TCS Daily

Honor and Shame: Who Needs Them?

By Lee Harris - December 31, 2003 12:00 AM

The author Victor Davis Hanson, in an otherwise excellent attack on the malaise of modern intellectuals, refers dismissively to "honor and shame" as "the stuff of tribal societies."

Of course he is right; it is the stuff of tribal societies; and in making this point, he is also making the same point that several readers made about my article, "Blaming Christmas," namely, that the sense of honor by itself is no guarantee that those motivated by this sense will act decently or morally: "As much, perhaps more, wrong has been done in the name of 'honor' as has [been done in the name of] good," in the words of one of my favorite TCS critics, Dan. Or, to put this another way, both honor and shame are ethically relative concepts -- one culture's honor may be another's shame.


Now both Dan and Victor David Hanson are absolutely correct -- as far as they go. But neither, I believe, goes quite far enough. And to see this, let me propose a fairly straightforward analogy.


The Ethical Relativity of Honor and Shame


Suppose I were to write an essay praising the involuntary nervous system, that "lower" part of our brain that makes sure that we breathe when we are sleeping and that we digest our food even when we are reading a book that absorbs our total attention. Now, clearly, it is better for us all to have such a system, since otherwise all these "lower" functions would have to be carried out by deliberate acts of will. We would constantly be needing to remind ourselves to do all sorts of things that we really haven't much interest in even thinking about, let alone monitoring with breathless anxiety from moment to moment.


But isn't it true that Hitler and Saddam Hussein relied upon precisely such an involuntary nervous system; and, indeed, haven't all the serial killers and mass murderers known to us possessed this same trick of being able to breathe in their sleep?


Yes, indeed, all of this is obviously true, but it misses the point. To praise the value of something as a means to an end is not the same as praising it as an end in itself. Honor and shame, like our involuntary nervous system, are both means to an end; and to argue that they are necessary conditions of achieving the good life must not be confused with arguing that they are sufficient conditions for achieving it. For a man to build a beautiful home, he must have a hammer and a saw at his disposition; but, clearly, merely having a hammer and a saw is not enough, by itself, to build an adequate doghouse, let alone a beautiful home. And the same thing is true of both honor and shame -- they are the necessary conditions of a good society, but, by themselves, they are not enough.


The proof that they are not enough is provided by Hanson's remark about honor and shame being the stuff of tribal societies, and Dan's comment on the indecency of many acts of honor. For what, after all, haven't men done in the name of honor, or to avoid the stigma of shame? The world is full of the horrors that have been motivated by these powerfully preemptive forces, from the murder of a disgraced daughter to the operation of the Nazi death camps.


But, that said, now tell me a way of motivating human behavior that has not been similarly misused. Economic compensation, for example, is certainly a legitimate means of motivating behavior, but, obviously, men have been paid good money to assassinate innocent and virtuous men, just as contracts can be used in hiring a hit man. Religious faith can be perverted; and even philosophy, that acme of human rationality, has been employed to bolster even the most hideous systems of totalitarianism, form Martin Heidegger's acclamation of Hitler to Jean-Paul Sartre apology for Stalin. So what form of human motivation is safe from being turned to evil purposes?


None. But this fact, by itself, is not a consequence of any inherent flaw in this or that particular system of motivation; rather it results from the fact that all these motivational devices are simply tools -- and how else would you expect a tool to behave? Lady MacBeth's knife did not jump out of her hands, crying: "How dare you use me to such a foul purpose!" A hammer, however useful it may be in building a house, can still be used to bash in the skull of its owner, just the saw may be used to cut him up into easily disposable bits.


A tool is a means to an end, and the tool itself does not decide what this end will be -- that is not the tool's job. That is why all tools are ethically relative -- they cannot be otherwise. Like armies, they may be used to liberate or to enslave. We, and not our tools, are the ones who must decide what we want our tools to do. Do you want to make wicked men feel that their wicked actions are honorable, or to praise those who murder certain ethnic groups? Do we want to hold our economic incentives that encourage men to spy on their neighbors and to betray their friends? The tools by which we achieve this purpose -- honor and shame - couldn't really care less.


