Frequency of “honour” and other moral terms in Shakespeare


I once met a philosopher who remarked that the world of honor seemed foreign to him. Since he was English, I was momentarily taken aback, but my eventual reply focused on the importance of honor in Shakespeare’s plays. My answer was qualitative, in that I highlighted a couple of plot lines. But a quantitative measure would have added a sort of undeniability. So since that exchange I resolved do a word-search of “honour” in Shakespeare’s corpus. I played around a little with that today, and thought I’d share what I found.

"Tattooed Shakespeare" by Mathew McFarren

“Tattooed Shakespeare” by Mathew McFarren

According to, “honour” and its inflections (“honourable,” “dishonour,” etc.) appear 888 times in Shakespeare’s writings. Inflections of “contempt” show up 54 times, “contemn” 12 times; forms of “shame” appear 390 times, and “sham’d” nine times.

How does that stack up with other moral terms?

Let’s start with “just,” which includes the inflections “justice,” “unjust,” “justly,” etc.: 392 occurrences. Keep in mind this includes numerous (I’m too lazy to count) uses of the homonym “just” as in “My mother told me just how he would woo.” The word “anger,” which we’ll generously categorize as a response to injustice alone, appears 58 times (I had to look for it exactly, to avoid “danger” and such from being listed). “Angry” appears 102 times, “anger’d” eight times. “Guilt” and its inflections show up 139 times.

Thus, it seems like honor-based terms are at least twice as common in Shakespeare’s corpus as justice-based ones. This ignores virtue terms such as “coward” (147 inflected uses), “glory” (93 instances), and “dignity” (44), which, in context, usually concern honor.

The word “fair” wasn’t a moral term in Shakespeare’s day. Almost all its uses mean the same as “lovely” or “beautiful.” Some form of “kind” appears 513 times, but many of those occurrences are the non-moral “kind” synonymous with “type.” I would estimate about 450 of instances of “kind” refer to kindness and unkindness, etc., and I’d guess that kindness was the second-most frequently invoked moral quality.

What about terms concerning authority or loyalty? Very surprisingly to me, “loyalty,” “disloyal,” etc. showed up only 75 times. “Obedien-” and its inflections only 89 times. “Faithful,” 50 times. A careful analysis would have to pick through all the uses of “faith” to separate out the moral uses meaning trust, which I can’t do right now.

How about “sin” in general? I count 157 uses of “sin,” two uses of “sinned,” four of “sinn’d,” eight of “sinner,” four “sinners,” and one of “sinning” (“I am a man/More sinn’d against than sinning”). I suppose there are more inflections of “sin,” but it’s fair to say that even all sin combined isn’t as topical as honor is in Shakespeare.

Again, I realize this is obviously the crudest possible way to approach the question of honor in Shakespeare (a more scholarly treatment is Norman Council’s When Honour’s at the Stake (1973/2014)). But sometimes numbers speak louder than words.

Pinker on honor


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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 Thomas Hobbes--Turning Point for Honorelevation 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…

medieval torture

…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.

Check out this “honorshame” spin on Christianity



I just discovered an organization called Honorshame: Resources for Majority World Ministry and had to share. Essentially, they are about framing Christianity in honor terms to make the religion more palatable to “shame” cultures. Here’s a video they produced:

They have a culture test (to determine your cultural type, according to their guilt-culture, shame-cultures, fear-culture model) and a theology guide that summarizes their approach.

Although I’m still perusing, it seems like they understand honor-shame cultures in a very Middle-Eastern/Asian way, and they contrast it with the African sort of tribal culture they see as “fear” based (even though those tribespeople would insist they are very concerned with honor themselves). Essentially, it seems to me, they are understanding authority and purity as honorable, not agonism and agonistic success (which is aristocratic or “tribal” apparently in their taxonomy).

Nonetheless, this is pretty advanced stuff, not too far behind the best research on cultural/moral psychology of honor, shame, etc., and clearly born of firsthand experience in these cultures. Thoughts?

