and Enlightenment thinkers often rejected honor (or re-defined it) as an irrational human motivation which leads nations and individuals to fight over religious and ethnic rivalry or trivial matters, such as insults. Thomas Hobbes, for instance, rejected aristocratic honor as a major cause of quarrel, and sought to control its power by placing it in the hands of an absolute sovereign. John Locke attempted to replace the quest for honor as a motivation with the pursuit of enlightened self-interest and commodious living.

And yet, there is a growing interest in reviving honor and making it “safe” for modern liberal society. This concern recognizes that members of liberal democratic societies are finding it increasingly difficult to find common ground, or to foster any agreement about expectations for private and public conduct. Honor is a concept that can be interpreted in a secular manner, which gives it an edge over purely religion-based attempts at creating a code of conduct in societies with great religious diversity and a separation of church and state.

A growing body of literature is addressing these benefits of honor, as well as the challenges to developing honor codes in liberal societies, but authors define honor in a variety of ways and take different approaches to how to operationalize honor in modern liberal societies. This groundbreaking volume will be the first to engage scholars representing various disciplines in a dialogue about what honor means and role it should play in liberal societies.

General areas of consideration for authors can include:

1. How should we define honor or categorize types of honor?

2. Are honor and liberalism in fact, or in principle, in tension, or are they mutually reinforcing?

3. Is military honor alive in modern liberal societies, and if so, does it pose a problem for them?

4. How should we react to non-Western honor motivations (i.e., Western vs. non-Western honor)?

Ajume Wingo: Source of Mandela’s greatness is that he gave up power

Tags contributor Ajume Wingo had a great letter published in the Denver Post yesterday on Nelson Mandela. It discusses an important point almost totally ignored in the encomia we are hearing about the South African president: how unique and important it was that Mandela gave up power.Ajume Wingo

The true source of Mandela’s greatness is how he gave up that power. It was his exit — dignified and orderly — more than anything else that sets him apart. His exit from office at the height of his power, popularity and health put him in the company of Cincinnatus of ancient Rome and George Washington — exemplars of the rule of law and the ideals of leadership in a republic.

I know Ajume has been thinking and writing on the theme of rulership and liberalism for some time. In the developed West, we have grown accustomed to our leaders stepping down when their tenure is up, but of course there is little reason to make the same assumption in many parts of the world. Figuring out how to persuade leaders to give up power—especially when the populace will let them get away with keeping it—would be huge accomplishment for the cause of liberalism and rule of law.

Could leaders be persuaded by money? Maybe. However, as Wingo’s piece notes, African billionaire Mo Ibrahim has funded a foundation offering $5 million, and an annual stipend of $200,000, to African leaders who (among other things) “serve their constitutionally mandated term.” The prize seems to be an insufficient incentive. Maybe the prize cannot compare to the richer spoils of electing oneself president for life. However, we do have some historical precedent on the matter. As Ajume notes, Washington and Cincinnatus also refused sorts of kingship.

Beyond their non-pecuniary motives, I cannot say much about Cincinnatus’ or Mandela’s motives. But in the case of Washington, some historians argue that concern for honor was key. Douglass Adair, Lorrraine Smith Pangle and Thomas Pangle, Joanne Freeman, and Gordon Wood all speak to the concern Washington had for his honor and reputation. Continue reading

New book series: Honor and Obligation in Liberal Society

I’m pleased to announce a new book series edited by contributors Laurie Johnson (Political Science, Kansas State) and Dan Demetriou (Philosophy, Minnesota-Morris) on the theme “Honor and Obligation in Liberal Society” (Lexington Books/Rowman & Littlefield).

Here is a description of the series’ purpose:


Liberalism’s political, economic, and social benefits are undeniable. However, these benefits come with a price: liberal societies are losing their sense of honor, civic obligation, higher moral purpose, shared values, and community. This series focuses on classical liberalism, honor, and social and civic obligation.  

We invite contributions on the problems raised by liberalism in general, and especially scholarship addressing how honor codes are challenged or changed by liberalism. We also welcome manuscripts which conceptualize liberalism in ways compatible with modern needs, and submissions covering the so-called “bourgeois virtues” extolled by liberal philosophers and their connection to materialism, individualism, and social obligation. Scholars who can address the international dimension of these questions are also sought: for instance, globalization may spread economic development, but at what expense to cultural norms and practices that have kept traditional societies intact? 

The series is open to contributions from scholars representing classics, political science, international relations, philosophy, history, literature, religious studies, and other disciplines whose work bears on these questions. Successful proposals will be accessible to a multidisciplinary audience, and advance our understanding of liberalism, its development, and its repercussions for our future.


You can find the proposal guidelines at

We are also contemplating an edited volume of essays on these themes, perhaps with an associated conference. Expect announcements about that in the Spring of 2014. In the meantime, we thank you for passing along this call for proposals/manuscripts to scholars writing on these topics.

Welcome Tony Cunningham

On behalf of, I am pleased to welcome Tony Cunningham as a contributor.

Tony is Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.  He is the author of Modern Honor: A Philosophical Defense (Routledge, 2013). He comes to his philosophical interest in honor via his deep interests in literature and moral psychology.  His earlier work on literature and the emotions, The Heart of What Matters: The Role for Literature in Moral Philosophy (Berkeley, 2001), led him back to classic texts like Homer’s Iliad and Euripides’ Hecuba to think carefully about complex topics like anger, shame, and humiliation.  This work led him to other rich resources for honor like the Icelandic sagas, the American South, samurai Japan, and contemporary American gangs.  As he argues, most of modern moral philosophy abandoned the notion of honor, and philosophers erred badly by so doing because a sense of honor is at the center of our ethical experiences for creatures like us.

A description of Modern Honor:

This book examines the notion of honor with an eye to dissecting its intellectual modern honordemise and with the aim of making a case for honor’s rehabilitation. Western intellectuals acknowledge honor’s influence, but they lament its authority. For Western democratic societies to embrace honor, it must be compatible with social ideals like liberty, equality, and fraternity. Cunningham details a conception of honor that can do justice to these ideals. This vision revolves around three elements—character (being), relationships (relating), and activities and accomplishment (doing). Taken together, these elements articulate a shared aspiration for excellence. We can turn the tables on traditional ills of honor—serious problems of gender, race, and class—by forging a vision of honor that rejects lives predicated on power and oppression.

Tony is particularly interested in making philosophy relevant for everyday people embroiled in the business of living. As he sees it, the real business of philosophy is to become people on whom nothing is lost. He has essays reflecting these aims on anger, consolation, and modesty.

Welcome, Tony! We look forward to your contributions.

Dairy Queen hero Joey Prusak, and the honorableness of protecting the weak

prusakAt a Minnesota Dairy Queen last week, a blind customer pulled out some money and accidently dropped a $20 bill. The customer just behind quickly picked up the bill and pocketed it. Joey Prusak, the Dairy Queen server, saw what happened, and directed the second customer to return the money. She refused. So Prusak expelled her from the restaurant, and gave the blind customer a twenty from his own pocket. Appreciative customers alerted Dairy Queen management, and Prusak’s story has gone viral.

Interestingly for our purposes, Prusak’s story is being described in the language of honor.

Yahoo: “Dairy Queen Employee’s Honorable Actions Praised Online”

DailyMail: “Honorable: Joey Prusak, 19, said that returning the money to the blind man ‘felt like it was the right thing to do’”.

Webpronews: “Honorable Dairy Queen Employee Does the Right Thing”

I think honor researchers have a lot to say about the “extra” condemnation we feel when someone wrongs a vulnerable party, and why we tend to call “honorable” those who protect the weak.

Continue reading


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