Book Review: Why Honor Matters

by ryan_b12 min read25th Jun 20189 comments

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Book ReviewsSocial & Cultural Dynamics
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People who live in honor cultures have a sense of purpose and meaning. They dwell in solidarity with their fellows, are courageous in the face of danger, set great store in hospitality, and put the welfare of the group above their own.

Mostly.

I expect when readers from this site think of honor, it brings to mind Culture of Honor: the Psychology of Violence in the South, the gist of which is that American Southerners kill each other over insults more often than the rest of the country because the biggest chunk of colonial immigrants there were cattle-herders from the border between Scotland and England. I also guess that through Scott Alexander's review of Albion's Seed, the usual view of these people (and how they think) is perhaps unflattering.

In Why Honor Matters, Tamler Sommers offers a defense of honor. It is only a defense, and not an apologia, so he makes no excuses for the evils associated with it (eternal feuds, subjugation of women, etc). He speaks for the general case of honor with a variety of examples, rather than any specific implementation of it. The writing is clear and untechnical.

I.

Why write the book?

Courage, integrity, solidarity, drama, hospitality, a sense of purpose and meaning - these are attractive values and characteristic, important for living a good and worthwhile life. But there was something else drawing me to honor too, something more fundamental and harder to describe. Though I subscribe to liberal values of toleration and respect for individual freedom, I've come to believe that the Western liberal approach to ethics is deeply misguided. The approach is too systematic, too idealized and abstract - incapable of reckoning with the messy complexity of the real world.

How does honor differ?

Idealized, systematic, abstract, and universalizable - honor has none of these attributes. Honor, unlike dignity, is not abstract; it's grounded in fact. Honor is real only when people recognize and acknowledge it. Honor codes are local, not universal, tailored to the particular needs of each community. Most important, honor codes are tailored to people as they are, not how we wish to them to be or how we imagine they would be if they were "rational." Honor is full of compromises; it deals in grays rather than black and white. It seeks better alternatives, not ideal alternatives. In short, honor is a thoroughly nonideal form of value, which allows it to operate with a more accurate understanding of human psychology.

Here's the bit that links into our more usual interests:

Throughout the book I'll try to convince you that these to aspects of honor - its attractive virtues and the unsystematic nature of its codes - are intimately connected. Honor frameworks recognize that it's not easy to be virtuous: to take risks and act with integrity and solidarity. We need motivation, what evolutionary biologists and behavioral economists have called "commitment devices," to overcome our natural impulse toward comfort and safety. Honor frameworks offer a rich tapestry of codes and incentives to counteract this impulse. They have rituals and traditions for bringing people together, for celebrating exceptional people and behavior, and for holding people accountable.

So, honor is an applied rather than theoretical ethical framework. It has a very long track record in a variety of environments. It can be instrumentally useful in solving problems.

II.

A clearer sense of what honor is all about will help us see whether it is worth preserving.

Honor is a group activity. There are two reasons for this: one, honor requires actions (usually interactions with another person or group); two, honor requires recognition from others. Sommers calls this the honor group, which is a collection of people who share norms and values. The boundaries can be explicit, like military units and sports teams, or loose like being a southerner or a stand-up comic.

An anthropologist named Frank Stewart identified two dimensions of honor: one is "horizontal", which means it comes with membership and entails privileges and obligations; the other is "vertical" which sorts status within the group according to a member's actions. Using sports as an example, everyone on a team roster gets a jersey (horizontal) but they do not get equal playing time (vertical) or all get to be team captain (vertical). Bad actions drop your vertical honor and failure to meet the obligations of membership can see horizontal honor stripped completely. In general, it is easier to lose it than to gain it.

Vertical honor may have multiple components as well. The Greeks recognized three: geras, time, and kleos. Geras was the physical rewards indicating contribution to the group - in the division of plunder after the battle, more plunder went to the warriors who fought most bravely. Time was the group's estimation of your worth - this determined how one person was treated relative to another, and consequently how they thought of themselves. Kleos is usually translated as "glory" - the poets will tell your story and so your deeds will live on after your death. These are all tangible incentives: increased wealth, preferential treatment, and a form of immortality.

