Talmer Sommers, a philosopher at the University of Houston, recently published a book on honor. Although the Security Studies Group is not primarily a philosophical organization, honor is of fundamental importance to national security and to politics in general. Sommers’ book received a critical review by The Atlantic’s Adam Kirsch. Kirsch writes that Sommers did not adequately consider what he calls the “pernicious ways” that honor manifests itself, and that Sommers ought to rethink the relationship between honor and dignity.
[T]he main target of Sommers’s attack in Why Honor Matters is what he calls the dignity-based culture that, starting with the Enlightenment in the 18th century, replaced traditional honor-based cultures in the modern West. Dignity has the moral advantage over honor in that it does not have to be earned: Everyone has equal human dignity simply by being born. But for Sommers, dignity is a cold and abstract ideal, incapable of motivating people to actually struggle against injustice. It “gives us plenty of reasons to refrain from wrongdoing,” he writes, “but provides little to inspire exceptional or heroic behavior.” …
Yet Sommers’s idealized picture of honor ignores many of the ways it actually manifests itself in our society…. When white supremacists march in Charlottesville chanting “You will not replace us,” they are uttering a clear defense of what they take to be their racial honor…. At the end of Why Honor Matters, Sommers writes that he completed his afterword on the weekend of the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville last August, and he acknowledges that the incident tends to undermine his case for honor as against dignity: “The past few years should make us more appreciative of the morality of dignity and its focus on equality and respect for human rights,” he writes in a chastened spirit. Perhaps he is already at work on a sequel about the perils of honor, which are at least as real as its benefits.
If he is, I can set him on the right track. As it happens, I wrote my dissertation on the role of honor in moral philosophy. While the dissertation treats each of those issues at chapter length, the basic principles are simple to convey and easy to grasp.
First of all, honor and equality of dignity are not really in competition with one another. In a way, we are all equals. People differ as to just why. Many religious people believe it is because God made us all with equal love, whereas Kant argues that it is because we all have a capacity for freedom that comes from being able to reason about the world. Sticks and stones cannot reason, but we can, and in that way we have a kind of freedom that is the same for all of us. In any case, there is a sense in which we are all equals.
So, we are all equals, but now we have to make a decision: who should be President? Being chosen to serve as a public officer, and thus to exercise authority over others, is a kind of honor. Does it not matter who receives that honor, since we are all equals? If it did not matter, we could assign the office by random lot. It would not matter if it fell on you, or me, or Donald Trump, or someone in the grip of addiction to methamphetamines. Anyone would do.
The ancient Athenians assigned public office by lot, and Plato warns against it in the Laws. Current American political debate makes clear that no one here believes that it really doesn’t matter who the President is. Some people love President Trump, and some people are outraged that such a person should hold the honor of the highest of all offices, but no one is without an opinion.
So it turns out that we aren’t really all equals in every way. We are equal in just one way: we are equal in human dignity. But there are many ways in which we are not equal, and those things are rightly considered in choosing our officers. Not just the President, but every office of trust and responsibility is a kind of honor that is rightly bestowed on the person best suited for it. In striving to become that person you are striving for honor. It is important that we bestow these honors on those who are worthy of honor. Otherwise our public offices will be filled by those who aren’t worthy of the honor bestowed upon them. In that case, we shall all suffer.
This brings us to the issue of the ‘pernicious expressions’ of honor. What Kirsch fails to notice – and in this he is in company with most contemporary thinkers who write about the subject – is that honor does not merely empower the wicked. In fact, no one needs honor more than the oppressed. If they lack honor, they cannot trust each other and will thus be unable to hang together against the powers arrayed against them. Honor for each other is what allows them to suffer in a common cause, rather than each seeking only to help himself or herself. Honor is what allows them to stand together against the forces of oppression. If they lack honor, they are lost.
The oppressed also have the same issue with granting the honor of leadership. It makes a huge difference to the success of a movement against oppression as to whether the leaders are men like Dr. King, or men like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. We as a society rush to bestow honors on Dr. King, and figures like him, because they have deserved those honors. But notice that it is in coming to deserve those honors that they did the great work that liberated millions. In honoring them, we are honoring their work. In honoring their work, we are acting together to correct those who sought to use honor to oppress them.
Honor itself turns out to be fundamental to correcting the excesses of honor. You might think you could use another tool, such as good governance, but the officers of the government depend on honor to function. Judges and police, for example, require respect for their office to control a larger population and to have their rulings respected.
Honor thus is not a particular quality of pernicious groups, even if they are particularly likely to speak of it. It is a universal quality to human organization. We cannot function without honor. If honor is wisely assigned, it makes all the difference in bringing about a successful society. If it is bestowed unwisely, it can bring disaster.
That means that Dr. Sommers is quite right to think honor a topic worthy of the greatest interest for those who work in politics or moral philosophy. More thinkers should spend time with it. I wish him the best of luck in his future work.