Basketball Blowouts and Sniping on Twitter

The last couple days saw two noteworthy instances of honor psychology in the viral media.

The first involves a California girls’ basketball team whose coach, Michael Anderson, had his Arroyo Valley Hawks run up the score to a 161-2 victory over their opponent, Bloomington High.

It’s a principle of honor that you don’t humiliate your opponents. Honor also enjoins us to seek out fair contests when possible. And thus there is something embarrassing for the winner in lopsided contests, suggesting perhaps that they sought out weak opponents they could bully around the playing field in an unseemly attempt to shore up a fragile ego. Unfortunately, in sports with a set schedule, it is impossible to avoid mismatches. And further research into this case suggests that the coaches for the two teams had an understanding that Arroyo would be allowed to practice their full-court press on Bloomington in preparation for future games against tougher teams. If the game was mutually understood as a sparring match for Arroyo, that also speaks against judging Anderson too harshly from an honor perspective. In any event, Anderson was suspended for two games.

Anderson’s suspension has been criticized by some parents and sports commentators. What I found interesting is Continue reading

A Dish Best Served Hot: Top Chef Duels and the Public Perception of Honor

What does honor taste like? In its recent season finale, the Bravo television series Top Chef Duels was likely the first to ever ask this question. The ten-episode series concluded this fall by having celebrity chefs Tiffani Faison, Kevin Gillespie, and CJ Jacobson cook an entrée that represents their own interpretation of honor. And the answer lies somewhere amongst Faison’s “lobster gnocchi with corn puree and lobster sauce,” Gillespie’s “wood oven roasted duck with mushrooms and crushed pea pistou,” and Jacobson’s “crispy duck with orange and Manzanita berries.” Leaving one to conclude that honor probably tastes most like duck.

The portrayal of honor on Top Chef Duels reveals a great deal about how this idea is popularly understood in America today. With $100,000 at stake, host Curtis Stone challenges the contestants to “make a three course meal inspired by what duels have been fought over for centuries…Love…Honor…Pride.” Yet again honor is seen through the inherently violent lens of a duel. On the surface, this view seems very much in line with the general public’s negative preconception of honor culture (as discussed in Laurie Johnson’s previous post on “A Definition of Honor?”). But if you peel back the layers of this very stereotypical representation, an opportunity to examine varying definitions of honor still exists. The nuances discussed by the show’s judges and contestants illustrate that honor is very much a diverse concept with many possible interpretations and an openness to ethical understandings of honor.

While the chefs cook, the guest judges engage in a spirited discussion of the Hamilton-Burr Duel of 1804. Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor (or at least the famous 1990s “Got Milk?” Aaron Burr commercial) has found a ready audience. But it’s apparent that the public consumption is more historical than comical, as judges Jonathan Waxman and Tom Colicchio are both eager to correctly cite that the duel “took place in New Jersey. Because they couldn’t do it in New York.” Historians everywhere should be proud!

But within this discussion of honor as dueling, we see more nuanced approaches. Virtually all present vehemently agreed that to cheat in a duel afforded one “no honor!” Although, Austrian native Wolfgang Puck chides that if you did “You’re still alive!” Michelle Bernstein reminisces over “physically…defending my husband’s honor” after a patron’s disrespectful words, while her colleague Hugh Acheson considers honor as a matter of “character.”

For the actual honor entrées, the three contestants all interestingly interpret the term (and their dish) as paying tribute to a person or place. Rather than focusing on the violent elements of honor, they take it in a more celebratory context. It shows a ready acceptance of honor as something beyond the trappings of a duel.

Another interesting element of the show is how it separates honor and pride. Contestants interpret honor as being about others, while pride is more personal and about the individual. By framing the ideas in these terms, the chefs seem to show an openness to honor as an idea that is more reflective of society, rather than just the individual. As ethics is also often discussed in terms of society, this offers a possibility for the definition of honor to be more fully expanded into a larger discussion about ethical concepts.

Although this duel of kitchen knives is settled on taste rather than on the dishes’ success at representing honor, the episode sheds new light on this idea within American society and the continued difficulty in defining the term. In this duel Jacobson may have defeated his competitors, but the true victory came in fostering a public debate about honor before an audience of millions.

“Perspectives on Modern Honor” Mini-Conference

I’m pleased to announce some updates on the upcoming honor mini-conference at Kansas State, which has been organized by Laurie Johnson and made possible thanks to a generous grant from the Earhart Foundation.

The mini-conference will feature many of the authors contributing to Perspectives on Modern Honor (Lexington Press). It will take place on March 27, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in KSU’s Hale Library, the Hemisphere Room (5th Floor), and will be open to the public. Our expectation is that contributors will get a chance to meet each other, present their chapters, receive feedback, and discuss how to connect their contributions for the volume’s final draft. Anyone interested flying in to attend should contact Laurie or me on special rates for hotels, etc.

The schedule hasn’t been drawn up yet, but the eleven talks currently planned are (in alphabetical order of speaker):

“Good Citizens: Gratitude and Honor” — Anthony Cunningham (Philosophy, College of St. Benedict/St. John’s)

“To Do for Honor What Hobbes Did for Justice” — Dan Demetriou (Philosophy, University of Minnesota, Morris)

“Liberalism and Honor through the Lens of Darwin” — Steven Forde (Political Science, University of North Texas-Denton)

“Winston Churchill and Honor: The Complexity of Honor and Statesmanship” — Mark Griffith (Political Science, University of West Alabama)

“The Female Point of Honor in Post-Revolutionary France” — Andrea Mansker (History, Sewanee: University of the South)

“Putting One’s Best Face Forward: Why Liberalism Needs Honor” — Ryan Rhodes (Philosophy, Stephen F. Austin State University)

“‘The Honour of the Crown’: The State and its Soldiers” — Paul Robinson (International Relations, University of Ottawa)

“A Neo-Aristotelian Theory of Political Honor” — Steven C. Skultety (Philosophy, University of Mississippi)

“Honor in Military Culture: A Standard of Integrity and Framework for Moral Restraint” — Joe Thomas (Leadership Education, U.S. Naval Academy) and Shannon French (Philosophy, Case Western Reserve University)

“In the Shade of Civic Heroes: A Paideia of Liberty in an African Community” — Ajume Wingo (Philosophy, University of Colorado at Boulder)

The conference will conclude with a discussion session about emergent themes and possible strategies for integrating the chapters into a cohesive whole.

I’ve seen drafts of a few contributions, and I’m really excited about their quality and usefulness for honor scholarship. May this be just the beginning of many future collaborations! And for those readers writing a manuscript on honor, please keep the Honor and Obligation in Liberal Society book series in mind as you shop it around to publishers.

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…

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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…

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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!


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