Against Honor

In response to my post on the right to honor, Mark introduces a distinction between group honor and individual honor. He identifies the former with clannism, and emphasizes the liberal virtues of the latter. The distinction is a sound one, but let me press the point. The question is how central the right to honor is, even if individualistically formulated, in a given constitutional system. I find it very difficult to believe that any system where honor is a central value shall perform very well in the liberal ranking, since that would imply that when other rights (typically, freedom of speech) are in conflict with honor, it is the latter that will prevail. So if The New York Times affected Sullivan’s honor by conveying an inaccurate picture of how the police dealt with the Civil Rights protesters, an honor-based system will not hesitate to condemn the newspaper. To borrow from my country’s case law, in Argentina a conservative supreme court established in the 90s that to assert on TV that the Virgin Mary was not quite a virgin, as a writer did during a TV show, entailed a violation of constitutional law –inter alia, of the right to honor of the plaintiff, a Christian who cherished the Virgin and felt insulted. These are just anecdotes (and I can think of many others along the same lines), but the point is more general: when the right to honor is central, courts will decide cases favoring it over other rights, and this will entail the restriction of, typically, freedom of speech. I have no doubts that such a system is less committed to liberalism than the alternative one, and this seems irrespective of the collective- individual divide.

Dignity is a related but distinguishable concept. I must say that, honestly, I find this concept difficult to grasp, and I am not sure I follow Stephan’s explanation. A right to have all other rights sounds a bit puzzling to me. It is also an ambiguous concept. When the German Constitutional Court decided that a law allowing the Ministry of Defense to shoot down aircrafts in a  9-11 scenario was against the Constitution, dignity played a central role. Here, dignity is related to the Kantian idea that persons are not means but ends in themselves. I find that decision hard to endorse, but that is beside the point. I just want to note that in such case dignity functions as a general prohibition against a certain type of consequentialist analysis, while in other contexts it is equated to honor, reputation, etc. Thus, for example, when it is claimed that insulting a person affects his or her dignity, which is the case I had in mind.

Honor is related to status, to ranks, to having one’s position in society properly acknowledged. Bergthora tells Hallgerd to move from the table and give her space to someone of higher ranking. Hallgerd feels insulted (The Rule, p. 123). I can imagine similar quarrels taking place in the most liberal of societies. I do not think, however, that it would be such a heightened sensitivity to social status that would make that society liberal.


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2 Responses

  1. Thanks for your response to my reply, Lucas, and for pressing the point about honor, which I think is really very interesting. And I had to laugh at your description of the case about the Virgin Mary.
    I wonder whether we can imagine a conception of personal (not collective) honor, with legal traction, that is unrelated to status. Is there an approach to honor that’s neither hierarchical nor relational? I think the issue is meaningful beyond the constitutional context we’re discussing and significant in international political terms as well. I think even of Doyle Quiggle’s posts. How to overcome shame and recapture honor in ways that root honor in a different type of cultural economy, one that’s less zero sum? Something to muse about on a Friday morning, as the symposium sadly draws toward its end.

    In the meantime, whether a system that protects some conception of honor in the speech context is more or less committed to liberalism depends on the definition of liberalism we provide. Perhaps you’re right. Certainly you are if we define the autonomy that liberal constitutional protects as liberty. But for an alternate view, see Edward Eberle’s Dignity and Liberty, a comparison of German and American constitutionalism which offers an interesting meditation on the issue sympathetic with the German approach.
    I’m going to let Jan respond specifically to the honor and dignity issue (I received an email suggesting he would), but I agree, a legal conception of dignity short circuits a consequentialist analysis. And in investing each individual with such a powerful legal shield, it provides the liberal legal analogue to the cultural role of lineage under the rule of the clan.

    Do we have time for one more exchange? I hope so—though we’re thousands of miles away, we’re still more or less in the same time zone.

  2. Jan-Christoph Marschelke says:

    Yes, I suggested I would, so I will – a bit later than expected.

    0. Even though I love vast abstractions, I deem it extremely difficult to find an approach which encompasses both

    – challenges to avoid the return of the rule of the clan within the gaps/vacua of established liberal democratic societies, and
    – challenges to overcome war and achieve transformation into a more liberal society e.g. in Afghanistan (which is the setting of Doyle Quiggle´s intriguing posts).

