What Is Honor?: A Question of Moral Imperatives

What Is Honor?: A Question of Moral Imperatives

by Alexander Welsh

What is honor? Has its meaning changed since ancient times? Is it an outmoded notion? Does it still have the power to direct our behavior? In this provocative book Alexander Welsh considers the history and meaning of honor and dismisses the idea that we live in a post-honor culture. He notes that we have words other than honor, such as respect,

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What is honor? Has its meaning changed since ancient times? Is it an outmoded notion? Does it still have the power to direct our behavior? In this provocative book Alexander Welsh considers the history and meaning of honor and dismisses the idea that we live in a post-honor culture. He notes that we have words other than honor, such as respect, self-respect, and personal identity, that show we do indeed care deeply about honor. Honor, he argues, is a continuing process of respect that motivates or constrains members of a peer group. Honor’s dictates function as moral imperatives.

Surprisingly, little systematic study of the history of honor in Western culture has been attempted. Offering a welcome remedy, Welsh provides a genealogy of approaches to the subject, mining some of the most influential texts of the Western tradition. He rereads with fascinating results the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Shakespeare, Mandeville, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Kant, Adam Smith, and others. With a sharp focus on the intersection of honor and ethics in both literature and philosophy, Welsh invites new and constructive debate on a topic of vital interest.

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Editorial Reviews

A.D. Nuttall
"Intelligent, well-informed, and thought-provoking, this book maps and renders intelligible a formidably difficult terrain: the intersection of honor with ethics in both literature and philosophy. This is an important book."—A.D. Nuttall, author of Shakespeare the Thinker
George Kateb
"Intelligent, well-informed, and thought-provoking, this book maps and renders intelligible a formidably difficult terrain: the intersection of honor with ethics in both literature and philosophy. This is an important book."—A.D. Nuttall, author of Shakespeare the Thinker
Amy Chua
"Fascinating, erudite, and beautifully written, Alexander Welsh’s new book draws on Aristotle and Adam Smith, Shakespeare and Defoe, in its sweeping but subtle exploration of the meaning of honor."—Amy Chua, author of Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fall


". . . [A]n impressive philosophical and historical analysis regarding the role honor has played in societies from the early Greeks through contemporary times. . . . [U]seful for advanced students and scholars concerned with the history of ethics and moral theory generally. Highly recommended."— Choice

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Yale University Press
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What Is Honor?


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12564-1

Chapter One

On Moralities of Obedience and Respect

What is honor? If we limit ourselves to the ways in which the word is ordinarily used today, this is not a difficult question. Honor is a measure of esteem and commendation, often a formal award for higher-than-usual achievement. To honor individuals is to single them out on the grounds of merit or because of the position they hold. But this is not an easy question to answer if by honor is meant a compelling motive to take action, or to refrain from certain actions, as the word was often used until, say, about the time of World War I. This meaning of honor-the subject of the present book-has largely been forgotten except in military usage and sometimes diplomatic contexts that borrow from warfare. Moreover, the two meanings can become intertwined, or even deliberately slurred, whether in acting or avoiding action. As we shall recall when reviewing Shakespeare's thinking on the subject, "What is honor?" is one of Falstaff's questions. Mainly Falstaff is ducking his role in combat, for as he claims, discretion is the better part of valor. But his speech also ridicules the notion that honor in the first sense-a little passing fame-provides adequatecompensation for being wounded or killed in battle.

