Sunday, May 18, 2014

A question of honour

Any world view is based, in part, on the answer to the question "What makes a person good?" We know the answer given by the dominant Western philosophy, liberalism. The good person is the one who doesn't interfere in others self-defining their own good; the good person, therefore, doesn't discriminate, isn't prejudiced, is tolerant, supports diversity, is accepting of otherness and so on.

What do traditionalists think makes a person good? Our answer has a more positive focus: it has less to do with passively not interfering (a procedural ethics) and more to do with upholding qualities that are inherently good or virtuous.

Many of these qualities are uncontroversial, but I'd like to look at one that might be seen as having both positive and negative characteristics, namely honour.

Honour isn't spoken about much anymore in Western cultures, in part because it was embedded most strongly within an aristocratic culture and aristocrats no longer make up the larger part of the ruling class.

Honour does, too, have a negative side. It can make people so conscious of their dignity that they won't deign to relate to those beneath them; it can encourage people to have such a sense of their own moral worth that they become self-righteous or sanctimonious; and it can make people so self-conscious of their reputation that they will defend it with violence.

Honour at its very worst: the thug who king hits (sucker punches) someone because "they looked at me the wrong way" or the father who kills his own daughter "for besmirching the honour of the family" or (historically) the young men who killed each other in duels because of perceived slights to their reputation.

The Bible very clearly condemns these manifestations of honour. For instance, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, showing that there is no dishonour in serving those beneath his station (this was incorporated into Christian societies - in Austen's novel Emma the upper-class heroine delivers food hampers to the poor and is rebuked by the hero when she mocks one of the poor women.)

The Bible also tells us to turn the other cheek. There are a number of interpretations of this, but the general sense of the command is that we are not to be easily provoked to violence - hence we are not to turn immediately to violence if we feel that our honour has been slighted in some way.

The Bible also condemns the self-righteous, particularly in the figure of the Pharisee. Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector to correct "some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else"; the Pharisee loses out for standing by himself and praying "God, I thank you that I am not like other people--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector."

But here's the question. Is it the intent of the Bible to discard honour or to perfect it?

It seems to me that there is a strong case for perfecting honour rather than discarding it. Why? Because it is honour that helps to make morality matter. Honour gives us the sense that a part of who we are - of our self and identity - is our moral being, so that to lose in our moral being means to lose something important of our own self.

Honour, in other words, is a consciousness of the importance of our moral integrity to our sense of self. It is the sense of not wanting to be lesser, in our moral behaviour, than what we were made to be; of wanting to remain complete or whole in our moral integrity; and of there being forms of behaviour that are beneath our dignity.

If someone is conscious that morality matters to who they are, then they are also likely to be sensitive to their moral reputation within a community. If a man, for instance, faces the taunt of cowardice or a woman that of promiscuity, then it will be thought of as affecting how they are perceived, significantly, as a person. The two things go together: if morality matters then to at least some degree so will reputation - whether it is our own reputation or that of our family or community.

I'm not suggesting in all this that honour becomes the main focus of a moral life. My point is that in a society in which morality is taken seriously, there is likely to be some sort of expression of honour. It's not a good sign if honour goes missing.

12 comments:

  1. Well I don't know.

    When I was young bloke, honour meant sticking by your mates. This had more to do with kind of tribal socialist ethos that pervaded Australian society than anything to do with Bible, or even the boy scouts: of which I was a member.

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  2. Honor can be connected to unworthy things, but the basic instinct of honor is correct and important because a man who recognizes honor is a man who recognizes shame. Men fight for their honor when they believe that they have been wrongly shamed, and when they are right in doing this they defend not only their honor, but also the idea that some things are, indeed, shameful. A man who fights on a point of honor says that there are, indeed, shameful acts, but that my acts are not among them. If a man calls me a liar and the accusation is unjust, my defense of my honor affirms that lying is shameful; it affirms that lying is something of which no honest man would willingly stand accused.

    In response to anonymous, above, I would say that sticking by your mates is in most cases honorable, and abandoning your mates in a tight spot is, in most cases, dishonorable or shameful. There are, of course, occasions where honor obliges you not to stick up for your mates, but clearly these occasions are exceptions to the rule. If a man does not stand up for his mates, the world demands an explanation. There are acceptable explanations for this, but it is significant that the world demands to know what they are.

