prusakAt a Minnesota Dairy Queen last week, a blind customer pulled out some money and accidently dropped a $20 bill. The customer just behind quickly picked up the bill and pocketed it. Joey Prusak, the Dairy Queen server, saw what happened, and directed the second customer to return the money. She refused. So Prusak expelled her from the restaurant, and gave the blind customer a twenty from his own pocket. Appreciative customers alerted Dairy Queen management, and Prusak’s story has gone viral.

Interestingly for our purposes, Prusak’s story is being described in the language of honor.

Yahoo: “Dairy Queen Employee’s Honorable Actions Praised Online”

DailyMail: “Honorable: Joey Prusak, 19, said that returning the money to the blind man ‘felt like it was the right thing to do’”.

Webpronews: “Honorable Dairy Queen Employee Does the Right Thing”

I think honor researchers have a lot to say about the “extra” condemnation we feel when someone wrongs a vulnerable party, and why we tend to call “honorable” those who protect the weak.

The extra harm explanation goes as so: “Well, the vulnerable are harmed more by injustices they suffer, so it makes sense we’re extra upset at those who harm the vulnerable.”

Certainly this may be true of some people, but this explanation doesn’t explain some phenomena we observe. For instance, last month, in nearby town, an elderly woman was slain in a burglary by a few teens. In the comment section, one woman writes,

I always find it ‘funny’ that they target the weak, old or sick. [That these offenders] can’t man up and take on someone of their equal stature. They would get their asses handed to them….

One hears this thing time and again in cases where the weak are victimized. And it seems to me an honor-intuition is at work here: If you’re going to wrongly victimize someone, then at least victimize an equal (i.e., do it honorably). Call this the taking candy from a baby explanation: victimizing a weaker party is dishonorable, as well as wrong in the usual ways.

On the flip side, those who protect the weak from injustice are viewed as more honorable. If Prusak had given a perfectly able person a twenty upon his having it stolen, would Prusak be viewed as honorable? Why aren’t those who send money to the poor and sick on a daily basis considered honorable? What set Prusak apart from the charitable person was that his action came off to us as a defense of the weak, and not just benevolent or altruistic.

I think we often categorize immorally aggressive actions as challenges or competitive. When we do, this activates our honor intuitions, which tell us that this is an unfair challenge or competition. Thus, we say strange things from an ethical perspective, such as “pick on someone your own size.” The honor intuition, I would argue, is impeccable. The problem occurs at the first step, when we sloppily categorize mere aggression as challenge or competition.