Does honor matter?

Sommers’ 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’ 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.