Honor in Political and Moral Philosophy

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Honor in Political and Moral Philosophy. Peter Olsthoorn. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2015.



I would not, Cassius, yet I love [Caesar] well.

But wherefore do you hold me here so long?

What is it that you would impart to me?

If it be aught toward the general good,

Set honor in one eye and death i’ th’ other,

And I will look on both indifferently;

For let the gods so speed me as I love

The name of honour more than I fear death.[1]


Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar devotes significantly more attention to the character and conduct of the conspirators—and in particular, Marcus Brutus—than to the man whose name the title bears. Caesar’s assassination occurs halfway through the play and he has only one speaking part to every five of Brutus. Shakespeare’s rendition of this infamous conspiracy, it seems, draws the reader to be more captivated by the motives and nobility of Brutus than the act or victim of his notorious crime.

An abiding concern for the motives behind our moral and political conduct is not, however, exclusively literary. Understanding why we act and what motivates us act to well is an inquiry at the heart of moral and political philosophy. Brutus, “the noblest Roman of them all,” for example, committed the same act as Cassius and the other conspirators, but is nonetheless distinguished and remembered by his honorable motives.

But there is a significant motive for moral and political conduct—both for Brutus and many of us—that, as of late, seems to draw little scholarly attention or favor: honor. This is the opening observation of Peter Olsthoorn’s book, Honor in Political and Moral Philosophy, that hopes to rejuvenate this motivational buttress. Olsthoorn’s work arises in a culture in which,

We like to think that we are not too concerned, and also that we should not be too concerned, about how our conduct might appear to others; we are, as we think we should be, primarily motivated by how it looks in our own eyes, and face and reputation are no longer considered of overriding importance (3).

Largely to blame for the present disrepute of honor are the ideals of autonomy and authenticity that undergird modern moral psychology and rebuff the notion that our character or conduct should be shaped by individuals or groups outside ourselves.

Olsthoorn’s primary objection to this relegation of honor is empirical: “The assumption underlying this book is that Jim,” Conrad’s oft-referenced fictional protagonist who struggles to regain his honor, “is in fact a common type, and that there is probably more of him in us than we care to acknowledge” (3-4). Our actions are motivated, Olsthoorn argues, by the search for recognition and approbation to a much greater extent than many political and moral philosophers realize. In response to this neglect and disregard, Olsthoorn aims to “convince the reader” that “some of the old arguments for honor, brought forward by thinkers from Cicero and Sallust to Bentham and Mill, are still compelling” (vii).

Indeed, as Olsthoorn argues in the first half of the book, when understood not as a virtue but “a reward for virtuous behavior,” several familiar thinkers emerge as apologists for honor. These authors—including Cicero, Locke, Mandeville, Hume, and Smith—are united by the perspective that “virtue is within reach of most people, but needs a reward. Especially in the motivational aspect” (70). Olsthoorn views this proposition as a shrewd insight into “what makes human beings tick,” and argues that those who advocate loftier motives to moral action—including Aristotle and Kant—are “too demanding,” “Utopian,” and do so with little “practical consequence” (157-8). Thus, Olsthoorn’s book advances two arguments: 1) contemporary scholarship neglects the empirical fact that public recognition motivates much of our conduct, and 2) arguments elevating higher motives, such as the love of virtue or devotion to the common good (as in Shakespeare’s Brutus), are unrealistic and even inimical to producing good behavior.

The pursuit of “honor as public recognition,” Olsthoorn argues, offers a realistic and attainable incentive to moral conduct. This incentive materializes from two functions inherent to the pursuit of honor. First, “our concern for how others see us can help us to actually see what the virtuous way to behave is” (19). When we look to others’ opinions and conduct as a guide to how we should behave, we are exposed to external guides for what is proper. The outward orientation of a concern for recognition helps identify what good behavior looks like. Second, “the concern for reputation motivates to also behave virtuously” (20). Knowing the right thing to do is not enough. We also need the motivation to carry it out. Instead of advocating goodwill or the love of virtue, Olsthoorn argues we should lower the bar for motivation to the pursuit of public recognition. Although some question whether this lower intention may be considered moral, he dismisses this concern as pedantic and argues that honor may help “close the gap between the spheres of is and ought” in moral psychology (6).

