This post examines the virtue of honor. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.
What is honor?
“The one who is conscious of his soul’s nobility will not endure a dishonorable life.” ―Sophocles
There are several different ways in which I see the concept of honor deployed, including:
- Honor as a package of other virtues. An honorable knight, for example, is one who practices all of the various virtues in the code of chivalry. A person might dishonor themself, or their family, or their profession, by flagrantly violating any one of a set of virtues. In some contexts, “honor” is more of a euphemism for one particular virtue: a young woman in an old novel who “defends her honor” is really defending her chastity; when you address a judge as “your honor” you’re hoping to get the message through to the virtue of justice in particular. In other contexts, honor is an explicit role-based code-of-conduct such as Omertà or the Hippocratic Oath.
- Honor as reliability in the practice of virtues. When a boy scout says, “and that’s the truth: scout’s honor” he is asserting that he takes his pledge of honesty more seriously than the typical person, because of an additional honor code he feels bound by. Sometimes this facet goes by the name “rectitude”.
- Honor as extraordinary investment in one’s character. An honorable person may be defined as someone who strongly values his or her character, such that they will go to great lengths to avoid doing anything vicious or shameful (even if nobody else will ever know). Sometimes this facet is called “pride” (or in an inverted way, “a sense of shame”), “character,” or “dignity.”
- Honor as public standing or reputation. There is also a sense of honor which means something like “unusually sensitive to one’s social status, and prone to take exceptional offense to being insulted” — from which you get things like “honor culture,” “honor killings,” and the like. In this case, your character and dignity are your own, but your honor is determined by those around you, and you may be periodically called upon to prove it or to defend it against insults.
Something common to most of these is that honorable people tend to hold themselves to unusually high standards. Someone with a strong sense of honor is not satisfied with being “more or less as decent as the next guy” but instead judges him or herself in a more inflexible and exacting way.
“The man of honor thinks of his character, the inferior man of his position. The man of honor desires justice, the inferior man favor.” ―Confucius
This sometimes leads to an association between honor (and especially its more aristocratic cousin “nobility”) and arrogance or vanity. In this way, honor may be in tension with the virtues of humility or modesty. If a sense of honor is used as the excuse for conforming to some arbitrary fashion (“why, that simply isn’t done where I come from,” “I would not be seen in such a place”) honor can seem a fancy name for mere snobbery.
But if honor is genuine and wise, it can make for a firm foundation for the other virtues. If you hold your character at a high price, it will be that much harder for temptation to buy you off. If your sense of honor is what motivates you, you will conduct yourself honorably even when nobody is watching.
Honor can be a variety of self-esteem, or can be a way of earning one’s self-esteem (“I would think less of myself were I to behave dishonorably”). You might think of it as a standard that you hold up for yourself, and try to sculpt yourself into, in order to make yourself as admirable as you can be.
“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self respect springs.” ―Joan Didion
Dishonor usually connotes a failure of character rather than one of skill or luck. You can lose or fail honorably if you fought the good fight.
Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, in his book The Honor Code, examined the sorts of moral revolutions that take place when widespread practices (like slavery, foot-binding, or dueling) come to be seen as reprehensible and fall out of favor. He claimed that evolving definitions of honor are what lie behind such changes, and explored how such evolution takes place.
In Tamler Sommers’s book Why Honor Matters he takes a sympathetic look at honor-based cultures. I’ll try to summarize his argument:
The way Sommers sees it, honor fills a gap in modern Western ethical philosophy. The “WEIRD” minority of humanity (“western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic”) have adopted an abstract, impartial, unemotional ideal of ethical evaluation and of the administration of justice that is foreign to most of humanity and doesn’t really harmonize well with human experience. (Sommers gives these the sobriquet of “dignity”-based in contrast to “honor”-based systems.)
One advantage to honor-based systems is that they have a built-in motivator for people to behave virtuously. Instead of offering people an abstract ethical system and reasons they should live up to it, honor-based systems offer people status and prestige: “They have rituals and traditions for bringing people together, for celebrating exceptional people and behavior, and for holding people accountable.”
