What Has Happened to the Concept of Honor?

Is honor still relevant—or has it become an old-fashioned ideal?

Posted Aug 10, 2018

Could the concept of honor be at the core of many conflicts between different social groups?

Honor is an abstract concept that includes personal, individual values (“ethos”) as well as norms of social interaction (“code of behavior”). Honor is a measure of the quality of a person, including personal ethics, e.g., honesty, compassion, valor, and chivalry. Honor lies at the core of who we are and aspire to be, how we make choices. When making difficult choices, when the consequences are significant, why do we feel more stressed? Might that stress result from the friction between our selfish desires and other needs, be they practical or social?

How important is it for each of us to have a sense of honor?

How do we develop and maintain our own sense of honor?

How will the sense of honor evolve as we pass on these values to our children?

According to Wikipedia, the importance of honor seems to be declining, supplanted by “conscience” in the individual context, and by the rule of law to dictate social behavior. As our understanding of how we function as human beings and in society has grown, we certainly have the ability to examine every aspect of our lives in excruciating detail. We respect experts of all stripes and disciplines because of their deep knowledge. They also provide the language which helps shape our thoughts and how we communicate. As we have become more intelligent and rational, we can point to our individual consciences as our guiding compass. But how often do we really consult our conscience, ask ourselves questions that challenge us at fundamental ethical or moral levels?

The #MeToo movement is a wonderful example of how greater awareness of changing mores is resulting in massive upheaval in business and social structures. Listen carefully to the explanations from both sides to hear the underlying assumptions of what was previously considered “acceptable” or at least “tolerated” in an earlier context. What has changed in our consciences? Were the voices of our conscience muted by social pressure? We are all victims of prejudice, of prejudgments made by others, and, worse, by ourselves.

What if we felt truly free, more empowered to express what is in our conscience? In political elections, we are constantly exhorted to “vote your conscience.” What does that mean? How do people actually behave? How much does social structure influence how we listen to our conscience? Recall the famous experiment at Stanford University where the behavior of students was studied after they were grouped and labeled as “prison guards” or “prisoners”. Obviously, social context can, under certain circumstances, override our conscience. We literally forget who we are.

Suppose we did the same kind of experiment with individuals having an exceptionally strong sense of honor? Would they have been as easily influenced to behave according to their “status/labels”?

Divide and conquer – a well-respected principle of war. How will this concept work for a society whose goal is peace? What happens when a society is already fractured? What is the meaning of peace? What is to be conquered? Expressions of hate and hateful behavior? Where is the honor?

To build and maintain the necessary loyalty, military institutions tend to emphasize honor, as defined in its own limited context. Their code of conduct requires members to sacrifice themselves, even their lives, for the sake of the goals of the institution. Isn’t this quite amazing? Universally found in all cultures, some groups of people, usually young, are persuaded to give up their critical thinking skills, and embrace blind loyalty. Have they chosen to let their sense of loyalty suppress the voice of their conscience? What does that say about how they honor themselves? What is the cost to society of that loss?

Society does need people, i.e., “protectors”, who choose to honor themselves by choosing to help others at any cost. Isn’t this what an ideal police force would be? Why are firefighters much more admired and not feared, compared to the police? How does a policeman tread the fine line of understanding the mentality of criminals while staying on the right side of the law as well as consistent with his own moral and ethical standards, i.e., his conscience?

This line of thinking suggests a different approach to the polarization among the population of the US and in other countries. Let’s bring back the idea of honoring all the inner and outer parts of ourselves. Specifically, let’s encourage people to re-integrate their conscience with the rule of law. Our skill at game playing has made us acutely sensitive to the idea of “how much can we get away with, when it comes to the letter of the law”. What about the spirit of the law, of justice, fairness, equality, freedom? Somehow, every three generations or so, we need to remind ourselves of what it means to honor ourselves, to believe passionately that we are more than either mere consumers or producers of goods and services. We are social beings who need each other and a stable environment, a true, dynamic ecosystem where our needs are inextricably intertwined.

Suppose that each of us could have a personal HONOR Blockchain that basically records all of our values and social interactions as demonstrated throughout our lives. This could be the software equivalent of our conscience, as influenced by the rule of law. An HONOR score could be developed that would allow us to monitor how much we are investing to improve ourselves. After all, the famous management guru Peter Drucker said: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Why blockchain technology?  Look for my next article.