Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Honor is much overrated

(Another repost from my own blog because I can’t seem to find time for anything more).

Some years back, I read a quote from Lois McMaster Bujold that said “Guard your honor. Let your reputation fall as it will. And outlive the bastards.” I like those sentiments, but I don’t think separating honor and reputation is actually possible. They go together like Kirk and Spock, Starksy and Hutch, Holmes and Watson, only they’re much less fun as a team.

A lot of fiction I run across glorifies honor: maybe the guy’s an arrogant martinet but by god, he’d never act dishonorably. Cultures like the Klingons, violent, warlike and dangerous — but they’ll die for their honor! The warrior for whom honor is everything: whatever his flaws, he’ll live up to his code of honor as long as life remains in his body.

Certainly honor does have a lot to recommend it. Keep your word. Pay your debts (though there are lots of circumstances where not paying your debts is not dishonorable). Do your duty. But like chivalry, the good stuff is tangled up with the bad.  Most significantly, honor, like I said, is tied to reputation. Honor isn’t about doing the right thing or the noble thing, it’s about being seen and respected for your actions.

The good Samaritan is a good person even if nobody knows what they’ve done. An honest person accused of lying is still honest, even if nobody believes in them. A charitable person who gives away money is generous even if everyone thinks they’re Scrooge reborn. Honor doesn’t work like that: it’s entirely dependent on public perception.

If people think you have no honor, even if their reasons are wrong, your honor is nothing: you’re a figure of shame. That’s why people fought duels in 18th century America (among many other eras and places): living by a code of honor was meaningless if someone claimed otherwise. In late 1700s America, a suggestion you were a scoundrel or a coward (or the dread insult “puppy”) tarnished your reputation even if it was a lie. To defend your honor you had to challenge the accuser to a duel. You didn’t have to cross swords — ideally your seconds negotiated a truce — but if you weren’t willing to fight, kiss your honor goodbye.

You can see this in fiction in The Three Musketeers: Dumas’ protagonists will challenge a stranger to a duel on the slightest pretext. It’s the only way to keep their honor. I don’t see that as much in more recent portrayals of honorable characters because by today’s standards it’s irrational, unreasonable and often suicidal (look how much trouble D’Artagnan gets into). In real life, honor wasn’t pleasant to be around.

Honor in men is typically tied up with violence or the potential for violence: you gain honor by serving in the Marines but not by working yourself to the bone to feed your family. Paying your gambling “debts of honor” matters but keeping a promise to your kids doesn’t count. For women honor is all about sex: if you’re single and known be sexually active, you’re “dishonored.” Death before dishonor didn’t mean heroism in war, it referred to choosing death over rape.

Again, this is all about perception, not reality. If society tags a chaste woman as promiscuous or “easy” she remains chaste, but she loses her sexual honor just the same. Conversely, she keeps her honor if she’s discreet enough nobody knows about her love life, just as a coward or a cheat retains his honor as long as nobody finds out.

Do we even need honor any more? Lots of other virtues accomplish the same goals: honesty, loyalty, bravery, generosity, devotion to duty. But for some people the martial aspect of honor is what makes it better. More desirable. More manly.

If you haven’t figured it out, I strongly disagree.



  1. Jeff Nettleton

    I disagree with some of this. Honor is adhering to a core set of values, which may or may not be codified and is not necessarily martial. It is doing what is right, because it is right, by most standards. It does not necessarily mean a rigid set of standards. You can call it a moral compass or cultural values; but, honor is the same concept.

    As a midshipman, I lived by the Honor Code, “A Midshipman does not lie, cheat or steal.” That is a code of ethics , but it does not imply something that is defended on the battlefield. it meant that, as potential leaders, we were expected to set an example for our subordinates.

    Having devoured the Three Musketeers, I disagree with that assessment of them and their honor’ or rather, that there was one code of honor on display. Each character has his own code that he adheres to, though it is often flexible and reflects their character. Athos only challenges D’Artagnan to a duel after he was blundered into his wounded arms, in his haste and offered a meager apology and a brash attitude. Athos seeks to teach him a lesson in humility and courtesy. Porthos is a braggart and more than a bit of a fool and D’Artagnan inadvertently exposes that one of his boasts is untrue (the richness of his belt), making Porthos a figure of ridicule. he challenges D’Artagnan out of anger and embarrassment. D’Artagnan then blunders into Aramis’ affairs with a paramour, who was slipping him money. Despite his profession of piety and plans to take vows soon, Aramis is very much of the corporeal world, especially the romantic aspects. He challenges D’Artagnan because he exposed Aramis’ hypocrisy. However, when they meet, their anger is gone and their intent was only to teach a lesson in manners to the brash Gascon, rather than kill for their “honor.” They quickly find themselves charmed by D’Artagnan’s boldness and also his immediate willingness to fight with them against their rivals, the Cardinal’s Guards.

    The Musketeers do not go around fighting duels with everyone who looks in their direction; they save that for real enemies and dangers, such as the Cardinal’s Guards (political rivals) and the Cardinal’s agents, Rochefort and Milady DeWinter. Athos, especially has a personal vendetta with Milady and Rochefort earns the enmity of D’Artagnan with his cowardly actions, and his work for the Cardinal, in his intrigues (designed to undercut the power of Anne of Austria and her influence on King Louis XIII). By the end of the novel, though, Rochefort and D’Artagnan come to a sort of peace, as they have fought each other over the years and developed a respect for one another.

    Dumas shows the characters compromising themselves, as things progress, especially in the 20 Years After and The Vicomte de Bragelone, where Aramis is revealed to be a true schemer and seeker of power. Porthos is mostly involved to aid his friends and Athos finds himself pulled into things, by his friends and his son. D’Artagnan is the one who most seeks to live up to a Code and finds himself the most frustrated, as he has to rethink what honor truly is.

    I think we are mixing honor, as in esteem, with the more ethically oriented definition, which is muddying the waters, here.

  2. Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

    Perils of heteronomous, shame-based moral systems!

    Zuko only becomes an honorable man when he embraces an autonomous definition of morality/honor, by asking the big questions: “Who am I? And what do *I* want?”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.