Next month it will be a year ago that the cruise ship Costa Concordia sank (resulting in the death of 30 passengers), and that Captain Francesco Schettino was arrested for abandoning his passengers. “It’s a matter of honor that the master is the last to leave. Nothing less will do in this profession,” said Jorgen Loren, chairman of the Swedish Maritime Officer’s Association, in a reaction. I am certainly not the first to see a similarity between the unhappy captain and the story of Jim and his lost honor in Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim (1900).
The story takes off when Jim starts working as a chief mate of a old steamer that is to carry eight hundred pilgrims from East Asia to Mecca. In mid voyage, when the vessel makes water and appears to be sinking rapidly, the crew decides to abandon ship – and the sleeping pilgrims with it. Although Jim had always aspired to be a hero, he also jumps ship to join the other three crew members who had already left some moments earlier in a lifeboat. When the pilgrims, rescued by a French gunboat, tell their side of the story this differs considerably from the account that the crew had provided, namely that they had not had the time and means to do more for their human cargo. (Up till this point the story seems to be based on a true story. In 1880 the SS Jeddah and its 1000 or so Muslim passengers were abandoned by the steamer’s crew when the pilgrim vessel appeared to be sinking. The Jeddah was rescued by a French steamer, and the story about a passenger mutiny that the crew had told was now discovered to be false. The report of the ensuing hearing can be found at http://www.plimsoll.org/images/14642_tcm4-165526.pdf.) Unlike the other crewmembers, Jim is brought before court. The hearing attracts a lot of attention, and, just like Schettino, Jim comes to be known as a man who broke the code of honor.
Conrad, however, is not too harsh on Jim. He suggests that Jim is in fact a common type, and that there is probably more of him in us than we care to acknowledge: Jim, as Conrad put it – one time in his foreword and quit a number of times, by means of his narrator Marlow, in the novel –, is “one of us.” The same Marlow discusses the case of Jim with an elderly French third lieutenant who had been involved in the rescuing of the Patna, and who holds that, since man is born a coward, honor (seen by the Frenchman as the concern for how our conduct will look in the eyes of others) is a necessary incentive for courage: although Jim might have had the best disposition, every possible inducement to courage, and the third lieutenant explicitly mentions “the eye of others,” had been lacking. Marlow then asks (with a “disconcerted smile”) the lieutenant: “Couldn’t it reduce itself to not being found out?” The Frenchman, however, considered that question “too fine” and much above him.
Which brings me to the following: I do not know the precise circumstances of Schettino’s untimely departure from the Costa Concordia, but when Jim jumped from the Patna he was alone, in a dark night; if a public had been present to remind him of his honor, he probably would have acted differently. There is much in Lord Jim that suggests that Jim (and perhaps he is “one of us” in that aspect too) adhered to a rather simple notion of honor that is, as Tocqueville described it, “only effective in full view of the public, differing in that from sheer virtue, which feeds upon itself, contended with its own witness.” This is, I think, in line with how thinkers from Cicero to Adam Smith (who pointed out that the “man within” has to be woken up by real spectators now and then) saw the role of honor: in practice people usually behave well, but this is mainly because they are concerned about how their behavior might look in the eyes of others.
When we judge Jim and Schettino as two persons who acted without honor, we see honor perhaps too much as an internal quality: it seems that if the term honor is used nowadays, honor is increasingly taken to mean something close to integrity or, even more general, being ethical. Honor is in that case more a personal quality or virtue, as for instance is the case when we say that someone has a sense of honor (see also Frank Henderson Stewart’s Honor from 1994). Although this conception of honor as a internal quality has the advantage over simpler notions of honor that it cannot be reduced to a matter of “not being found out,” we might lose sight of one of the essential characteristics of honor if we no longer see it as something that ultimately depends on how others see us, and that cannot exist without a public.
dan demetriou said:
Nice post, Peter. I have been puzzling over this, too. I see it as maybe the most perplexing question for honor research: how can one and the same value mean to so many people an obviously “external” value (esteem in the eyes of others, etc.) and yet mean to so many others a paradigmatically “internal” value (integrity, doing the right thing when no one is looking, etc.)? Linguistically, we do use “honor” and especially “honors” for public approbation. But we invoke the “honor code” for adherence to rules precisely when no oversight is available (e.g., a lending library might say it operates on an “honor code”). Do you have an explanation for this?
