Against Honor: It's an Attarctive Concept, But No Basis for Governing

David Blankenhorn, The Weekly Standard, 4/10/2000

Often, the code of honor is closely linked to the male's desire for fame and glory, typically achieved through military heroism and other displays of bravery and feats of physical strength and domination. The Greeks and Romans understood honor essentially this way. And Shakespeare's Henry V, in arguably the most stirring speech about honor in the English language, confesses to the men he is about to lead into battle: "But if it be a sin to covet honor, I am the most offending soul alive."

Read the Article >>

Subject: Civil Society

More by: David Blankenhorn

Almost single-handed, senator John McCain has revived the concept of personal honor as both the basis of a candidacy for president and the core of a governing philosophy. As his notable success in several winter primaries recedes into the past, McCainism may prove to have been a short-lived phenomenon, dependent on the senator's charisma and life story. But even if it does, it has set forth a proposition that deserves our attention – namely, that a distinctly civic faith, rooted in the ideals of patriotism, duty, and honor, constitutes the best moral framework for public service and political action.

The proposition has many supporters. Writing in this magazine, William Kristol and David Brooks endorse McCain's "basic innovation," the attempt to "redirect a religiously based moral conservatism into a patriotically grounded moral appeal." McCainism thus offers "a conflation of religion and patriotism" such that "when John McCain starts talking about religious faith, he ends up talking about patriotism," and "when McCain talks of remoralizing America, he talks in terms of reinvigorating patriotism." The editors of the New Republic similarly praise McCain's "crusade to reform the GOP," especially his goal of "reconstituting" the party around a moralism that is "defined patriotically, not religiously."

To understand what this might mean, read McCain's bestselling memoir, Faith of my Fathers, which stresses his fundamental commitment to "the sanctity of personal honor," calling it "the only lesson my father felt necessary to impart to me." For military men such as the McCains, the "demands of honor" are "not necessarily as many as those required of clergy," but they must be strictly embraced. And what are they? Do not lie, steal, or cheat. Keep your word. Do not shirk your duty. Admit mistakes forthrightly. Trust your comrades. Protect those for whom you are responsible.

Religion occasionally enters the discussion – the U.S. military's Code of Conduct for American Prisoners of War states, "I will trust in God and in the United States of America" – but usually only briefly and almost always in ways that, as Kristol and Brooks approvingly point out, morph religion into patriotism. In essence, the "demands of honor" concern personal conduct guided by patriotic duty.

This is an admirable code, and Americans should be thankful that it guides our military. Especially as we begin to reflect on the meaning of the Clinton presidency, the appeal of anyone in public life who seems genuinely to care about truth-telling and personal integrity is very great.

But "the sanctity of personal honor" is no ethical grounding for politics generally. In the first place – and with due respect to the Founders, who set much store by their "sacred honor" – honor is not necessarily "sacred" or intrinsically linked to "sanctity." Honor has two main meanings. It can refer to public reputation, respect paid by others, as in: We honor you. Or it can refer to personal fidelity to a code of conduct, as in: You behaved honorably. Sanctity, by contrast, means holiness or godliness and may or may not be conjoined with honor.

Indeed, these two ideals often sharply clash. Murderers and thieves can behave according to a strict code of conduct such as a code of silence or "respect" or "family honor." Fascism has its code of honor, as does communism. Anthropologists report that many societies and subcultures in human history have tended to orient behavior, especially male behavior, around notions of honor and shame. Such codes often generate high levels of conflict and violence.

In our own society, honor-shame codes have had an important (and probably underappreciated) influence. In the antebellum South, for example, according to Bertram Wyatt-Brown, the ideal of "Southern honor" significantly reinforced secessionism and helped shape the rationale for civil war. Elijah Anderson brilliantly describes the honor-shame code – the "code of the street," he calls it – that today shapes the behavior of many young African-American men in troubled inner cities. The code says: If you disrespect me, I will hurt you. A century and a half ago, similar "demands of honor," equally linked to violent outcomes, guided the behavior of many young American males under the "code of the West."

Often, the code of honor is closely linked to the male's desire for fame and glory, typically achieved through military heroism and other displays of bravery and feats of physical strength and domination. The Greeks and Romans understood honor essentially this way. And Shakespeare's Henry V, in arguably the most stirring speech about honor in the English language, confesses to the men he is about to lead into battle: "But if it be a sin to covet honor, I am the most offending soul alive."

The relevant point, however, is that Henry knows it is a sin to covet honor. For people with religious faith – for those who seek after sanctity or godliness – coveting honor is a sin because honor can never be an end in itself. Honor is not a free-standing ideal. It always depends for its ultimate meaning on something larger than honor. Honor is a path, but honor by itself cannot tell us where the path is leading.

For this reason, the Bible speaks little of honor as a life goal or way of living. The Book of Proverbs tells us that "before honor is humility." The fourth commandment, "Honor your father and mother," domesticates honor, placing it within the context of family. In this and similar ways, for the Jews, honor largely shifts from an achievement to an offering.

In the New Testament, insofar as honor means public esteem, Jesus shows little if any regard for it. He says plainly, "I receive not honor from men." He also chastises those who "receive honor from one another" yet "seek not the honor that comes from God only." And insofar as honor implies a code of conduct that refuses to suffer slights, Jesus regularly offends against its demands, as in his injunction to turn the other cheek.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church includes an extensive discussion of the virtues, but it contains hardly a mention of honor. Discussing the eighth commandment, "Do not bear false witness," the catechism briefly defines honor as "the social witness given to human dignity." Understood in this sense, honor is a good to which all persons have a natural right, since all persons, as children of God, possess dignity. But again, honor is strictly subordinated to something bigger that gives honor its substance and direction.

Indeed, according to some scholars, a major cultural achievement of Judaism and then Christianity was to challenge the primacy of honor-shame codes as guides for behavior, offering instead a new ethic of humility, charity, and obedience to God. No longer would greatness belong only or even mainly to kings and military leaders pursuing glory through rule and conquest. The new idea was that greatness means godliness and "comes from God only." The new idea transforms honor. It chastens patriotism. It also helps make democracy possible.

Fundamental to democracy is the notion that government is not all-powerful, and the limits on its power come from sources higher than the state. Thus is democracy closely allied to the conviction that independent moral truth trumps civic pride, and human rights come from God. Democratic government operates under, and draws its legitimacy from, a moral canopy not of its own making. So when faith and honor are conflated – when morality degenerates into mere patriotism – a foundation of democracy is threatened.

For all the honor due our military heroes, honor cannot supply the basis for our politics.

This article originally appeared here.

Follow

Institute for American Values, 420 Lexington Avenue, Room 1706, New York, NY 10170

212.246.3942