Honor & Loss

Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North tells the tale of Australian prisoners of war building the Burma railway under such brutal conditions in WWII. At one point in the story, one of the most resilient and charismatic prisoners suffers a horrendous beating from the Japanese guards, and his fellow prisoners are forced to stand at attention and witness it the relentless cruelty. That night, the badly injured Darky Gardiner slips into the primitive camp latrine and drowns. After the war, some of his comrades are out for a night of drinking in Hobart, Tasmania, and they come upon Nikitaris’ fish shop. They remember how Darky used to carry on about how much he loved to take his girlfriend to Nikitaris’ for a night out, and how someday he wished to return and free the fish from the tank in the window. Remembering their friend, they break the window, scoop out the fish into slop buckets, and free them in the harbor. The next evening, remorseful for the damages they caused, they visit the fish shop to pay for the repairs, and then something unexpected happens. When they go to explain their actions to Mr. Nikitaris, the old man senses something and brings them up short.

“He was your cobber?”

Not only does Mr. Nikitaris refuse their money, but he feeds them and gives them wine, and soon enough, they realize that the old man lost a son in the war in New Guinea in 1943. And then they are a just a group of men sharing their losses without speaking directly about them, sharing their company long into the night.

“It was hard to explain how good that fried fish and chips and cheap red wine felt inside them. It tasted right. The old Greek made his own coffee for them—little cups, thick, black, and sweet—and he gave them walnut pastries his daughter had made. Everything was strange and welcoming at the same time. The simple chairs felt easy, and the place, too, felt right, and the people felt good, and, for as long as that night lasted, thought Jimmy Bigelow, there was nowhere else in the world he wished to be.”

The scene is an exquisite example of a profound sense of honor—brothers-in-arms honoring the memory of a fallen comrade, an old man honoring their loss, a group of wounded men honoring his loss in kind, and all of them finding some solace together in the deep meaning of what they have suffered and lost.

Defense with Dignity—is violent resistance more dignified and if so, what follows for gun rights?


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In 2013, the Department of Public Safety at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS) caused a stir when it suggested female students vomit or urinate on themselves if attacked.

UCCS rape advice

Unfortunately for UCCS, on-campus conceal-and-carry bills were being debated in Colorado at the time, so its post catalyzed a great deal of interest, including that of conservative pundit Michelle Malkin, who criticized these tactics as ineffective, infantilizing, and condescending.

Michelle Malkin   » The Anti Choice Left s Disarming of the American Woman

Given that feminist and left-leaning sources were also unenthusiastic about these unsavory pointers, UCCS promptly cut its losses removed the page.

In its defense, UCCS’s recommendations were not idiosyncratic. For instance, See Sally Kick Ass: A Woman’s Guide to Personal Safety suggests that attacked women, among other things, rub their vomit or feces all over their bodies, as does Fight Back!: Safety and Self-Defense Tips, which adds “barking like a dog.”

See Sally Kick Ass  A Woman s Guide to Personal Safety   Fred Vogt   Google Books Fight Back  Safety   Self Defense Tips   Gina Marie Rivera   Google Books

And this got me thinking: What if these books were titled Bark Like a Dog! or worse, See Sally Rub Vomit on Herself? What would such titles communicate? Why did the authors emphasize violent resistance in their titles, but not so much in their actual advice?

This post isn’t about campus rape. It is, rather, a criticism of an assumption we tend to make in our discussions of resistance generally, namely, that advocates of violent resistance must show that it’s more effective than non-violent forms of resistance. For reasons of dignity, I don’t think that’s true.

