Yet the very fact that lions seem honorable and dogs do not suggests that there is a stubborn persistence to the concept of honor: We are supposed to know it when we see it. To be honorable is to be brave, committed, and self-sacrificing. It means living by a code, and putting the group before the individual. Traditionally, it was warriors who prided themselves on their honor; but as Sommers observes, a sense of honor is crucial to any elite group. The Marines have it, with their slogan, “The few, the proud, the Marines,” but so do professional hockey players and stand-up comedians. All of these identities are bound up with a sense of pride, commitment, and high standards—the key ingredients of honor. Members of such “honor cultures,” Sommers writes, “regard their reputation, their honor, as their most treasured possession, far more important than money or property.”
To Sommers, honor and the struggle to achieve it are important parts of a good life, fostering values like “courage, integrity, solidarity, drama, hospitality, a sense of purpose and meaning.” And it is these very things, he argues, that 21st-century Americans are lacking. Indeed, Sommers finds the decline of honor responsible for many social problems. Anti-immigration rhetoric, he writes, plays on selfish fears, trying to portray immigrants as threatening—all members of ISIS or MS-13. Sommers argues that this line of attack could be challenged by an appeal to Americans’ generosity and hospitality, which are central values in any honor-based culture. Why not rally people around the slogan “We’re not cowards; we’re Americans,” Sommers asks, encouraging people to see fearfulness as an insult to the nation’s self-respect?
Again, Sommers sees our dysfunctional criminal-justice system as a casualty of America’s disregard for honor. Because society is motivated by fear instead of pride, Americans tolerate mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline—any amount of injustice, so long as crime statistics go down. Sommers is particularly sensitive to the way that the current justice system ignores the honor of both criminals and victims. In honor-based cultures, he emphasizes, the victim of a crime is responsible for avenging it, because he or she has been personally injured. In American law, on the other hand, a crime is not considered an attack against a person, only against the state and its laws. As a result, victims play little role in the punishment process, and are denied the chance to regain their lost honor. Nor can criminals repair their honor by making amends to those they have injured. As a result, trials rarely satisfy the deepest needs of individuals or of society.
Sommers’s arguments for honor make it sound like an attractive and necessary virtue. But as he acknowledges, you don’t have to look very far before you start finding their weaknesses and downsides. The Marines and the National Hockey League care about honor, but so do street gangs or the Mafia, who feel compelled to defend their honor even when this involves killing their rivals. It is also notable that almost all of Sommers’s examples of honor groups are all-male: Honor is traditionally something that men possess, and that women pay the price for. Honor killings, such as when men murder their daughters or sisters to preserve their family’s reputation, may be the purest expression of what honor means. For an inside group to enjoy the privilege of being honorable, there must be an outside group who are considered dishonorable: Men have honor at the expense of women, aristocrats at the expense of commoners, warriors at the expense of civilians. When you look at it in this way, most of the moral advances of modern society—from the abolition of slavery to the emancipation of women—start to look like victories over an antiquated ideal of honor.