Why Honor Matters, by Tamler Sommers (Basic Books), £20.30/$27.00
In Why Honor Matters, University of Houston philosopher Tamler Sommers argues that modern Western societies have become excessively atomised, risk-averse, officious, and punitive. These deficiencies can be rectified in large measure by rehabilitating honour, since honour promotes community, courage, informal and thus local and flexible punishments, and restorative and participatory justice. Nonetheless, he argues, honour subcultures and practices must be subordinate to a larger framework that respects human rights and liberal norms.
Sommers does not offer an analysis of honour, choosing instead to characterise it in terms of honour cultures. Paradigmatic honour cultures (think Scottish, Balkan, Central Asian, or African highlanders) prize courage and vengeance. Group honour and group responsibility are accepted as a matter of course. Fundamental norms are privately enforced and extend only to the borders of the community or even one’s caste or gender. Public opinion is the measure of moral standing, so one’s value in a paradigmatic honour culture is precarious and fixed by appraisals of shame, not guilt. Liberal societies reject all this. The norms of pre-eminent importance are supposed to be universal, and this universality requires us to formulate highly abstract ethical principles. People are “individuals” who must construct their identities from scratch. A person’s triumphs or transgressions justify praise or blame for them alone. Justice is to be dispassionately and consistently meted out by the state, which also monopolises violence.
On courage, Sommers connects the decline of Western honour to our current risk aversion. For instance, he half-jokingly crusades against bicycle helmets, in part because their use is symptomatic of our disproportionate responses to dangers. Much more weighty than our passion for protective headwear is how our cowardice impedes us from maintaining liberal values. When Muslim gunmen murdered the staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo for satirical pictures of Mohammed, editors of Western presses refused to print the offending pictures. When America has an opportunity to evince its principles of a home for the downtrodden, lawmakers protested accepting Syrian refugees because of disproportionate security concerns. While we have a school-to-prison pipeline in many inner-cities, administrators and politicians respond with draconian “zero-tolerance” policies that prevent young men from settling differences while staying in school or at least out of jail.
However much the liberal West may shy away from “tribalism”, Sommers notes the psychological and security advantages of belonging to a tight-knit community, and points out that these advantages are particularly urgent for populations who don’t or cannot take advantage of civil or social institutions (Navy SEALS, LGBT groups, inner-city blacks, etc.). Positively-structured communities such as sports leagues, militaries, and gang-reform programs provide spaces to learn moderated conflict and social scripts that help us find our place within a group.
Sommers is, to my knowledge, the honour researcher who has thought most about honour-versus-justice questions (see hisprevious book Relative Justice), and his discussions of those topics are the most original in the book. Liberal Westerners reflexively condemn any extra-judicial violence. But interpersonal violence is not always bad. Examples of acceptable violence include French soccer player Zinedine Zidane’s infamous head-butt in instant retaliation to an insult paid to his sister; Fredrick Douglass’s famous fistfight with his master; liberating violence by black nationalists and Zionists; and white working class barroom brawls. At its best, honour-driven violence is self-regulating (working class barroom brawlers keep guns out of it, for instance) and signals to its audience and performers a sense of dignity that isn’t endowed by mere personhood, but must be won.
Revenge is supposedly morally inferior to retribution because it is personal and passionate and thus often disproportionate to the crime and inconsistent in the costs it imposes on offenders. Sommers disagrees. Honourable avengers assume costly, personal risks that exhibit loyalty and courage. Its personal nature compares not altogether unfavourably with liberal models of justice, which treat criminality as an offense against the state and obsess over impartial and consistent sentencing. Sommers sees the restorative justice movement as combining the best aspects of rule of law and honourable vengeance. Restorative justice sees crimes as offenses against individuals, not the state, and aims at repairing the fabric of the community and restoring the victimised parties. It does this in large part by giving the victims a say in charging and sentencing offenders, even if this means inconsistent verdicts for similar crimes.
With regard to its genre, Why Honor Matters is not just a book for popular consumption but is sort of a “podcast book”. Sommers’ first book, Very Bad Wizards, a collection of interviews of philosophers and social scientists on metaethical themes, was the springboard for his podcast of the same name. His new bookreverses this trajectory and is born from the podcast. It is quite self-conscious about its author, audience, political orientation, and moment in history. It has a casual tone that moves from jocularity (for example, confessing to a habit of boozy trash-talking) to sobriety (analysing an Aeschylus tragedy) and back again in a way that might jar audiences who don’t consume podcasts. When I put on my left-liberal hat (or is it bike helmet?), I suspect that many of Sommers’ positive examples – a murdered daughter’s parents lobbying for a shorter sentence for her killer, rap battles, bloviating Boston sports fans and politicians, Zionists, etc. – will not resonate with readers. But left-liberals are by nature a tough crowd for appeals to honour and increasingly censorious. I think the smart, playful, male, middle-class, irreverent-left American listeners of his podcast will appreciate his allusions.
For readers already convinced of honour’s importance, the question is whether Why Honor Matters takes honour seriously enough. Taking honour seriously involves analysing, abstracting, and improving our conceptions of it. I suspect that honour mores are “unsystematic” and “local” not by nature, but because of a lack of philosophical engagement. There is a dizzying array of contradictory codes of justice around the world, but one may not infer from this that justice itself is contradictory and local. Why should philosophers of honour make parallel inferences about honour?
To see why theories of honour matter, consider that liberal cultures can succeed to varying degrees at living up to liberal principles. Why can’t the same be said for honour cultures? Why can’t there be better and worse honour cultures, judged by an independent standard of honourableness? If so, maybe honour subcultures don’t need to be contained by liberalism, or liberal norms alone, but (also?) by norms that are more truly honourable. Without a philosophical theory of honour, however, it is impossible to evaluate the honourableness of honour cultures.
A theory of honour is also necessary for determining whether it’s worth rehabilitating in the first place. After all, is it honour itself, or some things – especially masculine, communitarian practices – we can learn from honour cultures, that matter? (The feminine virtues of traditional honour cultures, chastity and fecundity, are not being rehabilitated. Is this because they are not really required of honour – are cultural accidents – or because they are false values?) Genetically modified corn benefits from a few fish genes, and analogously liberal societies might grow more courageous, resilient, and free after the infusion of a few honour memes. But this fact, if it is a fact, doesn’t by itself recommend honour as a virtue.