One of the first things my students ask me when I bring up the subject of honor is to give them a short definition. What do I mean by honor? A member of the military recently asked what is academia’s definition of honor, as opposed to the military’s definition? I found myself immediately jumping to a historical explanation. I talked about how the idea of honor had changed over time. I am supervising a class right now that takes students from the Homeric warrior ideal all the way to Existentialism, in which I suppose the whole idea of honor (or of an ideal) is “absurd.” But of course, it is not this type of historical explanation that students are looking for when they ask that question.
The question itself says a lot. We are not quite sure what we mean by honor now. There is less shared understanding of many things in modern liberal society, and certainly honor is one of those ideas for which there is no common understanding. Not only that, but for many it is not an important concept at all, having been replaced with the more democratic “morality.” For others, it holds mainly negative connotations–chivalric honor, which reminds us of sexism, warrior honor which sounds dangerous and destructive, and of course the honor of women as understood in modern political Islam, generating violence against women.
But before we can get to the question of whether or not honor can be a useful concept in Western society, we have to have a discussion about exactly what that term means. When I backed up and tried to give my students a more concrete definition, I had the feeling that it was my own personal definition. I told him that honor has an internal and an external dimension. The internal dimension is that sense of integrity and self esteem that says to us “this is what I won’t do, not because of any reward or punishment but because this is who I am.” The external component strangely contradicts the internal manifestation of honor–it is the social recognition of people of a certain character or with certain behaviors, and of course what is valued in a given society varies. The reason why it seems strangely contradictory is because if we were truly motivated by an internal sense of honor, would we need external recognition of honorable behavior? But of course, the reason for the external signs of honor is to educate, train and shape people to become internally motivated. Without that societal reinforcement, where do people get a strong sense of honor?
I suppose that is why there seems to be a disconnect between the military sense of honor and how the general population thinks about honor. In the military, honor is constantly being “drilled” into people. It may not always take, but overall, it instills a common understanding of what is honorable and helps to guide our military personnel’s behavior. Perhaps our over-attention to individual autonomy and privacy has made it hard for any collective sense of honor to be passed down to new generations via recognition.
I would like to hear what other people have to say just about the definition of honor, and I’m excited about collaborating with others on the upcoming volume Perspective on Modern Honor and in the series that Dan Demetriou and I co-edit, Honor and Obligation in Liberal Society: Problems and Prospects. I’m also very excited to have Dan come to visit K-State October 21st as part of the Primary Texts Certificate lecture series. He will face that mixed crowd of military and civilians, both eager to come to a more complete understanding of what honor means to society and what it means to them. Thanks for keeping the conversation going!