An honor group has honor norms. A norm is a social rule that governs behavior in a society, some of which are universal (like parents providing for their children) and some of which are not. In particular, not all norms are honor norms, and honor norms vary between honor groups. There are some norms that are nearly universal to honor cultures, including:

Hospitality: The relationship between guest and host is very important, even to the present day. I can vouch for this personally; I experienced unfailing hospitality in both Iraq and Afghanistan despite being a member of a foreign military force. We received briefings reminding us not to express admiration for things in the home, on account of this causing the host to give us whatever we admired. A famous recent example referenced in the book is that of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, subject of the movie Lone Survivor, where where he is granted hospitality and asylum by the Sabray tribe, who defended him until he could be rescued.

Courage: Challenges cannot be backed down from; they must be met directly. Insults cannot go without a response; disrespect must be punished. This is one of the things that can get out of hand, since at the same time deliberately showing disrespect is a widespread method of probing for weakness; if someone is challenged and backs down, the challenger gains honor at the challengee's expense.

Revenge: It is the personal responsibility of members of honor cultures to settle wrongs against them. In general this extends to the honor group, so members of a family can all respond to wrongs against the family. However, appealing to a third party (like law enforcement) is widely considered shameful. Extant examples in America include the widely known maxim "snitches get stitches" and feuds in sports that don't involve the league office.

III.

The United States, Canada, Western Europe, etc. are dignity cultures. This has a lot of advantages, like human rights. The question is what the absence of honor at the national level costs us in exchange, and whether this is necessary.

Cowardice: We suffer from acute risk aversion. Sommers uses the example of bicycle helmets: the chief impact of rules about helmets is that people stop riding bikes. The impact in safety is very small. This obsession with safety permeates virtually every facet of our lives, and barely flirts with the notion of effectiveness.

Isolation: Honor entails a lot of social connections. Without a culture of honor, all those connections are absent, and as a consequence we are atomized and highly individualistic. Sommers points to two old sociological concepts:

The first - gemeinschaft - is sometimes translated as "community" but like many German words has no good translation. People who relate in this way regard themselves as part of the community whose value can't be reduced to its individual parts. They have common goals and values, and they don't make a clean distinction between what's good for them as individuals and what's good for the group as a whole. Examples of gemeinschaft include the family, army units, sports teams, and religious communities. Within these groups, there is plenty of competition among individuals. But they are working for a common purpose and share some basic standards for how to evaluate people's behavior and characters.
Tonnies contrasts gemeinschaft with another type of social relation that best characterizes the modern industrialized West, gesellschaft. Whereas in gemeinschaft people share a common identity in spite of their individual distinctions, in gesellschaft they remain distinct despite their connections as a community or nation. . . In the place of tradition and unconscious agreement on questions of value, gesellschaft employs contracts, laws, and a powerful state to enforce them. Within the constraints of these laws, people are then free to pursue their individual self-interest and develop their own understanding of right, wrong, and what makes a good life.

We observe costs when there is a switch: depression and suicide increase for tribal cultures who undergo rapid modernization, and in soldiers who leave the military.

Shamelessness: In American parlance, we have a lack of accountability. Sommers cites the famous case of 'affluenza' where a psychologist testified in court that a rich teenager could not be held responsible for killing people while driving drunk on account of the fact that he had never been held responsible for anything before. Naturally the country mocked the case into the ground, but Sommers asserts that the psychologist's assessment agrees with the consensus ethical position.

Even if we constrain ourselves to just the emotion, it doesn't seem to be one of much note:

Anthropologist Dan Fessler asked focus groups of eighty Indonesians from the Bengkulu Province to come up with the fifty-two most commonly discussed emotions and then rank them according to their frequency in society. He did the same for a focus group in Southern California. Shame was second for the Indonesians but forty-ninth(!) for the Californians - well behind "bored," "frustrated," "offended," and "disgusted." Shame, of course, has deep connections with honor. Indeed, many anthropologists refer to honor cultures as shame cultures or "honor/shame cultures."

The converse for dignity cultures is guilt - so dignity/guilt vs honor/shame.

IV.

Honor is tightly wound up with a sense of community, and a sense of honor is good for the community. American readers will remember the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013; the city was back to business as usual in only four days, uniting under the slogan Boston Strong. The Harvard Kennedy School and the Program on Crisis Leadership wrote a white paper titled "Why Was Boston Strong?" that concluded three characteristics were important: pride, resilience, and the unwillingness to be intimidated. These are honorable characteristics, and clearly the community benefits from not spending more time sheltering in place. A sense of community is also good for the individual: Sommers cites a study by James Hawdon of mass shooting survivors in Omaha and Finland, which found measures of community solidarity significantly correlated with well-being and less depression.