Going back to Hanson's remark, we may now rephrase a bit differently. In tribal societies, the primary motivational force guiding men's action is the sense of shame and honor that is instilled into them long before they know any better, and that continues to operate in them as conditioned reflexes. It is, so to speak, a visceral code that automatically makes them feel deep shame if they do not carry out the kind of behavior they have been programmed to carry out. But here we come to the critical question, namely, what kind of behavior has been programmed into their particular visceral code?


In a tribal society, it is the family or the extended tribe that matters, and all honor is wrapped up in the honor of one's family and one's tribe, or, in certain cases, of one's place within them. Here those two powerful motivators, shame and honor, act to re-enforce the normative expectations that the tribal society imposes on all of its members, and these expectations are understood as duties that the members of such a society are honor-bound to carry out. If my daughter has betrayed my honor, then it is my duty to kill her -- this is the message that the visceral code of the tribal society conveys to the person in whom this code has been implanted. His actions, in short, are on the order of an automatic reflex, impenetrable to the power of reason.


The modern intellectual, both liberal and conservative, tends to recoil from this kind of behavior, and does so, ironically, with the exact same kind of automatic reflex. But this fact in itself raises our question in a new form. For while it is obvious that honor and shame can be employed for what we think are indecent or downright evil purposes, isn't it equally obvious that they may be put to purpose that we regard as clearly good?


Back to William James


To illustrate what I mean, let me go back to the moment when I first began to think about this problem. It happened during the course of a train ride to Vienna some years ago. I was sitting in the same compartment with a young Austrian and we struck up a conversation. At some point he asked me, "What is it with you Americans and your queuing?" At first, I wasn't quite sure what he meant, but after a little more clarification, I saw the question he was asking. How did I explain the fact that Americans, whenever they may go, spontaneously take their place in a line, without bickering or butting. What lay behind this bizarre ritual?


My first response was to laugh, and to ask, "What are you talking about? Getting in line -- it''s natural. It's universal."


Well, not in Vienna, as I quickly realized when, minutes after my arrival, I went up to an ATM machine to find myself facing the backside of a native who had magically interposed himself between my body and the ATM.


The American ritual of getting in line is not universal, nor is it natural. And this is what made me start to think. Why is it that we Americans do not butt in line? Why is it that we accept the principle of first come, first through the door -- as opposed to the strongest going first, or the person with the highest status? And the only answer I could see to this question was, We have all been made to feel shame at the mere idea of jumping ahead of someone else in the line. We have all been made to feel that we are honor-bound to accept our place in line as this place has been determined by the visceral code of our culture. None of us, on approaching a line, reason about it, or reflect on it -- we take our "allotted" place as if we were obeying the law of gravity rather than a social custom. We do it automatically and mindlessly.


Now rare indeed is the intellectual for whom the words "automatically and mindlessly" are terms of approbation. More commonly, they are reproaches leveled by those with superior insight against the common herd. But here and there you will find an exception to this rule; and among these is America's greatest philosophical mind, William James.


James in his first masterpiece, The Principles of Psychology, pays an unusual tribute to dumb habit. Instead of denouncing it for its automatic and mindless quality, he extols it precisely because of this quality. It is, according to James, the unthinking and unreflective character of habit that makes it so useful to us; and in order to get us to see this, he asks the simple question, How would you like to go through a day having to reflect on every last action you took before you took it.?


Habit is like flying on automatic pilot; it frees up our mind to pursue other things beyond the trivialities of our quotidian existence, such as which leg to put into our trousers first, how long to gargle Listerine, which sock to put on first, what to have for breakfast. Or, to use our earlier example, it is like the involuntary nervous system -- a means of liberating ourselves from the need to concentrate on the endless and exhausting minutiae of our own individual lives. And thus, for James, it is pragmatically justified. It works.


