July 22, 2010

Honour Bound?

I have of late been reading a book about Imperial German doctors and their prescriptions with regard to honour. I shall not trouble you with the details of this tome, but merely bring to your attention one of its observations, which seems particularly pertinent in the light of my recent post on la Gloire.

Honour, so says the author, referring to some esteemed theorists, used to be thought to fall somewhere between the law and the moral conscience:

While morality was empowered by the inner voice of the individual’s conscience, the law used external, physical force. The social demands of honour… were secured by internal as well as external means. Violations of honour had subjective, inner consequences and social, externally palpable ones. In this way, correct conduct could be guaranteed in areas which could not be reached by the law and in which conscience-based morality alone was not reliable (A-H Maehle, Doctors, Honour and the Law, 2009).
Among doctors, lawyers, academics and the like, on the one hand, and among such nebulous groups as gentlemen or the aristocracy, on the other, a breach of honour damaged the whole group, whose reputation as societal leaders and upstanding citizens was called into question by the misdeeds of an individual. The importance of restoring this jointly held and esteemed sense of honour accounts for duels, specialist courts and panels of arbitration, and private clubs and societies. A man would fight a duel to restore not only his own slighted reputation, but also that of his peers; a court specific to a respected profession could censure and publicly disown dishonourable miscreants; private societies could expel undesirable elements, thereby ensuring their collective honour stayed intact. The thread of civility by which society hangs, to which I referred yesterday, was duly reinforced by an understanding of the social importance of a shared code of honour.

To be sure, this still exists in some spheres today, although it is not called honour, and is not defended by duelling. But by and large we have lost sight of this middle step between the law and the conscience, this honorific superego. In countless ways we see that the morality of individuals is insufficiently developed to prevent them from acting without inhibitions, and that the law remains rightly disinterested, even if it is not uninterested, in moral matters. There is no extra check; no sense of being bound by common interest, or the common good.


  1. As it seems to me, doctor, honor is mostly to do with shame and sometimes with praise; either way, it speaks to a certain distinction - being held to certain standards. One could respect oneself only if one could also hold oneself in contempt - that there are things worthy of praise implies there are others no decent man will commit.

    Much more than honor, the law in a free country suggests some things should not be done and that the doing of them is a crime against the regime and the citizens. Obviously, if committing crimes and being a criminal are not now disreputable, such less powerful passions, like honor, are impossible to restore.

    Honor was a public category. When the law disappeared and the public space was turned into whatever private fancy could conceive, even if misbegotten... - The public things must be restored first and honor understood later: it is not so strong a passion as justice and it is much rarer... - There must first be public agreement on the good and the bad for there to later be some special sign of distinction for the excellent.

  2. Thank you Kravien, as always. It is to public agreement on the good and the bad that I wish, as we progress, to direct attention. Whether we go horse and cart, or cart and horse, I trust our destination will be the same regardless.

  3. A lot of good young military men were wated and their countries deprived of their service because of duels in the 18th and 19th Century. Famous one of hamilton v. Burr was a classic waste of intellect and talent.

  4. Point taken Mr. Sportsman, although the vast majority of duels ended without injury.

  5. Hear! hear! I say restore the duel.


  6. And that traitor Burr was there as well!

  7. Dueling was illegal for much of the time it was practiced. So in truth, aside from more advanced forensic science, there's nothing stopping individuals from dueling, even today. In fact, one could say that only the availability of firearms to youths stopped dueling in the form of a good, honest fistfight.

    Maybe more interesting is the idea of being stripped of membership or rank within a group for dishonorable conduct. Of course, there are still vestiges of this. I think first of the U.S. Congress, a group that always seems to be investigating ethics violations in its own ranks. This, however, has less to do with unethical behavior, which is expected, and more to do with getting caught and political advantage.

  8. Thank you Hatchet, for the pertinent intervention.

  9. Pushkin died in a duel; an undeniable loss to the world of literature but I think it's fair to argue that the view of honour as something worth fighting for moulded these men whether soldiers, writers, whatever, into what they were. Yes, the world lost great men to duels but part of what made those men great was their belief that honour was something worth defending with your life.


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