Application: gun control

I will use gun control to approach this widespread assumption, although we might have used state-on-state aggression just as easily. There are four main reasons given to permit citizens to have guns: Continue reading

Honorable Gestures


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This month marks the 150 anniversary of the end of the American Civil War. After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9th, 1865, Ulysses S. Grant charged Joshua Chamberlain, the former Bowdoin College professor and hero of Gettysburg, with the duty of conducting the formal arrangements of the surrender ceremony. Chamberlain thought long and hard about the formalities. He knew that three brigades would line the sides of a long road and that the Army of Northern Virginia would pass until they came to an open field to stack their arms and relinquish their battle flags. Chamberlain guessed that more than 25,000 men would pass and that the ceremony would take the better part of the entire day. Once it was over, the rebels would have their parole papers guaranteeing them safe passage home in exchange for their pledge to bind themselves in peace to the Union. Chamberlain badly wanted to do justice to the solemn occasion.

At six o’clock on the morning of April 12th, 1865, the line of gray started in silence past the Federal troops with General John Gordon leading the march astride a white horse. He had taken a disfiguring wound below the left eye at Sharpsburg and he must have cut a forlorn figure at the head of the procession. His men marched behind him, defiant even in their famished weariness and defeat. Keeping their eyes to the front, they refused to return the stares of Federal soldiers who craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the men that had tried so hard for so long to kill them.

As Gordon came even with him, Chamberlain gave the order for a call to carry arms, the marching salute. Catching the sound of shifting arms in the ranks of blue, Gordon recognized the gesture as a show of respect from one army to another. In reply, Gordon put a spur to his horse, wheeling him about toward Chamberlain, rearing slightly as he did so. In one graceful motion, Gordon drew his sword and brought it to the tip of his boot as man and horse bowed their heads to acknowledge the tribute. As Gordon moved off to the side, he sent word along the line of gray to answer honor with honor.

Think for a moment about the terms of this poignant scene. These were men who had lost a great deal, both the “winners” and the “losers.” They had suffered horribly at each others hands in a war where the technology of killing vastly outstripped the antiquated military tactics. War had a new face, and these men had seen it. In that moment, Joshua Chamberlain rose to Lincoln’s call to find the “better angels of our nature” by honoring the shared losses and sufferings of that terrible struggle. Gestures can be little things, but I suspect that on that day and at that moment, Joshua Chamberlain’s gesture meant a great deal to a great many.

Assuming Virtue in a Society that Assumes Vice: the case of honor system markets

Every autumn, a neighbor up the street sets out a couple hundred pumpkins, along with a metal cash box and placard reading, “Honor System: $5 for small pumpkins, $6 for large ones.” Inspired to learn more about whether selling things on the “honor system” really works, I came across an interesting little book called Honor System Marketing: Discovering Honesty, Trust, and Profit Amongst the Goodness of People, by Jeff McPherson. McPherson is an agriculture consultant and farmer who has been “honor system marketing”—that is, selling produce at unsupervised stands on the “honor system”—for decades. After travelling and meeting other honor marketers from across the US, he wrote this book about the advantages, pitfalls, and philosophy of honor marketing.

honor system marketing

Apparently, honor system marketing (HSM) can have some financial benefits. Eliminating cashiers means eliminating a significant cost of running a market. And since markets operating on the honor system don’t need to be staffed, they can be left open around the clock, even on holidays. But there are other non-remunerative advantages, too, McPherson tells us.

One is that HSM forces us to be more trusting of others. According to McPherson, one of the biggest challenges of being an honor system marketer is resting easy at night, knowing that your market is exposed to theft. McPherson is certainly a practical man: he has no patience with thieves, and he takes proactive measures if he detects (or is tipped off about) shoplifting. He also urges would-be honor system marketers to keep in mind that theft occurs at staffed markets also, and that the savings on employee salary often is greater than the losses from any increased theft. But setting all that aside, McPherson estimates that only about 2% of his customers have ever stolen anything. Since in most HSM scenarios theft is surprisingly low, HSM tends to make us more trusting of our neighbors and complete strangers alike.

