Last night’s Tonight Show featured an entertaining discussion of competitive bird watching’s “honor system.” [start watching at 24:40…]


In general, it seems an appeal to the “honor system” is appropriate just when

  • participants can unfairly profit from an arrangement
  • with impunity
  • because there is no oversight.

As I see it, an honor theorist must address at least these three puzzles the “honor system” raises:

  • Why call it “honor system”? What is especially honorable about behaving correctly when no one can check up on you? Wouldn’t a just person do this? Or a fair person? Why do we appeal to honor, but not those values?
  • Behaving well when no one is looking is a particularly “internal” virtue. That’s a problematic fact, given that so many thinkers—including Aristotle—saw honor in terms of public, external recognition.

Cultivated people . . . conceive of the good as honor . . .. This, however, seems too superficial to be what we are seeking; for it seems to depend more on those who honor than on the one honored . . .

  • Why does the invocation of “honor” have such a galvanizing effect on us? Why are we much more likely to behave well when someone appeals to our honor than anything else—our sense of justice, our compassion, etc.? (Perhaps this is why, or partially why, we invoke “honor” in circumstances where all we can do is trust in somebody? Are we simply bringing out the “big guns,” motivationally?) I don’t see the answer to this question being of direct moral relevance: honor may be supremely motivating and yet evil, after all. But indirectly, it would be philosophically useful to have some more information on this question. For instance, if we consider honor to be a value grounding a non-consequentialist norm (as I think we must), fMRI research may show that honor-typical intuitions are generated in particularly affective centers of the brain. This could be seen to some (such as Joshua Greene) as lending indirect support to consequentialism. On the other hand, non-consequentialists wishing to mount the most intuitive case possible against consequentialism might be attracted to honor if it can be shown that honor is especially motivating.