A. Welsh, What is Honor? (2008)

Literature review

In this thoughtful and wide-ranging study, Welsh sets outs to ‘reconstruct a genealogy’ of honour as a moral imperative (xvii), that is, as a motivating force that dictates or cautions against a particular way of action. Although few, if any, people in the West today claim to act out of a sense of what their honour demands, Welsh rightly contends that this sense of honour has been prevalent in Western literature and philosophy from Homer to Kant and beyond, and that, properly understood, honour as a moral imperative is not far from contemporary concepts such as respect, self-respect, integrity, or identity.

Welsh’s starting point is the fundamental distinction between two sources of moral obligation, obedience and respect; honour is located in the latter. Obedience is the kind of obligation that comes first in the process of an individual’s moral development: we first learn what is expected from us by obeying the precepts of our parents and teachers. This obedience to figures of authority is replaced by respect with the coming of age and the individual’s participation in peer groups. These two kinds of morality (obedience and respect), though analytically distinct, coexist throughout an individual’s life and their dictates may conflict or coincide (5-6). In this light, honour assumes a crucial role in the individual’s process of socialisation, and far from being an archaic or culturally specific concept, it is relevant to people of all times, and has a similar function to modern notions of identity and respect.

The main tenets of Welsh’s approach to honour as a moral imperative can be summarised as follows. Honour (like identity and respect) is developed within and among the members of a peer group, and as such it always looks in two directions: the way one sees oneself intertwines with the way one is seen by the group. In other words, the honour or respect one receives from the members of one’s peer group is internalised: respect becomes self-respect. The same applies to group standards. To become a full and respected member of the group, the individual does not merely adapt to group standards, but comes to endorse those standards through a process of observation, emulation, comparison, and reflection (15-16). Honour is then both inclusive and exclusive: a group is defined not only by those it admits, but also by those it excludes. Now, different groups may have different values, so tying honour so closely to groups and group values also entails that honour can have many different manifestations and motivate a variety of actions.

Thus, Welsh’s approach to honour parts company with, and questions, a dominant strand in modern studies of honour, which tend to associate honour with a specific set of values, in particular masculine values of self-assertion and the expectation that one will respond forcefully to personal insults or attacks (e.g., Bowman 2006).

Welsh defines honour as ‘the respect that motivates or constrains members of a peer group’ (xv), and his examination of a wealth of philosophical and literary texts shows how a notion of honour that entails a process of ‘reciprocal regard’ informs and underlies the ethical doctrines of Aristotle and Cicero, the Renaissance figure of honour as a ‘mirror’, and the accounts of Enlightenment philosophers such as Mandeville, Rousseau, Kant, and Adam Smith. Two of Welsh’s observations stand out. First, that despite the repeated and forceful assertions of moral philosophers like Kant and Aristotle that honour is different from morality proper, the workings and ‘spirit’ of honour are not all that different from Kant’s categorical imperative and Aristotle’s requirement that virtuous actions are performed ‘for their own sake’: honour also scorns hypothetical imperatives, such as inclinations, desires, or fear, and rejects ulterior ends as a motivation for action (163). Second, although the demands of honour instigate actions that derive from, and conform to, the consensus of a peer group, honour is not incompatible with an autonomous will. Rather, the agents that act out of a sense of honour in Welsh’s analysis (Shakespeare’s Coriolanus being his most prominent example, Achilles another) are strong-willed individuals who assert their independence: ‘no one can tell the man of honour what to do; nevertheless, he performs much as he is expected to’ (155). In this respect, Hegel and the idea of ‘social freedom’ would be a most welcome addition to Welsh’s book next to his analysis of Kant and Adam Smith’s ‘impartial spectator’.

Welsh may occasionally overstate the egalitarian side of honour, or downplay the extent to which the horizontal and vertical aspects of honour actually intertwine in everyday life, but nonetheless his study is an insightful and necessary counterweight to prevalent understandings of honour as an essentially competitive and hierarchical concept. What Welsh does not address is how honour might also be operative in changing the group’s consensus, especially in cases when the group espouses ways of action that are unfair or cruel to other groups, or even pointedly inhumane. But that would be the subject of a different book.

Kleanthis Mantzouranis, 23/10/18

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