DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L036-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 07, 2020, from

Article Summary

Honour consists in living up to the expectations of a group – in particular, in keeping faith, observing promises, and telling truth. This restriction to a particular group is not easy to justify against the background of universalist theories of ethics, and neither does honour accord readily with the central modern concepts duty and utility. Honour requires a social context in which individuals can bind themselves, and has tended to be restricted to free, adult males, who alone have been thought to have the capacity to bind themselves in this way. Older traditions, however, regarded honour as the goal of all virtuous action; and newer thinkers have been rediscovering attractions in this view.

Honour is the disposition to fulfil promises and commitments, whether explicit or implicit, made to other members of a group. Honour has traditionally been important in public affairs, with political and commercial life resting on the notion that commitments must be ‘honoured’ even without explicit obligation by the person concerned.

Even thieves have honour, however, which seems to show that honour’s compatibility with dubious principles makes it a crude guide to moral action. In many respects, indeed, it looks morally atavistic. Hobbes’ disquisition about the nature of honour (1651) seems to voice only the crude principles of a society at war (compare Reiner 1972). Today, almost all functional applications of honour have been individualized and legalized. Nobody today fights duels; attempts to vindicate feminine honour would most often, if not always, meet with scorn; politicians no longer tend to resign; conduct in commercial organizations and other traditional concerns of honour are regulated by law. Only at the margins does scope for honour remain, for example vis-à-vis gambling debts, which are not recoverable by legal action.

Most modern philosophers would regard honour as superficial to the proper concerns of moral philosophy. Kant’s contrast between honour and ‘what is in fact useful or dutiful’ is probably typical ([1785] 1903: 398). Utilitarianism finds honour inexplicable, for the value of honourable behaviour is not rationally determined by its consequences (see Utilitarianism; Consequentialism). For deontology, the relativity of honour condemns it as cynical (compare the thieves) (see Deontological ethics).

None the less, Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics, called honour the ‘end of virtue’ (1115b13); modern virtue ethics more or less explicitly follows this tradition (see, for instance, MacIntyre 1980, Solomon 1993); and even consequentialists seem to be rediscovering its appeal (expressly in Hollis 1992). What has mainstream ethical individualism, with its bare choice between consequentialism and deontology, overlooked?

The structure of honour seems to be as follows. At its heart is a comparatively formal disposition, namely ‘fidelity, the observing of promises, and telling truth’ (Hume 1741/2: 294). The commitments entered into are not contractual in nature and do not presuppose reciprocal utility. Honour involves a context in which others also assume comparably onerous roles; but despite this background, individuals who assume a role bind in the first instance only themselves.

Only agents considered to have full capacity can bind themselves in this way. Historically, and to a degree even now, children, slaves and women cannot bind themselves, and hence commitments in relation to their roles have to be taken over by proxies (usually males of full age and capacity). Capacity is a condition for the possession of honour.

The content of the commitments assumed by the agent is dependent on social context – which is why thieves can still be honourable. The commitments may coincide with duty (deontologically conceived) or even utility; but they may equally be virtues of a kind not always directly reconstructible in this way, such as continence, bravery, generosity and so forth. They are not generalizable or absolute; the content of honour varies with the honourable society, and is subject to no universal codes.

The fact and degree of honour, by contrast, are amenable to general ascertainment, for the quantity of commitments satisfied is a measure of the agent’s capacity. Honour is most evident in those with the means to fulfil conspicuous promises. This is why princes and ‘magnificent persons’ are favourite illustrations of honour (in Aristotle and Hobbes), and why incapacities such as illness or poverty, even when undeserved, diminish honour. For Hobbes, honour is by its very nature a display of power, and ‘to honour’ is to acknowledge that power in others.

Honour is the final goal and completion of the virtues, which thus do not have value independently of the moment when they are undertaken in commitment to an honourable life (Nicomachean Ethics 1115b13; compare also 1122b7).

There are several obvious difficulties connected with the concept of honour. First, it is sometimes argued that honour is primarily a matter of status or of passively acquired reputation. If, however, honour is the sum of a person’s virtues, then personal merit must be involved to a degree. So contrary to Solomon’s view (1993), honour does depend on what one has done, or is taken to be prepared to do; simply being ‘a member of the group in good standing’ is a defective form of honour.

A second problem is the apparent connection between honour and uncritically affirmed collectives, as in ‘the honour of the school’, and so on. However, although honour requires an interpersonal context, only individuals possess it. Honour is the sum and goal of an individual’s virtues; it is not properly attributable to groups (football teams, nations, religions, or even, in the final degeneration of this kind of thinking, races). Commitment to the interests of some specific group, while no doubt essential to honour, does not entail conferring personality on it.

Third, honour reflects the interests and concerns of its social context, and other societies’ notions of honour can seem alienating or downright immoral. Nonetheless honour is a formal concept and can in principle be adapted to ‘enlightened’ concerns. Its central structural motif, that value resides not in individual acts or dispositions, but in their participation in an interpersonally directed whole, is present in a number of modern ethical systems. It is most obvious in Nietzsche, who in his doctrine of the ‘will to power’ institutes the same equivalence between honour and power as does Hobbes, while at the same time allowing for the virtues to be completed by power in a broader, nonpolitical sense (see Nietzsche, F. §11). It also emerges in G.E. Moore’s insistence that virtues have value only when practised for the sake of a higher ‘organic unity’ (1903: 225, 238; compare Nicomachean Ethics 1115b13) (see Moore, G.E.).

It remains an open question, perhaps, whether the nonuniversalism of systems founded on honour is not too restrictive for the scope of modern ethical intuitions, notably in such areas as international human rights (see Universalism in ethics §1). This is a difficulty for all nonuniversalist doctrines such as virtue ethics and communitarianism (see Community and communitarianism).

Citing this article:
Roberts, Julian. Honour, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L036-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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