One of the characteristics of something we might term the “honor ethos” is that honor-minded people tend to respond favorably to those who resist, even if that resistance is aimed at the honor-minded people themselves.
This is distinctive: a Christian evangelical might protest, say, slavery by arguing that we are all created in God’s image; a liberal might decry slavery by appeal to human rights grounded on a hypothetical contract; a Kantian might invoke the slave’s humanity; a utilitarian the non-optimal consequences of slavery, and so forth.
But two considerations against oppression seem uniquely honor-based. The first is that (in my opinion, at least) honor-minded people tend to want to compete for status and to compete for it fairly. If it is realized that some groups aren’t given a “level playing field” (I insist this is an honor trope!), then honor-based sentiments are activated and the honor-minded person wants to rectify this—not for the sake of the disadvantaged party, but for the advantaged one.
But the second honor-based consideration against oppression is what I’m interested in here. One sees time and time again, in history, literature, and one’s own intuitions (if attentive to them), that honor-typical sentiments are stirred when an oppressed person or group stands up and fights. Our sense of honor forces us to note and admire these heroes. The idea seems to be, “We thought your people were just weaker in whatever way, and that you lacked the spirit to fight for higher status. But now we see that you at least are a fighter. So welcome to the club.” Thus, heroic figures who resist oppression are important for winning freedom for their people in part because they force honor-minded people (and the honor-minded side of each of us) to see—perhaps for the first time—that the oppressed people or class isn’t inferior by nature. At least some of them are willing to fight.
One of my favorite examples of this dynamic is the story of the Amistad, a Spanish-Cuban slave-ship commandeered by kidnapped Africans.
Led by Sengbe Pieh (renamed “Cinque” by his Spanish captors), the sick and malnourished Africans literally broke free of their chains, grabbed some machetes used for cutting sugar cane, and overwhelmed and killed most of their Spanish-Cuban crew. However, unable to sail the schooner themselves, the African rebels were forced to rely upon the ship’s Spanish navigator to sail them east and thus back to Africa. The navigator managed to trick the Africans by sailing north at night, and so the Amistad was finally intercepted by an American ship.
A complicated set of court cases ensued. The Spanish demanded a return of their “cargo” and punishment for the slave “murderers.” The African crew was represented by abolitionists, whose legal reasoning was that the slaves were from Africa and thus free, given that the African trade was illegal by this time. Furthermore, the abolitionists argued, as free men Cinque and his fellows were justified in killing their “pirate” captors. The case ultimately wound up being heard in the Supreme Court.
What is so interesting about the Amistad story from the honor perspective is that it provided the abolitionists with not only yet another instance of unjust and pitiful African suffering—an ethical commodity in limitless supply at the time—but crucially also a case of black honor. Instinctively, Cinque’s advocates seemed to realize that here they had a case that undermined the popular notion that blacks were like childlike—a view shared by plenty of abolitionists, too.
The then-prevalent opinion that blacks are “like children” is absolutely crucial from our perspective, for this was a day in which it was still platitudinous to say that justice supervenes on mutual threat and benefit. If blacks couldn’t threaten whites, how could both be united by concerns of justice? So portraying blacks in heroic roles was vitally important to the legal and popular defense of the kidnapped Africans, for by literally fighting for their rights (as opposed to merely “demanding” the pity of powerful whites, which too often counts as “fighting for one’s rights”), the slave rebels gave the clearest proof possible of their being people worthy of consideration by justice. The aims of justice would be served, then, by appeal to honorableness.
Former President John Quincy Adams used all his considerable persuasive skills in his Supreme Court arguments on behalf of the Amistad captives, and as a master of rhetoric he wasn’t remiss in pressing all the Court’s ethical buttons. When he strayed from legal to moral arguments, Adams would sometimes appeal to the Justices’ sense of justice and charity. But he also sometimes appealed to honor. The appeals are particularly dramatic in this case, for some Supreme Court justices were Southern anti-abolitionists. One might think that this fact would cause Adams to downplay the violence of Cinque and his cohorts. Quite the opposite. Adams argued to the Court:
They were victims of the African slave trade, recently imported into the island of Cuba, in gross violation of the laws of the Island and of Spain; and by acts which our own laws have made piracy—punishable with death. They had indicated their natural right to liberty, by conspiracy, insurrection, homicide and capture.
[T]he savage, heathen barbarians Cinque and Grabeau liberated themselves and their fellow suffering countrymen from Spanish slave‑traders, and [this] the [Prosecution], by communion of sympathy with Ruiz and Montes, denominates lawless violence. Cinque and Grabeau are uncouth and barbarous names. Call them Harmodius and Aristogiton, and go back for moral principle three thousand years to the fierce and glorious democracy of Athens. They too resorted to lawless violence, and slew the tyrant to redeem the freedom of their country. For this heroic action they paid the forfeit of their lives: but within three years the Athenians expelled their tyrants themselves, and in gratitude to their self‑devoted deliverers decreed, that thenceforth no slave should ever bear either of their names. Cinque and Grabeau are not slaves. Let them bear in future history the names of Harmodius and Aristogiton.
It is interesting that Adams holds that one “indicates” one’s natural right to liberty by, among other things, the “homicide” of one’s oppressors! Adams knew that, despite the racial prejudices of some Justices, as men moved by honor these same judges couldn’t deny that resisting slavery was the sine qua non of the honorable spirit. After all, for the pre-Christian European ancestors of white America, to be noble was little more than “to count among one’s ancestors no one who had been subjected to slavery.” And only a generation or so before the trial of the Amistad, Britain’s great war-anthem, Rule Britannia, first began to triumphantly boast that “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.” Cinque’s noble resistance helped prove to the honor-minded that blacks were not “natural slaves” as a class, and that nobility of spirit—the true dividing line for the honor-minded—cuts across racial lines.
The Justices ruled in favor of Cinque.