The relationship of Jews to honor should be discussed more (it’s broached here and there by William Ian Miller, but I don’t know of a sustained discussion of the topic). Anyway, I thought I’d take note of a couple fictional episodes that deal with the issue. I’m not sure how much they shed light on Jewish themes in particular, but they do illuminate the characteristic way honor (at least on my way of looking at honor) understands respecting another person. They also show how honor is particularly good at overriding ingroup/outgroup, us/them mental frameworks, which of course play such a big role in anti-Semitism.

H.M.S. Surprise, by Patrick O'BrianThe first episode comes from The H.M.S. Surprise, the third novel in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (of Master and Commander fame). Our protagonist, Stephen Maturin, is in love with the mistress of a wealthy Jewish merchant, Richard Canning, and proposes marriage to her. Canning overhears and, in a fit of jealous rage, deals Maturin a savage open-handed blow. The offense is not apologized for and Maturin, although bearing no animus toward Canning as a person, asks a Marine captain to be his second and demand satisfaction on his behalf.


“Captain Etherege, sir,” [Maturin] said, “will you do me a service, now? […] Something happened today that caused me great uneasiness. I must beg you to call upon Mr Canning and desire him to give me satisfaction for a blow.”

“A blow!” cried Etherege, his face instantly changing to a look of profound concern. “Oh dear me, no apology in that case, I presume? But did you say Canning? Ain’t he a Jew? You don’t have to fight a Jew, Doctor. You must not put your life at risk for a Jew. Let a file of Marines tan his unbelieving hide and ram a piece of bacon down his throat, and leave it at that.”

“We see things differently,” said Stephen. “I have a particular devotion to Our Lady, who was a Jewess, and I cannot feel my race superior to her: beside, I feel for the man; I will fight him with the best will in the world.”

“You do him too much honour,” said Etherege, dissatisfied and upset. […] Are you sure you would not rather fight someone else? A bystander, say, who saw the blow?”


O’Brian is pitch-perfect here, I think. Stephen actually admires Canning in many ways, and likes him personally. (Canning is drawn in a sympathetic way—we are told he wished for nothing more than to be an officer in the Royal Navy, but was barred from doing so because he was a Jew.) So using Etherege to humiliate Canning is off the table for Stephen. Stephen’s respect for Canning is the very thing that requires him to duel him and, as it happens, unintentionally kill him.

Many people new to honor find this logic utterly perplexing. But I think it’s quite easy to grasp once we draw a contrast between honor and good old-fashioned liberal contractarianism. According to orthodox contractarianism, justice (the principal contractarian value) binds cooperators. For Hobbes and Hume, for instance, justice obligated only individuals who actually had something to offer each other (in its most basic form, what is being “offered” is self-restraint). Many other contractarians will choose to interpret the “mutual benefit” condition more broadly to include potential cooperators (say, those who might have had something to offer if they had better luck) or even figurative cooperators (say, animals or species, who might be thought of as helping to form a “biotic community”). In any event, on this broadly contractarian line of thought, you have standing and rights if and only if you’re a cooperator.

On honor (in the sense of the cross-cultural moral code I assume here), it is the competitor, not the cooperator, who gets rights and standing. Only those who are in the “honor game”—whether on your “side” or not—must be treated with dignity. All others, no matter how much you love them, or how valuable they are intrinsically, fail to warrant that respect (compare with contractarians, such as Jan Narveson, who refused to recognize animal rights, or even human infant rights, because animals and babies cannot cooperate). So treating someone like a competitor is actually a way of showing your respect for them on honor.

Although on the deepest level there will be commonalities of justice-based and honor-based respect, the two bases of respect ground different principles. Respecting a person under honor means, inter alia:

  • Not fighting his fights for him (if those fights pertain to honor, and aren’t mere aggression). I don’t have time here to discuss how this principle may influence boys to tolerate aggression or bullying in school, but I trust the reader can connect the dots here.
  • Challenging and accepting rank-appropriate challenges from the person.
  • At minimum, refusing to sabotage or undermine her capacity to compete, even if she is your opponent. Those with a fine sense of honor might even help their opponents prepare to compete, if there is some artificial impediment, such as poverty. The US, for instance, helps support poor Olympians from other countries.
  • Not coddling or “taking it easy” on someone, relative to their rank (a perennial source of angst for older players—we see this all the time in academe).
  • But also not trouncing someone in a competition, if the competition turns out to be lopsided for some reason.

These rules, which are intuitive enough (at least to me) strike me as utterly inexplicable except from the honor perspective. They go a long way towards explain why Maturin, because he respects Canning, can wish to “fight him with the best will in the world.”