The Decline of Honour: Honour as Political Policy

In contemporary society responding to insults with violence is considered to be brutish behavior, yet only a few hundred years ago it was precisely this that defined the highest classes of society. The definition of honour has changed in modern times. Traditionally honour is about meeting a group’s expectations of manliness, usually in a martial context. To be honourable a man must be capable and willing of inflicting violence in socially acceptable ways. This may seem barbaric to modern sensibilities but there is a logic behind it and vestiges of traditional honour are still present today. Understanding honour is vital to understanding historical cultures and can give useful insights into our political and personal lives.

Honour is a powerful force that helps create social order and stability, however the larger a society becomes the less effective honour becomes. In a hunter-gatherer tribe honour is sufficient to maintain order within the tribe and with other tribes. A tribe being small enough that everyone knows everyone’s abilities and character. Every man in the tribe must meet the honour code. An unhonourable man is a burden and will be excommunicated or killed. Neighboring tribes who know one another to be honourable will be reluctant to use violence since honour implies warriorship. If a tribe loses its honour a near by tribe may be inclined to attack to win resources and women since they are not likely to meet considerable resistance. Tribes are a pure honour culture, every member is honourable and every tribe is honourable or else they will be eliminated. A man’s social rank is directly related to his honour in a tribe.

Standards for male honour are generally consistent throughout all cultures. Honour has always been associated with warriors. Battle requires group cohesion and unity for a side to be victorious. A man’s place in the social hierarchy will be based on his abilities compared to his peers. This creates a competitive atmosphere in which each man wants to prove himself so he can earn the most respect. Once the hierarchy has been formed it is generally stable. Members who attempt to disrupt the order will not be tolerated. Soldiers are expected to carry out commands without question and submit to their superiors. It is by developing competence that a person may advance in an honour culture. Virtues such as strength, courage and loyalty are valued most highly in an honour society. Of course the other classic virtues such as discipline, wisdom, honesty and justice are also valued. One gains honour by displaying honest signals of these traits to their peer group. For example saying you can pick up a rock is not an honest signal, anyone can say that, actually picking it up is an honest signal of strength. While honour is dependent on perception it is not something you can fake. Honour is about proving you posses the traits your peers value. Because of this we see some variations in ideas of honour between classes. Generally more civilized classes will value humane virtues such as wisdom, self-control, and mercy along with martial virtues. Lower classes only value the beastly virtues such as strength and courage which can be also be found in animals. Traditional honour is a male concept that allows for an effective fighting force.

Female-honour is very different from the honour we are discussing. It is in the best interests of a society to protect its women from the brutal risks of warriorship. In a given society half the men can die in a war and in one generation it will have recovered. If half the women die that tribe will take many generations to recover. Thus it is an evolutionary advantage for a society to view men as expendable while women should be protected. Traditional honour acknowledges this fact. For example in early democracies voting conferred the obligation of military service when needed. Thus women should not have the right to vote since they should not be drafted. Women are shielded from combat roles so they are not judged as men are. I have heard the term a honour conflated with chastity and even a virtue like beauty isn’t an honest signal when you consider the use of make up. These are not the honest signals that a judgment of character can be formed from, but they are what women are traditionally valued for. This is why I think female-honour is not the same concept as what I am writing about. While women can display traits valued in a traditional honour system they are at a natural disadvantage when tested for strength, a trait needed to succeed in an honour based society. Thus it is fair to have different standards for the sexes.

In the spirit of equality I think if a woman can meet the same standards as men she should be allowed into an honour group. However only a minority of women can meet standards meant to eliminate weak men and it should not be implied that women are expected to meet them nor should the standards be lowered. It is reasonable why a society would want to exclude women from serving as soldiers. I feel women should not be allowed into combat roles even today. Few women show a desire for combat and even fewer can meet the requirements. Consider standards for the bench press, a common measurement of upper body strength.

By these standards “elite” women barely make the intermediate level when tried under the standard for men. We can not expect soldiers to reach an “elite” level in power lifting and still have time to develop all the other necessary skills of war. As demonstrated by incidents such as the Kara Hultgreen tragedy women are not held to the same standard as men in practice, often due to political motivations. There is a reason all societies send out their men to fight first. A society that places its women into war will be eliminated by a society that doesn’t. Traditional honour codes exclude women for good reason.

Duels are an important part of honour cultures. Duels provide means for two parties dispute resolution without the need to refer to a neutral party and will produce a result both find agreeable. Duels will be a part of a societies when even losing a duel will be benefit your reputation. Dueling is an honest signal of courage and martial skill. Ideally duels present a threat of physical harm while being mostly non-lethal. It was a corruption of the ruling class when they thought dueling with guns was more honourable than boxing. Even a slight puncture to the abdomen is likely to be lethal via infection without modern medicine while boxing is a safe recreational sport. I think fighting with swords while wearing amour and not allowing thrusts is safe enough to be noble but using rapiers while unarmored is too deadly to be acceptable.

