04 October 2018

Dignity without Honor?

In a recent book philosophy professor Tamler Sommers attempt to explain Why Honor Matters, or at least why he thinks it should matter more than it seems to in the modern U.S.  In this country, he argues, honor has been sacrificed to the idea of dignity. Honor differs from dignity, according to Sommers' definitions, in its essential dependence upon other people's opinions. Dignity is non-negotiable by comparison; it is a presumption of inherent worth independent of personal opinions. It does not need to be proved to anyone, but in practice must be upheld by the authority of the state. It is claimed by those who demand to be accepted as they are. For Sommers, a preoccupation with dignity leads to an atomized and cowardly society in which people call a cop, so to speak, instead of standing up for themselves or for what is right. In more honorable societies, the more strongly felt need to earn the respect of others inspires heroic or simply more civic-minded action. Sommers is all too aware that modern culture equates honor with violence, but argues that "honor groups" often limit the scope of violence through codes of conduct, and that a modest amount of violence (certainly non-lethal) sometimes is an appropriate response to bullying or deeper forms of oppression. We would all respect each other more than we seem to now, he suggests, if we all understood that we were all willing to stand up for ourselves and what we believe in, even at risk to ourselves. In one extreme moment, Sommers remarks that people value their own lives too much these days, but since he isn't really concerned with honor's expression in war he doesn't really follow up that provocation.

Sommers is also well aware that honor is seen as a conservative value. He makes a point of distancing himself from many conservative positions and makes a special point of saying that white nationalism is not the stuff of which honor is made. He claims that appeals to honor could bolster some liberal or progressive positions, though some of his examples, e.g. claiming that a refusal to accept refugees is cowardly, sound merely sophisticated rather than honorable. He can't help conceding that honor has a populist if not nativist tendency due to its basis in group identification compared to dignity's basis in abstract or generic humanity. When decentralization is advisable, when localism is preferable to appeals to impersonal central authority, that sort of honor can be helpful. But for all that he criticizes the preoccupation with dignity at honor's expense, his own commitment to an essentially irreducible idea of individual human dignity is apparent in his recommendations for "containing" honor and preventing such excesses as "honor killings." He's really arguing for some moderate golden mean between extroverted, aggressive honor and introverted, passive-seeming dignity, but "honor" and "dignity" may be terms too dramatic to address the problems Sommers perceives.

That we should all be accountable to each other isn't necessarily a matter of honor or dignity, but it is a matter of democracy. A mere opposition of words doesn't tell us much about how American democracy has declined to the point where many people feel that they don't have to listen to people with different views, and where even more people hear "You're wrong" as an expression of hate. The worst flaw of Why Honor Matters is its lack of much sense of history, its failure to explain the shift from honor to immoderate dignity in any substantial way. Without that, whatever valid points Sommers has are lost in mere wordplay. Before he can hope to persuade people to trade some dignity for more honor, he needs to show that he understands why people rejected honor for dignity in the first place. Doing so may be outside the scope of his project, but that only means that this would-be philosopher has more work to do.

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