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!
dan demetriou said:
Thanks, Laurie. Great post. I feel strongly that one reason honor isn’t discussed more by academics is because it’s so hard to define—even first passes at a definition are difficult, and as you point out its elements seem completely contradictory. Your course sounds great. Maybe we can start posting syllabi on honor under a “resources” tab. I know Lad and Jim Peterman have syllabi, too…
Ryan Rhodes said:
I’ll echo Dan in complimenting your post, Laurie, and also agree that it’s important to stress the dual internal-external nature of honor. Elsewhere I have defined honor as comprising pride, integrity, social role, and concern for reputation, and I think the fact that it includes all of those components is part of why a “quick and easy” definition can be somewhat difficult. Nevertheless, need that be a bad thing necessarily? Many moral terms can be difficult to define in a succinct way, but are still descriptively and normatively useful. For instance, we might give a short definition of a particular virtue, which goes some way to explaining what it is. Without being exceptionally unwieldy, however, that definition is not likely to convey all of what it means to truly embody the virtue in question. So, one question I think we have to ask is, is it reasonable to suppose that the concept of honor is actually amenable to “a short definition”? Now, even if it is not, that doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t try to give one as a starting point. But it’s a rich enough concept that a satisfactory definition is likely to be fairly complex.
To touch on a different part of your post, there are two things which I think are missing from your discussion of the external parts of honor. You note that external signs are meant to “educate, train and shape people to become internally motivated”. But another significant term which I think is not covered by that list is to inspire others. An important part of a sense of honor is that you consciously live in such a way as to be admirable. Embodying human excellence is worthwhile in itself, but it also encourages others to do likewise insofar as they recognize the genuine value expressed by one’s life. Similarly, to recognize genuine excellence in another person is, I would argue, a necessary part of striving toward excellence oneself–which serves to further justify the place of the external components of honor. In this way, I think it starts to become clear that the seemingly contradictory facets of honor may indeed be only seemingly so, and that the two can be unified as part of a truly moral whole.
Laurie Johnson said:
Thanks, Ryan, for your comments. I think we are not so far apart, because as I think about it, what I meant when I said to “educate, shape and train” is similar to “inspiring others.” You have made this connection clear by discussing, better than I was able to, the complex social nature of honor. I think the reason why I tend to focus more on the internal nature of honor is because, in my research, I’ve traced the decline in agreement about the external dimension. Christianity, even as its values have become secularized, has made the externalizing of honor more difficult–people feel guilt about desiring that type of honor, or think it’s more honorable to not want external recognition. Liberalism has had several effects. Individualism has slowly reduced the agreement within societies about what is honorable. The desire for equality has made “standing out” problematic. Similarly, honor as a result of combat or competition runs counter to liberal society’s desire for everything to run smoothly for maximum economic benefit. I believe this is why this discussion is so important–that we try to find a way to restore a common understanding so that external honor can serve the important functions you describe so well. Without that, some individuals (like those who join the military, or those raised in a certain atmosphere) may have a strong internal sense of honor, but the larger society will have little agreement and may not be able to understand those whose identity is dependent upon honor.
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Horizon Blue said:
An (Alternative) Honorable Life
To live without honor, and without seeking honor, when honor is considered as distinctive recognition by an external other, is to live without being, wanting to be, or needing to be admired, heeded or esteemed by others; and without being greatly loved or feared by a larger community. It is to live without titles, hereditary coats of arms, genealogies, or offices. It is to live without medals or other forms of public testimony or attestation marking one’s feats of courage, productivity, or other contributions to the common good; it is to have few possessions. It is to live in obscurity without one’s counsel being sought. It is to live invisibly, inconspicuously, and without having, or desiring, power in the community. It is to live in spiritual and worldly simplicity: beyond wealth, name and honor, bound only to loving-kindness in every thought, word, and deed—and nothing more.