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Honor is, for many, an outdated concept that clashes with modern, liberal, priorities.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

Honor’s roots in male-male competition

Some social psychologists have recently proposed taxonomies of the fundamental moral sentiments . . ..The emotions and practices of honor—esteem, contempt, respect, deference—developed, it is reasonable to suppose, with hierarchy in troops of early humans. Is honor, in this way, atavistic? It’s not a worry we can immediately dismiss.

–Kwame Appiah, The Honor Code, pp. 183-184

Some sort of moral pluralism—at least on the psychological level—is increasingly probable: a recent consensus statement by a number of cutting-edge moral psychologists affirms Jonathan Haidt et al.’s hypothesis that there are multiple building blocks of morality, each with its own evolutionary history.

Notably, Haidt’s taxonomy recognizes only one moral foundation that concerns rank: authoritarianism. But we have ample evidence in, say, athletic or academic rankings, that some rankings are not authoritarian. Also notable is that none of Haidt et al.’s (currently six) moral foundations has norms rooted in sexual selection, which is enormously influential in shaping behavior in many species, including us. Third, as Haidt’s taxonomy expanded, it lost the ability to account for shame and contempt, one of the “big three” condemnatory affect pairings that Moral Foundations theory was designed to accommodate. Fourth, Haidt sees his “harm/care” foundation as based in maternal instincts. This raises the question: could there be an ethos that is based on some sort of adaptive challenge males might have faced more often?

I think the honor ethos is one of these innate moral systems, and that honor fills all four gaps in Haidt’s theory.

Continue reading

Jews and honor in literature, pt. 2: honor vs. purity

As discussed in the previous post, O’Brian’s Richard Canning, despite his aptitude and desire to be a naval officer, was excluded from the world of martial honor because he was a Jew. Thus, the naval officer Stephen Maturin strangely honors aCanning by noticing Canning’s insult and challenging him to a duel. The theme of Jews being shut out of the world of honor is also quite prominent in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. This time it is a Jewish woman, Rebecca, who is barred from assuming the social station her talents and natural nobility entitle her to. In this post, I focus on the way religion and notions of purity differ from the warrior-aristocratic norms of honor, and note how Scott skillfully uses medieval anti-Semitism to contrast these two ethics.

Continue reading

Jews and honor in literature, pt. 1

The relationship of Jews to honor should be discussed more (it’s broached here and there by William Ian Miller, but I don’t know of a sustained discussion of the topic). Anyway, I thought I’d take note of a couple fictional episodes that deal with the issue. I’m not sure how much they shed light on Jewish themes in particular, but they do illuminate the characteristic way honor (at least on my way of looking at honor) understands respecting another person. They also show how honor is particularly good at overriding ingroup/outgroup, us/them mental frameworks, which of course play such a big role in anti-Semitism.

H.M.S. Surprise, by Patrick O'BrianThe first episode comes from The H.M.S. Surprise, the third novel in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (of Master and Commander fame). Our protagonist, Stephen Maturin, is in love with the mistress of a wealthy Jewish merchant, Richard Canning, and proposes marriage to her. Canning overhears and, in a fit of jealous rage, deals Maturin a savage open-handed blow. The offense is not apologized for and Maturin, although bearing no animus toward Canning as a person, asks a Marine captain to be his second and demand satisfaction on his behalf.

Continue reading

No Medals for Drone Operators

On April 15, the Pentagon decided against a medal for drone operators, which would have ranked higher than a Purple Heart or Bronze Star. (I waited to note this announcement, since the Boston Marathon bombings happened on the same day.)

It’s fair to say that the “Distinguished Warfare Medal” was universally condemned and mocked in the popular media. Here’s one cartoon about it by Matt Bors, for the Daily Kos.








What made the so-called “Nintendo Medal” so contemptible?

1. As Bors’ cartoon suggests, some find drone strikes to be morally evil, since they have been used outside of battlefields to target specific individuals, and often in violation of what appears to be state sovereignty, the rights of innocent bystanders, and at times our own Constitution.

2. Huffington Post writer (and military veteran) John Bruhns argues that it improperly awards personnel who aren’t physically at risk.

3. Shannon French has argued that drones are at least problematic because they dehumanize the enemy. In combination with the first objection, drones may be thought to (ironically enough) target an individual while at the same time dehumanizing him.

4. Michael Ignatieff argued a while ago that “virtual war” is too sterile, and distances us from the true costs of war.

5. Paul Kahn has argued for a sui generis rule of reciprocal self-defense, which applies only in war, on which “combatants are allowed to injure each other just as long as they stand in a relationship of mutual risk.” He also points out that riskless warfare tempts the more powerful party to adopt authoritarian and hegemonic policies.

These are all good reasons to criticize the Distinguished Warfare Medal. But it’s worth pointing out that at some future point, such a medal might well be an honorable one. After all, it’s just a matter of time until unmanned fighters and drones meet in combat. If two countries have drones of roughly equivalent sophistication, there is no reason I can see against awarding drone “aces” medals for their kills. I can even imagine ace pilots whimsically painting their drones with identifying markers (perhaps a red scarf, or the electronic equivalent?) in order to goad and win fame with their enemy, in keeping with the most ancient practices of honor. (Mutatis mutandis for the computer programmers, who will write the algorithms for fully automated drones.)

So I think the honorableness of drones and the exploits of their operators as we have them now needs to be separated from their honorableness in principle. That said, we needn’t commit ourselves to saying that the honor properly bestowed upon a computer programmer is of the same quality as that we should bestow upon an Audie Murphy.


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