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Title: Honour  
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Collection: Ethics, Honor, Social Status, Virtue, Warrior Code
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An illustration of the Burr-Hamilton duel of 1804 – Alexander Hamilton defends his honor by accepting Aaron Burr's challenge.

Honour (also honor in American English, see spelling differences; from the Latin word honor) 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 corporate body such as a family, school, regiment or nation. Accordingly, individuals (or corporate bodies) 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.

Dr 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 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.


  • Social context 1
    • Cultures of honour and cultures of law 1.1
    • Honor as a cause of war: The War of 1812 1.2
  • Related concepts 2
  • Awards 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Footnotes 6
  • External links 7

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".[1] 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[2] rather than against the judgement of a community. Compare also the sociological concept of "face".

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."[3] 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[4] 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). 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.[5]

An emphasis on the importance of honour exists in such traditional institutions as the [6]).

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.[7]

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.[8]

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 an unwritten social contract: members of society (implicitly) agree to give up some aspects of their freedom to defend themselves and retaliate for injuries, on the understanding that society will apprehend and punish transgressors.

Historians have especially examined the American South.[9][10] Social scientists have looked as specialized subcultures such as South Asian Muslims in Britain.[11] Others have compared multiple modern nations.[12]

For a closer understanding of the way in which ideas of honour (and related shame) are linked to social structures such as law and religion, a reading of the works of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is worthwhile, particularly with reference to his discussions of the idea of "habitus".

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. In this situation, inspiring fear forms a better strategy than promoting friendship; and cultivating a reputation for swift and disproportionate revenge increases the safety of one's person and property. 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[13] 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.[13]

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, this tends to appear as an unwise act reflecting weakness.

Honor as a cause of war: The War of 1812

Historian Norman Risjord has emphasized the central importance of honor 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.[14] Americans of every political stripe saw the need to uphold national honor, 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.[15] This quest for honor 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 honor. [16] The humiliating attack by the HMS Leopard against the USS Chesapeake in June 1807 was a decisive event.[17] Historians have documented the importance of honor in shaping public opinion in a number of states, including Massachusetts, [18] Ohio, [19] Pennsylvania, [20][21] and Tennessee, [22] as well as the territory of Michigan.[23] 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 honor.

National honor, the reputation of republican government, and the continuing supremacy of the Republican party had seemed to be at stake.... National honor had [now] been satisfied," says historian Lance Banning, "Americans celebrated the end of the struggle with a brilliant burst of national pride.[24]

The British respected American honor as well, and never again engage in this sort of bullying and harassment of American maritime interests as an era of peaceful relations

Related concepts

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

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.

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, the Code of the Warrior in feudal Japan, 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.


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

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.

See also, List of prizes, medals, and awards; and Chivalric order.

See also



  1. ^ Doris, Jim (2003-01-05). "A conversation with Margaret Visser: diagnosing that feeling of helplessness".  
  2. ^ "...dignity abides with him alone / Who, in the silent hour of inward thought, / Can still suspect, and still revere himself...." William Wordsworth, "Yew Tree"
  3. ^ A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases, Christopher Corédon, 2004, D.S. Brewer, Cambridge, ISBN 1-84384-023-5
  4. ^ Ignatieff, Michael (1997). The Warrior's Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience. New York, New York: Henry Holt and Co. pp. paraphrased from whole book. 
  5. ^ Lindberg, Carter (2009). A Brief History of Christianity. Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion. John Wiley & Sons. p. 232.  
  6. ^  
  7. ^ "Honour killings of girls and women". Amnesty International library ( 
  8. ^ Defiled Trades and Social Outcasts - Honor and Ritual Pollution in Early Modern Germany, Cambridge University Press, 2000
  9. ^ Bertram. Wyatt-Brown, Southern honor: Ethics and behavior in the Old South (Oxford University Press, 2007)
  10. ^ Kenneth S. Greenberg, Honor & Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as a Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Humanitarianism, Death, Slave Rebellions, the Proslavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting, and Gambling in the Old South (Princeton University Press, 1996)
  11. ^ Pnina Werbner, "Honor, shame and the politics of sexual embodiment among South Asian Muslims in Britain and beyond: An analysis of debates in the public sphere." International Social Science Review 6#1 (2005): 25-47.
  12. ^ Klaus Helkama, et al. "Honor as a value in Finland, Estonia, Italy, Russia, and Switzerland." Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 16#3 (2013): 279-297.
  13. ^ a b Richard Nisbett. Culture of Honor. 1996. ISBN 0-8133-1992-7
  14. ^ Norman K. Risjord, "1812: Conservatives, War Hawks and the Nation's Honor." William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History (1961): 196-210. in JSTOR
  15. ^ Robert L. Ivie, "The metaphor of force in prowar discourse: The case of 1812." Quarterly Journal of Speech 68#3 (1982) pp: 240-253.
  16. ^ Bradford Perkins, The causes of the War of 1812: National honor or national interest? (1962).
  17. ^ Spencer Tucker, Injured Honor: The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, June 22, 1807 (Naval Institute Press, 1996)
  18. ^ William Barlow and David O. Powell. "Congressman Ezekiel Bacon of Massachusetts and the Coming of the War of 1812." Historical Journal of Massachusetts 6#2 (1978): 28.
  19. ^ William R. Barlow, "Ohio’s Congressmen and the War of 1812." Ohio History 72 (1963): 175-94.
  20. ^ Victor Sapio, Pennsylvania and the War of 1812 (University Press of Kentucky, 2015)
  21. ^ Martin Kaufman, "War Sentiment in Western Pennsylvania: 1812." Pennsylvania History (1964): 436-448.
  22. ^ William A. Walker, "Martial Sons: Tennessee Enthusiasm for the War of 1812." Tennessee Historical Quarterly 20.1 (1961): 20+
  23. ^ William Barlow, "The Coming of the War of 1812 in Michigan Territory." Michigan History 53 (1969): 91-107.
  24. ^ Lance Banning (1980). The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology. Cornell UP. p. 295. 

External links

  • America, Truth, and Honor
  • Il Canto di Malavita is a collection of three recordings from PIAS of the Italy. Members call themselves L'Onorata, the "men of honour"; the lyrics to these songs prominently feature murder and revenge against betrayers and informers, and offer a glimpse into the self-image of a culture of honour.
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