    I have to admit that I´m too clueless about the conditions of the latter to dare to comment on it. The only thing I might say is: The latter is a war scenario, and if we try to understand cultural economy of a liberal society in peace out of such an angle we´ll certainly run the risk of distortion in our analysis.

    So, I better stick to the first, commenting on dignity and honor as Mark suggested.

    1. On Lucas Grosman´s post
    a) Honor
    Eric Hilgendorf, a German scholar, suggested in an article that it might be worth reconsidering the legal rules concerning libel. Due to multiculturalism in Germany there is an increasing number of citizens who endorse a strong concept of honor which includes honor of collectives (esp. family) as well (this suggests an analytical separation which may be inadequate because the collective honor is often times the source from which personal honor is derived). If the state doesn´t want these citizens to slowly drift into vigilantism (and erode the acceptance of the its institutions) it might be adequate to re-strengthen the protection of honor.

    Lucas Grosman´s put the difficulties very well when he wrote: „[W]hen the right to honor is central, courts will decide cases favoring it over other rights, and this will entail the restriction of, typically, freedom of speech. I have no doubts that such a system is less committed to liberalism than the alternative one […].“ So a re-consideration should not be about making honor a central value but to maybe just strenghten it a bit. Even if this doesn´t lead to many successful claims in the courts (in favour of honor) it might at least enable the raise of discussions which formerly would have been hardly conceivable. It would be a matter of degrees. It remains an open question if this kind of recognition can be enough to satisfy anybody.

    Would it make our society more liberal? We might answer „no“, but who says that it a liberal society needs to become even more liberal? As I understood Marks approach, liberalism needs to know its limits otherwise it will harm itself.

    b) Dignity
    Again, I agree a lot with Lucas Grosman when he says it is „concept difficult to grasp“. And I don´t know how spoiled it might sound to some ears. It has a chance though. It simply is pretty widely spread (e.g. it appears at core positions of many national and international legal documents). I argued elsewhere: This means it can suitably serve as a common point of reference. Of course, this does not mean that across this beautiful planet people will unanimously endorse the same interpretation of it. Neither the comparably mangeable collective of German jurists is able to do so. The important thing about it is not to create uniformity (a horrible idea for liberal democrats anyway, but OK, maybe we´re looking for common minimum basis here), but to become familiar with existing differences.

    But, of course, as far as you want to use it as a firm legal concept (as the German Supreme Court did it in the example quoted by Lucas Grosman) you have to delimit its range in order to preserve applicability. Whether this excludes deciding both cases like the German „Flugsicherheitsgesetz“ and cases which refer to settings which are closer to the notion of personal honor I feel unable to comment on. (Advocates of „human dignity“ would probably affirm and say: It can apply to both as long as the cases are of such quality that it touches the essence of humanity – reply: whatever that may be)…

    2. Honor, dignity, recognition
    If I was to give a ad-hoc-differentiation of honor and dignity with regard to the individual-collective-scheme I could imagine saying: Honor stems from a tradition in which personal honor depends on the honor economy of a collective the individual belongs to (as ROC, ch. 7). Whereas dignity is commonly conceived as being an innate quality of every human being (this idea could smoothly lead into some parts oft he discussion of Jeanne Schroeder, Tim Murphy and Mark about subjectivity and human communities). According to this oversimplified scheme honor belongs to clan/collective, dignity belongs to liberalism/individualism. And we might make the diagnose: The former tends to be too illiberal. The latter tends to be too ignorant of the de facto conditions and needs of many human beings (according to some traits of the Schroeder-Murphy-Weiner-discussion: too fictitious).

    So we might look for something inbetween. Maybe the concept of recognition and its corresponding discourse. Because unlike dignity it applies to collectives as well. And it relates to theories which state that our individual identity is nourished by collective identies as well. Which means that the value (status?) enjoyed by a collective I belong to (e.g. a religious community, a group of immigrants, certain profession -> soldiers e.g., to relate to Doyle Quiggle´s blog) influences my personal self-confidence. So maybe the “recognition”-discourse could provide a link between “too clan” and “too individualist”. But that´s very speculative, and a closer scrutiny would be too much for now.