Civilized men need to show self-restraint when they use force and therefore will arrange the duel when both parties are calm. Duels need to have some risk of mortality to be an effective deterrent to unethical behavior, but they can not be too deadly. This can be observed in dueling pistols designs. Dueling pistols were smooth bore, even when rifling had become standard for military weapons. If dueling became too deadly men would become hesitant in issuing a duel thus mitigating the purpose. Often duels would end after each man fired or until first blood. Killing your opponent was seldom the goal, dueling was to maintain social standing and come to amiable resolutions. To be able to avenge insults with violence that gains social proof is an essential element of honour cultures. Consider this quote:

Years later, reflecting on the Southern “Code” of dueling, [US senator from Maryland] Charles Gibson maintained that as wicked as the code was, the vulgar public behavior following the demise of the practice was worse still. “The code preserved a dignity, justice and decorum that have since been lost,” he argued, “to the great detriment of the professions, the public and the government. The present generation will think me barbarous but I believe that some lives lost in protecting the tone of the bar and the press, on which the Republic itself so largely depends, are well spent.” —Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin, pg. 65

When society views people who fight duels as barbaric and the winner is likely to be charged for murder dueling can not remain popular despite its benefits. In lieu of good law enforcement I can see the merit of having an accepted way that individuals can resolve their disputes in a semi-civil matter. Without recourse to duels they might drag friends and family into the dispute and escalate a personal issue into something much larger. Also dueling only works when there are consequences for refusing a duel. Typically refusing a duel would cause you to be shamed. Your challenger might buy a newspaper ad to advertise your cowardice. Duels are a great example of how honour systems resolve conflict. Typically after dueling most men would feel the dispute to be settled and bear no grudges, even if they are severely injured as a result.

There is a great cost to dueling however and that is paid in blood. Many men have lost their lives by dueling. This is especially tragic if they had a family to support and were an innocent party in the dispute leading up to the duel. The honour code would pressure them into fighting with lethal force even if it was a trifling matter. Despite the romanticism of fighting seen in entertainment there is nothing cool about it. I can see why some societies would duel but I do not want to see the tradition revived.

It is interesting to note that people find a lot of entertainment in duels. The culture can still be seen in professional combat sports – albeit separated from legal functions – they are a great source of entertainment. Everyone loves seeing a good fight. Good story tellers and promoters often exploit the concept of a duel to great effect.

Honour cultures naturally give rise to monarchy. In a tribe the man who is the highest on the honour hierarchy is the chief and will have the most authority. If the chief turns out to be a bad ruler then he will be ousted from his position. A natural form of government arises from the notion of honour that is effective for small communities. This natural form of government works well in a tribe where all members are respected regardless of their position. Problems arise in larger societies.

In a large group it is very hard to determine a hierarchy that includes the entire population. Classes begin to form and mobility between classes can be very difficult or impossible. The ruling class has its own honour code that applies to their peers but lower classes are automatically excluded from it. A peasant might posses the virtues required to meet an honour code but is barred from reaching his potential due to his birth. The class system undermines the meritocratic principle honour is based on. The lower classes have no way to redress abuses they suffer from higher classes. A knight is not obligated to duel a peasant since a peasant is considered beneath him. The nobles can abuse their serfs and remain honourable to their peers, other lords.

Honour is still an effective force within classes and between nations in feudal times. The king and the nobility form an honour group of sorts that prevents despotism. The nobility can remove the king if they disapprove of his reign. Foreign nations are not likely to invade countries with a reputation of good warriors. This form of honour is similar to the tribal form of honour except the virtues judged are of a more political nature. It is not how strong a lord is personally, but rather how strong his military force that he commands is. This political nature of power leads to subterfuge and secret alliance which further erodes the basis of honour. Virtually no military conflict can be decided with a duel in such a system. In early history however duels were a part of military affairs, the most notable example being David vs Goliath. The more people there are the less individual merit counts, degrading the effectiveness of honour as a policy.

The biggest danger to a monarchy is when there is a disagreement on who is to be the next king. Determining who gets to sit the throne is the most important consideration of monarchy. In a tribe specialization of its members is limited. The best hunter would be able to lead the hunting group and be able to fulfill the duties needed of the leader. However the best swordsman may not understand political and financial affairs of a nation for example. Hosting a martial tournament might work for a tribe to elect its leader, but not in a large kingdom. Fighting is a highly specialized skill in a large society, and the best fighters can’t also be the best rulers since they had to train instead of study. Historically monarchies have fallen into civil wars frequently over disputes of the throne. Hereditary monarchy is the most politically stable method of choosing the ruler. The king’s son can be educated and groomed for the throne from a young age so even is he is not naturally talented his training can often make him into a competent ruler. It is better to have an average ruler instead of the best ruler if unnecessary wars are avoided. Even this has its problems when the son is of a mean nature. The most notable example would be Commodus inheriting the throne from Marcus Aurelius. It is shocking a brute like Commodus can be the son of the man who wrote Meditations.

