Since honor killings are so-called, they present honor theorists interested in rehabilitating honor with perhaps our greatest rhetorical challenge. One strategy would be disassociating honor with honor killings: to say that they are honor killings in name only, but not in fact. As part of that strategy, we might decide to put scare quotes around the phrase “honor killings.” A recent, excellent article on honor killings by Aisha Gill exemplifies this liberal use of the scare quote approach.
[A note for non-writers and students: using quotes to mention a phrase qua term (as I did two sentences ago), and using quotes to draw attention to a term (as I do in the next sentence), are different from using scare quotes, which signal that you’re not endorsing the attitudes that might come with a sincere use of the quoted term.]
So this post isn’t devoted to condemning honor killings so much as making a “meta” point. Suppose a writer
- Condemns honor killings,
- Finds them even to be dishonorable, and
- Wants to communicate both her condemnation of honor killings and yet her endorsement of the importance of being honorable.
Such a writer will inevitably contemplate using scare-quotes around the phrase “honor killing.” I want to argue that the scare-quote approach is incorrect.
My argument is premised on the claim that the word “honor” really is a descriptive term. It is not like “justice,” which is a “morally thick” term that has both descriptive and normative content. “Honor,” at least in the sense being used in the phrase “honor killings” (both in the mouths of those who condemn it and those who approve of it) simply refers to esteem, good standing, respectability. And these things supervene on the opinion of the honor group. Honor killings really are done for honor. Not faux-honor, but actual honor. Thus, using scare quotes around the phrase “honor killings” is not correct, even for a writer of the sort we’re imagining.
Objections and replies
OBJECTION: But these killings are not honorable—in fact, they’re dishonorable!
REPLY: Agreed. But honorableness is not the same as honor. Honor is analogous to wealth, or any other goodie (pleasure, freedom, candy, whatever). A capitalist thinks capitalist principles correctly say how the goodie of money should be gained and distributed. A socialist thinks socialist principles say how the goodie of money should be gained and distributed. They both see money as a goodie, but they disagree about the “ethic” that governs that goodie.
Honorableness concerns the correct way to get and distribute the goodie of honor. Unfortunately, honor theory is undeveloped at this point, and there are no handy names such as “socialism” or “capitalism” to denote different comprehensive and integrated theories about what’s honorable. All you and I know right now is that, whatever the correct theory is, it doesn’t permit honor killings.
Thus, the conscientious writer we’re imagining holds that the ethic governing honor says that honor shouldn’t be given to those who kill helpless, usually already-victimized girls and women. But just as it would be silly for a socialist to announce that, say, managing hedge funds isn’t about money but rather “money,” it would be incorrect, even for the conscientious writer above, to say that an honor killing isn’t about honor but “honor.”
OBJECTION: But we’re trying to shame people out of the practice of honor killings through our writing, and using scare quotes around the phrase helps drive home the message that we condemn honor killings.
REPLY: I think that this strategy perpetuates shallow and ultimately unpersuasive talk about values. No capitalist is (or should be) persuaded out of his capitalist beliefs by calling his money “filthy lucre”: that filthy lucre still pays the bills. And I doubt any proponent of honor killings will be persuaded out of his ancient beliefs by calling honor killings “honor killings,” especially when his honor group continues to honor him for what he does. The debate needs to turn to the ethics of honor. What are the principles that should govern our distribution of honor? Who should we honor, and why? These are questions about the meaning “honorableness”: “honorable,” like “justice” and unlike “honor,” is a morally thick term.
If I’m right about this, here are examples of correct usage:
“According to the U.N., 5,000 women are slain in honor killings every year.”
“These ‘honorable’ killings are often carried out by the victim’s family.”
“The so-and-so believe these acts to be honorable because of such-and-such.” [Acceptable because belief is a propositional attitude, and whatever you put in its scope isn’t an assertion of its truth.]
Ryan Rhodes said:
I’m not sure about some of the claims in your argument, Dan. First, I find myself questioning whether “honor” is necessarily a thin term in the way that you describe. Suppose that I said to someone: “You have no honor.” In this context, I think it is most natural to interpret “honor” in thick terms, as making reference to normative content. In fact, it seems to me that it would be roughly equivalent to saying “You are not honorable”, which you indicate as being morally think itself. Similarly, it does not seem parallel to a statement like “You have no money”. So, I don’t think the comparison of honor to other “goodies” is wholly accurate.
Secondly, suppose that in a society–perhaps even ours–when a defendant escaped conviction or received a noticeably light sentence, they were often hunted down and killed in the name of justice. So now we have news stories about “justice killings”, and debates over the ethics involved. Would we say that news headlines on this class of killings ought to use scare quotes? I think it’s at least arguable that they should, in that whether or not the ‘justice groups’ are motivated by seeking justice (real justice, not faux-justice?) there are clear questions about whether such acts truly exemplify justice.
On a different note,here is a brief argument in favor of the scare quotes. Much of honor’s negative perception comes from cases like these, which are seen (rightly) as barbarous and destructive. Not using quotes may inadvertently reinforce the negative stereotype that these are the sorts of things of which honor (does/must/typically) consist. Using the quotes, on the other hand, may at least hint that are questions about what honor really entails and whether there is more to the concept. That seems to me a legitimate consideration here. I don’t think it’s just about shaming people into not committing such acts. Rather, if we are serious about the value of an honor-based ethics in general, then it is about promoting thought and discussion about the nature of honor among ordinary people.
dan demetriou said:
Thanks for that reply, Ryan.
I agree there is a thick sense of “honor.” I’m guessing you would agree there is a thin sense, too, as when we say that “Such-and-such a practice is honored.” So, to be more clear, as your comment forces me to be, I think that phrase “honor killings” has been used all the while in that thin sense. If so, then we shouldn’t use scare quotes, because indeed those killings are about honor in that sense (i.e., good social standing).
I agree that if there were no thin sense of “honor,” or if the thick sense was being intended in the phrase “honor killings,” then conscientious writers with the three commitments I specified should use scare quotes, as we should with “justice killings” for the vigilante thought experiment.
What you say in your third paragraph is a better way of saying what I was trying to get at with my second objection. I accept that using scare quotes might spur discussion over what’s honorable. But imo it’s better and more accurate to say that these killings are honor-driven, or required to maintain honor in that culture, and launch into reasons why those facts are unfortunate and even at odds with honorable conduct.
Whether or not I’m right, I just want to say for anyone reading this that this issue, as pedantic as it may appear, is pretty important to think about. I think much of the difficulty in thinking about honor—at least in English—is caused by the fact that “honor” is used both to name a moral value suggestive of a theory of right (akin to “justice”) and a mere “good” (akin to “pleasure” or “welfare”). The word “justice” doesn’t present justice-theorists with that challenge.
Again, thanks for the comment, Ryan.
Tamler Sommers said:
I agree with you Dan. A honor theorist has to face the fact that there is tremendous variation in the content of what’s considered honorable. The practice is called honor killings because the family believes that they have been dishonored and are taking steps to restore that honor. I think murderer a defenseless woman is disgraceful–the opposite of what I consider to be honorable. But honor systems are tailored to the norms of the community, not some objective or universal conception of honor. I think the Richerson and Boyd model of gene-culture co-evolution supports your view as well….