I’m pleased to alert readers of two new books on honor:
Tamler Sommers, Why Honor Matters
I’m pleased to alert readers of two new books on honor:
Tamler Sommers, Why Honor Matters
I’m happy to report—somewhat belatedly—that Honor in the Modern World is now for sale!
Edited by Laurie Johnson and me, the book is probably the most interdisciplinary study of honor yet. We are very grateful to our contributors—many of whom contribute to this blog—for their excellent and highly original essays.
After a century-long hiatus, honor is back. Academics, pundits, and everyday citizens alike are rediscovering the importance of this ancient and powerful human motive. This volume brings together some of the foremost researchers of honor to debate honor’s meaning and its compatibility with liberalism, democracy, and modernity. Contributors—representing philosophy, sociology, political science, history, psychology, leadership studies, and military science—examine honor past to present, from masculine and feminine perspectives, and in North American, European, and African contexts. Topics include the role of honor in the modern military, the effects of honor on our notions of the dignity and “purity” of women, honor as a quality of good statesmen and citizens, honor’s role in international relations and community norms, and how honor’s egalitarian and elitist aspects intersect with democratic and liberal regimes.
The table of contents can be see on Amazon, along with lots of sample viewing. Consider ordering a copy for your school’s library, as the book includes essays useful for philosophers, political scientists, historians, international relations scholars, psychologists, and military academicians.
I just discovered this great lecture by honorethics.org contributor Craig Bruce Smith (he was too humble to point it out to us!), and he agreed to let me post it on this blog.
One of Craig’s book projects is Rightly to Be Great: Honor, Virtue, Ethics and the American Revolution. Here’s a short description of it.
“Rightly to Be Great” tells the history of the Revolution through an ethical lens. It shows that a colonial ethical transformation caused and became inseparable from the American Revolution, creating a continuing moral ideology. This manuscript centers on several generations of Americans who came of age before the Revolution and climbed to prominence during it. These founders are remembered for their contributions to American independence and the creation of a nation, but while they were forming this new republic, they reflected on the ethics of their deeds. They wanted the country to succeed, but not at the cost of honor or virtue. These two concepts were at the forefront of the American founders’ minds as they traveled the precarious road to independence. “Rightly to Be Great” traces the development of honor and virtue in the lives of people such as Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and other individuals from the elite, middling and lower classes. It also incorporates groups that have historically been excluded from the discussion of honor, such as women and African Americans. Using a narrative writing style and a deep core investigation into members of these Revolutionary generations, this project traces extensive changes over time and analyzes how thought influenced action.
In an OpenDemocracy post published today, Joerg Friedrichs (International Development, Oxford) and Ryan Berg (currently a doctoral student at Brasenose College, Oxford) argue that the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford exemplifies the pernicious qualities of an emerging moral culture that honors victimhood, stifles speech, and privileges feelings over facts.
Friedrich and Berg’s analysis builds off of an important article by Bradley Campbell (Sociology, UCLA) and Jason Manning (Sociology and Anthropology, West Virginia) entitled “Microaggression and Moral Cultures.” Campbell and Manning persuasively argue that we are transitioning from a dignity-based culture to an honor-based one of victimhood. By “dignity” culture they mean one that sees everyone as innately endowed with an unearned and inalienable moral worth. On this scheme, our basic moral equality is assumed, assaults on welfare and property are punished by a central authority, and insults are largely disregarded and thus comparatively rare. This regime replaced the traditional honor culture on which some people have more value than others, personal value could be easily lost through shame and insult, and riposte to offense had to be handled personally—the traditional honor culture.
According to Campbell and Manning, the new honor culture of victimhood combines and inverts various aspects of its predecessors. Like a traditional honor culture, victimhood culture is highly stratified and is highly sensitive to insult. However, it elevates victims and demotes non-victims, which traditional honor cultures would find bizarre. Moreover, on it offenses to dignity are properly handled by authorities, not personally, as if they were “material” attacks on person or property (hence “microaggressions” and not the more accurate “micro-offenses”). These appeals to authority are what makes this honor culture so dangerous to free speech and inquiry.
For their part, Friedrichs and Berg take no stance on whether the Rhodes statue should fall. What they bemoan is the way RMF activists hijack debate with the imperative of their offense and puritanical zeal. Here’s a teaser:
While students were not that supportive, the RMF movement found resonance with the media. This was due to the fact that those campaigning associated themselves, in sometimes tenuous ways, with the victims of colonialism, racism, and other forms of vicitimisation. The movement thus exemplified the move towards offense taking and the celebration of victimhood. It hardly occurred to the campaigners that an honest dialogue about Rhodes, his highly controversial legacy, and the merits and demerits of censoring history might have been more befitting of Oxford than trying to sanitize the place from anything potentially offensive and unpleasant, such as association with an ambivalent and flawed character like Cecil Rhodes.
I encourage you to read the whole post: “Rhodes must fall: from dignity to honour Values.”
