One aspect of honor that cuts across many issues is the question of what it takes to fail at being honorable. We can fail to be honorable by not living up to the standards of honorable conduct—this is probably the most natural and familiar way of thinking about it. But there is another way of courting dishonor, which I think is important for how we view negative instances of “honor”. By way of parallel, consider Aristotle’s definition of courage. We can fail to be courageous by being cowardly, or we can fail by being reckless. Those might be described as emotive or will-based failures. But significantly, one can also fail to be courageous in another way, which doesn’t depend on our willingness to act or our passion for doing so. One criterion of bravery (and other virtues) which Aristotle stresses is that it must be done for the sake of what is fine. Additionally, what really is fine is something about which people may be correct or mistaken, such that one might fail to be courageous not by failing to act nor by acting too unthinkingly, but by valuing the wrong things and acting in service of them.

A historical example of this sort of question concerned the 9/11 attackers. Bill Maher was subject to a lot of criticism when he famously rejected the idea that the terrorists were cowards—they stayed on the planes and died for their cause, he argued, so how is it accurate to depict them as cowardly? Even if one accepts that view, however, it is important to remember that ‘not-cowardly’ is not equivalent to ‘courageous’. The actions of the terrorists were vicious for many reasons, and they specifically failed to be courageous because they were done for the sake of wicked ends.

Similarly, it is important for us to remember that it is possible to be dishonorable not only through inaction or lack of care, but by having a perverted sense of what honor requires in the first place. It seems to me that in cases such as so-called “honor killings”, or the kind of entitlement and perceived disrespect that seems to have motivated Elliot Rodger’s recent rampage in California, this is the operative issue—a twisted sense of what is valuable, what is owed, what is worth living, dying, or killing for. For those of us who, like myself, conceive of honor in general as a positive framework which can provide grounds and motivation for genuine virtue, this is an important distinction.