I recently contributed an essay on loyalty
, pointing out that philosophers have not had much to say on the topic. The reason, I suggested, is that loyalty is a concept which is applied to specific types of situation – such as the emotional ties we may have to our family or trade union or profession. Philosophers tend to be more interested in concepts with more general application, such as freedom or truth-telling. Honour is in the same category as loyalty, and indeed the concepts are related.
But although honour is not much written about by philosophers, it occurs in novels, plays and cultural and anthropological studies, and historically it has been the source of bitter disputes or indeed war. Before tackling these issues of substance, I should note that the words 'honour' and 'honours' are nowadays used in a variety of contexts. For example, advised by the government, the Queen has an 'Honours List' which consists of distinguished scientists, literary figures, or donors to the Conservative Party. More humbly, someone might say: 'I am honoured to be asked to speak/present the prizes, etc'. There are numerous similar forms of speech whose origins are for cultural historians.
The more substantial import of the word is, perhaps fortunately, in decline, at least in the West. This is the meaning which occurs in contexts such as 'family honour', especially when the family is aristocratic. When I was in the Army there was a song which began like this:
It nearly broke the family's heart
When Lady Jane became a tart.
But blood is blood, and race is race
And so to save the family's face
They found for her a quiet beat
On the shady side of Jermyn Street.
The song could be sung to the tune of a well-known hymn, and I remember we were singing it when the Padre arrived and praised us for being a pious barrack room. I will not attempt to remember the other verses, but even as quoted, some of the words reflect the values of honour, such as 'family', 'blood', 'race', and 'face'.
In addition to remembering bawdy songs, I also remember another feature of barrack room life. A certain amount of pilfering of Army goods went on. It was possible to break into the Quarter Master's stores and use the goods to improve our down-trodden lives. But there was absolutely no question of stealing from your mates in the barrack room. That would have been the pits of dishonour. And no question either of reporting the theft from the QM's stores. That would have been disloyal. Honour can exist among thieves.
The importance of family honour, as I said, is in decline and is made fun of in PG Woodhouse novels with phrases like 'the code of the Woosters'. But family honour is still alive in other cultures and is shown by the 'honour killings' of family members, usually female, for marrying against family wishes, for homosexuality, or even for dressing in ways out of line with the culture.
And military honour (and its cousin loyalty) are much more central in some Army units than they were in my genial barrack room. There have been dark films about the consequences in certain elite military units for not maintaining the standards of conduct which elite military honour demands.
Sociologists sometimes contrast societies based on honour with those based on law. A society based on law will have codified procedures for maintaining and enacting justice. In such societies (our own for example), the members are willing to give up some of their freedoms provided the law and its enforcers are willing to protect them and their interests in a more or less equitable manner. This is the only type of organisation which is feasible in large industrial societies.
But in smaller societies, or mainly agrarian societies, cultures regulated by honour can exist and have existed. In the Highlands of Scotland, for example, justice would be administered by the clan chief according to the honour codes of the clan. One of the darkest breaches of an honour code was the massacre of the MacDonalds by government forces in Glencoe in 1692. The MacDonalds had given hospitality to these soldiers (Campbells). The MacDonalds were then murdered in their beds. Hospitality is a central duty of an honour code and this flagrant breach of it still seems outrageous at the present day.
But honour has a part to play even in law/rights-based cultures. This can be illustrated by international law. It is barely possible for courts of international law to impose sanctions but the reputation of countries in breach of them suffers. Even some supporters of Boris Johnson and his circle were appalled when he indicated his willing to breach a treaty with the EU in order to further British interests (as he thought) in Northern Ireland. Even the threat to breach international law damaged the British reputation. National honour requires that international treaties be honoured.
So far, I have been portraying honour as a moral concept which applies to groups such as families or agrarian societies, and to countries when they make international treaties. But it can also apply to individuals. This has a good and a bad side. One of its bad sides concerns the practice of duelling. Perceived insults or breaches of unwritten codes have been occasions for duelling. Duelling concerned mainly or entirely males. Opera goers will remember the duel in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin
when Onegin is provoked into a duel with pistols and kills his opponent. That shocks even today. The great Russian writer Pushkin, who wrote the story of Onegin, was killed in a duel in 1837 defending his wife's honour.
Duels were upper-class and/or military affairs but working-class individuals would defend their reputation with their fists. If you will forgive yet another story from my Army life, I remember someone in the barrack room was caught reading a letter lying on a comrade's bed. The letter had just arrived from a girlfriend or mother. This led to a punch-up which was considered justifiable by the barrack room. After a few minutes, the fight was stopped after the rest of us thought that honour had been satisfied. Hands were then shaken.
Honour has an ancient history. It plays an important part in the culture of the Greek and Roman worlds. The culture was that of Stoicism. Sometimes honour was thought to require that a soldier or a statesman, such as Seneca, to fall on his sword or otherwise commit suicide.
Adam Smith (who was much influenced by Stoicism) discusses a case in which honour plays a central role. The case is that of the highwayman who by the fear of death obliges a traveller to promise him a sum of money. The question is whether such a promise, extorted by force, ought to be regarded as obligatory. Smith argues that if we view the matter as a question of jurisprudence – or a law-based morality – there is no problem; the traveller could not be held to be legally bound by his promise.
But if we view it as a moral problem the answer is not so easy. The good man might feel himself bound by the promise – it all depends on the circumstances, how much the sum was, how the traveller was treated by the highwayman, and so on. But the important point, Smith stresses, is that 'whenever such promises are violated, though for the most necessary reasons, it is always with some degree of dishonour to the person who made them... Our imagination therefore attaches the idea of shame to all violations of faith, in every circumstance and in every situation... Fidelity is so necessary a virtue, that we apprehend it in general to be due even to those to whom nothing else is due, and whom we think it lawful to kill and destroy' (Theory of Moral Sentiments
A more up-to-date example of Adam Smith's claim is the case of the IRA man who forced his Protestant hostages to promise on the Bible not to give evidence to the police. The hostages were later advised by their minister that they had an obligation to keep the promise.
I illustrated the importance of family honour in my barrack room song about Lady Jane. A much more poetic illustration of honour can be found in Walter de la Mare's poem The Listeners
'Is there anybody there?' said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
... 'Tell them I came, and no-one answered,
That I kept my word', he said.
But the importance of honour, at least as it applies to individuals, can be summed up by that most unpoetic of philosophers, John Locke: 'Truth and the keeping of faith belong to men as men and not as members of society'. (Second Treatise of Civil Government
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow