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Moral dilemmas make for compelling stories. Should we nuke this city to stop the virus from spreading? Should we derail the train to save our child caught on the tracks? Honor-dilemmas used to be a favorite type of moral quandary. One legendary honor-dilemma in particular has inspired artists and storytellers for millennia: the rape of Lucretia.


The Roman noblewoman Lucretia lived in 6th century B.C., in the final days of the Roman Kingdom. As Livy tells the tale, she welcomed the Roman prince Sextus Tarquinius into her home while her husband and father were away at war. Taken by her beauty, Tarquinius stole into her bedroom in the middle of the night and begged Lucretia to sleep with him. She refused. He threatened to kill her, but she remained unmoved. At last Tarquinius threatened to kill Lucretia and a male slave, arranging their bodies so that she “might be said to have been put to death in adultery with a man of base condition.” As this threat touches Lucretia’s reputation, she accedes.

After Tarquinius leaves, “exulting in his conquest of a woman’s honour,” Lucretia calls her husband and father back from battle, and in tears tells them how she “lost her honour” to the prince and that they, “if they are men,” will avenge her. The men swear to punish Tarquinius and they do their best to support Lucretia, assuring her that her honor hasn’t been besmirched. But Lucretia is disconsolate and declares,

“Though I acquit myself of the sin, I do not absolve myself from punishment; not in time to come shall ever unchaste woman live through the example of Lucretia,”

at which point she brandishes a hidden dagger and stabs herself to death (as depicted in the banner art of this blog). Appalled, inspired, and outraged, Lucretia’s menfolk revolt against the ruling family and help found the Roman Republic.

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Lucretia’s story is fascinating from an honor perspective. It raises problems of honor killings, female enforcement of chastity norms through shaming, the masculine honor-requirement of protecting female chastity and avenging insults to it (as in today’s tragic news from Charleston), and the dignity of self-rule. But I want to focus here on what we should make of Lucretia’s dilemma.

At one point in Livy’s narrative (I’m setting aside other retellings here), Lucretia seems to suggest that she felt dishonored by her rape:

The entrance of her friends brought the tears to her eyes, and to her husband’s question, “Is all well?” she replied, “Far from it; for what can be well with a woman when she has lost her honour? The print of a strange man, Collatinus, is in your bed.”

If Lucretia values her honor above all, and if she felt extramarital sex in any circumstances was dishonorable, why didn’t she choose death? Apparently, Lucretia was caught between the dishonor of extramarital sex on the one hand, and the dishonor of being thought dishonorable on the other.

One might think that her decision shows she disvalued the dishonor of extramarital sex more than the dishonor of being thought to be unchaste. If that is the case, Lucretia fares poorly, morally speaking. Choosing to preserve your reputation at the cost of doing something you yourself consider to be seriously dishonorable is morally incorrect.

This is because, first and most obviously, choosing reputation over one’s sense of honor means one can be forced to do horrible things. Lucretia chose to be raped over defamation. What if the target of Tarquinius’ affection were not Lucretia, but her children? Suppose the choice was between having her children killed, or being murdered herself and framed to appear unchaste? Would Lucretia choose to preserve her reputation for chastity in that event? Perhaps her story seems noble only because she suffered the consequences of her obsession for her reputation? (Note: saving her slave’s life seemed not to figure in her calculations.)

Second, choosing reputation over one’s sense of honor makes us hostage to threats of calumny. Set aside the “horrible things” objection above, which follows from such vulnerability: the vulnerability itself seems dishonorable to me. Part of the honorable character is being particularly impervious to threats (this is why many people confuse honor and stoicism, since they overlap on this point). Honor is obviously concerned about good opinion. One of its strengths is that it acknowledges that our self-conception should take seriously the opinions of others. But to adapt Plato’s line about justice, it seems clear that it’s better to be honorable and thought dishonorable than dishonorable and thought honorable.

So shall we condemn Lucretia from an honor perspective, concluding that she shouldn’t have been so concerned about her reputation?

Maybe not. Consider this possibility: plausibly, Lucretia thought she could “redeem” the dishonor of her unchastity by killing herself later, while she couldn’t redeem the dishonor of being thought unchaste, since she’d be dead. It’s just false to say that we make our choices in dilemmas on the basis of what we value more. I’ve often reneged on promises to my wife in order to satisfy other obligations I’ve incurred to work colleagues or friends. Is that because I value work or friends more than my wife? No. It’s just that (sometimes wrongly) in those cases I feel I can repair the injury to my marriage—I can make it up to my wife—better than I can repair the injuries I would do to those who love me less or not at all.

Why would her suicide “redeem” the dishonor of her unchastity, in her mind? If it’s the physical act of extramarital sex that was dishonorable to her, it would seem that suicide would be beside the point. The problem here isn’t that there’s no changing the past. If I recklessly run over your child, nothing I do can change that. But there are better and worse redemptive efforts nonetheless. It would strange for me to try to redeem myself by suicide, for instance. Presumably I should do something for your family (maybe pay for your surviving children’s college educations) or support an initiative for alert driving.

Perhaps suicide redeems Lucretia’s dishonor because shame makes us want to disappear. Committing suicide is the ultimate disappearing act. By committing suicide, you communicate to others that you have fully internalized your shame. You respect and strengthen the operative honor code by checking out. Suicide shows that, although you couldn’t meet the code’s constraint, down deep you have honorable motives.

Another answer might be that Lucretia didn’t really find unchastity dishonorable, but preferring unchastity to death. Thus, she needed to prove that she loved honor more than life. It would have been easy for her to say, after the fact, that she chose life only to avoid disgrace, but how would we—or she—know that was true? Only suicide would decisively answer that question.

On this theory of her motives, Lucretia’s actions seem much more honorable (although of course we disagree with her opinion about the dishonor of rape). She does not value her reputation more than her conscience, or specifically her commitment to honorable conduct. Thus she is not, on this reading, hostage to Tarquinius, but rather acts according to a sound plan that preserves her honor on all fronts. And finally, this interpretation is compatible with the counterfactual that, if Tarquinius threatened an offense that Lucretia couldn’t “redeem,” she would have accepted the consequences to her posthumous reputation and told him to go to the devil.