What must be kept in mind is an important difference between honor and fame, even though the words are often linked together. The boldest statement of the difference may be that of Arthur Schopenhauer toward the end of his career, in an era when honor as a compelling motive was quite consciously experienced and spoken about. I cannot agree with everything Schopenhauer wrote about honor in Parerga and Paralipomena-let alone the wretched things he wrote about women-but this distinction is certainly pertinent: "Honor is not the opinion people have of particular qualities which a man may happen to possess exclusively: it is rather the opinion they have of qualities which a man may be expected to exhibit, and to which he should not prove false. Honor, therefore, means that a man is not exceptional; fame, that he is. Fame is something which must be won; honor, only something that must not be lost. The absence of fame is obscurity ... but loss of honor is shame." The last section of Schopenhauer's long essay was devoted outright to fame and pretended to take satisfaction that at least philosophers did not have to suffer "the onslaught of envy" experienced by popular writers. "Honor is something which we are able and ready to share with everyone; fame suffers encroachment and is rendered more unattainable in proportion as more people come by it" (1851, 56-57, 91). And in the midst of a growing information revolution -nowadays an explosion-Schopenhauer was probably right: the more people who are able to attract notice, the more ephemeral such notice becomes.

In a compelling book on some key institutional bearings of this subject, The Decent Society, Avishai Margalit distinguishes essentially the same two meanings of honor. The first he calls social honor-a measure of distinction that can be credited to this person and that. "The concept of social honor that is available for distribution is a graded concept. Social honor given equally to everyone would be empty." The difficulty is that Margalit does not have a single name for the other kind of honor, and surely any kind of honor is social. He calls the other "human dignity," something a person cannot do without. This dignity corresponds to what Schopenhauer meant by honor as "something that must not be lost." Both writers have to point to inhibitions or avoidance to define their meaning. The theme Margalit returns to again and again is humiliation, to which a decent society is utterly opposed. Such inhibitions-avoidance of shame, steering away from humiliation-characterize the honor that moves one with the force of a moral imperative. Margalit also astutely singles out one reason the two possible meanings of honor have been hard to separate: "the concept of human dignity evolved historically out of the idea of social honor.... but the priority is only historical, not conceptual" (1996, 41-44). I rather believe that these two concepts go back at least to classical times; but historically it is certainly true that all master-slave societies and feudal societies boasted and promulgated a graded distribution of honor where possible.

Another way of distinguishing these two functions of honor-and the difference between fame and honor-is to conceive of graphing either one on a vertical axis reflecting a continuum of factors affecting a given individual's reputation. Imagine first an ascending scale of achievement that represents fame, or indeed Margalit's "graded concept" of social honor. In theory, any named tennis player, war hero, or English professor can be located on such a scale at any given time. As time passes, his or her reputation and corresponding position on the scale will have shifted up or down. Let zero on the vertical axis represent the position of a person whose reputation goes completely unnoticed. Reputation may still descend below this point, as fame falls into infamy. Then, even centuries later, someone may come along and write a biography that again lifts-or further sinks-our hero. But honor in the other sense, honor that moves people to act even against their interest, has to be charted differently. Such honor is also a function of reputation, of what is expected of us. Below the zero point on a scale of criteria deemed relevant, however, honor in this sense makes no showing at all. It does not decrease or descend along the path of infamy but falls off the scale altogether into disgrace and humiliation, a non-belonging that might as well be non-being. The moral agent's very identity is at stake, and he or she knows that.

Because the word honor in this compelling or constraining sense is admittedly archaic, I urge my reader to think of the force still inherent in the words respect and self-respect. These terms are also Latin in origin and have also been used for centuries now in both English and the Romance languages, sometimes in lieu of appealing to honor. The relation of respect to self-respect is a truth spelled out in Adam Smith's moral philosophy, for example, whereas in the rare times that Smith invokes honor by that name, he merely reveals that he was a man of his own time instead of speaking, as he surely does, to ours as well. The term respect is important for my purposes because one of its principal uses conveys the idea-or the process-of reciprocation. Etymologically this word derives from Latin respicere, to look back, hence to look back and forth in a social context.