Pearson Sharp said:
One of my favourite books of all time.
It does beg the question: does survival ever supersede honour? Is honour worth dying for?
Nate D said:
if i understand the discussion correctly, the external honor seems to be exactly along the lines of Hume’s moral sentimentalism. which may suggest that, if accurate, honor is no more than a highly praised sentiment.
this conception seems at odds with Dan’s idea concerning internal honor, which seems the more, well, romantic, view of honor.
but even i would admit that the idea of internal honor is far more attractive as the true embodiment of honor, since it is along the lines of principled action (an example: staying with the sinking ship despite that it will sink, and the captain winds up stranded alone on a dessert island).
does this mean though, that we must distinguish between honor and honors? and how would one do so? it seems that to describe someone as an honorable person (intrinsic) we are also in effect laying on honors (extrinsic) even if for the existence of their principles or principles in action.
Peter Olsthoorn said:
I think the confusion has a lot to do with the difference between honor and having a sense of honor – one could say that honor is a reward for virtue, while having a sense of virtue comes close to being a virtue (i.e., integrity). It was, according to Frank Henderson Stewart, in the seventeenth century that people began to consider having a “sense of honor,” something internal, as more important than external honor. A good example of this is the notion of honor in the well known West Point honor code (“a cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do”). Cadets are expected to live by this code because they have internalized it, not because they are concerned about what others think of them when they breach it. Honor is here almost synonymous with integrity. Integrity, however, is a more demanding notion than the notion of external honor, as it presupposes moral autonomy. Although I agree that internal honor is morally more attractive for many reasons, I think that thinkers from Cicero to Smith thought that this ideal is sometimes too demanding.
However, most of the philosophers who saw a role for honor as a reward for virtue thought it nonetheless necessary that honor is at least to some extent internalized. Cicero for instance wrote that what is honestum, that is, worthy of honor, still deserves honor when no one honors it (De Officiis I.14; De Finibus II.48). Smith pointed out that man not only wants praise, but also wants to be praiseworthy, and that “nature, accordingly, has endowed him, not only with a desire of being approved of, but with a desire of being what ought to be approved of; or of being what he himself approves of in other men” (Theory III.2.7). The result of this internalization is that morality is no longer a matter of not being caught. However, there is something ambiguous in this position.
Peter Olsthoorn said:
I just stumbled upon this: in Some Reflections on the Loss of the Titanic, an essay from 1912, Conrad relates the story of the Douro. When that ship sunk, the crew, after having put all passengers in a life boat, “went down with her, literary without a murmur.” The five crew members that accidentally survived were the men who were tasked with bringing the passengers into safety. The moral, according to Conrad: “Yes, material may fail, and men, too, may fail sometimes; but more often men, when they are given the chance, will prove themselves truer than steel, that wonderful thin steel from-which the sides and the bulkheads of our modern sea-leviathans are made.”
dan demetriou said:
Funny you mention the Titanic. Some economists have studied various sinking ship cases, and at one point they say that the British men on the Titanic died at a higher rate because they were more committed to “gentlemanly” behavior than American men!
“As can be seen in equation 11, British subjects had a 10 percent lower chance of survival than passengers from other countries. This may be because the norms of being a ‘gentleman,’ even under extreme duress, were valid at that time in Britain. Estimation (12) shows that passengers from the USA had a 12 percent higher probability of survival than British subjects.” (p. 13).
Here’s the article: http://externalapps.qut.edu.au/business/documents/discussionPapers/2009/SurvivingtheTitanicDisaster.pdf