The most fascinating book I’ve read this year. Literally thought provoking. Contrasts traditional western liberal philosophic ethic, which he labels “dignity”, with the much maligned/ignored ethic of “honor”. Argues that we should reintroduce “constrained” forms of the honor ethic to various domains. The author is acutely aware of the large potential issues with unconstrained honor systems - excessive retribution, subjugation/killing of women - and so throughout is very careful to keep this foremost in the discussion and to emphasize that the “constrained” modifier is critical. Overall, he’s looking to see how we could turn the dial towards honor, rather than flip the switch: “Well-contained honor-oriented approaches may have inherent defects, yet still be morally preferable by a mile to systematic and idealized approaches that could achieve perfection “in principle.” The old saying “Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good” is worth taking very seriously here. If we allow honor to work its magic, while limiting its excesses, we can make actual rather than theoretical progress.”

Gave me a richer understanding of some issues I’ve wrestled with:

It also introduced me to a critique of the US justice system, in particular around the idea that having the state handle justice without any regards for victims is a big problem: “Defenders of the status quo often assume that punishing wrongdoers automatically restores the self-respect of victims by sending a message to the offender that the victim is a person whose rights cannot be violated. But this is a rationalist fantasy with no basis in real human psychology.” … and provides an overview of a proposed solution of “restorative justice” that involves the victims: “The results of a recent Canadian survey indicate that 89 percent of violent crime victims wanted to meet the offenders. Even in what seems like the most problematic type of crime—sexual assault—victims report positive effects from meeting with offenders. Victims who participated in restorative conferences showed a decrease in PTSD symptoms. Survivors reported that the “experience was empowering rather than traumatizing.” In another recent study, 70 percent of rape survivors reported that they would welcome the opportunity for victims to be able to meet with their offenders in conference settings.” “We cede the role of punisher to the state in large part to prevent victim retaliation and vigilantism. But we don’t do this for reasons involving justice. We do it for practical reasons—to prevent escalating feuds and to limit collateral damage.”

I particularly liked this chapter: providing practical examples of how reintroducing some ethic on honor could actually make a difference, grounded in actual examples, while constraining it to mitigate downsides. I was worried about potential issues of discrimination, but then so is the author: “At this stage, the worries about racial bias are purely speculative. Restorative justice is a recent movement, and more empirical work needs to be done to gauge the effects of racial bias on restorative processes. But given the systematic and structural biases that infect our current disciplinary practices, it would be difficult for restorative justice to fare any worse.” (The author also provides example of dramatic decreases in gun violence from approaches founded on a constrained honor ethic.)

At the times I don’t feel that the author did a great job of “re-express[ing] your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” when talking about dignity … but given how familiar I (and presumably you, given how pervasive it is) are already with the concept I was able to read through it. I’m sure that better critiques of this book exist than the author presents, but that doesn’t detract from the book. It’s given me fuel for thought, not a stone tablet.

Like the “The Righteous Mind”, this book has given me new ideas to help understand and interpret the world. Highly recommended.

Cover image for Why honor matters