Pakistani human rights activists protest against the killing of pregnant woman Farzana Parveen for marrying a man she loved. Photo: Getty

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.]