What Is Honour?

Honour or honor is the idea of a bond between an individual and a society as a quality of a person that is both of social teaching and of personal ethos, that manifests itself as a code of conduct, and has various elements such as valor, chivalry, honesty, and compassion. It is an abstract concept entailing a perceived quality of worthiness and respectability that affects both the social standing and the self-evaluation of an individual or institution such as a family, school, regiment or nation. Accordingly, individuals (or institutions) are assigned worth and stature based on the harmony of their actions with a specific code of honour, and the moral code of the society at large.

Samuel Johnson, in his A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), defined honour as having several senses, the first of which was “nobility of soul, magnanimity, and a scorn of meanness”. This sort of honour derives from the perceived virtuous conduct and personal integrity of the person endowed with it. On the other hand, Johnson also defined honour in relationship to “reputation” and “fame”; to “privileges of rank or birth”, and as “respect” of the kind which “places an individual socially and determines his right to precedence”. This sort of honour is often not so much a function of moral or ethical excellence, as it is a consequence of power. Finally, with respect to sexuality, honour has traditionally been associated with (or identical to) “chastity” or “virginity”, or in case of married men and women, “fidelity”. Some have argued that honour should be seen more as a rhetoric, or set of possible actions, than as a code.

Honor Mosaic c 1914 in the Pantheon of Illustrious Men, Madrid (Spain)

Honor Mosaic c 1914 in the Pantheon of Illustrious Men, Madrid (Spain)

Social context

Honour as a code of behaviour defines the duties of an individual within a social group. Margaret Visser observes that in an honour-based society “a person is what he or she is in the eyes of other people”. A code of honour differs from a legal code, also socially defined and concerned with justice, in that honour remains implicit rather than explicit and objectified.

One can distinguish honour from dignity, which Wordsworth assessed as measured against an individual’s conscience rather than against the judgement of a community. Compare also the sociological concept of “face”.

Wall of Honour, Royal Military College of Canada

Wall of Honour, Royal Military College of Canada

In the early medieval period, a lord’s or lady’s honour was the group of manors or lands he or she held. “The word was first used indicating an estate which gave its holder dignity and status.” For a person to say “on my honour” was not just an affirmation of his or her integrity and rank, but the veracity behind that phrase meant he or she was willing to offer up estates as pledge and guarantee.

The concept of honour appears to have declined in importance in the modern West; conscience has replaced it in the individual context, and the rule of law (with the rights and duties defined therein) has taken over in a social context. Popular stereotypes would have it surviving more definitively in more tradition-bound cultures (e.g. Pashtun, Southern Italian, Polish, Persian, Turkish, Arab, Iberian, “Old South” or Dixie) in a perception akin to Orientalism. Feudal or other agrarian societies, which focus upon land use and land ownership, may tend to “honour” more than do contemporary industrial societies. Note that Saint Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033 – 1109) in Cur Deus Homo extended the concept of honour from his own feudal society to postulate God’s honour.

An emphasis on the importance of honour exists in such traditional institutions as the military (serving officers may conduct a court of honour) and in organisations with a military ethos, such as Scouting organisations (which also feature “Courts of Honour”).

Honour in the case of sexuality frequently relates, historically, to fidelity: preservation of “honour” equates primarily to maintenance of the virginity of singles and to the exclusive monogamy of the remainder of the population. Further conceptions of this type of honour vary widely between cultures; some cultures regard honour killings of (mostly female) members of one’s own family as justified if the individuals have “defiled the family’s honour” by marrying against the family’s wishes, or even by becoming the victims of rape. Western observers generally see these honour killings as a way of men using the culture of honour to control female sexuality.

Skinners, executioners, grave-diggers, shepherds, barber-surgeons, millers, linen-weavers, sow-gelders, latrine-cleaners, and bailiffs and their families were among the “dishonourable people” (unehrliche Leute) in early modern German society.

Cultures of honour and cultures of law

Various sociologists and anthropologists have contrasted cultures of honour with cultures of law. A culture of law has a body of laws which all members of society must obey, with punishments for transgressors. This requires a society with the structures required to enact and enforce laws. A culture of law incorporates a social contract: members of society give up some aspects of their freedom to defend themselves and retaliate for injuries, on the understanding that society will apprehend and punish transgressors.

