Is honor significant for society?

Is honor significant for society? August 28, 2018
Credit: Flickr/WestMidlandsPolice

Why does honor matter at a social level? Tamler Sommers’ Why Honor Matters offers several answers worth our consideration. Whatever your views on various social issues, there’s much to appreciate about Sommers’ comments.

Sommers’ integrates the insights of multiple disciplines. Rather than sharping an ideological axe, he acknowledges nuance and recognizes the concerns of different groups. Here are a few issues addressed in the book:

responding to refuges

handling immigration

restorative justice

Honor, Crime, and Community

The author recognizes advantages to current legal practices; however, he takes seriously their limitations. He laments that the common rationale undergirding legal systems too often suffers from idealism and so does not produce good results in reality.

The book urges a hybrid approach, one that incorporates honor as part of the solution to various social ills. I think his basic argument contains principles and insights that are applicable to churches, organizations, families, and other social groups.

1. Community

Sommers explains, “Lack of social cohesion is also correlated with higher crime rates” (p. 61). One reason for this is that cohesive social groups are highly effective in correcting bad behavior (and encouraging the group’s desired behaviors).

By contrast, at least one study suggests, “The more impersonal the criminal justice and law enforcement systems, the higher the crime rates” (p. 62).

This is where honor comes is. Honor is integral to strong communal ties. Sommers states,

Informal social control can work only in communities in which people know each other and care about their reputations, how they are perceived within the group. These are precisely the conditions that honor can bring out. When we reject honor, we become more like the isolated, scared, selfish individuals that philosophers like Hobbes imagined us to be. (63)

A key component here is that people must feel a sense of honor and thus responsibility to their group.

2. Responsibility

Sommers makes a suggestion that some readers will initially resist but deserves consideration. Individualism in the West has led people to think that responsibility requires control. Thus, “lack of control absolves them from responsibility” (p. 66).

What is the consequence?

People do not take responsibility for their actions when they perceive some factor beyond their control that contributes to their behavior. An individual thinks (s)he is not to blame and so not responsible to fix a problem if (s)he did not cause it; it was not within their control to prevent it.

(We could easily add another peculiar observation. While people might lack control over past circumstances, they do have control over their actions that can contribute to the good of others in the future.)

I would summarize this as the tension between rightsand responsibilities. Individualists insist on rights, which should not be infringed upon by others. By contrast, a more collectivist mindset focused on our responsibility to others. The latter is proactive; the former is self-protective and self-oriented.

Sommers concludes,

Our focus on control as a condition for responsibility, in other words, inevitably leads to a culture of excuses and ever-increasing shamelessness. (p. 67)

3. Resilience

A commitment to people and a concern for one’s reputation fosters resilience. This quality is critical for social flourishing. Amid setbacks and inevitable disagreements that emerge, one’s honor spurs perseverance and courage. He has more to say on the point, but space allows only for this brief summary.

Dignity versus Honor

Sommers extols the importance of human dignity. Still, he astutely observes a problem with individualist, “dignity cultures” (in contrast to honor cultures).

Dignity can’t support “us against the world” because it sees no division between “us” and the “world.” Dignity’s slogan is “We are the world”—which sounds nice in principle but can be isolating in practice. Individuals can truly belong to a family, sports team, gang, class, or school group. But the “human family”? It’s difficult, maybe impossible, to feel connected to something as massive as all of humanity except in the most abstract and metaphorical manner. (p. 89)

Does this contradict Christian thinking? No, actually. But why?

Even the Bible exhorts believers to prioritize the church, i.e. fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. The church family and then one’s home family take priority. I touched on this point a bit in my Wheaton talk last year.

For example, Paul writes, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

At least two points reinforce the point. First, we are not called to loved people in the abstract, but actual people in concrete circumstances. Second, we each have limited capacities and resources, so we must prioritize certain persons over others.

Sommers adds,

The morality of dignity doesn’t encourage us to take pride in our community unless the community is all of the human race. Indeed, to identify too closely with one’s community is inconsistent with dignity if it leads us to exclude out-group members from our primary sphere of moral concern. (p. 76)

Are we not to love the “human family”? Yes, but this is manifest most specifically as we welcome people from all nations and backgrounds into God’s family.

While some Christians might think honor fosters harmful exclusivity, consider the facts of reality. Sommers observes, “If this seems selfish or arbitrary, consider that many people who join honor groups are marginalized and vulnerable” (p. 80).

…. And Much More

Even these four posts only scratch the surface of the book. Why Honor Matters explores other issues. For example, he argues, “the individual liberty that dignity champions is a luxury afforded to a small portion of relatively privileged people.”

Likewise, he explains how honor assists in conflict resolution

Honor cultures, by contrast, have more conflicts and typically don’t rely on outside forms of resolution. Consequently, they learn to become peacemakers themselves and develop a variety of rituals and ceremonies that allow people to hash out their differences face-to-face. (p. 91)

He illustrates with a beautiful example from Laura Blumenfeld’s Revenge: A Story of Hope. Those in honor cultures are sensitive to group needs and others’ “face.” Therefore, they seek to prevent many problems from escalating prematurely.

When you read Why Honor Matters, let me know what you think. It’s truly a book worth interacting with. It should spur much conversation.

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