Over lunch recently, a fellow writer uttered a word that rather took me by surprise. My mate described the tendency for people to go public with private digital communications — like the recent leak of Kanye West’s text messages from his personal trainer, or a Vox reporter’s decision to post Twitter messages from the former crypto billionaire. Sam Bankman-Fried – as simply “dishonorable”. ”.
The idea that our behavior should be guided not only by respect for the law, or even by a certain morality, but by a sense of honor is old-fashioned. Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks how often words and phrases are used in books from 1800, shows a sharp drop in the use of the words ‘honor’, ‘honourable’ and ‘dishonorable’ from the start. from the 19th century to the present day. day. Use of the three words dropped by around 90% over the period.
When members of the British parliament hurl insults at the ‘honourable’ members sitting across from them – or even beside them – we are not expected to take this descriptor seriously.
Yet, although it may be an outdated notion, if these parliamentarians felt they should behave with honor, we would have much better politicians, more concerned with telling the truth and doing what it takes even if they think they could get away with the opposite.
‘Twas never so. When William Shakespeare wrote around 400 years ago, having a sense of honor was considered the key to living a good and respectable life. “My honor is my life; the two grow into one: do me honor, and my life is over,” says Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, in Richard II.
But Honor has suffered quite a disgrace since then. Part of the reason for this is its close association with class hierarchies – the practice of dueling, for example, was deeply embedded in the aristocratic culture of honor. Another is the gruesome practice of so-called “honor killings”, in which someone who is believed to have brought “dishonor” to their family – usually a woman – is killed, often by their own relatives.
“Honor is associated with these old-fashioned class and aristocratic systems. . . and also with violence,” says Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at New York University and author of The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Occur. But blaming such things on the concept of honor itself is like “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” he tells me.
Instead, we should view honor as a way to ensure that we behave in a way worthy of respect, rather than as a value system in itself. “The psychology of honor attaches to all kinds of values, and sometimes those values are good, and sometimes they’re not,” Appiah says. But overall, “when you have a culture where people want to do the right thing because it’s worthy of respect, people will behave better.”
Appiah argues that honor codes do not always reflect the moral codes of the society in which they operate: honor should be viewed as another distinct system of regulating behavior that may in fact be at odds with the prevailing moral code . Honor killings may occur in some Muslim communities, for example, but they are condemned in Islam, just as dueling was condemned by the Church.
We live in a society obsessed with virtue signaling. It’s what we claim to believe that seems most important. As long as we’re seen to be on the right side of a morally just cause, we can behave as dishonorably as we like, whether that’s leaking private communications or tweeting to someone because his view was judged beyond pallor. .
But by placing so much emphasis on our so-called beliefs rather than our behavior, we lose sight of some of the core values that hold a society together.
“One of the costs of walking away from honor is that you lose focus on a person’s character: a person’s integrity, a person’s sense of loyalty and courage” , Tamler Sommers, professor of philosophy at the University of Houston and author of Why honor is important, tell me. “Courage is something that honor is very good at motivating.”
To behave honorably is to do the right thing even — or above all — when we do not gain personally. A society with this approach would surely be better. We must relearn how to honor honor.