Sep 15, 2011

Big Think: How Honor Can Remake Society

The interconnections — and at times discordances — between honor and virtue are complicated, not least because these are multifaceted moral phenomena.  Virtue is multiple and each of the virtues possesses its own determinate specificity.  Honor likewise has more than one sense, manifests in more than one manner, is understood in very different ways, is desired by different people as at times almost unrecognizably similar or analogous goods.
In our contemporary moral language, we — and every culture seems to exhibit something along these lines — possess and use numerous not-entire-synonyms for “honor”:  respect, esteem, admiration — just to name a few.  It’s tempting to try to identify moral phenomena strictly along such linguistic differentials, to say:  respect is this, honor is that — not recognizing that inn reality these blur into each other and bifurcate internally as well.

 Virtue Ethics and Conceptions of Honor

Traditionally virtue ethics displayed a rightful ambivalence towards honor, recognizing it as one of the goods which we pursue, elevating it above mere pleasure or wealth, grasping that there was something aesthetically attractive involved in honor, honoring, and the object of honor — but also seeing that desire and pursuit of honor could easily supplant those for other, higher goods. 

Virtue itself — which is indeed revealed, understood, inculcated in some part through the social mechanics of honor, through praising and blaming, through exhibition and discussion of what is noble or base — can also be attracted satellite-wise into honor’s orbit, reversing a right priority between them.

I’m always a bit suspicious then when I see honor praised and raised even higher as a good.  I’m also equally suspicious when I see redefinitions of this object of drive and desire which so prune away its dangerous, less refined, features, tame it, make it into a tool of moral philosophy -- or, in the case of one recent such attempt, transform it into a means for social transformation, or “moral revolution”.

Appiah's Reconceptualization of Honor

Kwame Anthony Appiah, in a Big Think interview about his recent book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, does this:

Okay, well I think the sort of 10 second version of what honor is, is:  honor is an entitlement to respect that’s governed by some code or other.  That’s my short answer to the question, what’s honor.  And to have a sense of honor is to care about whether you are entitled to respect under the code.
It seems a bit strange to call it an “entitlement to respect.”  What honor has classically — and I think still by most people today — has been understood as, has been recognized as, has been pursued as, has been desired as is quite simply the respect — or signs of that respect, the feeling that one has of being respected by others.

It is entirely possible to desire to be honored without being entitled to it at all — even in some cases to desire it while being conscious of one’s lack of entitlement.  The more vicious a person is, the more badly ordered his or her desires, habits, emotions, and structures of assumption, action, and assessment are, the more likely they are to dissociate the desire for honor from the desire to be entitled to it.

Of course, a sense of one’s entitlement to respect itself — if it is off base, and the more it is off base, the pathologically it will press upon on one —can play into all sorts of viciousness. So, I suspect Appiah is actually wrong — or he’s redefining terms to make them fit his notion of honor — in saying:
a concern for honor isn’t just a concern that you will be respected; it’s a concern that you be entitled to respect.

What Appiah is Getting Right

Appiah is onto something, of course — the more morally developed a person, or even a groups of people are, the more the sorts of reflections and concerns not only about being entitled to respect — what he is calling “care” or a sense” here — about getting these things right come to the fore.  And in doing so, they bring in all sorts of considerations going beyond the sphere of honor itself.
The two examples he uses represent two different kinds of transformation of the conception of honor, the reworking of a societal code and thus of the vectors of people’s desires.
… .at the end of the process, honor required not to challenge people for duels, and at the beginning of the process it required you to challenge them, so there was a big shift there.  And in that shift what happened was that people who were concerned that they were entitled to respect and be treated with respect realized that, from a time when it was a case that you had to duel in order to maintain your honor in certain circumstance, you moved to a time when you had not to.

When the Chinese gave up foot binding it was because the Literati, the ruling class that was created by a system of national exams that ran the empire for a millennia, because they realized it was wrong, but they also realized that because it was wrong, it was leading to a dishonor to China.  It was leading to a contempt for the Chinese.
In both of these cases, it’s not the entire structure of desires that is changed. In fact, desire and practical reasoning both come into play.

In the first case, in order to attain the good of honor, in certain circumstances calling for it, you had to duel.  Of course, some people enjoy, even crave such risk and conflict — it is a pleasurable good for them, or alternately they view domination of another as a good — but for many, dueling was something one didn’t desire, but had to endure in order to attain or keep the good one wanted — honor.

Change the instrumental relationship between dueling and honor entirely, flip it on its head, so that now dueling brings dishonor, and not dueling, when one could, brings honor, and you change behavior, even feelings about the instrumental means.  Too bad, by the way, for those who came to enjoy or crave dueling — now they have to decide between the good of pursuing that (for them) satisfying and (until recently) socially sanctioned activity or the good of honor.

In the second case, it is precisely because one cares about what others outside of the society think — one belongs to — or at least imagines oneself to belong to — a larger society, one presumably more enlightened morally than  the one in which one will change the rules, flip the script, rewrite the code.

Aristotle long ago pointed out in the Nicomachean Ethics that when we think about honor as a good, we ought not only to realize that, as a good it is contingent upon the desires, interests, emotions and ideas of others — we ought to pay some close attention to precisely whose opinions of us we care about. 

We could take him a bit further and say that we ought to think long and hard, engage in honest self-scrutiny, about why we care about precisely these people’s respect, esteem, assessments.  Are they the right people?  Do they themselves have the right orderings of values, the right ways of practical reasoning, the right conceptions of well-ordered lives, relationships, society?  Maybe yes, or maybe no.  That ought to make a difference.

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