Does this mean that all habits are good? Of course not. But it does mean that habit is a necessary condition of our being able to go beyond habit -- to use our mind for higher purposes than figuring out each morning what we must do in order to get our car out of the garage.


Shame and honor may be best seen as the habits of entire communities, and, as in the American social habit of getting in a line suggests, they may be used for purposes of preventing unnecessary social conflict. Just imagine, for a moment, what American daily life would be like if, every time you went to a movie or to a restaurant or to a public bathroom, you and everyone else present had to consciously decide what convention you would all agree to follow before forming the line -- one party might suggest letting the person with the greatest physical handicap go first, another party might suggest that it should be the representative of the most oppressed minority who took precedence, another the person who was the most impatient, and so on.


Confronted with such an alternative, "spontaneously and mindless" don't look so bad after all. But once this is granted, then you are logically bound to accept the need for both the psychological motivators of shame and honor in any society whatsoever, because only these mechanisms are able to provide an entire community with a common set of ethically obvious standards that have been reliably hardwired into their collective visceral code. And this means that shame and honor are not only the stuff of tribal societies, they are the stuff of all societies -- including our own. We cannot dispense them and expect to live civilized lives, and this is a fact that all intellectuals, conservative or liberal, must be brought to understand.


The Nature of Human Rationality


The intellectual, profoundly impressed by his own rationality, assumes that it is a product of his own individual mind. This is a myth, and dangerous one. Rationality is not something you and I possess as individuals; rather it is a process that occurs, if it occurs at all, between us. And it can only begin to occur among those individuals who, for some reason or other, are already willing to agree.


Everyone who has ever argued with someone else knows that this is so, and most of us, at some point or other, have been tempted to shout along with Samuel Johnson: "I have given you an argument; but I cannot give you an understanding." But few go on to recognize what this problem says about the nature of reason. For if we cannot force a man to accept a rational argument, then reason, by itself, is not a sufficient motivator to get men to act reasonably. And, indeed, men must first be made reasonable before they can precede to be rational.


We all know what acting reasonably means -- it means obeying a code of conduct that is just as strict as the code governing the American queuing custom. It means not using violence against one's opponent, nor personally attacking his personality, nor using fraud, nor making up false statements, nor fudging data. It means, in short, acting like a gentleman; and this means obeying a code of honor, and being ashamed at even the thought of departing from this code an iota.


The standard of reasonable conduct does not flow to us from rational arguments; rather rational arguments only have motivational power when they are exchanged by men who are already acting reasonably, and who have been instilled with the visceral code that permits us automatically and mindlessly to adopt the point of view of Adam Smith's "disinterested spectator." In short, you cannot argue men into being reasonable -- but you can bring them up to be that way, provided you have devised a system of shame and honor that makes acting reasonable a common duty and a common destiny.


No society can exist that fails to instill some visceral code in its members; otherwise it becomes a chaos in which one "rugged" individual seeks to assert his will on another. Just as individual human beings can never expect to rise above their involuntary nervous system or their personal habits, so too no society can expect to rise above the visceral code that works through the conditioned reflex of shame and honor. They may transcend these levels, just as the human brain transcends its reptilian core, but they can never leave them behind. Indeed, there is no more dangerous intellectualist illusion than to think that we can.


That is why debates over what is shameful and honorable in any society are really debates about the destiny of that society -- far more than the intellectual's debate over abstractions, however lofty and noble these may be. To change a society's code of honor and shame is to change the automatic and mindless habits of a whole community -- and it is these collective habits which, in the last analysis, determine the quality of life that any civilization can sustain. They are the habits of its heart, whose beat is not regulated by the reflective part of the society, but by those great masses of men and women who simply go about spontaneously and mindlessly upholding traditions that have been handed down to them from their parents and their grandparents.


Luckily, for us, the traditions of our society place honor and shame at the service of the highest civilized values. The reflective intellectual may look at these and retroactively approve of them; but, by himself, he is powerless to create them where they do not already exist, or to bring them back when they have been squandered.


That is why he must always be careful when he speaks of them. 

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