Does Honor Matter?

A new book argues it’s a virtue that can motivate people to struggle against injustice—but doesn't adequately consider the more pernicious ways it manifests in society.

A boy salutes at sunset
Tahreer Photography / Getty

What is the virtue we most urgently need more of in America today? A few obvious answers come to mind: honesty, to counteract the corruption at the highest levels of government; compassion, to spur action to help the poor and powerless; patience, to deal with an increasingly toxic public discourse. But in his new book, Tamler Sommers, a philosopher at the University of Houston, argues on behalf of a more unexpected virtue—one that some people don’t consider a virtue at all. What Americans ought to cultivate, he writes, is a sense of honor. “Honor,” he writes in Why Honor Matters, is “indispensable … for living a good life in a good and just society.”

But what exactly is honor? As Sommers acknowledges, it is a slippery word, used in a wide variety of contexts, from honor societies to honor killings. When it appears on its own, it has a quaint sound: Honor is what led aristocrats to fight duels at 10 paces. And there is a robust tradition in modern thought that has nothing but contempt for the idea of honor. Perhaps the most famous description of honor in English literature is the speech Falstaff makes in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One, in which he justifies being cowardly—that is, dishonorable—on the battlefield: “What is honor? A word … Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No.” Falstaff knows that it is senseless to throw away your life for a mere word; as the Bible puts it, it’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion.

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.

As it happens, the 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.” Honor encourages self-reliance and independent action, where dignity relies on a state apparatus to protect our rights—a protection that it very often fails to provide.

Yet Sommers’s idealized picture of honor ignores many of the ways it actually manifests itself in our society. Take his examples of problems for which honor is the proposed solution—fear of immigrants and fear of crime. Sommers does not adequately consider the possibility that, in fact, it is not fear that motivates these political positions, but hatred—specifically, racial hatred. It is no coincidence that it is black and Latino youth who are the primary victims of mass incarceration, or that it is Latino and Middle Eastern immigrants who are most demonized by immigration opponents.

And American racism, ironically, can be thought of as a classic form of honor-thinking. 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. Indeed, a convincing case could be made that what ails America today is the inflamed honor of groups, from neo-Nazis to incels, who want to preserve their elite status in the face of “dignity-based” democratic challenges. 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.