But, of course, that is not the only meaning of respect either. From this potential confusion, one can appeal to a well-known essay-well known among philosophers, at least-by Stephen Darwall on two kinds of respect (1977). The first, which Darwall calls recognition respect, "consists in giving appropriate consideration or recognition to some feature of its object in deliberating about what to do." The second kind, appraisal respect, is directed toward others and could be directed toward oneself (as I understand him) but is not tied up with any decision to act: it is simply a positive assessment of merit. Thus Darwall occasionally refers to the first kind as "moral recognition respect." This is the kind of respect that I shall be invoking in the present argument, since the difference here corresponds to that which obtains in discourse about honor over the ages. To be sure, people often mean by honor merit, distinction, prize-worthiness of one sort or another; but that's different from honor as a moral imperative, or honor as a sticking point. It's the difference again between honor and fame, and there is in fact a long tradition, notably mediated for modern times by Cicero's stoicism, of persons of honor who scorn fame.

These definitions are crucial to my argument, and-thus far, anyway-there is nothing very radical about them. But setting out to reexamine the whole question of honor as a moral imperative inevitably commits the author to positions that most readers will not accept without an argument, either because they already entertain contrary religious or philosophical beliefs, or because they just instinctively feel that morals are something else again. Let me begin by pointing out that honor and morals can both induce a sense of obligation that overrides both immediate desires and long-term interests. As Kant was constrained to argue with some pains, if you are a person who is inclined to do good, just doing it is not the issue. You have to will to be good, and the proof of that will lies in being able to overcome some inclination or passion that the action in question contravenes. Similarly, to do the honorable thing entails a readiness to forgo personal interests or desires. For men to join in battle is generally thought to be honorable, but not if they are so situated as to be able to kill others without exposing themselves to any danger whatever. On the contrary, the willingness to risk one's life-it could be in an act of passive resistance-comes as the test of honor we most often hear invoked. The imperatives of honor are typically categorical, strictly opposed, in Kant's terms, to hypothetical imperatives that anticipate some other desired end. That is why, to the purist, engaging in battle in order to achieve fame is not true honor at all. Of course, Kant never confused honor with his idea of pure morality. Yet the uncompromising absoluteness of his practical philosophy resembles nothing so much as the absoluteness of Rodrigue and Chimène-or any of the other characters, for that matter-in Corneille's famous play, The Cid. In the Enlightenment, as I hope to show, the recuperation of honor significantly contributed to the belief in personal autonomy, not only in literature and politics but in moral philosophy itself.

So if anything, honor is more akin to agent-relative morality. Of two kinds of motivation, "the desire for ends of action and the desire for qualities or adjectives as agent," A.O. Lovejoy speculated that the latter-call it approbativeness or call it honor-was usually stronger. The trouble is that the two are "irreducible to one another" (1961, 81). Accordingly, honor represents a certain range of decision making-even as strict Kantian morality has to be said to have a limited range. Honor that obliges one to fight to the death cannot and does not cope very well with the onerous business of planning and weighing the consequences of various actions. Persons of honor have not traditionally prided themselves on their practical abilities, and therefore honor is never going to resolve all their practical decisions. Yet it seems indisputable that sound judgments about what actions to take have at some point to weigh likely results as well as felt obligations. "Every choice is two choices," in Thomas Nagel's words, since actions and states of the world both have to be taken into account (1986, 183). Therefore, although I am claiming a role for honor that still weighs heavily with us today, I am not claiming that it suffices to give direction to our whole lives.

The truly radical move-though not entirely unprecedented-will be to divide the phenomena of morality into two broad categories characterized by obedience on the one hand and respect on the other, the latter to be identified with honor. To my way of thinking, these broad categories follow from two different sources of moral obligations. That is, we should begin by asking where we come upon such obligations, how we learn what is expected of us. It seems unlikely that anyone is born a moral being. To be sure, herd instincts may explain a good deal of human behavior, including traditional gender roles and different leadership styles. I don't mean to deny that human dispositions to act in certain ways may still be evolving, as Edward O. Wilson (1975) and others have tried to explain by mapping evolutionary biology on the realm of human behavior. For example, almost any imaginable code of honor calls for courage, and many species besides homo sapiens exhibit impressive courage. Human courage can be admirable even in a cause judged to be immoral or useless (Kateb, 2004), and for that reason it actually needs to be distinguished from honor as an imperative to action. Courage as a more or less developed instinct can readily be seen as part of our biological heritage. The full range of dos and don'ts in our lives, however-to say nothing of numerous exceptions to rules at any given time and place-would seem to have to be learned, together with some of the predictable sanctions that render them obligatory.

