Some social psychologists have recently proposed taxonomies of the fundamental moral sentiments . . ..The emotions and practices of honor—esteem, contempt, respect, deference—developed, it is reasonable to suppose, with hierarchy in troops of early humans. Is honor, in this way, atavistic? It’s not a worry we can immediately dismiss.

–Kwame Appiah, The Honor Code, pp. 183-184

Some sort of moral pluralism—at least on the psychological level—is increasingly probable: a recent consensus statement by a number of cutting-edge moral psychologists affirms Jonathan Haidt et al.’s hypothesis that there are multiple building blocks of morality, each with its own evolutionary history.

Notably, Haidt’s taxonomy recognizes only one moral foundation that concerns rank: authoritarianism. But we have ample evidence in, say, athletic or academic rankings, that some rankings are not authoritarian. Also notable is that none of Haidt et al.’s (currently six) moral foundations has norms rooted in sexual selection, which is enormously influential in shaping behavior in many species, including us. Third, as Haidt’s taxonomy expanded, it lost the ability to account for shame and contempt, one of the “big three” condemnatory affect pairings that Moral Foundations theory was designed to accommodate. Fourth, Haidt sees his “harm/care” foundation as based in maternal instincts. This raises the question: could there be an ethos that is based on some sort of adaptive challenge males might have faced more often?

I think the honor ethos is one of these innate moral systems, and that honor fills all four gaps in Haidt’s theory.

Establishing the innateness of a moral system or “ethos” is not easy. It helps to show that the ethos is widespread culturally, that it resists social and cultural efforts to stamp it out, and that it expresses itself with minimal cultural conditioning (poverty of stimulus). It is good to have a plausible evolutionary story to tell about why it would be innate, either because it is adaptive or it is the result of something else that’s adaptive. And it helps to show that its characteristic behaviors are not unique to humans. All of these theoretical desiderata have been met for the cooperative ethos Haidt calls “fairness/cheating”: we know that basic contractarian reasoning pops up across many disconnected cultures; children seem to have some sense of it; and since Trivers’ work on reciprocal altruism, we have a good explanation for why norms encouraging and enforcing cooperation (say, by punishing free-riders) would have evolved.

So can similar things be done for honor? Most contributors and readers will need little persuading when it comes to establishing the cultural ubiquity of honor or the stubborn persistence of honor norms (think about the recalcitrance of pastoralist raiders or inner city gangbangers). But nothing has been written, as far as I know, about how honor-typical behavior might be evident in animals. I’ve recently written up something on that regard, and I summarize some of my conclusions here.

I’m interested in “honor” in the sense of a normative system that moralizes prestige competitions—one that says people should compete for prestige, but compete for prestige fairly, and demand competitively-won rank-appropriate respect for themselves and others. This sort of honor indeed ranks us, but that ranking comes with no obligations of leadership, obedience, or coordination. It is not authoritarian, as military rankings are, but merely establishes a ranking of competitive excellence, such as in a sports ranking.

Our closest relatives, the chimpanzee, do not compete fairly for status. They form coalitions to overturn alphas, and the alphas form coalitions to break up those coalitions. Their hierarchies also come with a level of responsibility that is sometimes referred to as a “control role.” So chimpanzees fit a more authoritarian model, as is widely recognized. All that savvy chimpanzee politicking is probably a good way to select for a primitive form of leadership: good leaders of fractious, smart, social, coordinated groups must not only be firm, but also be good coalition builders, with excellent theory of mind and sensitivity to the motives of others.

Some species, however, form themselves into rankings that resemble an honor ranking. Various species of grouse and deer provide good examples. These species are polygynous, with a few males mating with most females. These species have non-resource mating systems, in which males contribute little or nothing in the way of resources to the female or her offspring. Not all polygynous species have non-resource based mating systems: elephant seals, for instance, exhibit resource-control polygyny by dominating the beaches cows prefer. In the relevant grouse and deer species, however, females are attracted to males only for their genetic contribution. This motive is most dramatic when the males form leks in which they fight, fairly, to impress brutally selective females. And obviously, winners of these contests exert no control over their defeated opponents.

Males in these species instinctually want to fight fair. For instance, stags are quite prepared to gouge and kick predators, but they seem to avoid these behaviors when it comes to their contests. Why? Well, these fights serve as “honest signals” to mobile, choosy, independent females looking for good genes. Females use contests for the same reason we do: contests, such as the Olympics or tryouts for first chair clarinet, give us a fairly accurate picture of who’s best in the relevant ways. It’s not a perfect system—we all know some tremendously gifted athletes and musicians who wilt in the heat of competition. But fair competition remains the best way to sort for excellence.

What makes some individual creature “best” depends on the species. In some species, it may be that weaponized, ornamented males are more at risk from predation, and thus their survival shows they are strong enough to overcome a handicap. So the contests select for costly displays that in turn prove health. Or it may be that females have just come to find these ornaments and weapons and their resulting success to be sexy for their own sake, in which case females choose males with those traits so they can produce sexy sons who will in turn pass on their genes.

Although I don’t want to speculate here on how honor instincts might have evolved in humans, it is worth noting that parallel behaviors can be observed in us. The most primitive sort of honor-typical behavior in humans involves contests among young men for female attention. Athletics is sort of male lek (the word “lek” comes from the Swedish lek-ställe, which literally means “playing fields”), in which male-male competition is encouraged by cheerleaders and rewarded by groupies looking less for financial gain or security than a sexual trophy.

Given the reproductive benefits that come with being a high-ranked male, males will resent being unfairly low-ranked as a result of cheating, and females will resent the cheater’s attempt to subvert their system of honest signaling. Cheaters are thus spurned from the competitive lek, which significantly lowers their reproductive chances. For this reason, we probably developed strong instincts not only to compete, but to compete fairly. This instinct to play/fight fairly is on dramatic display in a variety of agonist endeavors, from honorable warfare to honorable hunting to honorable sport.

Indeed, it may well be that honorable types peg their desirability as mates to their competitive successes in their chosen agonistic arena. Feeling like a failure in the competitive arena deflates our libido, shatters our confidence, and spurs us to reject the comfort of our mates, however pleased with us they may (claim to) be. Honorable types feel like they don’t deserve excellent mates unless they are themselves excellent, relative to their competitors.

Sylvester Stallone exploited this dynamic to great effect in his Rocky films, as in this pivotal scene in Rocky III, when Rocky’s training against Mr. T’s Clubber Lang—and his marriage—is sabotaged by his self-doubt upon learning that his late manager, Micky, had selected sub-par boxers for Rocky to fight against.

It is hard not think of competitive male leks after watching this scene, or Lovelace’s “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars”:

Tell me not, Sweet, I am unkind,

That from the nunnery

Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind

To war and arms I fly.

True, a new mistress now I chase,

The first foe in the field;

And with a stronger faith embrace

A sword, a horse, a shield.

Yet this inconstancy is such

As thou too shalt adore;

I could not love thee, Dear, so much,

Loved I not Honour more.

I stress these are primitive manifestations of honor psychology, and I do not suggest that we should act in these exact ways. The task for any moral theorist interested in moral foundations is to say how these primitive moral instincts can be and should be shaped, and why. But when it comes to explaining the nature of a moral system, primitive manifestations work best, and probably provide the clearest indication of the evolutionary roots of the system itself.