It Would Be an Honor

Review of “Honor For Us: A Philosophical Analysis, Interpretation, and Defense” By William Lad Sessions, Continuum.

William Lad Sessions is a philosophy professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. I was once a philosophy student at the University of Virginia. Both schools have honor codes for their students. I experienced UVA’s honor code as one of the most thrilling discoveries of my life. W&L’s has inspired Sessions to write a book.

I realize that nowadays everyone but billionaires, ironically enough, is treated like a criminal every day. Airports mean searches and questionings. Phone calls to banks involve numerous questions to prove your identity. Video cameras watch your every public move. But not so long ago it was possible to imagine living in a world, or at least a little oasis within the world, in which you would be trusted completely. When I learned that students at UVA were trusted to take tests on their own with the understanding that they would not cheat because they had honor, it was as though a weight that had been pressing me down for my life up until that moment had been lifted.

Of course, the thrill of being trusted is just part of an honor system. Other integral parts of it are the thrill of being trustworthy, the thrill of living among others who are trustworthy, and the thrill of the common understanding that everyone will trust each other without a word needing to be said about it. Cheating someone who expects you to cheat and treats you like a cheater would stain your own character, but that would fall far short of the soul-destruction that would come from cheating an honor system. And an honor system is not strictly exclusive. One is expected to behave honorably to those outside the system as well — even if they do not behave honorably toward you. This is where an honor system can become Gandhian.

I’ve read nineteenth century American Christian writers who opposed the “non-resistance” they advocated (turning the other cheek) to honor and the aggressive reaction it demanded to any insult. After Gandhi, this opposition collapsed. One can resist without violence. One can also have honor without the demand for vengeance. Forgiveness and magnanimity can be part of an honor code. Honor has a bad name derived from traditions of tribal feuds, honor killings, and misogyny. I’m writing this on a plane ride home from Afghanistan where the Taliban’s concept of honor leaves a bad taste indeed — not to mention the U.S. military’s.

Anything can be given a bad name. Congress routinely deems its own outrages “ethical” and we don’t condemn the very idea of ethics. The Nobel Committee gives war makers peace prizes and we don’t become enemies of peace. Honor fits into this category. The word can be applied to anything, but some of the things it has been used to mean are extremely valuable. Honor, as Sessions argues, creates equality, reciprocity, respect, mutuality, publicity (public understanding of an honorable code of behavior), and solidarity.

Sessions argues in favor of a renewed understanding of honor as something of use in our time and place, not just a concept applicable to others. Sessions hopes to create a whole new academic discipline to study honor. I hope he succeeds.

Sadly, I don’t think his book is the sort to begin a new field of study. It’s written with a scholarly ponderousness that is likely to appeal only to people already working in the not-yet-created discipline or one related to it. The book is packed with analysis of abstract categories with almost no examples. There’s little explanation of why we should want honor, what’s so enjoyable about it, why honor should inspire us. In the absence of examples, there’s plenty of filler in the form of philosophico-tautological gibberish like “The kernel of my focus on war, then, is this: war is just what warriors fight (and it is what they fight insofar as they are warriors).” There’s plenty of academical repetitiveness telling readers what is about to be said and what was just said. Some people like their books that way. I like my books raw and emotional. Near the end of the book, Sessions comes right out and admits he hasn’t provided any motivating images of honor:

“Of course, the most potent appeal of honor would derive from intimate acquaintance with particular groups and individuals whose lives attract us precisely because they embody conceptions of honor. . . . [I]t will take more than a philosopher’s abstractions to give them flesh and vitality. So the reader will have to find her own examples.”

Gee, thanks!

Sessions’ book is not just unnecessarily boring, but is also slanted toward discovering honor to secretly exist in all aspects of our lives, rather than advocating the enrichment of our lives through the development of honor systems. In his discussion of lawyers, Sessions concludes that they act on the basis of honor codes that may or may not be ethical. OK, but how do we make them more ethical?

That’s not really the question that Sessions is after. He is promoting the concept of honor as valuable to such an extent that sometimes it should be given priority over “consequentialist ethics.” That is to say, doing the honorable thing may be more important than doing the thing that causes the best results, such as the most happiness and the least suffering.

I disagree, at least in theory, since Sessions offers no examples to make his case. I’m convinced that more people would be better off if we built up more systems of honor and relied on them more than we rely on surveillance and law enforcement.

I’m not interested in honor because a simplistic understanding of it can scandalously violate “consequentialism.” I’m interested in honor because it encourages good behavior by appealing to the very best in people.

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