Jordan Peterson on the honor-as-based-in-play hypothesis: he talks about self-handicapping as the basis of fair play and honor. The honorable person makes you want to play with him—he’s the “meta player.”
In other talks, Peterson is careful to distinguish between hierarchies based on power and those based on prestige, which get too often conflated as “dominance hierarchies” in biology. To some extent he does this in his answer here as well (just before the point I start the video he references proto-authority in chimps).
Just found this short clip, with Pinker adverting to the Nisbett-Cohen line on “cultures of honor,” and lumping for benefits of the leviathan.
The point-person on this topic is Laurie Johnson, who discusses at length the moral disadvantages of the Hobbesian response to honor, the greatest of which is its elevation of base human motives (security and wealth) over nobler aims, such as dignity, celebrated excellence, and sacrifice.
And you can go here for evidence that the Nisbett-Cohen deterrence-based hypothesis for honor’s violence is incorrect, given that honor cultures have been singularly unconcerned with deterring violence and require all sorts of behaviors that make men easier, not harder, targets of aggression. Masculine honor traditionally welcomes aggression. It institutionalized violence if things got too peaceful.
The Nisbett-Cohen account is a product of the psychology Hobbes sought to propagate: explanations should be based on security and property, since deep down that’s what people care about (read: those are the motives Hobbes’ political philosophy could make sense of). The foolhardy disregard for safety and wealth we see across cultures strongly suggests that this is false, and biology goes a long way to explaining why.
It strikes me as much more compatible with the evidence that the origin of masculine honor violence is found in male mating strategies, especially mate-guarding, resource-provision, and competitive display. For instance, masculine honor usually requires men to fiercely defend their women’s chastity (mate guarding, at the root of lots of “culture of honor” behaviors), while it also requires fair and respectful contest between equally-matched combatants (male competitive display, which I argue is the root of agonistic honor). Plausibly, as humans grew more intelligent, this hodgepodge of instincts became culturally entrenched and identified with masculine excellence. You simply weren’t a good man—a man worthy of respect—if you didn’t perform in these adaptive ways. Thus masculine honor.
Do the traditional norms of masculine honor “debunk” honor in some way? I don’t think so. Consider justice, a value Pinker would be quick to endorse. It is worth remembering that our application of justice norms have justified shocking cruelty…
…and continue to do so.
And if that wasn’t enough, justice was once thought to require eternal torture in the afterlife for most of us.
Honor skeptics tend ignore the evil past of our older, cruder conceptions of justice, however. They would never allow that medievals (or even today’s lawmakers) actually “got justice right.” They tend to think our conception of justice is constantly improving, refined by conceptual analysis, experience, and ethical debate. For some reason, however, the most backward hillbilly or unreflective cattle-herder gets the final say on what honor is. Exposing this double-standard is one of the first tasks of the honor apologist.
Some social psychologists have recently proposed taxonomies of the fundamental moral sentiments . . ..The emotions and practices of honor—esteem, contempt, respect, deference—developed, it is reasonable to suppose, with hierarchy in troops of early humans. Is honor, in this way, atavistic? It’s not a worry we can immediately dismiss.
–Kwame Appiah, The Honor Code, pp. 183-184
Some sort of moral pluralism—at least on the psychological level—is increasingly probable: a recent consensus statement by a number of cutting-edge moral psychologists affirms Jonathan Haidt et al.’s hypothesis that there are multiple building blocks of morality, each with its own evolutionary history.
Notably, Haidt’s taxonomy recognizes only one moral foundation that concerns rank: authoritarianism. But we have ample evidence in, say, athletic or academic rankings, that some rankings are not authoritarian. Also notable is that none of Haidt et al.’s (currently six) moral foundations has norms rooted in sexual selection, which is enormously influential in shaping behavior in many species, including us. Third, as Haidt’s taxonomy expanded, it lost the ability to account for shame and contempt, one of the “big three” condemnatory affect pairings that Moral Foundations theory was designed to accommodate. Fourth, Haidt sees his “harm/care” foundation as based in maternal instincts. This raises the question: could there be an ethos that is based on some sort of adaptive challenge males might have faced more often?
I think the honor ethos is one of these innate moral systems, and that honor fills all four gaps in Haidt’s theory.
I am pleased to introduce my colleague at Sewanee: The University of the South, Andrea Mansker, Associate Professor of History, who has agreed to be a contributor for this blog.
Andrea’s recently published book, Sex, Honor and Citizenship in Early Third Republic France (Palgrave Macmillan 2011) describes and analyzes a variety of fascinating case studies of women using resources available in the male-oriented honor system of early twentieth-century France to rectify the inequalities of a gender system that excluded women from various forms of professional and legal agency and protection.
One especially interesting case is that of the feminist journalist Arria Ly, who in the decade before the Great War published critiques of the traditional requirement that honorable women marry as the sole means of gaining social recognition. In defending female singularity, Ly butted heads with conservative critics, including Prudent Massatt, who in writing accused Ly of being a lesbian. Responding to this criticism/insult, Ly used the duelist’s resort in demanding satisfaction in the name of all women. (I leave out the fascinating details of her use of the duelist’s rituals, which I encourage you to read in the text itself.)
In the course of analyzing the background and impact of this and other interesting cases, Andrea offers an analysis of the character and function of the system of honor that made possible this encounter, and Ly and other women’s unprecedented use of various honor-related masculine privileges. She argues that during this period, the honor system functioned as an unstable field of contestation, “whose meaning was reassessed by men and women in their daily interactions.” This feature of the system allowed women to successfully redefine their own relation to honor based on their own, often courageous, actions, some of which exposed the cowardice and hypocrisy of men who opposed them. They were able to use this feature of the honor system even to subvert the ideology of male superiority, which traditionalists took as the foundation of the honor system. Andrea’s analysis implies that central to this system of honor were the various forms of ritual of shaming and honoring that made it possible for women, who appropriated those rituals, to achieve a modification of their own social status and the honor system itself. If the fin-de-siecle honor system she has examined is paradigmatic for honor systems generally, that might suggest that a successful honor system needs enough flexibility for its adherents to be able to use its ritual devices to correct its own ideologically-driven injustices.
My short introduction to her book pales in comparison to the richness of detail and insight she brings to this subject. I am grateful to Andrea for her work on this topic. I look forward to her posts. Please join me in welcoming her to this blog.