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    1. JMSmith, thanks, this is what I was trying to get at, namely that if you live in a society in which there is no sense of honour at all there is likely also to be little sense of shame. For that reason, it makes more sense to think of Christianity as tempering honour in important ways rather than rejecting it.

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  3. " The good person is the one who doesn't interfere in others self-defining their own good; the good person, therefore, doesn't discriminate, isn't prejudiced, is tolerant, supports diversity, is accepting of otherness and so on."

    Always keeeping in mind all the unprincipled exceptions.

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    1. Icr, definitely. Liberals are strongly intolerant of anything they see as intolerant - but their definition of what is intolerant is broad and engulfs a range of everyday human behaviours, so we all get caught up in it - which makes liberal "tolerance" seem remarkably intrusive and coercive to most people.

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  4. For centuries, Christians dueled.

    How can we claim that our modern interpretation of the Bible is superior to theirs, with regard to dueling?

    We have access to archaeological findings that the medievals did not, but between the archaeology and the condemnation of dueling there is a vast gap.

    Furthermore, Jesus *DID* resort to violence when he felt sufficiently angry.

    And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, "Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.

    ...Finally,note that some references to violence in the Gospels are very difficult to understand. E.g.:

    He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That’s enough!” he replied.

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  5. This is very good. I think your question, "Is it the intent of the Bible to discard honour or to perfect it?" is central, and it mirrors your question about the "intent" behind the concept of honor itself.

    You are also right to say that when honor disappears entirely from a society, that society has lost its sense of morality. Men honor those other men whom they think have attained and now live out the inner good only if they themselves endeavor to attain and live out the inner good. We honor what we ourselves want to become. It's the same reason why boys honor sports or action heroes--it's what they themselves want to become.

    The reason that it's such a problematic sign when the men of a society quit honoring the moral good in others is because it means they have quit honoring the moral good in themselves. That society is headed away from the inner good, the law of God that, as Paul writes, is written on the heart of every man.

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  6. You wrote, "It is the sense of not wanting to be lesser, in our moral behaviour, than what we were made to be; of wanting to remain complete or whole in our moral integrity; and of there being forms of behaviour that are beneath our dignity."

    I do think it's a mistake to focus on behavior when determining morality, and that is precisely the danger of honor: honor comes from other people, and behavior is of course the only thing other people can see. By focusing on correcting only what other people see, i.e. our behavior, in order to gain honor from others, the honor we get from them can fool us into thinking we have attained an inner sense of the good, when in fact, we have not.

    In Matthew 5:28, Jesus says "27"You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY'; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29"If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.…"

    On the flip side, for fear of losing this honor that we have gained from others, we can be kept back from behaviors that they think are "beneath our dignity" which in fact are not and would do some good. As you mentioned, Jesus' washing of his disciples' feet is a classic example of this. Peter attempted to stop him for precisely the reason you cite: this behavior was beneath Jesus' dignity according to the standards of their time. And their standards were wrong.

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    1. Good points Bartholomew, but the question of where honour comes from is arguable. It can be thought of as coming from other people, and perhaps in some societies has mostly functioned this way, but in the way I'd like to use it, it's a sense that we ourselves have of what meets a standard of behaviour (or thought) that is appropriate to our moral being and therefore to our sense of who we are.

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    2. You're right: honor can have two sources-internal or external. The danger of an externally derived sense of honor is that we can confuse the praise of others for righteousness itself, i.e. praise from God.

      Isn't there also a danger inherent in the kind of honor you cite-the internally derived one-and isn't that danger precisely self-righteousness?

      Whether other-righteousness of self-righteousness, neither is true righteousness which is a gift from God.

      Do you think that it's fair to say that a sense of honor is important, not so that we can recognize times when we're pleased with ourselves, nor so that we can recognize times when other people are pleased with us, but so that we can recognize the times when God is smiling down upon us?

      Isn't that understanding of honor-as a kind of internally felt smile from Heaven-consistent with the way the Bible portrays it?

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    3. "Isn't there also a danger inherent in the kind of honor you cite-the internally derived one-and isn't that danger precisely self-righteousness?"

      A very real danger. I would have to think about your formulation - but I agree that honour should have little to do with feeling pleased with ourselves.

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  7. I could have put this more clearly:

    Do you think that it's fair to say that a sense of honor is important, not so that we can recognize times when we think we've got it (the good, the true and the beautiful) right, nor so that we can recognize times when other people think we've got it right, but so that we can recognize the times when God thinks we've got it right?

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