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 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.