An Honorable and Virtuous Bleg

I am currently working on a project looking at private law and concepts of virtue. In particular, I am interested in the idea that acting to defend one’s honor or dignity reflects a certain kind of moral virtue. I’m looking for sources — literary, philosophical, or historical — that examine the disposition to defend one’s honor as a virtue. If you have suggestions, please let me know either in the comments or by emailing me at nate dot oman at gmail dot com. Thanks!

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10 Responses

  1. Youngjae Lee says:

    Jeremy Horder’s Provocation and Responsibility should be an excellent starting point for its philosophical and historical content.

  2. Daniel Solove says:

    James Bowman, Honor: A History

    Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic

    Maybe some of the work of James Whitman about norms of honor in European countries.

    There’s a lot of scholarship about dueling. There were some who viewed dueling as a virtuous ritual and others who saw it as a barbaric practice.

  3. And don’t forget to read everything Hobbes has to say on the subject.

    I think dignity and honor are conceptually quite distinct from each other. Historically, they are distinct as well: compare Charles Taylor’s discussion of the era of “honor” that precedes the modern era of “dignity.”

  4. Bruce Boyden says:

    I’m not sure if by historical sources you mean works by historians, but if so I recommend Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor, which covers among other things dueling.

  5. I’ll assume you’re referring to the Roman concept of dignitas….

  6. Managing Board says:

    There is a huge anthropological literature on this, which in turn informed a huge historical literature. It would be extremely helpful if you were more specific as to what interested you, particularly what cultures or periods you would regard as authoritative. Particularly well-studied regions include premodern Europe, Rome, all sides of the Mediterranean up to quite recent times, certain African cultures, traditional Japan, and the American South. Also there is a lot on gender and class relative to these concepts.

    In general I think you will find that, in Anglo-American culture, the idea one can virtuously act in defense of personal honor took a huge beating in the nineteenth century, concomitant with the effective prohibition and decline of dueling. In addition to works cited above, you may find Edward L. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice (1984) useful on the decline of dueling in the American South.

    As has been said, dignity and honor are two quite different things analytically.

  7. Joe says:

    How funny that I was just discussing this concept with someone the other day. Or, rather, we were discussing it’s recent death. At least in America.

  8. Joe,

    I like to think the notion of honor is alive and well in our nation’s military branches, with the “idea of ‘soldier’s honor’ [being] as old as war chronicles going back at least as far as the Iliad” (Larry May referencing Shannon French’s The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Values Past and Present, 2003). As May explains, “Socializing soldiers to view their honor as of paramount importance is the chief way that soldiers are motivated to restrain themselves according to the rules of war” (‘Honor is a motive in that it influences the will in a certain way–namely, to follow certain moral rules scrupulously.’). For the full discussion, see the index entry on “honor” in Larry May’s War Crimes and Just War (Cambridge, UK: CUP. 2007).

  9. Ed says:

    You might consider Iceland, starting with William Miller’s Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, which is partly concerned with honor and legal norms. Or perhaps contact him directly.

    Looking at your question and reactions to it, you may want to clarify whether you are putting to one side military matters and/or (arguably) marginal, deviant, or simply violent behavior like dueling and revenge killing.

  10. Managing Board says:

    The Romans and Icelanders are interesting cultures to study because, in both, you could vindicate your honor through extralegal personal violence or through the legal system. I agree with Bill Miller as a starting point for Iceland, and probably Ted Lendon, Empire of Honour for Rome (2002). (He is just up the road in Charlottesville.)