To Save Democracy, Restore The Virtue of Honor

Do the words “honor” and “honorable” have useful meaning anymore?  That’s a serious question.

A friend who teaches at an elite college has observed that entering students for the last several year appear to be unable to articulate what honor means and are marginally interested in learning more. 

College honor codes, where they exist, don’t set standards to be lived up to, but obstacles to be overcome.  And why not?  It’s obvious to most onlookers that success in politics and business is based on deception, cheating, and manipulation for the benefit of self-interest.

New students are often introduced to the ancient foundations of honorable morality in the works of Plato, Aristotle and the like.  If they’re lucky, they also get more from the Bible, Buddhism, Taoism, etc. For reasons that escape me, faculty are increasingly unwilling to teach anything from the Bible, but not from other holy works.  I sat in on a lecture in political philosophy at another college where biblical references were met with blank stares of incomprehension from students who had not the least hint of what the Bible contains, but I digress.

Honor and to be honorable was an enduring moral value for thousands of years, although the meaning changed with the passing of time.  The Socratic understanding of honor, according to my philosopher friend, had more to do with clarity of meaning in what one said and did: what we might call integrity with a twist.  By that I mean integrity based on the thorough examination of what one means in the words one uses to verify that they are true and valid.

It seems like a reasonable place to begin, but it’s not obvious to many of us today that what some ancient Greek had to say has merit in the 21st century, especially if he can be lumped into the discredited category of old, dead white men. 

To be fair, the suspicious have a point.  We’ve used and abused the word honor, and beat it into the dust.  “It’s an honor to be with you.”  “You honor me with your presence.”   “Will you love, honor and keep her/him…until death do you part?”  “The Honorable…” (I’ve held an appointed office with the honorific). “On my honor I will do my best…”. I have the honor of introducing …”. We use the words honor and honorable in ways serious and trivial, sometimes as little more than filler words in a meaningless social ritual.

If Socrates was right about the necessity of thorough examination of meaning for words to have validity, then words that have been trivialized by their haphazard use and multiplicity of “meanings” cease to have validity.  Maybe that’s what has happened to honor.  

Does it need to be reclaimed?  If civil discourse and American democracy are to be preserved, then yes it does, but maybe by other names.

Trustworthiness, honesty, truthfulness, and integrity are possibilities.  But each has problematic limitations. 

Consider trustworthiness.  One can be trusted to be honest or dishonest.  Mr. Trump demonstrated that he can be trusted to be dishonest in almost everything he does, and yet his followers value his trustworthiness and surrender their moral souls to him. There can be no deception or obfuscation in the honorable trustworthiness needed for democracy to thrive.

An honorable person is a truthful person.  Truth, in this case, means that what is said can be reliably verified by available evidence.  According to the oath administered in court, truth comes in three sizes: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  How do they differ?  According to an old analogy the truth is that you are wearing a new tie.  The whole truth is that it is purple with neon pink polkadots.  Nothing but the truth is that it is the ugliest tie ever and you look silly wearing it.   Sometimes the truth is enough.  No more need be said.

Honorable trustworthiness and truth are closely related virtue of honesty.  To be honest is to engage with others without guile or deception; to be a person whose word can be relied on, who does not cheat even when cheating can be advantageous.

It all adds up to integrity.  Besides being trustworthy, honest and truthful, a person of integrity speaks and acts with the good of the other in mind.  Whoever the other is can rest secure knowing that persons of integrity will not intentionally do them harm, and will try to do them good. 

The predictably cynical response is likely to be, “What kind of sap-sucking, saccharine, do-gooder crap is that? Get real.  That’s not the way the world works.  It’s dog eat dog, and no one can be trusted, not really.  Look out for yourself the best way you can.”  If the cynic is right, there is no place for American style democracy, and the best hope for mutual safety is autocracy.  That was Hobbes’ conclusion, and it seems to work for Putin, Xi, and a few others.  But in most places it devolves into societies of corrupt rival camps violently dueling for primacy.

Not everyone is so cynical of course.  Some indifferently dismiss honor and honorable as old fashioned morality that’s nice to have around as long as it doesn’t interfere with whatever opportunities life might present.  They are the ones most easily seduced by authoritarians who promise to remove the burden of excessive morality from them.

We can’t allow cynics and the indifferent to dictate the future of our nation if we want to preserve representative democracy that encourages self-reliant individualism by building up communities of equitable justice for all.  It requires honorable leadership raised up from an electorate that values honor and knows what it means.

Will we do it?  The outcome is uncertain.

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