Richard Martinez, father of Christopher Martinez, who was shot in the UC Santa Barbara spree killing. Photo credit: Jae C. Hong (AP).

A recent blog post by “resilience expert” Ken Druck connects honor to the aftermath of the tragic UC Santa Barbara shooting last month. In applauding the grieving Richard Martinez for meeting Peter Roger, the gunman’s father, Druck says that whereas the old honor code was about revenge and war, the “new honor code” is about “peace and non-violence” and “[m]aking our lives an expression of peace and love.”

The false promise of revenge is that hurting or killing someone will satisfy our deepest sense of grief, loss and violation. Revenge and retribution masquerading as honor is often the popular driving force for justifying war and hatred. […] Making our lives an expression of peace and love, rather than hatred and revenge, may not be an easy thing to do. But it is a good and noble, as well as civil and honorable choice we must learn to make if we’re to break the cycle of unprocessed grief and violence.

The entry was re-posted by the Good Men Project, which seems irresistibly attracted to any content that rebrands honor.

It isn’t at all clear to me what is distinctively “honorable” about peace, non-violence, and healing. That doesn’t mean I’m against those things, of course. It seems that there are many ways something can be good without being honorable. Not being honorable doesn’t make it dishonorable. It’s a good thing that Mr. Martinez and the father of his son’s killer got together to commiserate and discuss ways to prevent future spree shootings. I applaud them for it. I “honor” them for it. It’s certainly not easy to do what they did. But this has nothing to do with honor. We don’t have to associate all good things with honor.

Rebranding is different from reclaiming what philosophers call a morally “thick” term. Reclaiming seems to retain the descriptive content, but replaces the negative evaluative content with a positive spin: “queer” is an example of successful reclaiming. In contrast, rebranding changes the descriptive content of the term in order to redeem it.

Rebranding is also different from rehabilitating. Like some contributors to this blog, I want to rehabilitate honor. But that doesn’t mean changing the meaning of the term. Rehabilitation has a reclaiming aspect—we want to restore the positive spin “honor” used to have. But rehabilitation does this by arguing that honor has always referred to a particular sort of good. So, for instance, I think that honor has always concerned the virtues around ethical agonism: essentially, honor is about doing conflict right. That’s perfectly recognizable as “honorable,” so it’s not rebranding.

I guess I have a conservative streak when it comes to usage. But rebranding “honor” seems to me to be a bad idea for a few reasons I think I can articulate.

First, we have a robust vocabulary for the goodness of peace, non-violence, and healing. Moreover, there are well-established ethical approaches (such as care ethics and Christianity) that speak to these values and give them primacy. Calling peace, non-violence, and healing acts “honorable” adds nothing to our understanding of their goodness.

Second, rebranding “honor” erodes our sense of the distinctive moral contribution of honor. A rebrander of honor is caught in this dilemma: if “honor” denoted a genuinely bad thing in the past (such as revenge killing, etc.), then why rebrand “honor” to mean something that is good? That’d be like taking “cruelty” and rebranding it to mean some good thing. Why on earth would you choose the word “cruelty” out of all the possible words to choose from? On the other hand, if “honor” did denote a genuinely good thing in the past, then why rebrand it to mean some other good thing?

My third reason—and I think this is the explanation for why attempts to rebrand honor are so common—is that people who don’t really care for honor invoke term merely for rhetorical purposes. Would the Good Men Project have re-posted Druck’s blog entry if it used any other word than “honor”? I don’t think so. The word “honor” has become a sort of shibboleth that people utter to invoke a vague moral tone. It’s like background music, which doesn’t say anything so much as create a moral ambiance. If you want to seem caring and cooperative but also “tough” or “masculine,” you toss in a meaningless use of the word “honor.” It’s manipulative and soft-minded, but it works I suppose…