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Tulane Honors Program

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Honors Round Table: What does it mean to be honorable?

Mr. Evan Sparks, a senior majoring in History and Political Science was our guest today and kindly typed up his notes to share with us all. Enjoy and as he says, please discuss!
On my honor. Scout's honor. The Rt. Hon. Tony Blair. The Honorable George W. Bush. Honor code. Will you love her, keep her, comfort her, honor her... Honors program. Dean's Honor Scholar. Honors residence. And Brutus is an honorable man. What does it all mean?

There's a common division in our understanding of the word honorable into the idea of "being honorable" and "possessing honors." For example, an altruist is honorable, and a Rhodes scholar has honors. This semantic division has not always been the case, however. The first universities to grant honors were institutions of the church, and their marks of honor ("summa cum laude," &c.) were indications not only of academic prowess but also praiseworthy character. To have honors and honor you must be worthy of the term. I would like to separate the notion of honor from awards. In fact, I ought to be the first to do so given that my resume makes this same error by listing under one heading "Honors & Awards."

Allow me to propose three dimensions of honor, and then we can follow this with discussion.

1. Honor has objective moral content, that is, virtue. Honor is intimately associated with virtue. There is an external standard, ingrained into the fabric of the universe, of what is praiseworthy and what is not. (Notice I do not introduce the concept of "right and wrong" when discussing morality, but rather "good and bad." this is an important distinction.) In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis writes about what he calls "the Tao," or "the doctrine of objective value, the belief that cetrtain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are." It is not mere preference. The Tao is something which we all recognize, even if we do not accept its force. "I myself do not enjoy the society of small children," he writes, "[but] because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself, just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or color blind." It is a recognition of defect in relation to objective value. The consequence of not following or recognizing the Tao is a bizarre paradox: "We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst."

Honor and virtue depend upon the existence of objective standards of good and bad. Without these, one cannot have honor or be honorable. There is no way to know what is praiseworthy, nor is there any worth in being praised under such conditions.

2. The objective moral standard associated with honor is self-sacrifice, whether for faith or family or country. In the famous funeral oration recounted by Thucydides in The Pelopponesian War , Pericles calls self-sacrifice the highest virtue. However, the self-sacrifice must be for something good and valuable. Hence, Pericles recounts extensively the various good and praiseworthy qualities of Athens ("This, then, is the kind of city for which these men, who could not bear the though of losing her, nobly fought and died."), for whom the soldiers in question perished. Those who sacrifice themselves in an honorable cause or on behalf of an honorable person, community or institution are themselves honorable. "To me it seems that the consummation which has overtaken these men shows us the meaning of manliness [lit., virtue] in its first revelation and in its final proof.... So and such they were, these men -- worthy of their city."

Honor is not so much about the one who is honorable as it is about what the honorable man stands far, and for whom. Self-sacrifice as moral content implies the other: that is, community. It is in community that we become honorable. Only in community can we even aspire to honor.

3. Honor as self-sacrifice is not quantifiable. At Tulane University, admission to the honors program is granted on the basis of test scores and grade point average. Josiah Bunting, former superintendent of VMI, writes in An Education for Our Time that such metrics are useless to measure honor. "The utility of such praceices is zero. No, worse than zero. Everything that we should value and exalt in the way we educate our young people in college is ignored utterly; or if not ignored, forgotten and unknown... Asserting that College X 'ranks' ninth regionally is like writing that Professor Jones has published seventy-one papers, or that University Z has "produced twenty-one Rhodes scholars" (as though the university were a salmon hatchery). What if sixty of the papers are stupid and wrong? What if nine of the Rhodes scholars are drunks?"

We tend to praise people based on numerical values: X hours of community service, Y GPA, Z dollars raised to cure cancer. All well and good, but we're after self-sacrifice as honor. Ascribing honor(s) based on metrics is more award than honor as we've defined it. How do you measure self-sacrifice? Dr. Brady suggests that honor is something descriptive, not prescriptive, and this may be getting at what we're talking about. Can self-sacrifice in a community for moral causes be quantified? I don't think so.



  • "It is the dissimilarities and inequalities among men which give rise to the notion of honor; as such differences become less, it grows feeble; and when they disappear, it will vanish too." - Alexis de Tocqueville

    Democratized honor, de Tocqueville recognized from observing the first fledgling democracy, is an impossibility. While humanity made distinctions between slave and citizen, common and noble, honor was a possibility. Honor, in formally stratified society, honor was something into which only a select few were born; it was not theirs to gain through outstanding virtue, but simply theirs to lose through particularly egregious behavior. To quote Schopenhauer: "Honor ... means that a man is not exceptional; fame, that he is. Fame is something which must be won; honor, only something which must not be lost."

    We, in our democratized society, emphasize that people ought to be judged by their actions, and not by the situation into which they were born. Resultantly, we do not formally assign status at birth, and neither do we assign honor which an individual might maintain. I, for my part, don't think we've lost anything. Better to strive for good deeds, and to enact them often enough that we can say with confidence that we are characteristically good.

    By Anonymous Alan Murphy, at 10:26 PM  

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