How then do young people or newcomers to a society come to adopt a given code of behavior? Judging by what we hear and see going on around us over lifetimes, we have two ways of recognizing and then adopting moral imperatives: either someone in authority commands us to behave in a certain way, or there is a consensus on how to behave that we want to be a part of. I shall call the kind of morality that accepts the force of a command obedience, and the morality dependent on consensus, respect. The dictates of these two moralities often coincide, but they may also conflict. I believe that we are all varyingly subject to both over time. That there is nevertheless a clear difference between the two has long been recognized, and in the next chapter I shall cite half a dozen twentieth-century authorities for them. The division of the sources of obligation can be thought of as the first working hypothesis behind the argument that honor does indeed operate as a moral imperative and deserves study as such. This hypothesis is obviously reductive, but it may for that very reason challenge my readers also to consult the classical and modern texts revisited here, as well as their own experience. Without it, I cannot begin to think how we might locate and account for a sense of honor that has the force of moral obligation. Without some implicit notion of internalized sanctions, moreover, I find it hard to conceive of why a felt obligation should be compelling.

For the first of the two sources of felt obligation, I am stressing obedience rather than command itself because obedience is what lies with the moral agent. Neither a God delivering commandments, nor an absolute monarch, nor a lot of people giving orders can effect a moral or even an orderly society without obedience, whether we define this as following orders or as internalizing orders. Continuous whipping of bodies into action is asking for failure even in a master-slave society. Nevertheless, the sanction brought to bear by this kind of morality is punishment or the threat of punishment; and the condition accompanying disobedience is known as guilt, whether explicitly declared, as in a criminal law proceeding, or mentally experienced, as with undisclosed or would-be transgressions.

The second source of felt obligation derives from the process of gaining and sharing respect. It is here, often at critical moments opposed to obedience, that I would locate the imperatives of honor. One can speak of virtue and goodness and law abiding without invoking respect, but never of honor. Respect readily accounts for the frequently remarked external nature of honor's demands. The etymology of the word itself continually resurfaces in the literature on honor, since the root meaning is that of seeing and exchanging looks. I shall contend that the respect that is operative in this process is mutual, looking neither up with awe nor down with contempt, but directly toward one's perceived equals. Let this then be our second working hypothesis: the sense of honor that moves a person to act or refrain from acting in a given case is generated within a real or imagined peer group. Like commands, respect from others can also be internalized and acted upon. To lose that respect, however, threatens shame rather than guilt.

The lexical problems with honor are notorious (Stewart, 1994, 30-46). At least ancient Greek had a variety of terms at its disposal. Time, for honor or esteem, and arete, for excellence, have only positive connotations. But aidos, the basic word for honor that motivates, often also needs to be translated as shame. In Homer "aidos is a vulnerability to the expressed ideal norm of the society; the ideal norm is directly experienced within the self, as a man internalizes the anticipated judgments of others on himself" (Redfield, 1975, 116). The Latin pudor shares this twofold meaning of shame, as the awareness of others that guides behavior and the stamp of failure to be so guided (Barton, 2001, 199-269). Respect for others may not always be returned; or respect may be mutual until one of the parties loses it. The ultimate sanction that enforces the morality of respect is not strictly punishment but loss of membership in the group. It is often claimed that honor lost cannot be recovered, and such is the case unless the errant member is somehow readmitted.


Excerpted from What Is Honor? by ALEXANDER WELSH Copyright © 2008 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Alexander Welsh is Emily Sanford Professor of English Literature Emeritus, Yale University. His previous books include Reflections on the Hero as Quixote, George Eliot and Blackmail, Strong Representations, Freud's Wishful Dream Book, and Hamlet in His Modern Guises, as well as a book on Scott and three on Dickens.

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