Whenever I read about honour (the evaluation of a person's social status as judged by that individual's community), it is usually in a negative context (e.g., honour killings) or strictly comparative (e.g., cultures of guilt versus cultures of honour).

This comes as a bit of a surprise, as my personal (though probably somewhat naïve) view is that honour has been an important concept throughout our evolution. Societies of law, on the other hand, came about rather late by comparison.

The Stack Exchange network, for example, apparently thrives quite well on its reputation system, and the Area 51 "commitment" that all of you present here are upholding would be worthless if not for the "dishonor" of flouting commitments.

The Hagakure may be one such important ancient code of honour, although I don't know whether there is much reasoning behind it (or other accounts of Bushido). When I watched Ghost Dog, it felt pretty deep, though ;-)

Specifically, I'm curious if there are any thinkers that don't (out of hand) dismiss the concept of honour as inferior to the rule of law or conscience-based dignity. I would also be interested in contemporary thinkers who themselves come from a culture of honour and choose to embrace it, rather than dismiss it, but it's probably hard to find such people in academia. Anyone have any leads?

  • 1
    What do you mean by "an inside perspective?" I suspect I know, but believe that the question would be improved were you to clarify.
    – vanden
    Jun 13 '11 at 13:53
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    @vanden Thanks for your suggestion – please feel free to edit it further, if you think it could be clearer still (it's hard to ask about something that you know little about).
    – Ruben
    Jun 13 '11 at 14:38
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    @Ruben: That's much better; thanks for improving it. I'm now glad that I didn't edit it myself as your edit suggests that I had not understood what you intended by the original phrasing. (It is also hard to clarify the articulation of someone else's idea. :-)
    – vanden
    Jun 13 '11 at 14:41
  • @vanden Ooh, now I want to know what you understood, maybe I'm curious about that too :-)
    – Ruben
    Jun 13 '11 at 14:45
  • Answer: Hopefully none? Jun 14 '11 at 7:45

I'm not sure exactly what your standard is for a "contemporary philosopher". But you're certainly correct in observing that very few of the well-known modern philosophers deal explicitly with the concept of "honor." And even those who might be correctly fingered as examining the very concept seem to shun the word.

In fact, this is the subject of William Lad Sessions's latest book, entitled Honor For Us: A Philosophical Analysis, Interpretation and Defense, published in late 2010. Sessions is Professor of Philosophy at Washington & Lee University. The introduction begins dramatically:

Honor pervades human history and contemporary cultures, not least our own. Yet honor is in trouble today. Dishonorable behavior is rampant, to be sure, but we are also confused about honor, about what it is and what it is not. Honor may well be ubiquitous, but the concept of honor is not well understood, either by those who live within honor groups or by those who view themselves as rising above any culture of honor. . . . [M]y account of honor aims at something even more ambitious than descriptive clarity with potentially universal scope (as if that weren't ambition enough!). By exhibiting honor as a normative concept, I hope we might come to see its value for us as well as for others. My account is therefore a philosophical rarity, for philosophers today share the general academic distaste for honor. For most Western academics, honor is a moral pariah, a concept recognized as important to others though not an idea to be taken seriously in one's own life. . . . [T]here has been no serious normative examination of the concept of honor as such. It seems that philosophers, like other academics, are not much interested in honor as a living value in our society today.

The publisher's description bills it as "the first contemporary philosophical inquiry into the concept of honor." Sessions himself says that, "Since the late 19th century, there have been no major philosophical studies of honor. Philosophers have occasionally written narrowly on academic honor systems, deprecating honor as obsolete and a tribal virtue at best, but not as a major subject for a book." He claims that, in fact, honor has received a "bad reputation" that is "not entirely undeserved," considering all the harm that it has caused in the world. He specifically cites examples ranging from terrorism to honor killings.

But he opines that the problem really stems from a pervasive misunderstanding of honor, and that the concept is sorely in need of "clarification." Many philosophers seem to wish to "discard honor altogether as 'obsolete'," when in reality, the "notion of honor remains viable in the face of powerful criticism . . . and has important features which warrant our normative interest."

His philosophical project in the book is to identify six different concepts of honor, which he says are useful in an attempt to make sense out of chaotic situations. These concepts include:

  • Conferred honor (or reputation)
  • Recognition honor (which honors excellence)
  • Positional honor (being placed higher than others in society)
  • Commitment honor (honoring a principle or ideal)
  • Trust honor (honoring a person, including his/her word)
  • Personal honor

And in fact, he thinks that the sixth central concept of honor—personal honor—is the most important.

Interestingly enough, much of the book's inspiration seems to have come from an undergraduate philosophy course that Sessions has taught on honor since 1999.

  • That's a great answer! Should I wait to mark it as accepted or should I take Prof. Sessions word for it (I ordered the book) and expect that there can't be any more answers?
    – Ruben
    Jun 15 '11 at 17:18

A problem with answering the question of what honour is seems to be coloured through the lens of the Romatics such as Roussea. The colouring shades current popular western culture and language. As we know, the Romantic movement was a counter culture to the industrialisation emerging in Europe at the time. The value of intuition and emotion, not pure rationalism. In the USA the Romantics such as Coleridge and Wordsworth were picked up and developed further by Emerson, Thoreau and Fuller - into Transcendentalism. This in turn effected popular culture in the USA and in Europe as communication methods continued to evolve and develop. Now, the number of adaptations of for example the king Arthur myths and the knights of the round table into film format is quite stunning. In this example of course we have the blending of honour within Chivalry and the whole chivalric code alluded to by earlier contributor.


Simone Weil, in the continental tradition wrote a brief essay on honour in her book On the Need for Roots which was written during World War 2, at the request of the French Resistance in London in 'connexion with the policy to be pursued after liberation'. She wrote:

"Honour is a vital need of the soul. The respect due to every human being as such, even if effectively accorded, is not sufficient to satisfy this need, for it is identical for everyone and unchanging; whereas honour has to do with a human being considered not simply as such, but from the point of view of his social surroundings. This need is fully satisfied where each of the social organisms to which a human being belongs allows him to share in a noble tradition enshrined in its past history and given public acknowledgement..."

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