Aaron Burr shoots Alexander Hamilton in a duel in New Jersey, 11 July 1804. Source

Aaron Burr shoots Alexander Hamilton in a duel in New Jersey, 11 July 1804. Source


Honour and morality

Morality has tended to attract a great deal of attention from philosophers, while codes of honour have (with some notable exceptions: 1, 2, 3) received a good deal less attention. Why is this?

Moral imperatives are often characterised as having a peculiarly strong force (they are categorical imperatives), or a peculiarly broad scope (they are universal), and thus morality stands out from other systems of norms as requiring special explanation. Honour norms, I suspect, are widely regarded as mere social norms, generating hypothetical imperatives of the form: “If you want to be regarded as honourable, you ought to do thus and so …”. Further, they appear to be more restricted in scope: doing thus and so may not make you honourable in everyone’s eyes, but it is important if you want to be one of us.

But these ideas are difficult to put to systematic empirical test. Many of the claims philosophers and psychologists have made about the nature of morality fit rather poorly with earnest efforts by social scientists to measure and quantify the normative practices of real people (4, and references therein). What if it turns out that many people regard honour as relatively categorical in its demands, and regard morality as a good deal less universal in its demands than philosophers have supposed? (Hypothesis: this is, by and large, what we will find, especially if we study a reasonably cross-cultural sample.)

There is a choice facing moral philosophers much like that confronted by epistemologists in the face of the Quinean critique of the a priori. Should we naturalize moral philosophy the way in which some have tried to naturalize epistemology? On my (admittedly caricatured) picture of traditional moral philosophy, we define our target – moral demands as categorical and universal – and then we try to find a metaethical theory that can adequately explain the existence of such demands that is compatible with realism, naturalism, internalism, and whatever other claims we think are necessary to make good sense of the moral realm. If very few humans actually subscribe to the sorts of norms under study; if they play little or no role in explaining what we would ordinarily call “moral behaviour”, then this is a shortcoming of humans, but of little concern to the philosopher.

On the naturalized approach, we rather focus on our actual moral achievements: successful social coordination, cooperation, the overcoming of collective action problems, the provision of security for the vulnerable. We ask: what about actual human cognitive and social practices make these achievements possible? To use a nice metaphor from Gerald Gaus, we regard morality as a social technology, endowed to us by a combination of our culture and our genes, and we try to understand how that technology works. This may in turn lead us to ideas about how it may be improved.

From this perspective, I suggest honour and morality demand similar levels of attention. Almost all societies care about honour to some extent, but in some societies, the demands of honour can motivate extreme behaviour, including violence. It is relatively poorly theorised what is motivating this sort of behaviour. Is it in some sense adaptive or is it sheer dysfunction? Is it highly dependent on cultural norms that are idiosyncratic, or does it respond to widely shared rational incentives?

There are some tantalising hypotheses: For example, Nisbett and Cohen, drawing on an earlier idea from the anthropologist Black-Michaud, suggest that herder societies are particularly concerned to defend honour because of a link between a reputation for toughness and the security of one’s property. A herder’s capital is extremely calorie rich and mobile, hence a prime target for theft. Whereas the capital of a crop-farmer is land, which can be defended, and a farmer’s crops are much harder to transport and remove en masse. But I’ve not seen any systematic attempt to put this hypothesis to the test, either in the field or by modelling.

Together with a number of colleagues, in particular John Thrasher, I’m working on a series of papers on honour, studied from this perspective. Please email me if you are interested in the research and would like to see early drafts.