An alternative to government enforcement of laws is community or individual enforcement of social norms.

One way that honour functions is as a major factor of reputation. In a system where there is no court that will authorize the use of force to guarantee the execution of contracts, an honourable reputation is very valuable to promote trust among transaction partners. To dishonour an agreement could be economically ruinous, because all future potential transaction partners might stop trusting the party not to lie, steal their money or goods, not repay debts, mistreat the children they marry off, have children with other people, abandon their children, or fail to provide aid when needed. A dishonourable person might be shunned by the community as a way to punish bad behavior and create an incentive for others to maintain their honour.

Alexander Hamilton defends his honour by accepting Aaron Burr's challenge.

Alexander Hamilton defends his honour by accepting Aaron Burr’s challenge.

If one’s honour is questioned, it can thus be important to disprove any false accusations or slander. In some cultures, the practice of dueling has arisen as a means to settle such disputes firmly, though by physical dominance in force or skill rather than by objective consideration of evidence and facts.

Honour can also imply duty to perform certain actions, such as providing for and disciplining one’s children, serving in the military during war, contributing to local collective projects like building infrastructure, or exacting revenge in retaliation for acts one is directly harmed by.

The concept of personal honour can be extended to family honour, which strengthens the incentives to follow social norms in two ways. First, the consequences of dishonourable actions (such as suicide or attempted robbery that results in death) outlive the perpetrator, and negatively affect family members they presumably care about. Second, when one member of the family misbehaves, other members of the family are in the position to and are incentivized to strongly enforce the community norms.

In strong honour cultures, those who do not conform may be forced or pressured into conformance and transgressors punished physically or psychologically. The use of violence may be collective in its character, where many relatives act together. The most extreme form of punishment is honour killing. Dueling and vengeance at a family level can result in a sustained feud.

Honour-based cultures are also known as honour-shame cultures and contrasted with guilt cultures on the Guilt-Shame-Fear spectrum of cultures.

Cultures of honour are often conservative, encoding pre-modern traditional family values and duties. In some cases these values clash with those of post-sexual revolution and egalitarian societies. Add to this the prohibition against vigilante or individual justice-taking, cultures of law sometimes consider practices in honour cultures to be unethical or a violation of the legal concept of human rights.

Examples around the world

Historians have especially examined the culture of honour in American South. Social scientists have looked at specialized subcultures such as South Asian Muslims in Britain. Others have compared multiple modern nations.

One paper finds that present-day Canadians born in communities that historically lay outside the reach of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Mounties) seem to inherit a violent code of honour that drives their behaviour.

From the viewpoint of anthropologists, cultures of honour typically appear among nomadic peoples and among herdsmen who carry their most valuable property with them and risk having it stolen, without having recourse to law enforcement or to government. Due to the lack of strong institutions, cultivating a reputation for swift and disproportionate revenge increases the safety of one’s person and property against aggressive actors. Thinkers ranging from Montesquieu to Steven Pinker have remarked upon the mindset needed for a culture of honour.

According to Richard Nisbett, cultures of honour will often arise when three conditions exist:

  1. a scarcity of resources
  2. situations in which the benefit of theft and crime outweighs the risks
  3. a lack of sufficient law-enforcement (such as in geographically remote regions)

Historically, cultures of honour exist in places where the herding of animals dominates an economy. In this situation the geography is usually extensive, since the soil cannot support extensive sustained farming and thus large populations; the benefit of stealing animals from other herds is high since it is the main form of wealth; and there is no central law-enforcement or rule of law. However cultures of honour can also appear in places like modern inner-city slums. The three conditions exist here as well: lack of resources (poverty); crime and theft have a high rewards compared to the alternatives (few); and law enforcement is generally lax or corrupt.

Once a culture of honour exists in a society, its members find it difficult to make the transition to a culture of law; this requires that people become willing to back down and refuse to immediately retaliate, and from the viewpoint of the culture of honour, the feeling humiliation makes personal restraint extremely difficult as it reflects weakness and appeasement.