Traditional honour codes are still effective in the military. Honour promotes all the required traits needed for a fighting force. Promotion is based on competence and achievement. In feudal times honour provided the one way for a peasant to be admitted to the nobility by being knighted. Modern militaries still value the same traits as tribal warriors, even though weapons have advanced, the nature of conflict has stayed the same. Honour’s proper place is in military culture.

Honour is sufficient only in simple societies as a policy. As societies grow larger more and more legislature is needed to maintain order. Later monarchs introduced constitutions limiting their power and increasing the power of law, foreshadowing modern political systems. Monarchy is the most natural form of government with its origins in honour. It is insufficient to guide a modern state however, and modern royalty have very little political power. WWI virtually eliminated monarchs from the global stage.

Traditional honour codes are not sufficient as a modern political policy for a number of reasons. Weapon technology has made it far too dangerous to risk full scale wars breaking out. Honour codes often encourage violent means. While wars have always been tragic in medieval times the damage was limited. Transportation and communication were primitive and wars would be localized. Technological advancement is a prerequisite to have a war that can be deemed a “World War”. Its frightening to think that the power of bombs has increased drastically since WWII, which ended with the second and third nuclear explosions ever being used on people. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had ~2000 times less power than the Tsar Bomba the most powerful bomb tested. This translates into a modern bomb having ~100 times the area of effect of the bombs that ended WWII. Now these bombs can be fitted onto missiles and do not need to be delivered with an airplane, making interception very difficult. Traditional honour codes lead to inevitable violence between groups and violence is far too dangerous between modern states. In tribal times the biggest losses in war would be confined to a few tribes. Now war could result in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Traditional honour is also impractical for domestic affairs. Most people live in major metropolitan areas now where the population density makes it impossible to know the reputation of others. This means they enjoy relatively anonymity in their interactions. In a small community it is very easy to acquire a reputation and a bad reputation is near impossible to recover from, besides moving to a new place. In large cities however people can not gossip about every person in the area. When someone is shamed from a group they can easily find a new group in which they begin with a blank slate. The legal system also strongly discourages violence, rightfully so I might add. For people to resolve disputes they should refer to a neutral third party, not duel. No longer is there shame for refusing to duel, making the primary method that traditional honour cultures manage disagreements with ineffective.

Honour does give us insight to why people should care about reputation. Although our communities have grown so large, we now have the internet to help us keep track of people. If someone commits a serious breach of ethics it will leave its marks on the web. We can search up people to help us form judgments of their character, to help offset the volume of people we encounter. Humane virtues should be valued over martial virtues in most considerations. People also need to be selective on the people they associate with, using technology to help form character judgments when necessary. This will help create and enforce ethical standards in the community. For example if I was an employer I would search for information on potential employees. When people become aware of the utility of online reputation personal accountability can become a thing again. Serious crimes a person has committed should be associated with the offenders name. This will act a deterrent to criminal activity since it can tarnish your reputation. It also allows people to not associate with unethical people so they can make an informed decision with who they associate with. The related legislature must be very careful in what it decides as a “serious” offense though and must prevent those who would use it as a weapon for personal grudges. I would consider unprovoked violence such as robbery to be serious where as fighting at a bar with no weapons involved shouldn’t tarnish someone’s reputation. If a person contributes to the community in a positive way they can improve their reputation. I think a lot of people’s poor behavior is a result of them viewing a disregard of others opinions as a virtue. What other people think about you will determine many important things in your life; like who you’ll marry, where you’ll work and who you’re friends with. Other people’s impressions of you are very important and it is foolish to disregard them.

While modern political systems are not perfect they offer considerable more protection for their citizens. Modern democracies are much less likely to have civil wars compared to other forms of government. Also there is no rigid class system that prevents people from having social mobility. Citizens also have recourse to courts to solve any disputes the may have. While there are flaws in the system; disagreements of policy lead to heated debates, wealth can be maintained in families and courts can be a costly and lengthy procedure, I feel the current system is a step in the right direction. Discussion of policies should be discussed. This can lead to a more fair distribution of wealth and a more effective legal system without the need to violently overthrow the government.

Further Reading

These would be the most influential books I’ve read on the topic and many of the ideas I presented can also be found in them

The Way of Men by Jack Donovan (The basis of my unorthodox use of the term honour)

The Professor in the Cage by Jonathan Gottschall (A lot of good insights weaved into the author’s account of preparing for his first MMA fight)

Sex at Dawn (They discuss various monkey species, monkeys have a tribal culture and show behavioral differences between the sexes. A good read but largely off topic from this essay)


These are works I’ve recently read to help flesh out the article, they have not yet had time to influence my thinking but I drew upon to help verbalize my thoughts.

Spirit of Laws by Montesquie (I only got 30 pages into it, this essay was inspired by him discussing honour as the proper basis for monarchy and I thought I would try to explain)

Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle


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