How Honor Motives Moral Behavior

How Honor Motives Moral Behavior August 1, 2018
Credit: Public Domain

When it comes to honor, Tamler Sommers is a realist, not a romantic. He challenges readers to set aside their assumptions about honor and morality. In so doing, we notice the pervasive and inescapable influence of honor on our lives.

Honor and Identity

In Why Honor Matters, he says, “Honor is social; it cannot exist for individuals in isolation” (p. 17).

Sommers notes a distinction between honor and non-honor cultures–– they understand “identity” in different ways. Humans are inherently social beings. As much as one imagines (s)he has an identity apart from others, this dream is a fantasy.

Our relationships shape our identity and thus our sense of honor. He says,

This might sound rather abstract, but as we’ve seen, identification leads to action. Since honor can constrain identity, it may also constrain the behaviors that we’re motivated to perform. (p. 30)

In other words, how we see ourselves drives how we act. Therefore, we shouldn’t ignore the ways that people in honor and non-honor cultures form identity.

What motivates moral behavior?

More than others I’ve read, Sommers explores the motivations that influence morality in honor and non-honor cultures. He first identifies several common misconceptions and half-truths. For example,

In honor cultures, public recognition constitutes a central part of one’s self-worth. That said, it’s a common misconception to think that public recognition is the only thing that matters in honor cultures. (p. 22)

I’ll let you read the read the book to understand the full import of that statement.

For now, I’ll highlight just one significant insight among others. Sommers contrasts “dignity cultures” and “honor cultures.” Read the following slowly to absorb it all. He writes,

Lacking such incentives, cultures of dignity focus more on preventing wrongdoing than promoting virtue. Dignity embraces the Kantian idea that people should be moral only for the sake of being moral, not for any personal benefit. In real life, however, rewards are more effective for promoting virtuous behavior. Lacking such incentives, cultures of dignity focus more on preventing wrongdoing than promoting virtue. They have elaborate systems of punishment for deterring wrongdoing but no organized way to encourage people to go above and beyond the call of duty.

All the forms of honor I’ve described in this section have motivational power. This robust motivational structure is largely absent in Western liberal morality, and it’s perhaps the greatest potential advantage of reclaiming honor as a core value. Liberalism, with its focus on human dignity and individual liberty, gives us plenty of reasons to refrain from wrongdoing—through punishment and other mechanisms—but provides little to inspire exceptional or heroic behavior. (p. 24)

While focusing on moral ideals, we too often overlook practical considerations like motives for moral behavior.

What does the Bible say about our motives?

In reflex, many readers will push back against Sommer’s claim. Some will quote this or that text from the Bible. However, we must keep in mind that Jesus and various biblical writers routinely use honor and shame to motivate people to do or avoid a certain action.

For example, Jesus says,

“If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” (John 12:26)

Also, Paul writes,

“But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” (Rom 2:29)

Anyone who has read Piper’s Desiring God should recognize that he makes a similar argument there.

(I should add here that Why Honor Matters is not an explicitly “Christian” book. That is, the author makes no claims about his own religious vantage point nor does he attempt to formulate a “Christian” perspective on honor.)

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