The link gets more clear as the environment gets more extreme. Sommers summarizes the contents of Culture of Honor by Nisbett and Cohen; I will compress the summary even more here:

  • White men in the American Southeast have a higher rate of violence in response to insults than other groups.
  • These areas were settled by Scots-Irish (or if you prefer, Borderers) who previously lived in herding communities on marginal lands.
  • Herding communities have all their wealth tied up in animals.
  • This leaves them very vulnerable to raiding, as all the wealth can be taken away.
  • They live in low population densities, which makes law enforcement hard.
  • Vulnerability to raids and lack of law enforcement means depending on oneself for protection.
  • Depending on oneself means maintaining a good reputation for violence.
  • An aggressive reputation means responding violently to insults.
  • Therefore white men in the American Southeast are prone to violence over insults as a legacy of their pre-colonial culture.

Sommers goes on to say that farming communities are less profitable to raid and therefore can afford a much more individualistic orientation. It is interesting to me that Sommers is making some of the same comparisons between herders and farmers as other people make between farmers and foragers, though clearly herders and farmers are both part of the 'farmer' group in the latter comparison.

Group identity is an important feature of honor cultures. Collective identity fosters collective responsibility, which is an incentive to do things which benefit the group. It is also yields harmony and cohesion in the face of external threats; Sommers points to some anthropologists who think this is the evolutionary function of feuds. There is more in this section, but I'm going to jettison it in favor of this other interesting bit about duels:

Or how about duels? Haven't we done well to move beyond that practice? Isn't it obvious that duels over honor were a divisive (not to mention bloody) force within society and not a unifying one?
Actually, no. Historical and sociological research suggests that duels have a bit of a bad rap. The practice in fact offered many social benefits. In particular, duels served to maintain the egalitarian codes of an honor group. Indeed, early opponents of the duel, such as Francis Bacon and Cardinal Richelieu, opposed it on precisely these grounds. Bacon wanted to expand the power of the monarchy and further distinguish ranks among gentlemen. The equalizing function of duels was an obstacle to the kind of hierarchy that he wanted to create. Duels were also much safer that commonly supposed. Dueling rituals were designed to testify to the honor of the combatants while at the same time minimizing the risk of death or injury. The combatants would use "inaccurate and weak smoothbore pistols" or swords that were "modified to prevent deep penetrating injuries." Many challenges were resolved without fighting of any sort, as "the mere willingness of both parties to show for the fight was often satisfactory." The point of the duel was more "to demonstrate one's status-group membership than to establish dominance over one's opponent. Thus it was less important to win than to display courage."

Most of the quotes seem to have been drawn from Randall Collins' book Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory. The point about duels and egalitarianism is hit on repeatedly; this lingers on in the military and on school playgrounds at least as recently as the 1990's, albeit much less formally.

V.

Feuds and duels make an excellent segue to violence. Sommers makes two arguments about violence: first, that losing it completely has a bunch of morally-murky costs; second that violent acts have a much more nuanced morality than the standard answer of causing suffering and therefore wrong. The costs of non-violence mostly consist of key phrases like zero-tolerance, school-to-prison pipeline, prison population, and leviathan. This is familiar and uninteresting.

Much more interesting is the nuanced morality angle. He cites the book Virtuous Violence by Alan Fiske and Tage Rai, the thesis of which is that violence is usually morally motivated:

Their thesis is purely descriptive: people who act violently are usually driven by moral motives rather than selfish ones. According to Fiske and Rai, morality is about regulating relationships, and human beings employ four basic frameworks for regulating their relationships. The first involves acting within a community. The second involves acting within a hierarchy. The third involves issues of fairness and equality. And the fourth involves proportionality and market exchange.

Consider the question of oppression: what should oppressed people do? Honor has played a key role in motivating people to fight their own oppression. Examples are given of Frederick Douglass:

Douglass regarded his act of violent resistance as a watershed moment: "It rekindled in my breast the smoldering embers of liberty... and revived a sense of my own manhood."

W. E. B. DuBois:

At the outset of the twentieth century, W.E.B. DuBois called on black Americans to "sacrifice money, reputation, and life itself on the alter of right...to reconsecrate ourselves, our honor, and our property to the final emancipation of the race for whose freedom John Brown died."

and Zionism:

They saw themselves as victims and martyrs, suffering for the glory of God. The founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, on the other hand, denounced this attitude. He declared it passive, submissive, cowardly, and feminine. He reformed Jewish oppression as a national humiliation, a disgrace to Jewish honor... Once Herzl embraced this logic, one of his first actions was to challenge a leading anti-Semite to a public duel.

