Some contributors and readers will be familiar with the work by Richard Nisbett, Dov Cohen, and their collaborators on “cultures of honor,” as set forth in their important 1996 Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South.

Culture of Honor

In this book and the many subsequent articles based upon it, honor is an adaptive social construct constituted by tendencies to respond violently to threats or insults, thereby communicating to would-be attackers that the honorable person is dangerous prey and not to be trifled with. Nisbett and Cohen argue that these tendencies are rational in lawless circumstances where goods are easily stolen. For instance, cattle are easily rustled while crops are not, and this fact is used to explain why pastoralists are more often governed by honor norms than are agriculturalists. The pastoralist-honor connection is in turn used to explain the elevated honor-mindedness and violence one finds in the U.S. South, since that region was colonized by pastoralists from the British periphery.

Empirically-informed philosophers have seized upon the Nisbett-Cohen account of cultures of honor, usually taking it to suggest some sort of antirealist conclusion. For instance, John Doris, Stephen Stich, and Alexandra Plakias have argued that cultures of honor provide us with evidence of fundamental moral disagreement between liberal and honor cultures, i.e., disagreement that would persist even in ideal conditions, where all the non-moral facts were known, where each side was rational, and so forth.

My colleague (and contributor) Mark Collier has a paper forthcoming in the Journal of Scottish Philosophy criticizing this inference (now posted under honor scholarship). Using Hume’s notion of an “indulgent” stance towards cultural differences, Collier argues that even the findings of the culture of honor literature can be accommodated by convergentists, or people who deny the intractability of moral disagreement. For Collier, a core set of human values are plausibly universal, and the diversity we see can be explained by (and this is not necessarily an exhaustive list):

  • factual mistakes: you may think that dueling or carrying guns around makes people more polite, but it may in fact not;
  • differences in material circumstance: in tough circumstances, martial values may be emphasized;
  • and (in what is probably the most provocative part of the paper) different cultural conventions, which manifest these values in different ways, or weigh competing universal values differently.

On the last point, Collier considers some studies showing that Chinese are more willing than Americans to say that a magistrate may morally frame an innocent person for a murder he didn’t commit in order to prevent a mob from murdering more innocent people. Does this serve as evidence of fundamental moral disagreement? Collier doesn’t think so:

But this experimental result need not be interpreted in terms of a basic difference in attitude. The participants in the studies presumably share the same values: the welfare of individuals and society matter to everyone.  The groups merely disagree about how to prioritize these values when they come into conflict; the “mob and the magistrate” vignette, after all, is a classic moral dilemma. This study does not support the claim, then, that core values are fixed by enculturation. This type of disagreement between East Asians and Westerners merely indicates, rather, that there is a range of adequate natural moralities . . ..

Here’s Collier’s abstract.

In “A Dialogue”, Hume offers an important reply to the moral skeptic.  Skeptics traditionally point to instances of moral diversity in support of the claim that our basic values are fixed by enculturation.  Hume argues that the skeptic exaggerates the amount of variation in moral codes, however, and fails to adopt an indulgent stance toward those whose attitudes differ from ours.  He proposes a more charitable interpretation of moral disagreement, moreover, which traces it back to fundamental principles of human nature.  Contemporary philosophers attempt to locate examples of moral variability that cannot be accommodated in this way.  But they are no more successful than their predecessors.  Moral skeptics have yet to find a single case of moral diversity that is resistant to the Humean strategy. 

I think Collier’s paper really advances the debate about the metaethical significance of honor-based norms. He welcomes comments; you can find the paper here.