Sep 18, 2014

Honor and Ethics: Some Initial Reflections

A friend and colleague of mine, Bruce Weinstein, raised a provocative question, tapping the expertise and sounding the sentiments of his many Facebook friends:   

"What do you think of "Live Honorably" as my proposed slogan? I'd use it as a way to let people know how they would benefit from my talks, training, books, and consultations."
It sparked a conversation revealing -- and reflective of -- quite a few different viewpoints on the relationship between honor and ethics.  He also proposed that I weigh in on the matter, so that's precisely what I intend to do here.


Why Use The Term "Honor"? 

As a side-note, I have to thank Bruce for providing me this occasion to do something I've been intending for some time, but just hadn't cleared the time to do -- to start writing again in Virtue Ethics Digest.  Last month, I managed to reformat and write new posts for my three other blogs -- Orexis Dianoētikē, Sadler's Existentialism Updates, and Heavy Metal Philosopher -- but despite having some topics in mind, I simply didn't find the time and the energy needed to effectively restart this one.  So, Bruce's question, which dovetails very nicely with some other ethics-related matters I've been mulling over, provides a very convenient (and needed) "get-on-the-stick-and-get-it-done" opportunity!

Before I provide my own reflections, I'd like to set down Bruce's own additional clarifications, since it sets a useful context for thinking about these matters:
Ethics is of interest to you and to me, but in my 15 years on the road, I've discovered that a lot of folks are turned off by the term "ethics". But the subject *does* speak to everyone--if they're willing to listen. "Live Honorably" engages people in a way that "Live Ethically" or "Live with Integrity" may not.
So, that's why he's attracted to that slogan.  It's a matter of, as he put it there, "marketing," or as I'd say more broadly, of communication.  And, I think he's entirely right to put emphasis on the language.  We do inhabit an "attention economy," in which all of us find ourselves in the mix with countless other competing demands on time, attention, even energy.  When we've got a product that's sorely needed, but the need for which is not correspondingly well-understood -- expertise in the field of Ethics -- these considerations about how to get the message out, let alone across, are important ones.

Several Proposed Answers About Honor and Ethics

Several of his friends had useful points to make in response to his idea.  One wrote:
I think honor is different from ethics. Honor might be a subset of ethics, or maybe you have to be ethical to live honorably, but it's not the same thing. To be ethical is to live right. To be honorable is to act in a way that merits the respect and admiration of others.
Another asked: 
Is "honor" really the goal of what you speak to in teaching ethics? It is about making "honorable" decisions or living an "honorable" life? Honor is a personal thing; ethics is a corporate thing for the well-functioning of a society as a whole. . . . . I think you have a deeper, grander mission than the merely honorable that your statement should reflect. Honor is too small to encompass it.
And still another noted a historical contrast:
I do think that a lot of people nowadays like the term because they have an idea of a kind of denatured honor lite. It doesn't just mean doing things that make you feel good. In the old days honor was a strict code that imposed sometimes very painful choices and constraints on those who lived by it. . . . [A] major part of the reason that honor lost its importance as a guiding concept in society as a whole was that its strictures began to seem less and less relevant and more and more arbitrary. So you may be embarking on a bigger project than you first thought -- "reimagining honor" as well as "living honorably"!
These remarks all strike me as articulating concerns worth taking into account.  It also seems to me that it would be very handy -- in thinking this through more fully -- to marshal some of the resources and approaches of that classic virtue ethicist, Aristotle.

What Does Aristotle Contribute to the Conversation?

From a perspective strictly focused on reaching a contemporary, popular, non-academic audience, of course, it would likely be counter-productive to bring up Aristotle by name.  That's a shame, since he really does have a lot of relevant and badly needed insights and distinctions to offer us -- but the culture is what it is, and we do have to meet it where it it.  So, if I were discussing these matters in a consultation with clients, or facilitating a workshop, or delivering a talk, I might well avoid mentioning the great Peripatetic.