Honour as a cause of war

The War of 1812

Historian Norman Risjord has emphasised the central importance of honour as a cause of the War of 1812, which the United States launched in against Britain despite its much more powerful naval and military strength. Americans of every political stripe saw the need to uphold national honour, and to reject the treatment of the United States by Britain as a third class nonentity. Americans talked incessantly about the need for force in response. This quest for honour was a major cause of the war in the sense that most Americans who were not involved in mercantile interests or threatened by Indian attack strongly endorsed the preservation of national honour. The humiliating attack by HMS Leopard against USS Chesapeake in June 1807 was a decisive event. Historians have documented the importance of honour in shaping public opinion in a number of states, including Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, as well as the territory of Michigan. The successful conclusion of the war, especially the spectacular defeat of the main British invasion army at New Orleans, did restore the American sense of honour.

National honour, the reputation of republican government, and the continuing supremacy of the Republican party had seemed to be at stake … National honour had [now] been satisfied,” says historian Lance Banning, “Americans celebrated the end of the struggle with a brilliant burst of national pride.

The British showed a respect for American honour. “Some of the strongest praise for America and swiftest recognition of what the young republic had achieved for American honour, prestige, and power came from within British naval circles.” Britain refrained from interfering with American maritime interests and ceased with the impressment of American citizens following the war.

U.S. Presidents raised in honour cultures

A 2016 study suggests that honour culture increases the risk of war. The study found that international conflicts under U.S. presidents who were raised in the American South “are shown to be twice as likely to involve uses of force, last on average twice as long, and are three times more likely to end in victory for the United States than disputes under non-Southern presidents. Other characteristics of Southern presidencies do not seem able to account for this pattern of results.”

Violence against women

Main Article: Violence Against Women 

Working towards eliminating violence against women in the name of honour was the aim of United Nations resolution 55/66 in 2001 which was adopted by the General Assembly.

Related concepts

In contemporary international relations, the concept of “credibility” resembles that of honour, as when the credibility of a state or of an alliance appears to be at stake, and honour-bound politicians call for drastic measures.

General Akashi Gidayu preparing to commit seppuku after losing a battle for his master. He had just written his death poem.

General Akashi Gidayu preparing to commit seppuku after losing a battle for his master. He had just written his death poem.

Compare the concepts of integrity and face in stereotyped East Asian cultures, or of mana in Polynesian society.

The ancient Greek concepts of honour (timē) included not only the exaltation of the one receiving honour, but also the shaming of the one overcome by the act of hubris. This concept of honour resembles a zero-sum game.

In ancient China during the Warring States period, honour in battle was one of the many forms of virtue practised by the nobility. In one oft-cited example, Duke Xiang of the Song state chose not to take the enemy by surprise; instead, he and his forces waited for the enemy to go across the river. This marked conduct worthy of the accolade descriptor ren (仁), worthy of the name of “gentleman”. In response to this textbook example, Mao Zedong is quoted: “We are not Duke Xiang of Song and have no use for his idiotic virtue and morality.”

Pre-modern Korean thought and society was largely dominated by the preservation of honour and was especially concerned with the ruling yangban elite in the Joseon dynasty. In particular, one of the most profound influences from the Joseon Dynasty is the figure of the Seonbi, or “virtuous scholar”. The seonbi were ideal, exemplary noblemen of Confucian teachings who exhibited high competency in both academics and martial arts. Despite their obvious qualifications for important government posts, the seonbi eschewed titles and extravagance for the sake of personal development, often living in humble homes. They were expected to be fiercely loyal to the King of Joseon and lay down their lives in battle or in defense of their King, rather than choose treason. Inspired by the righteous nature of the seonbi, the modern Korean term of the “seonbi spirit” calls for maintaining personal honour and conduct, even in the face of certain death.

According to Bushido, honour was always seen as a duty by Samurai. When one lost their honour or the situation made them lose it, the only way to save their dignity was by death. Seppuku (vulgarly called “harakiri”, or “belly-cutting”) was the most honourable death in that situation. The only way for a Samurai to die more honourably was to be killed in a battle by a sword. Honour belief is in the popular adage ‘True patience means bearing the unbearable.’


As a countable noun, honour may refer to an award, e.g. given by the state. Such honours include military medals, but more typically imply a civilian award, such as a British OBE, a knighthood or membership of the French Légion d’honneur.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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