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. Continue reading
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.
What does honor taste like? In its recent season finale, the Bravo television series Top Chef Duels was likely the first to ever ask this question. The ten-episode series concluded this fall by having celebrity chefs Tiffani Faison, Kevin Gillespie, and CJ Jacobson cook an entrée that represents their own interpretation of honor. And the answer lies somewhere amongst Faison’s “lobster gnocchi with corn puree and lobster sauce,” Gillespie’s “wood oven roasted duck with mushrooms and crushed pea pistou,” and Jacobson’s “crispy duck with orange and Manzanita berries.” Leaving one to conclude that honor probably tastes most like duck.
The portrayal of honor on Top Chef Duels reveals a great deal about how this idea is popularly understood in America today. With $100,000 at stake, host Curtis Stone challenges the contestants to “make a three course meal inspired by what duels have been fought over for centuries…Love…Honor…Pride.” Yet again honor is seen through the inherently violent lens of a duel. On the surface, this view seems very much in line with the general public’s negative preconception of honor culture (as discussed in Laurie Johnson’s previous post on “A Definition of Honor?”). But if you peel back the layers of this very stereotypical representation, an opportunity to examine varying definitions of honor still exists. The nuances discussed by the show’s judges and contestants illustrate that honor is very much a diverse concept with many possible interpretations and an openness to ethical understandings of honor.
While the chefs cook, the guest judges engage in a spirited discussion of the Hamilton-Burr Duel of 1804. Joanne Freeman’s Affairs of Honor (or at least the famous 1990s “Got Milk?” Aaron Burr commercial) has found a ready audience. But it’s apparent that the public consumption is more historical than comical, as judges Jonathan Waxman and Tom Colicchio are both eager to correctly cite that the duel “took place in New Jersey. Because they couldn’t do it in New York.” Historians everywhere should be proud!
But within this discussion of honor as dueling, we see more nuanced approaches. Virtually all present vehemently agreed that to cheat in a duel afforded one “no honor!” Although, Austrian native Wolfgang Puck chides that if you did “You’re still alive!” Michelle Bernstein reminisces over “physically…defending my husband’s honor” after a patron’s disrespectful words, while her colleague Hugh Acheson considers honor as a matter of “character.”
For the actual honor entrées, the three contestants all interestingly interpret the term (and their dish) as paying tribute to a person or place. Rather than focusing on the violent elements of honor, they take it in a more celebratory context. It shows a ready acceptance of honor as something beyond the trappings of a duel.
Another interesting element of the show is how it separates honor and pride. Contestants interpret honor as being about others, while pride is more personal and about the individual. By framing the ideas in these terms, the chefs seem to show an openness to honor as an idea that is more reflective of society, rather than just the individual. As ethics is also often discussed in terms of society, this offers a possibility for the definition of honor to be more fully expanded into a larger discussion about ethical concepts.
Although this duel of kitchen knives is settled on taste rather than on the dishes’ success at representing honor, the episode sheds new light on this idea within American society and the continued difficulty in defining the term. In this duel Jacobson may have defeated his competitors, but the true victory came in fostering a public debate about honor before an audience of millions.
I’m very pleased to announce that honorethics.org contributor Peter Olsthoorn’s (Netherlands Defense Academy) Honor in Political and Moral Philosophy (SUNY) will be coming out soon.
I read and commented on a draft of this book a couple years ago before I visited Peter in Rotterdam and Breda, and I can assure readers it’s a major contribution to the field that anyone interested in honor needs to add to his or her library. Peter’s careful and scholarly discussion of the intellectual history of honor is especially valuable for us, since books on honor (if they discuss history at all) tend either to focus on one epoch (say, the antebellum South), region (say, the Mediterranean), or author (say, Hobbes). Sometimes honor books provide us with useful snapshots of honor-psychology through the ages by discussing samurai for one chapter, medieval chivalry in another, etc. As an analytic philosopher who isn’t very strong on history, I have relied upon and cited all such books a great deal in my own work. But more rarely attempted has been a sustained story of how leading intellectuals have analysed honor in the West. The scholarly aspects of Peter’s book will be the go-to resource on that question for some time.
Peter’s book is also a polemic for reviving honor as a moral and political motivator. I have lots of good things to say about his argument there, too, but that aspect of the book is better handled in this summary Peter provided me:
Until not too long ago it was not uncommon for moral and political philosophers to hold the view that people cannot be expected to do what is right without at least some reward in the form of reputational gain. Authors from Cicero to John Stuart Mill did not dispute that we can be brought to accept the principles of justice on an abstract level, but thought that in concrete instances our strong passions, our partiality to ourselves, and our inability to be a good judge of our conduct, prevent us from both seeing and acting on what is just and virtuous. In their view, our sense of honor and concern for our reputation can help us in finding out what is the proper thing to do and, just as important, provide us with the much-needed motive to actually do what is right. Especially in this latter, motivational, aspect conscience appeared somewhat impotent to them.