But I needn't do that here -- and it's also very useful, in my experience, when we draw upon the wisdom of classic and contemporary moral theorists, for those who might read about their ideas to be provided those ideas' provenance.  That way, if they're so inclined, they can go to the texts and make their entry into high-level conversations that span the centuries, and will outlive our own present times.

One set of moves you can see Aristotle making over and over in his works -- particularly the Nicomachean Ethics, the Politics, and the Rhetoric -- is to canvas the range of popular viewpoints and notions about a controversial issue, then to examine them in order to see what really makes sense and what can be stripped away. . .  and then, quite often, to suggest a more rigorous, more adequate way of looking at the matter.  It will often turn out that popular conceptions of an issue, a problem, a question are partly on track, but just partly so -- and a more attentive examination will provide us with a much better understanding of the matter, which then can be successfully translated back into the realm of ordinary experience and popular culture in which moral theorists, just like everyone else, live their lives.

"Honor" is, I think, one of those kinds of matters.  It is quite true that in popular culture -- not only in our own time but in previous ones as well -- there have been all sorts of conceptions of what "honor," "honorable," and "honorably" mean or ought to mean.  Sometimes they seem to be encapsulated in more or less strict "codes," but acquaintance with the literature of the past quickly reveals that even when such codes are seemingly rigidly in place, there has never been a lack of disagreement, even hotly contested conflicts, about just what honor demands or allows, what is honorable and in what conditions, how an honorable person behaves, decides, speaks, comports him or herself.

Ethics Ought to Tell Us About Honor

Aristotle conceived ethics (and also political theory) as involving, among other things, determining just what "honor" actually meant or involved.  I ought to point out at this point that there's actually two different sets of terms that when we're translating Ancient Greek, routinely get rendered in terms of "honor."  There's time, the noun --  "honor" as a kind of good one can enjoy or seek, being respected or esteemed by other people -- and then there's kalon, an adjective used to describe an entire range of good things, qualities, even people, and which sometimes also gets translated as "fine," "noble," even "beautiful."  To be a "gentleman" in ancient Athens, what we might call a "stand-up guy" today, was to be kalokagathos, kalos and agathos, "noble and good."

Ethics, at least for some of the ancients, medievals, and early moderns, was intimately connected with honor -- but not "honor" in the sense to which many would like to reduce it.  The genuinely ethical person was motivated by the desire and intention to be genuinely honorable, to behave in a truly honorable manner, not just in a way which met social norms, or which would get people to like one.  Now, of course, that does require some better-based, more fully-informed conception of just what is fine, just what is noble, just what turns out to be morally valuable in that mode. 

Among the many things that Aristotle has to teach us about this is that one index of a genuinely good person is that they concern themselves with --  and orient themselves by -- this domain of value.  so here is what I'd like to say:  It may well be that the "ethical" is something wider than "the honorable," but the latter is really at the heart, and leads to the higher points of, the former.  This is, however, assuming that one has the right (or at least on the right track) conception of honor.

We do inhabit a time and culture in which speaking about "ethics" or "morality" does often turn people off, even cause their eyes to glaze over and their minds to zone out, but I'm not sure that people who exhibit those sorts of responses will respond any better to talking instead about "honor," or even "integrity."  Many who do pay attention to "honor" but pay less to "ethics" probably do have some misconception of what honor means or entails.  It probably is correct to say that honor needs to be "reimagined." 

And that reimagination -- that rearticulation of this vital domain of human existence and excellence --  will likely need to be done in many contexts by keeping any sort of "academic" discussion to a bare minimum.  It's unfortunate, and I don't think it needs to be the "lowest common denominator" all or even most of the time . . . but that is the situation in a good portion of the cases where we'd aim to do ethics education (in fact, that's one sign that workers are needed there!).  Still though, that's a matter indeed of "marketing," exclusively so I'd say.  Actually thinking through these matters -- that calls for (at least where these do exist) adapting the resources offered by some of the great moral theorists of the past, not least of which will be Aristotle.

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