Honor and Equality: Conundrum or Triviality?

In her own little recesses of the internet, a friend of mine posted a breathtakingly and poignant article today talking about enech, or “face”- the concept we tend to call honor, as it applies to Irish faith. It got me thinking about what Honor actually is, and how it applies in a modern context.

Honor’s one of those things that people talk about but rarely define; we all know what it is in a sort of intangible sense…. But actually defining it as a tangible concept is difficult at best for the vast majority of us- myself included.

Ironically, of all the places I could have found a working definition of honor, it was The Art of Manliness and their article titled Manly Honor: Part I — What Is Honor? that finally made it tangible for me; while I suggest reading the full article as it appears on their site, it is lengthy. So to paraphrase in a heavily cobbled manner:

Anthropologist Frank Henderson Stewart makes the case that honor comes in two types: horizontal and vertical […] Alexander Welsh makes the case that for vertical honor to exist, horizontal honor must first be present; without a baseline of mutual respect among equal peers (horizontal honor), winning praise and esteem (vertical honor) means very little.

Horizontal honor = mutual respect […] An honor group consists of individuals who understand and have committed to live [by] the [group’s] code of honor […] a code of honor lays out the [unyielding] standards that must be reached in order for a person to receive respect within a group; what it takes to obtain honor (or respect), and how it may be lost […] That everyone in the group has [agreed to abide by the code of honor] is understood by all other members of the group.

[…] The honor group needs to be tight-knit and intimate. A society governed by mutual respect requires everyone in the society to know each other and interact face-to-face. [And since] Honor is based on the judgments of other members in the group, the opinion of those members must matter to you […] When individuals stop caring whether they’ve lost their right to respect in the group (i.e. living without shame), honor loses its power to compel and check individuals’ behavior.

Vertical honor, on the other hand, isn’t about mutual respect [… it’s about …] praise, esteem, admiration […] Vertical honor, by its nature, is hierarchical and competitive; it goes to the man who not only lives the code of honor, but excels at doing so.

So “honor” as our forebears understood it consisted of two parts: respect from the honor group (horizontal honor) and praise from the honor group (vertical honor). Implicit in this bipartite notion of honor is that it depends on the opinion of others. You can have a sense of your own honor, but that isn’t enough — others must recognize your honor for it to exist. Or as anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers put it: “Honour is the value of a person in his own eyes, but also in the eyes of his society […]”. Thus, honor is a reputation worthy of respect and admiration [in the eyes of our peers].

Essentially, according to their model, Honor is one’s respect, reputation, and social standing among peers, which is specifically garnered through abiding by the social contract shared between members of the same social group- and their opinions about how well you abide by it.

The more you do (or appear to) abide by that social contract, the more social and moral respect you garner from your fellow members, the better your reputation. And the more social and moral respect you garner, the better your reputation, the greater your social status with the other members- and the better your are viewed compared to those outside of it. But break the social contract, disregard the rules, and you find yourself without honor; your reputation has been blemished and you must work to regain it.

Their model clicks almost flawlessly into that sort of intangible social understanding of honor that we carry with us today, and it makes sense on a strange level within the recesses of my mind. However, it wasn’t far into the article that something I read had me shaking my head: The assertion by AoM that “Egalitarianism and honor cannot coexist”.

Honor groups must also be exclusive. If everyone and anyone can be part of the group, regardless of whether they live by the code or not, then honor becomes meaningless. Egalitarianism and honor cannot coexist.

I think this assertion is really strange on a number of levels, to be honest. To try and suss through this, though, I’m going to use their own analogy of Honor being a “club” you join by following the rule. With this in mind, the first thing that bothers me is their driving home of the exclusive nature required for honor to function.

Ultimately I do agree with the assertion that honor groups must be exclusive in order to function appropriately in society. After all, honor is something that by its very definition- whether we are defining it as the authors at the Art of Manliness have, or defining it in the nebulous, intangible way we have for the last few decades- must be socially earned through the approval of your peers. And anything that has to be socially earned arguably puts you within an exclusive social group that elevates you (and its other members) above those who haven’t earned it yet or who are not members of that group- as well as above (or below) those within the group with variable levels of honor in relation to your own.