Today, most of us tend to take a stricter view, and think that people are to be just from a love for justice, not from a fear of losing face. Considerations of honor and reputation are generally considered to be on the wrong side of the line. That diminished position of honor is at least partly a result of the fact that, as a motive, honor is somewhat inconsistent with the ideals of autonomy and authenticity, valued by most people in our day. Modern political and moral philosophy mirrors (and, to some extent, feeds) these ideals, and many authors are not too upset that the honor ethic gave way to more demanding forms of ethics that give central place to that notion of autonomy.
The aim of this book is to make the case that the old arguments for a role for honor are still compelling, and that also today, without deep roots in our present-day vocabulary, honor can yet be of use because it is less demanding, and that the articulated opinions of others remain important for making us see, and then actually do, what is right. The underlying assumption is that honor, although it has lost much of its appeal, is still a common motivator. If there is some truth in this, it is all the more regrettable that most modern theorists have turned a blind eye on the topic.
To make that case the first part of the book describes the early, aristocratic argument for honor made by, among others, Cicero and Sallust, and the conversion of honor into a more modern, democratic form by later thinkers, from John Locke and Bernard Mandeville to Michael Walzer. Even in that more democratic form honor still comes with some serious drawbacks, mainly lying in it being something external (which potentially reduces morality to not being caught), and in its exclusiveness (limiting the number of people that matter to someone). To address the first shortcoming, honor should be internalized, at least to some extent; otherwise honor is, indeed, reduced to not being found out. As to that second weakness: to avoid that too much priority is given to the interests of those who are near and dear to us, it seems that we should define our honor group as broad as possible. Finding out if these two goals can be accomplished is the aim of the second part of the book, which focuses on three virtues related to honor: loyalty, integrity, and respect.
Congratulations on the book, Peter!
On behalf of honorethics.org, I’m pleased to welcome Craig Bruce Smith as a contributor.
Dr. Smith is an instructor at Brandeis University and an adjunct professor at Emmanuel College. He recently earned his PhD in American history from Brandeis University. He specializes in early American history with a focus on honor, virtue, and ethics.
He is currently submitting his book manuscript, “Rightly to Be Great: Honor, Virtue, and Ethics among America’s Founders,” for publication. This project examines changes in honor and virtue from the coming of the American Revolution through the early republic. It traces the development of honor and virtue in the lives of people such as Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and other individuals from the elite, middling and lower classes—featuring those who had previously been excluded, such as women and African Americans. This project illustrates that honor was regarded as an ethical ideal.
His next book project, “Redemption: The American Revolution, Ethics, and Abolitionism in Britain and the United States,” examines British and American abolitionism as a matter of national honor. For the British, anti-slavery policy was a means to prove themselves the Americans’ ethical betters on the world stage. In turn, this new British offensive made Americans react similarly by supporting abolitionism to maintain national honor and virtue.
Dr. Smith has also been published in the Massachusetts Historical Review, the Journal of Military History, the Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, the Encyclopedia of War, and the Westchester Historian. In addition, he has presented talks on honor for a variety of institutions, including the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and Washington and Lee University.
For more information: www.craigbrucesmith.com
Welcome, Craig! We look forward to your contributions.
Honorethics.org contributor Ajume Wingo had a great letter published in the Denver Post yesterday on Nelson Mandela. It discusses an important point almost totally ignored in the encomia we are hearing about the South African president: how unique and important it was that Mandela gave up power.
The true source of Mandela’s greatness is how he gave up that power. It was his exit — dignified and orderly — more than anything else that sets him apart. His exit from office at the height of his power, popularity and health put him in the company of Cincinnatus of ancient Rome and George Washington — exemplars of the rule of law and the ideals of leadership in a republic.
I know Ajume has been thinking and writing on the theme of rulership and liberalism for some time. In the developed West, we have grown accustomed to our leaders stepping down when their tenure is up, but of course there is little reason to make the same assumption in many parts of the world. Figuring out how to persuade leaders to give up power—especially when the populace will let them get away with keeping it—would be huge accomplishment for the cause of liberalism and rule of law.
Could leaders be persuaded by money? Maybe. However, as Wingo’s piece notes, African billionaire Mo Ibrahim has funded a foundation offering $5 million, and an annual stipend of $200,000, to African leaders who (among other things) “serve their constitutionally mandated term.” The prize seems to be an insufficient incentive. Maybe the prize cannot compare to the richer spoils of electing oneself president for life. However, we do have some historical precedent on the matter. As Ajume notes, Washington and Cincinnatus also refused sorts of kingship.
Beyond their non-pecuniary motives, I cannot say much about Cincinnatus’ or Mandela’s motives. But in the case of Washington, some historians argue that concern for honor was key. Douglass Adair, Lorrraine Smith Pangle and Thomas Pangle, Joanne Freeman, and Gordon Wood all speak to the concern Washington had for his honor and reputation. Continue reading