Honour (also honor in American English; from the Latin word honor) is an abstract concept entailing a perceived quality of worthiness and respectability that affects both the social standing and the self-evaluation of an individual or corporate body such as a family, school, regiment or nation. Accordingly,individuals (or corporate bodies) are assigned worth and stature based on the harmony of their actions with a specific code of honour, and the moral code of the society at large.
Honour can be viewed in the light of Psychological nativism as being as real to the human condition as love, and likewise deriving from the formative personal bonds that establish one’s personal dignity and character. From the point of moral relativism, honour is perceived as arising from universal concerns for material circumstance and status, rather than fundamental differences in principle between those who hold different honour codes.
Dr Samuel Johnson, in his A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), defined honour as having several senses, the first of which was“nobility of soul, magnanimity, and a scorn of meanness.” This sort of honour derives from the perceived virtuous conduct and personal integrity of the person endowed with it. On the other hand, Johnson also defined honour in relationship to “reputation” and “fame“; to “privileges of rank or birth”, and as “respect” of the kind which “places an individual socially and determines his right to precedence.” This sort of honour is not so much a function of moral or ethical excellence, as it is a consequence of power. Finally, with respect to sexuality,honour has traditionally been associated with (or identical to) “chastity” or “virginity“, or in case of married men and women, “fidelity“. Some have argued that honour should be seen more as a rhetoric, or set of possible actions, than as a code.
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Honour as a code of behaviour defines the duties of an individual within a social group. Margaret Visser observes that in an honour-based society “a person is what he or she is in the eyes of other people”. A code of honour differs from a legal code, also socially defined and concerned with justice, in that honour remains implicit rather than explicit and objectified.
In the early medieval period, a lord’s or lady’s honour was the group of manors or lands he or she held. “The word was first used indicating an estate which gave its holder dignity and status.” For a person to say “on my honour” was not just an affirmation of his or her integrity and rank, but the veracity behind that phrase meant he or she was willing to offer up estates as pledge and guarantee.
The concept of honour appears to have declined in importance in the modern West; conscience has replaced it in the individual context, and the rule of law and the rights and duties defined therein have taken over in a social context. Popular stereotypes would have it surviving more definitively in more tradition-bound cultures (e.g. Pashtun, Southern Italian, Polish,Persian, Turkish, Arab, Iberian, “Old South” or Dixie). Feudal or other agrarian societies, which focus upon land use and land ownership, may tend to “honour” more than do contemporary industrial societies. Note that Saint Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033 – 1109) in Cur Deus Homo extended the concept of honour from his own feudal society to postulate God’s honour.
An emphasis on the importance of honour exists in such traditional institutions as the military (serving officers may conduct a court of honour) and in organisations with a military ethos, such as Scouting organisations.
Honour in the case of sexuality frequently relates, historically, to fidelity: preservation of “honour” equates primarily to maintenance of the virginity of singles and to the exclusive monogamy of the remainder of the population. Further conceptions of this type of honour vary widely between cultures; some cultures regard honour killings of (mostly female) members of one’s own family as justified if the individuals have “defiled the family’s honour” by marrying against the family’s wishes, or even by being the victims of rape. Western observers generally see these honour killings as a way of men using the culture of honour to control female sexuality.
Skinners, executioners, grave-diggers, shepherds, barber-surgeons, millers, linen-weavers, sow-gelders, latrine-cleaners, and bailiffs and their families were among the “dishonourable people” (unehrliche Leute) in early modern German society.
Cultures of honour and cultures of law
Various sociologists and anthropologists have contrasted cultures of honour with cultures of law. A culture of law has a body of laws which must be obeyed by all, with punishments for transgressors. This requires a society with the structures required to enact and enforce laws. A culture of law incorporates an unwritten social contract: members of society agree to give up some aspects of their freedom to defend themselves and retaliate for injuries, on the understanding that transgressors will be apprehended and punished by society.
For a closer understanding of the way in which ideas of honour (and related shame) are linked to social structures such as law and religion, a reading of the works of Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, is worthwhile, particularly with reference to his discussions of the idea of “habitus”.
From the viewpoint of anthropologists, cultures of honour typically appear among nomadic peoples and herdsmen who carry their most valuable property with them and risk having it stolen, without having recourse to law enforcement or to government. In this situation, inspiring fear forms a better strategy than promoting friendship; and cultivating a reputation for swift and disproportionate revenge increases the safety of one’s person and property. Thinkers ranging from Montesquieu to Steven Pinker have remarked upon the mindset needed for a culture of honour.
According to Richard Nisbett, Cultures of honour will often arise when three conditions exist:
- A scarcity of resources
- The benefit of theft and crime outweighs the risks
- A lack of sufficient law enforcement (such as in geographically remote regions)
Historically, cultures of honour exist in places where the herding of animals dominates an economy. In this situation the geography is usually extensive since the soil cannot support extensive sustained farming and thus large populations; the benefit of stealing animals from other herds is high since it is the main form of wealth; and there is no central law-enforcement or rule of law. However cultures of honour can also appear in places like modern inner-city slums. The three conditions exist here as well: lack of resources (poverty); crime and theft have a high rewards compared to the alternatives (few); and law enforcement is generally lax or corrupt.
Once a culture of honour exists in a society, its members find it difficult to make the transition to a culture of law; this requires that people become willing to back down and refuse to immediately retaliate, and from the viewpoint of the culture of honour, this tends to appear to be an unwise act reflecting weakness.