A less laudable, more routine question is the morality of bar fights. In Lafayette, Louisiana, there's some agreement about violence. They have all the usual notions of violence being a masculine obligation, that friends and family have to know your worth, etc. And yet:

But the code of these Lafayette southerners doesn't encourage domination, just active resistance to the domination of others. They distinguished themselves from "agro dudes that have something to prove and go our looking for trouble." In fact, they didn't even consider themselves to be violent. They were peaceful warriors, not "thugs" and "violent people."

Of particular note is the aftermath, which is usually what we are concerned with when we want to prevent or stop violence:

Copes et al. write: "Fighting also was perceived as cathartic. Adversaries can release the stress of tense situations with a flurry of punches. After the violence, emotions settle. Even on the losing side of the fight, these men accepted that they could resolve conflicts with violence and that it could prevent lasting conflict. Indeed, most believed that dangerous animosity was unlikely to last beyond the incident. In their circles, fights happen, and in most cases, people get over them."

This final point is not actually examined in the book, which is a shame.*

So violence is usually morally motivated, and further honor provides a specific moral context for violence. In this context, violence can be both actively virtuous and minimally harmful.

VI.

The aftermath brings us to the final part of the book I will cover: revenge. Revenge is contrasted with the retributivist school of judicial punishment. Retribution, in the context of justice, is the idea that criminals ought to suffer, and that it is worth spending resources to accomplish it. However, like the rest of justice this idea is designed to exclude victims - retribution should be impersonally meted out by the state. Revenge on the other hand is a direct assertion of the personal nature of the wrong; what the state does or doesn't do is its own business.

Sommers draws several examples from fiction, but I will dwell on the real-life, recent, American example of Laura Blumenfeld.

In 1986 David Blumenfeld, Laura's father, was travelling in Israel when he was shot in the leg by a group of PLO. The member of the group who shot him was named Omar Khatib, who was subsequently arrested and imprisoned in Israel. So how does an American woman get revenge on a man imprisoned in another country?

Patiently. Laura Blumenfeld was a reporter for the Washington Post. She conceals her identity as the daughter of one of the victims of the shooting, and corresponds with Omar in prison on the pretext of writing a book. She also meets with Omar's family. When asked why tourists were shot, both Omar and his family said it was for the cause of Palestinian Liberation. When asked whether they were afraid the family would seek revenge:

"No," he replies. "There's no revenge. My brother never met the man personally. It's not a personal issue. Nothing personal, so no revenge."

Laura gets close to the Khatib family and to Omar via correspondence. She also goes to Iran and interviews the grand ayatollah on the subject of retaliation and blood money. He asserts that Jews cannot get blood money or revenge from Palestinians, because Palestinians are at war with them; however her father was a tourist, and tourists can get blood money and revenge as long as they are not trying to occupy Palestine.

Eventually Omar has an appeals trial over a routine matter of his health. Blumenfeld is at that trial, and demands to speak; after being denied, she reveals she is the victim's daughter. By this time, she had kept the secret from Omar and his family for over a year. During their correspondence, Omar had promised not to hurt anyone again, and so:

"I held onto his eyes, angry, firm, hoping that he felt ashamed: 'This is on your honor,' she says. 'Between the Khatib family and the Blumenfeld family.'"

The families embrace after the trial, and Omar goes back to prison for a reduced sentence (for health reasons, not honorable ones). From a sense of honor she took risks, made sacrifices, demonstrated love and loyalty for her family, and took personal responsibility for the wrong against her father. Such was the revenge of Laura Blumenfeld.

Conclusion

This is the kind of book that I am glad exists, but did not find to be well written. I am extremely pleased that honor is a subject philosophers are willing to approach now (even if only three of them). The arguments are a little disorganized - he frequently bleeds into stuff he covers in other sections of the book, but not in a way that I found useful or illuminating. The book seemed to be burdened by not quite knowing who the audience was. On one hand, the writing was clear and untechnical and he used a lot of sports examples (he also just seems to like sports), suggesting he was writing for regular people. On the other hand, he pretty frequently got defensive about not endorsing honor killings and vigilante justice, even in chapters which were not relevant to either. This causes me to feel like he expected a political reaction from his peers in academia (perhaps reasonably). That being said, the book would be worth it just for the bibliography; it seems to contain just about everything on the subject written in English.

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