Much the same occurs on the other side of the transaction. Surprised customers tell McPherson that they enjoy feeling trusted enough to shop without supervision. However, McPherson does lose a certain percentage of customers to “paranoia”:

Even though they are totally honest, they are still a bit insecure about shopping where there is no attendant. They will avoid contact with situations that associate them with dishonesty.

And here we arrive at an important lesson about honor system marketing: that it assumes virtue in a society that assumes vice. Apparently, our society assumes vice to such a degree that some of us feel uncomfortable being trusted even when we are trustworthy. Why would that happen? Continue reading

Welcome Steven Skultety

It’s my pleasure to welcome Steven Skultety as an contributor.

Steven Skultety is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Mississippi, where he also serves as Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion. He specializes in ancient philosophy, and his interest in honor primarily stems from his desire to understand the role that honor plays in the works of Plato and Aristotle.  However, he is also interested in how honor continues to inform contemporary ethical and political thought.

Steven’s ongoing work in politics, competition, and sport add a great deal to the emerging picture on honor. Welcome, Steven!


Welcome Tony Cunningham

On behalf of, I am pleased to welcome Tony Cunningham as a contributor. Although Tony is just an hour or so away from me, I had the pleasure of meeting him for the first time at last week’s Perspectives on Modern Honor conference at Kansas State, at which Tony graciously never complained about our shameless appropriation of his “Modern Honor” title for our volume.

Tony is Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.  He is the author of Modern Honor: A Philosophical Defense(Routledge, 2013). He comes to his philosophical interest in honor via his deep interests in literature and moral psychology.  His earlier work on literature and the emotions, The Heart of What Matters: The Role for Literature in Moral Philosophy (Berkeley, 2001), led him back to classic texts like Homer’s Iliad and Euripides’ Hecuba to think carefully about complex topics like anger, shame, and humiliation.  This work led him to other rich resources for honor like the Icelandic sagas, the American South, samurai Japan, and contemporary American gangs.  As he argues, most of modern moral philosophy abandoned the notion of honor, and philosophers erred badly by so doing because a sense of honor is at the center of our ethical experiences for creatures like us.

A description of Modern Honor:

This book examines the notion of honor with an eye to dissecting its intellectual modern honordemise and with the aim of making a case for honor’s rehabilitation. Western intellectuals acknowledge honor’s influence, but they lament its authority. For Western democratic societies to embrace honor, it must be compatible with social ideals like liberty, equality, and fraternity. Cunningham details a conception of honor that can do justice to these ideals. This vision revolves around three elements—character (being), relationships (relating), and activities and accomplishment (doing). Taken together, these elements articulate a shared aspiration for excellence. We can turn the tables on traditional ills of honor—serious problems of gender, race, and class—by forging a vision of honor that rejects lives predicated on power and oppression.

Tony is particularly interested in making philosophy relevant for everyday people embroiled in the business of living. As he sees it, the real business of philosophy is to become people on whom nothing is lost. He has essays reflecting these aims on anger, consolation, and modesty.

Welcome, Tony! We look forward to your contributions.

Welcome Joe Thomas


It is my pleasure to welcome Joe Thomas as an contributor.

Dr. Joe Thomas is a retired Marine and past Director of the John A. Lejeune Leadership Institute at Marine Corps University. In that capacity he was the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Executive Agent for Character Development and responsible for educating the force on all matters pertaining to honor. He currently serves as the Class of 1961 Chair and Professor of Leadership Education at the US Naval Academy. His books include ‘Leadership Explored’, ‘Leadership Embodied’,’ Leadership Education for Marines’, and ‘Leadership, Ethics, and Law of War Case Studies for Marines,’ which provides case studies illustrating the dilemmas faced by soldiers and Marines in modern warfare. thomas leadership ethics laws of war

Dr. Thomas plays an influential role in shaping how contemporary US service members conceive of honor, and we are very fortunate to have him in our ranks. We look forward to your contributions, Joe!