“Why Honor Matters”

Tamler Sommers, a professor of philosophy who specializes in ethical philosophy and the conundrum of free will, has written a book defending “honor” as a way for cultures to regulate justice and other ethical matters.

The book is strangely de­fen­sive about its thesis, and seems to go out of its way to depict honor and “honor cul­tures” in un­flat­ter­ing ways (Mafia made men, pug­na­cious Boston sports fans, hockey en­for­cers, and inner-city gangs are among the ex­em­plars Sommers choos­es). So you have to work to learn to love honor the way Sommers loves it.

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.

This reminded me of Alasdair MacIntyre’s descriptions of “heroic” societies in After Virtue. As I summarized when I reviewed that book:

In these societies, everyone had a role and a purpose just by virtue of being born into a particular station in a particular society with relations to particular people. Nobody is defined by their “hidden depths” or their inner lives, but by their actions relative to their roles; a person is what a person does. Morality and social structure are the same thing; there isn’t even a concept of morality as distinct from, independent of, or superior to the particular social structure. You can’t “step outside” your society and judge its moral system in comparison to some other system.… Virtue is what enables you to fulfill the role you have… the hero does not assert his arbitrary will, but accepts his role as being a real thing worthy of respect; the self is not self-created but is an incarnation or enacting of a socially-defined role.

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 instance, 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.

I found myself wondering about a different sort of honor that didn’t seem to match what Sommers was talking about. The honor Sommers describes is very much the product of honor cultures — it is defined by and enforced by these cultures, and the motive to become honorable is the external rewards of esteem and of material goods (a greater portion of the spoils in battle, for instance). But I’m also used to hearing about a different sort of honor, one that is more internally-regulated, and that is its own reward. People who do the right thing even when nobody else is watching: that sort of honor. I didn’t see much of that in Sommers’s book, and I wish I had.

But to continue with a review of the book I read and not of the one I wished I’d read… Sommers turns to questions of justice. 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. (This reminded me of James C. Scott’s studies of the ways cultures have self-organized complex systems of regulating commons without resorting to the use of governments.)

Sommers puts in a plug for the restorative justice movement in the United States as one way of rectifying this. I’ve been participating on a small scale with a local restorative justice group and I like what I see so far, but I haven’t seen much. Our official justice system is such a travesty that experimenting with promising alternatives seems like a good idea.

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.

Alas, I went into this book eager to agree with my vague idea of what its thesis might be, but left it not feeling very sympathetic or better-informed. I still think there’s probably something to this, I just didn’t find it here.


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