There are a couple of varieties of honor: horizontal honor, which you gain (and must uphold) simply by being a member of a particular honor-based culture; and vertical honor, which you earn (or lose) by your deeds. This is also in contrast to dignity-based cultures in which everyone is supposed to have an equal worth without distinction.
In a dignity model, people discover themselves by factoring out all of their social roles to find the essential person underneath. In the honor model, people use their role and how they uphold their responsibility to it as core parts of their identity.
Dignity is your “human right,” allegedly, while honor is more fragile. You may have to regularly defend your honor against threats and insults. But this may make honor more worthwhile. Sommers compares dignity to a “participation trophy” and honor to the real thing.
One symptom of the decline of honor culture is a heightened concern for personal safety and more risk aversion. We value our lives more than our honor, and so become increasingly cowardly. Sommers ridicules our insistence on wearing bicycle helmets, for example, along with the usual helicopter parents and such.
Another symptom is isolation, hyperindividualism, lack of community, and our descent into a sort of Ayn Randian, contractarian abyss in which all of our intercourse is temporary and contingent on mutual gain, with no cooperation in the service of something bigger than ourselves.
In contrast, the better social cohesion of honor societies leads to better mental health (people need belonging) and lower crime rates (potential lawbreakers are deterred by social norms, or by fear of shaming themselves or their families).
There is also greater personal accountability (in honor cultures, people take responsibility for their actions whether or not they accept blame for them). Dignity-based cultures like ours, by contrast, are increasingly shameless. We have an attenuated sense of blameworthiness and so a large-scale refusal to take responsibility.
In the modern liberal justice system (“dignity”-based), the people who are most involved in resolving a dispute (lawyers, judges, and the like) are those with little personal involvement in it. Those with the most skin in the game (defendants, witnesses, victims) are given minor supporting roles at best. Because of this, people who go through this process tend not to feel like things have really been resolved satisfactorily. The law has been followed (more-or-less), but there’s little sense that justice has been done or that the conflict has been resolved.
The system even denies victimhood to the victim of a violent crime, saying that the case is between the offender and “the People” or “the State.” The victim’s desires, whether they be for revenge or for forgiveness, don’t count. Emotion, the feeling of being wronged, being victimized, being treated unjustly, is deliberately excluded from the deliberations. This is although emotions like these are key to why we consider something to be a criminal offense in the first place. In their place, the system has erected a sort of post-hoc scaffolding of rational-sounding, measured, consistent rules, but this both masks the ultimately irrational foundations for the rules and prevents them from operating in a way that brings catharsis to these emotions.
Honor societies, on the other hand, make no pretense of creating an objective system that treats all crimes the same and focuses on the blameworthiness of the offender without getting distracted by the feelings of the victim. Instead, their processes are victim-centered, emotionally validating, and seek a cathartic resolution that restores balance in the society. They more authentically reflect human psychology about justice.
Sommers also looks at some of the downsides of honor-based cultures (vendettas and feuds, honor being used to enforce or resist the reforming of reprehensible practices, higher levels of aggression and violence — though he notes that “dignity”-based cultures can have more official violence and repression that makes them only superficially less-violent). He suggests some ways to mitigate these problems, such as the cultivation of trusted mediators to dampen the escalation of violence in honor-prompted feedback loops.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle introduces us to the megalopsyche, or great-soul — a sort of pinnacle of pride and self-regard, and a connoisseur of honor.
His portrayal of the great-souled man is slightly comical, even somewhat mocking. He skips opportunities to describe the great-souled man’s most attractive qualities, and lingers over his haughty unconcern and disdain and his presumption and self-regard and the way he works to dominate others and put them in his debt. I think Aristotle may be rubbing our noses in the fact that to him virtue is meant for the benefit of the virtuous person, not for the rest of us. We should not expect a great-souled person to be the sort of person we’d want as a best buddy, but as someone who is far above us and, probably, as a result fairly contemptuous of our affairs.
Among the traits of a great-souled man:
- He deserves and claims great things, but above all, honor.
- He is good in the highest degree, great in every virtue. You never see him behaving in a cowardly manner or wronging another person, because, loving honor above all, he has no motive to do such things.
