Why Honor Matters by Tamler Sommers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book didn’t live for very long on my virtual ‘to-read’ bookshelf, and after reading this I can confirm it was for good reason.
‘Why Honor Matters’ stuck out to me for the simple implied reasoning that currently, in Western Culture at least, the virtue of Honor seems to have taken a backseat in this current era. This isn’t anything controversial either, who can really argue against it? But knowing this wasn’t enough, this book seemed to state this fact and teasingly offered a counter argument as to why Honor is indeed important and how we in can benefit from it. Sommers touches on Honor within the concepts of Justice, Revenge, Aggression and more, and his findings were not always what we may often assume.
The book introduced the paradigm between the two competing systems of society in the Western World. One is Honor based, while the other is Dignity based. Currently we live in a society founded on the philosophical principles of Dignity. The difference between the two is that a Dignity based culture promotes the understanding that every individual has an innate sense of Dignity that none can remove from him and that it is not necessarily decreased due to any of his actions. Honor cultures mainly understand the concept in a different way, it can further be defined into Vertical and Horizontal Honor. Horizontal Honor means a person has Honor for being a part of a somewhat exclusive group; examples given are fans of a sports team or even the Mafia! Vertical Honor is when a person is able to increase the level of Honor afforded to him (within a group)and recognised by others due to individual acts he or she may do that are valued by members of the same Honor group. Honor is not something that lives in an individualistic society, it is communal and can only exist in a communal society.
That brings me to another interesting point, according to Sommers, Honor is almost impossible to define, almost no one has done it, and for those who have tried, there are many who disagree. Sommers makes another interesting point in that while there are many positive aspects to Honor, we can take it to extremes and it can result in generations long feuds, deadly, oppressive violence and more. However this is not what Honor cultures themselves often call for. Though the age old ‘Eye for an Eye’ law is often quoted as ‘making the whole world blind’, we must give attention and understanding to the constraint taught within. Note how it does not teach its adherents to exceed beyond a level of retribution in a like for like manner, nothing more! Even so, we must look at the virtue of Honor in a constrained sense as anything unrestricted could lead to extreme implementations.
An example of such constrained Honor would be examples of limited, sanctioned violence and aggression which ultimately lead to healthy outlets. Consider both a traditional ‘Rap Battle’ and an NHL Hockey game. In both scenarios, a level of aggression is encouraged in small amounts and acts as an expression of art, or in the case of hockey, resilience and teamwork. In both cases, the sanctioned outlet of aggression contributes to the art/game as a whole and may even serve as a bonding experience between feuding parties. Controlled outlets of aggression also serve the purpose of releasing anger in a careful, moderated manner, and who can deny that sometimes releasing anger is better than letting it in and letting it fester? How many feuds and injustices have been committed by letting anger fester and build up? Sometimes a non violent, completely pacifist approach might not be the best or healthiest way to resolve a situation. Perhaps it is not a question of banning violence and aggression, but controlling it. Sommers believes that this speaks volumes when it comes to the subject of the ‘school to prison pipeline’ in many Inner City American communities. Zero tolerance for aggression sounds good in principle but doesn’t work well in reality, that will lead to another point in a moment.
Throughout the book I learnt much of the contrast between the aforementioned Dignity and Honor based approaches. It was remarkably interesting to understand how much of current Western Civilisation is built upon liberal principles, everything from the laws we live under and the punishments given to criminals, everything is ultimately decided by principles of ethics and its development within a philosophical framework. The fact that I was able to gain an insight into this at all has opened my eyes up to a whole new world of understanding, and for that reason alone I enjoyed this book very much – isn’t that one of the main points of a book at all?
For example, punishments meted out to prisoners in a Dignity based culture (intertwined with liberalism) understand that the punishment is usually between the Criminal and the State, the real life victim is almost excluded from the process in some situations. the prisoner is punished for the greater good of society, essentially a future looking based approach. In Honor cultures however, the victim is often very much involved in the justice process and third party interference is kept to a minimum. The criminal is punished according to his crime (i.e. his past action) and the victim feels a personal connection to the resolution of the case. Many people feel this to be more just and this has been adapted in America and some European countries under an approach known as restorative justice with much success.
Keeping in mind that I don’t wish to get carried away and explain the whole book, I’ll try to keep it short from here on out!
Coming back to a point I mentioned earlier, I also learnt from this book that while many of the moral foundational principles which Liberalism is built upon sound almost perfect in theory, we aren’t necessarily seeing the results in real life that we might expect. Sommers understands this as being because they simply are too good to be true. In theory, the values of individualism, liberalism and Dignity based approaches to society are intertwined and work to reinforce one another. Humans live in peace with no conflict, and the State, an abstract entity, is the ultimate arbiter and defender of the people. In the real world however, the ideal society does not exist, humans are complicated and messy, and Honor is an (as previously discussed) undefinable virtue which does well to glue people together by nature of its undefinable but cohesive approach. Honor is personal, Honor is collective, Honor makes people feel involved and gives people a reason to commit heroic acts for people who can never benefit them. As Sommers mentions, in some situations Dignity is silent when Honor has a lot to say.
Ultimately I learnt so much from this book and it answered a lot of questions I had about Honor and its role in society. I tend to agree with the conclusions of the Author in that while the principles of Liberalism may seem to be well thought out, humans are just too complex to fit the mould of a utopian society. Some oppress others, some exceed bounds and some feel that impersonal renditions of justice are not justice at all. Honor addresses these irks and promises an understanding society where people can live together under common norms in harmony, we just have to be careful not to let it run amok. Principles from an Honor based approach such as initiatives involving restorative justices seem to be gaining in popularity and this bodes well for the future of incorporating the best of both worlds into society.
I have no doubt that I have much more to read on the topic, but this book has been outstanding in opening the door onto the subject for me.
Incredible read, I highly recommend it!
Why Honor Matters
Why Honor Matters by Tamler Sommers