Olsthoorn’s defense of honor and its salutary functions includes an impressive—and, at times, meandering—march through the history of political thought. The first to recognize these salutary functions of honor, Olsthoorn argues to the chagrin of Greek scholars, were the Romans and, in particular, Cicero. Citing several of his works, Olsthoorn concludes that Cicero, like the Romans more generally, “thought that no one will put aside his or her own interests for the greater good if there is no fame or honor to be earned” (21).

After ironically dismissing medieval Christian conceptions of honor as a prideful “pastime,” Olsthoorn turns to several modern thinkers who extend and alter the Roman tradition.[2] In particular, he analyzes the work of Locke, Mandeville, Hume, Smith, and Tocqueville to outline three aspects of honor in the modern world. First, breaking from the Roman tradition that promoted honor as an impetus to martial and public service, by the seventeenth and eighteenth century, “honor was now to promote the quiet and peaceful virtues” of an industrial society (33). As Mandeville’s pithy title, Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, suggests, the pursuit of honor—although understood by moderns as vain—was “a socially useful motive,” serving “as a check on man’s behavior” (38). Moreover, as evident in the work of Hume and Smith, honor became “internalized” because individuals no longer sought approval from a social hierarchy, but rather a judicious, impersonal spectator.[3] Consequently, this commercial and individualized notion of honor became less focused on pleasing a limited group of nobles through martial or public endeavors and instead expanded to include the private actions of all individuals in a democratic society.

The rise of internalized, democratic honor parallels the decline of religion and law in shaping our understanding of honorable conduct—the second development in modern notions of honor. In the words of Olsthoorn, “we fear the opinions of others more than we fear hell or jail” (36). This circumscription of honor prefigured the rise of personal integrity as a fundamental value that amounts to “loyalty to oneself” and is addressed below. Finally, the rise of democracy detached honor from hierarchical groupings and instead linked to broader “honor groups.” Thus, honor “became less of a personal (or family) attribute, and more a collective one, and this to the extent that by the start of the twentieth century ‘honor was tied to the nation’” (73). Modernized honor, according to Olsthoorn, is exemplified in the expanded and widespread acceptance of the nation as the appropriate scale for adjudicating honor.

After reviewing “some of the old arguments for honor,” Olsthoorn spends the second half of the book engaging several conceptual difficulties that face the modern proponent of honor. In particular, he highlights to potential shortcomings: honor’s exclusivity and emphasis on external conduct. The former may lead to too much priority given “to the opinions and interests of those who are near and dear to us,” and the latter may encourage deception and be “reduced to not being found out” (72). To address these drawbacks, Olsthoorn devotes most of the remaining pages to defining concepts that are akin to, but distinct from, honor: loyalty, integrity, respect, and humiliation. Although the justification for this conceptual examination is not immediately clear, Olsthoorn ultimately employs these concepts to distill responses to the aforementioned pitfalls—we must make honor groups less restrictive and encourage the internalization of honor-driven ethics.

At this juncture, Olsthoorn’s argument takes a curious turn. In defense of his first solution—expanding honor groups—Olsthoorn invokes warfare as an “excellent laboratory” and discusses the plight of civilians in military interventions to demonstrate the consequences of limited honor groups. “Militaries and politicians,” he writes, “rather transfer risks from their own soldiers to the local population” because foreign civilians reside outside the invading country’s bounds of immediate loyalty (89). This troubling pattern, Olsthoorn argues, justifies the invocation of a utilitarian approach to ethics, especially in public affairs.[4] Utilitarianism has the apparent benefit of being “agent-neutral, meaning that the consequences to everyone should weigh equally” in decisions (91). The utilitarian decision-maker, Olsthoorn implies, is less likely to make decisions resulting in civilian casualties because they will be accounted for in his calculations. Moreover, he invokes Bentham Mill to argue that the “love of reputation [is] the motive with the best chance of corresponding with the principle of utility” (94). If politicians embrace utilitarianism, Olsthoorn suggests, they can maintain the pursuit of good repute by earning it through maximizing “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” killing two birds with one stone.

