By Bill Creasy
Honor is one of the greatest human virtues, and it is important for humanists. Everyone respects an honorable person, even if they disagree with the principle behind the honor. This is true even if the values of the person are not considered to be right, but the quality of honorableness is still respected. We might respect an honorable, patriotic Russian, if they have a reason for it, even if we disagree with the goal. A person who is dishonorable has only venal or petty motives, or perhaps motives that are inconsistent or poorly thought-out. What makes it so good to be honorable?
"Honour as a code of behaviour defines the duties of an individual within a social group," according to the Wikipedia "Honour" entry. Honor is often important for military behavior when it is difficult to write exact rules in unexpected situations. The military often has codes of honor that are strongly implanted during basic training. Military people who are trained this way will give their lives in the name of honor. There are honor codes in schools and universities to prevent cheating, without trying to specify every particular kind of cheating. The honor code is to stop cheating and to turn in other students if they are caught cheating.
Honor is different from a rule of law in that a violation of an honor code can cause a violent or angry retribution, for example a duel, rather than a reliance on an established criminal justice system. People take honor seriously and personally, and they are willing to make a personal sacrifice to uphold it.
But honor is difficult to describe. It seems to operate in an emotional level. What is it, and how is it related to morality? Is it rational? It doesn't make sense in terms of classical evolution if an individual sacrifices themselves for honor when they should be looking out for their own survival as the primary imperative goal.
We can return to the ideas of group evolution to see if there is an explanation in human social development. I've presented the general ideas of group evolution before. A recent book by E. O. Wilson, "The Social Conquest of Earth," discusses group evolution, and some of its history going back to Darwin. There is still controversy about it among biologists.
I discussed previously in an article that we can look at morality in general as arising from interacts with groups of people. It encourages and rewards prosocial behavior (also inaccurately called altruistic behavior). The rules of group evolution indicate that prosocial actions are needed to keep groups together. But these prosocial actions can be a competitive disadvantage when individuals within a group compete. Because of morality, those people who do prosocial actions are considered to be good, admirable people. Hence, they get an advantage of a good reputation to compensate for their effort, which should also help the group according to group evolution.
In that sense, morality doesn't exist without interactions with a group of people. It makes sense in a theoretical framework of group evolution. It is the evolution of the group that supports morality so that the individual members of the group are rewarded for prosocial actions. Without group evolution, competition between individuals makes it more rational not to be moral and not to help the group. But groups made of these kinds of individuals won't persist.
The idea of honor is another facet of morality that makes sense in terms of group evolution, but doesn't make much sense without it. My explanation of honor is as follows. Humans are unusual as animals in that a lot of our behavior is centered around groups. Humans can belong to several groups at once, and they can have divided loyalties between the different groups. They have to make decisions about priorities about which group is the most important. To do this, people can't simply be thoughtless followers of one leader or members of one group. As a result of these conflicts, individuals don't just need rules about how to act morally in one group. They also need rules about rules, or perhaps "metarules." These metarules give priorities for deciding which of the groups that a person is involved with is the most important.
I propose that a person with honor has a complex, complete, well-thought-out set of priorities about what group is important. This kind of person consistently follows their own priorities and is called an honorable person. A person with honor doesn't make rash actions that have bad consequences for important groups at the expense of groups that are less important. (For this argument, an individual is a group of one, so honorable people usually don't necessarily think of their own personal benefit first.) An honorable person considers consequences and weighs the interests of different groups, and makes a decision to act to benefit the most important group.
The most common examples come from the military. An honorable soldier must weigh his or her own survival, the welfare of a small group like a platoon, and the benefit of the entire army, and the entire country. The soldier's job is to put their life on the line to defend the country. But that job involves a lot of day-to-day decisions. A soldier will act to save their own life if it is directly threatened and nothing else is at stake. But if the platoon is fighting, a soldier that just runs away to save his life is dishonorable. An honorable soldier stays with the group to help it win, even in spite of a threat to life. But if the small group does something unacceptable, like massacre civilians, the honorable soldier may abandon the small group and report its bad actions up the chain of command to a larger group. This may hurt the smaller group but maintain the honor of the larger army or country. These decisions require that the soldier choose to benefit the appropriate group.
Examples of honor as a conflict between groups come from the last election. I talked about Pres. Trump's conflicts of interest and preferences for particular groups in the previous article. Evaluating Trump's honor may still take time. He seems to be trying to keep campaign promises to people who voted for him. But he is also angering a lot of people who disagree with him. Can he find a way to work for the good of the country and unify people? Can he consider the long-term best interests of the country, or is he only able to think about short-term goals?
Another question that is currently being investigated is Trump's relationship to Russia. There are indications that he was cooperating with Russian officials, who helped him win the election. His alleged cooperation with Russia appears dishonorable, because it was done for his personal benefit to win the election and against the benefit of the U.S., the larger and more important group for a president. It is also dishonorable for him not to allow a thorough investigation to clear up the issue, including releasing his tax forms. The honorable action, which is good for the country, is to do a full investigation even if it might reflect poorly on Trump and the Republican party. The honorable action would clear up the question so that the country can be sure about whether to trust (or not trust) his ability to lead.
Another basic question of honor is loyalty to the political parties vs. loyalty to the U.S. government. The success of Republicans in winning state and federal elections reflects a long-term effort to make the party successful, even if it is at the expense of the country. This reflects the group evolution principle that selfish subgroups will succeed when they compete against more prosocial subgroups. As an example, Republicans have gerrymandered congressional districts and restricted voter access in a way that benefits themselves by allowing them to get more Congressional districts with fewer votes. Democrats have done similar things, but they tend to argue that it is done to increase minority representation in Congress in a way that benefits the country or improves democracy. Republicans claim they are helping the country by reducing voter fraud, but they haven't produced any evidence that there is any fraud, and they haven't explained why it appears that they are benefiting to get more Congressional districts. Therefore, I would argue that Republicans are being dishonorable by putting party before any benefits to the country. But this is debatable.
An example of a person who appears to have put party loyalty above country is Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. He maintained total obstruction of the Obama Administration proposals in the Senate, including the Supreme Court nominee, in order to benefit his party, without giving an explanation of why the president's proposals were bad for the country.
Citizens are dependent on the honor of the winning candidate to at least try to govern well by putting the country's interest above his/her personal and party interests. Time will tell whether honor will win out for this president and his party, or whether their behavior will be judged as dishonorable by the voters. But the point is that honor is not an abstract, meaningless quality. Honor is an important quality that leaders should have in order to lead well. It is important that voters demand that candidates for political positions demonstrate that they have honor, and explain what issues they feel a need to be honorable about. If we elect leaders who behave honorably, the country and the government will be better.
This article was previously printed in WASHline, the newsletter of the Washington Area Secular Humanists.