I am going to talk about the American holiday of Thanksgiving. I am choosing it precisely because it is a secular holiday with political ties to American history. It brings together families, but it is not about the family qua family: it is about being part of a particular, political tradition. The holiday carries with it a certain political mythos about the origin story of the nation, but also a verifiable political history of support from various presidents at various times when the nation needed to be brought together. It also enjoys formal support from the Federal government as an official holiday, which enables many Americans to have the day off for coming together….
One could see an argument for a moral duty to confront these differences at the Thanksgiving table. They are certainly important differences, and the feast is a chance to persuade those with whom you disagree in a context in which they cannot avoid hearing you out. Certainly there must be a duty to try to uphold what one thinks is right, especially if it is in danger. Insofar as you are rationally convinced of the soundness of your principles – and especially to the degree that you think those who disagree are motivated by irrational concerns – it would seem you have a duty to try to instruct them. Thanksgiving provides the opportunity to do so. Is there not, then, a duty to seize that opportunity out of a devotion to the greater common good?
Yet, the image of that one aunt or uncle who cannot shut up about politics at Thanksgiving is not one of respect. Just the opposite, such a figure is an object of mockery to such a degree as to show that the common opinion of such a person is disrespectful. To say that such a person is held to be worthy of mockery is to say that they are shameful. Being exposed to mockery is a kind of shaming, and if it is held that one is worthy of mockery, then it is also held that it is proper to shame someone for that kind of behavior. A sense of honor includes a sense for shame, and presumably it is this sense – rather than a lack of competing convictions – that keeps the peace at the Thanksgiving table.
At first that looks like a dangerous conclusion. If one’s sense of honor can override ethical duties, then it could in principle justify anything unethical or immoral. However, the case is not that strong. There is an ethical argument for preserving the peace at these sorts of feasts as an exercise in friendship. Friendship is an ethical matter, as Aristotle reminds us, and furthering political friendship is a key aspect of the good life:
It is clear then that a state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime and for the sake of exchange…. Hence arise in cities family connexions, brotherhoods, common sacrifices, amusements which draw men together. But these are created by friendship, for the will to live together is friendship. The end of the state is the good life, and these are the means towards it. And the state is the union of families and villages in a perfect and self-sufficing life, by which we mean a happy and honorable life.*
“Happy and honorable” are an important part of this equation. The duty to advocate for your rational ideas on right and justice is in tension with the duty to keep the peace by treating family or friends who disagree with a degree of respect. Thus, the case is not that a sense of honor would rightfully override an ethical or moral duty, which would be perilous. What we do see in this case is how the sense of honor can inform a person on the question of balancing two different duties that are in tension. Both the duties have the inherently public character at which the sense of honor points: both the duty to advocate for political views one takes to be right, and also the duty to show respect to friends and family at a feast. The sense of honor is necessary to find the right balance between these two different things that are both morally obligatory.
*Aristotle, Politics, 1280b30-1281a2.
(Excerpt from On Honor, by Brad Patty.)