Olsthoorn’s defense of utilitarianism is both unconvincing and jolting. His consequence-driven justification arises from the laudable intention to minimize harm to innocent civilians, which he argues is more likely under the “utilitarian credo” (91). But, by the end of the analysis, that very act is deemed excusable: “An excusable act is wrong, killing an innocent civilian for instance, but is in view of the circumstances only considered blameworthy to a limited extent, for example because the death of that innocent civilian was necessary to rescue many others” (141). Thus, the same ethos intended to defend civilian life is just as potent against it. This illustrates the fatal flaw of utilitarianism: ethics devoid of transcendent principle—for example, the prohibition of taking innocent life—is necessarily contingent on the presumptive calculus of the beholder.

Olsthoorn’s defense of the second solution—the internalization of honor—is much more intriguing. In a chapter titled “Internalizing Honor: Integrity,” he gives a persuasive account against integrity as an appropriate virtue to ensure that honor shapes our internal character. Integrity, he argues, is a relatively new virtue originating in Rousseau’s exhortation to heed our “inner voice” rather than external opinions or principles. This elevation of authenticity over moral rules has begotten the rise of integrity, the characteristic of “living by, and being loyal to, one’s own values and principles” (107).

The problem with integrity is its lack of ethical content. If integrity means a firm commitment to live by one’s values, “integrity is overwhelmingly vague, and in its most common meaning much too subjective” (130). In addition, like the value of authenticity, integrity stands at odds with Olsthoorn’s argument that virtue requires an external reward. The authentic individual disdains public opinion and reputation, and consequently squanders a valuable impetus to pursue good conduct. The best alternative to integrity and authenticity for the internalization of honor, Olsthoorn concludes, is cultivating a disposition of respect. Respect for others sets limits “on what we can, and much more so, cannot do to others,” attenuating the pitfalls of honor’s external emphasis (135). A spirit of respect and its attendant wariness of humiliation, therefore, constitute Olsthoorn’s proposal for how the pursuit of honor might be internalized.

If we set aside the anticlimax of his call for universal respect, Olsthoorn’s book amounts to an important defense of honor as a motivational wellspring that should be neither neglected nor disparaged. Ultimately, however, readers may feel the case for honor is left incomplete. While Olsthoorn recognizes that the “extent honor can work for the good depends for a large part on the norms and values to which people subscribe,” he offers little direction on what exactly should constitute honorable conduct (57). Therefore, the reader unpersuaded by consequentialist utilitarianism is left asking: to what end is honor directed?

One potential answer may lie in the very motives Olsthoorn discounts: virtue and the common good. Although the opening quote suggests Brutus is motivated by “the name of honour,” seeming to confirm Olsthoorn’s thesis, his honor is inextricably bound to the “general good.” We would do well, therefore, to recall Shakespeare’s final word concerning the famed character:

This was the noblest Roman of them all.

All the conspirators save only he

Did that they did in envy of great Caesar.

He only in a general honest thought

And common good to all made one of them.[5]

In the case of Brutus—and perhaps more of us than Olsthoorn recognizes—the love of virtue and the common good is both powerful and edifying. Brutus draws the readers’ attention because his noble motives are both persuasive and captivating. The pursuit of external recognition is an important motive indeed, but should not discredit, nor be considered inconsistent with, the devotion to virtue that is honor’s highest calling.



[1] Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, I. ii. 89-96. Ed., Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, (New York, NY: Washington Square Press, 1996), 19.

[2] This account of Christian chivalry (p. 27) is just as unsatisfying as his dismissal of Greek notions of honor (pp. 15-16).

[3] For more of Olsthoorn’s treatment of spectatorship, see pp. 42-51.

[4] Olsthoorn gives his defense of utilitarianism on pp. 89-97.

[5] Julius Caesar, V. v. 74-78.

Michael Promisel

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Michael Promisel is a Ph.D. Candidate in political theory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His teaching and research is grounded in the history of political thought with particular focus on political leadership, virtue ethics, and the relationship between religion and politics.