And therein lies my first problem: If you have to put forth specific effort to gain honor, and you have to have honor in order to join the club? Then there’s arguably no way to be a member of the club without performing those specific actions; without having honor. Ergo, the club is already exclusive by nature of that effort even being required.

You can certainly have more or less honor compared to those within the group, but there’s no middle ground in regards to whether or not you’re a member of that group in the first place. You either follow the social rules and are honorable, and are therefore a member of the club… Or you don’t, and you’re not. Exclusive is therefore its default state of existence. It’s arguably the club’s only state of existence, really; the only state it’s capable of existing in.

But something doesn’t add up when you throw Egalitarianism into the mix- especially if you’re saying that it cannot exist alongside honor without conflict. Because they don’t conflict. Not unless you’re using an inaccurate and poorly constructed definition of Egalitarianism to begin with. And unfortunately, while AoM has gotten the definition of Honor right (or about as right as I can comfortably say without any real frame of reference in the modern era), that’s exactly what they’re done with Egalitarianism: They’ve gotten it wrong.

When AoM talks about equality in relation to Honor, what they’re really talking about is social and moral respect; viewing someone as your social and moral equal on the foundation that you’re all a member of the same club and therefore abide by the same social contract that exists between its members.

But Egalitarianism isn’t about social or moral respect. It’s really about Humanitarianism because Egalitarianism, at its core, is the recognition of shared Humanity; the ideology that because we are all still Human despite our many differences, all people are born as inherent equals on the most basic and fundamental levels. As a result, we all have the exact same base worth and value as one another, and we all deserve the same fundamental sociopolitical and economic rights and opportunities, and treatment, as anyone else.

In other words: Respect, social status, and reputation- those things we lump together and call Honor- isn’t linear. It’s a sliding scale; it’s a series of stepping stones, really.

Egalitarianism says that Johnny, Susan, Carol, and I are all fundamentally the same. We deserve the same opportunities and rights as one another, because we’re all Human. So if I made a basket of cookies then I would give some to Johnny, Carol, and Susan equally because there’s no reason for me not to; I wouldn’t treat any of them any differently than another on a base level. They’d all be treated with the same politeness of behavior and the same fundamental respect as anyone else that I encountered.

But if Carol is a member of my social group and Susan and Johnny are not? Then Honor dictates that I treat Carol better than the others on a social level, so long as she continues to abide by the mutually agreed upon rules of the social group we’re both a member of. So I might throw in a plate of brownies for Carol in addition to the cookies that everyone received, in recognition of that social contract and her agreement to abide by it.

But that social group her and I inhabit together doesn’t suddenly cease to be exclusive just because I made sure that everyone got cookies. Everyone deserves cookies, after all. But not everyone deserves cookies and brownies. In order to earn brownies for themselves, they’d still have to join- and gain honor within- the social group that Carol and I are members of. And the second Carol breaks the social contract? She still gets cookies, but she stops getting brownies and she must then work to re-earn her right to have them. Because all people have equal value and rights… But the Social Contract only applies to (and protects) those who participate in it.

What I’m trying to say, really, is that Egalitarianism dictates that you give a baseline of respect to everyone regardless of their social group (cookies). This means that everyone starts at the same baseline level somewhere in the middle of the scale. You move up or down on the scale (lose or gain honor) based on your actions; whether or not you abide by the understood social contracts of the groups you find yourself a member of. The farther you move up on that scale by abiding by that social contract, the more additional respect you gain from- and higher social status you have among- (brownies) your peers. within that group.

As a result, one can (in fact) still treat the general members of society with basic humanist respect while still holding true to the exclusive nature of “honor clubs”; honor and egalitarianism can coexist, and the two aren’t in conflict at all. To say that they are ultimately shows a flawed view of what Egalitarianism is in the first place.

Signature Blue

The Banner Image for this post was provided by StockSnap; the Banner Image for the main site is my own work.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s