In contemporary international relations, the concept of “credibility” resembles that of honour, as when the credibility of a state or of an alliance appears to be at stake, and honour-bound politicians call for drastic measures.
The ancient Greek concepts of honour (timē) included not only the exaltation of the one receiving honour, but also the shaming of the one overcome by the act of hubris. This concept of honour resembles a zero-sum game.
In ancient China during the Warring States period, honour in battle was one of the many forms of virtue practised by the nobility. In one oft-cited example,Duke Xiang of the Song state chose not to take the enemy by surprise; instead, he and his forces waited for the enemy to go across the river. This marked conduct worthy of the accolade descriptor ren (仁), worthy of the name of “gentleman.” In response to this textbook example, Mao Zedong is quoted: “We are not Duke Xiang of Song and have no use for his idiotic virtue and morality.”
Pre-modern Korean thought and society was largely dominated by the preservation of honour and was especially concerned with the ruling yangban elite in the Joseon Dynasty. In particular, one of the most profound influences from the Joseon Dynasty is the figure of the Seonbi, or “virtuous scholar”. The seonbi were ideal, exemplary noblemen of Confucian teachings who exhibited high competency in both academics and martial arts. Despite their obvious qualifications for important government posts, the seonbi eschewed titles and extravagance for the sake of personal development, often living in humble homes. They were expected to be fiercely loyal to the King of Joseon and lay down their lives in battle or in defense of their King, rather than choose treason. Inspired by the righteous nature of the seonbi, the modern Korean term of the “seonbi spirit” calls for maintaining personal honour and conduct, even in the face of certain death.
According to Bushido, the Code of the Warrior in feudal Japan, honour was always seen as a duty by Samurai. When one lost their honour or the situation made them lose it, the only way to save their dignity was by death. Seppuku (vulgarly called “harakiri“, or “belly-cutting”) was the most honourable death in that situation. The only way for a Samurai to die more honourably was to be killed in a battle by a sword.
For a similar concept with many connotations opposite to honour, see shame.
In many countries the term honour can refer to an award given by the state. Such honours include military medals, but more typically imply a civilian award, such as a British OBE, aknighthood or membership of the French Légion d’honneur.
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- Honour code
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- Honorary degree
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- Bowman, James. Honor: A History. Encounter Books, 2006. ISBN 1-59403-142-8. Cf. excerpts from writings of James Bowman on Honor. Personal website of James Bowman. Accessed 16 May 2007.
- de Secondat, Charles, Baron de Montesquieu. The Spirit of the Laws. 2 vols. Esteban Pallares “The Honorable Pallares” Originally published anonymously. 1748; Crowder, Wark, and Payne, 1777. External link to digitised copy of The Spirit of the Laws book in public domain.
- d’Iribarne, Philippe. The Logic of Honor: National Traditions and Corporate Management. Welcome Rain Publishers, 2003. ISBN 978-1-56649-182-2.
- Hauser, Marc. Moral Minds: How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong. New York: Ecco Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-06-078070-8.
- Hein, David. “Rethinking Honor”. Journal of Thought 17.1 (Spring 1982): 3–6.
- Hein, David. “Learning Responsibility and Honor“. Washington Times, 3 July 2008.
- Hein, David. “Christianity and Honor.” The Living Church, August 18, 2013, pp. 8–10.
- Nisbett, Richard E., and Dov Cohen. Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. Westview, 1996. ISBN 0-8133-1993-5.
- Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2002. ISBN 0-670-03151-8.
- Doris, Jim (2003-01-05). “A conversation with Margaret Visser: diagnosing that feeling of helplessness”. Catholic New Times. Retrieved 2011-03-10.
- “…dignity abides with him alone / Who, in the silent hour of inward thought, / Can still suspect, and still revere himself….” William Wordsworth, “Yew Tree”http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww119.html.
- A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases, Christopher Corédon, 2004, D.S. Brewer, Cambridge, ISBN 1-84384-023-5
- Ignatieff, Michael (1997). The Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience. New york New York: Henry Holt and Co. pp. parifrased from whole book.
- Lindberg, Carter (2009). A Brief History of Christianity. Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion. John Wiley & Sons. p. 232. ISBN 9781405148870. Retrieved 2012-12-30. “Anselm’s understanding of sin posits that sin is an objective deprivation of the honour that belongs to God. The decisive concept of the honour of God reflects Anselm’s feudal social world. To deprive a person of his or her honour was a fundamental crime against the social order. Furthermore, such an offence is proportionately magnified according to the status of the person in the hierarchical order […]”
- “Honour killings of girls and women”. Amnesty International library (Amnesty International). 1999-08-31. Retrieved 2013-12-03.
- Defiled Trades and Social Outcasts – Honor and Ritual Pollution in Early Modern Germany, Cambridge University Press, 2000
- Richard Nisbett. Culture of Honor. 1996. ISBN 0-8133-1992-7
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- America, Truth, and Honor
- Il Canto di Malavita is a collection of three recordings from PIAS of the folk music of the Calabrian Ndrangheta, an organised crime group operating in southern Italy. Members call themselves L’Onorata, the “men of honour”; the lyrics to these songs prominently feature murder and revenge against betrayers and informers, and offer a glimpse into the self-image of a culture of honour.