- He will be moderately pleased at receiving great honors from good people, but just thinking these his due, in fact less than his due, but as the best honors perhaps that are available under the circumstances, he will make allowance. Casual honors from middling people, he will despise.
- He is indifferent to what fate brings him — “neither over-joyed by good fortune nor over-pained by evil” and cares not for power and wealth, except as a means to honor. Even honor, which he loves above all, he doesn’t make a big deal over.
- It doesn’t hurt if he’s rich, powerful, and well-born, though none of these things are sufficient.
- He doesn’t court danger, particularly since there’s not much he finds worth courting danger for. But when he encounters danger, he faces it “unsparing of his life, knowing that there are conditions on which life is not worth having.”
- He asks for nothing, but gives readily. He gives benefits and gifts, but hates to receive them, and hates to be in another’s debt, but will overpay a debt so as to turn the tables.
- Similarly, he remembers (and prefers to be reminded of) the services he has done for others, but not those he has received (for those things are reminders of having been in an inferior position, and the proud man prefers to be superior).
- He does not stoop but projects his dignity before people of high position and riches, but he behaves in an unassuming way towards ordinary folk, as it’s a vulgar thing to lord it over people below one’s station.
- He doesn’t exert himself for the sorts of honors most people strive for, but only for the best of the best. He’s a man of few deeds, but those few are fantastic.
- He’s a straight-talker. He respects truth more than people’s opinions of him, so he doesn’t hesitate to share his contempt and doesn’t waste time trying to be diplomatic. (This, amusingly, “except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar.”)
- He will not put himself in service to any so-called superior, but may choose to serve a friend.
- He doesn’t much go in for admiring things, since to a great person like him, nothing else is particularly outstanding.
- He doesn’t tend to bear grudges or remember wrongs against him.
- He doesn’t gossip or praise or bad-talk others, mostly because he doesn’t much care about the things that typically motivate people to do these things.
- He prefers to possess beautiful things of no particular use more than useful, profitable things.
- He moves slowly and deliberately, not in a rush, and speaks in a deep, level voice.
- He is, most assuredly, not he-or-she, though Aristotle doesn’t think he needs to point this out. The great-souled man is a great-souled man.
It’s almost like a James Bond-style action movie hero. And it reads more like a laundry list of what the great-souled man would be like than a description of what he is like. A fictional character, an avatar, The Übermensch.
Analects of Confucius, Ⅳ.ⅺ
Joan Didion, “Self-Respect: its source, its power” (1961) Vogue
Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Honor Code (2011)
Tamler Sommers, Why Honor Matters (2018)
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book Ⅳ, section 3
I'm always happy to see references to the Chinese classics as well as traditional values such as honor! In this post you quote the Analects of Confucious Ⅳ.Ⅺ.
I appreciate that you included the precise verse. That made it trivial for me to find the original quotation.
Here is a translation from the original classical Chinese into modern Chinese.
The original quote supports your thesis even better than the English translation!
Let's look at the first part "士志于道". In English, it means "the scholar aspires to the Dao". ("Man of honor" is a reasonable translation of the word "scholar".) In Sunzi's The Art of War, the Dao is the highest ideal, followed by heaven, followed by earth, followed by character and finally art. The scholar isn't just concerned about character over face. The scholar is concerned with something three tiers of importance higher than character. The original Chinese supports your statement about "unusually high standards" better than the English translation you reference.
Here is my translation. I have attempted to preserve the quote's original literal meaning without adding my own spin. I rearranged the quote for clarity. The original arrangement is clever—which makes it hard to translate.
As always, nice post. This one feels different, with mostly two main takes on honor; I like the change of structure.
I admit I felt myself react strongly to Sommers' defense of honor-based societies, but I'll have to take some time sorting it out before writing anything relevant.
To me honor/conscience is an evolutionary adaptation to cooperate in iterated prisoner's dilemmas, plus whatever side effects/lost purposes that ended up piling up on top of that. Just like love is an outgrowth of evolutionary adaptation that improved the odds of genetic material propagation through strategies like (serial) monogamy. Of course, we wax poetic about both, forgetting that they are but a fluke of evolution.
We wax poetic about both because we like doing it. I don't think that is affected by whether it's a fluke of evolution