Why Honor Matters


By Tamler Sommers

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A controversial call to put honor at the center of morality

To the modern mind, the idea of honor is outdated, sexist, and barbaric. It evokes Hamilton and Burr and pistols at dawn, not visions of a well-organized society. But for philosopher Tamler Sommers, a sense of honor is essential to living moral lives. In Why Honor Matters, Sommers argues that our collective rejection of honor has come at great cost. Reliant only on Enlightenment liberalism, the United States has become the home of the cowardly, the shameless, the selfish, and the alienated. Properly channeled, honor encourages virtues like courage, integrity, and solidarity, and gives a sense of living for something larger than oneself. Sommers shows how honor can help us address some of society’s most challenging problems, including education, policing, and mass incarceration. Counterintuitive and provocative, Why Honor Matters makes a convincing case for honor as a cornerstone of our modern society.




Taking Care of Business

Sean Tracey, a young relief pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, had appeared in only two Major League Baseball games when he was ordered to hit Texas third baseman Hank Blalock. The order came from his manager, Ozzie Guillén—retaliation for one of his own players getting beaned earlier in the game. Tracey didn’t have great control of pitches, and he was nervous. His first attempt came close to Blalock’s chin but missed him. He then threw the next pitch outside to avoid suspicion. He threw at Blalock again on the third pitch, but again he missed. Then came the decision that would alter Tracey’s career: he tried to get Blalock out, figuring it would at least give his team the best chance to win the game. And Blalock obliged, grounding to third for an easy out. Immediately, a furious Guillén stormed to the mound and yanked Tracey from the game, yelling at him all the way to the dugout. Guillén continued berating Tracey in the dugout, in front of both his teammates and a television audience. With nowhere to hide, Tracey sat on the bench and pulled his jersey up over his head, “doing his best to disappear in plain sight.” And before long he did disappear—from the White Sox anyway. Tracey was sent down to the Minors two days later and then released by the organization in the off-season. Blalock was the last hitter Tracey faced as a member of the Chicago White Sox.

What did Tracey do wrong? Why was he berated for doing what pitchers are supposed to do—get batters out? Tracey had violated baseball’s honor code. He hadn’t retaliated; he hadn’t evened the score: he didn’t defend his teammates. As previous White Sox manager Charlie Manuel put it, “We will not tolerate the guys who are the heart and soul of this team getting hit.… That’s part of the ‘fearless’ package and the ‘respect’ package. We’re not looking to start anything, but we’re definitely not looking to back off anything either.”

Beanball feuds have been part of baseball since the beginning. As I write this, my beloved Red Sox are in a bitter one with the Baltimore Orioles that has lasted for weeks and resulted in multiple suspensions. Outsiders are fond of ridiculing baseball’s dizzying array of unwritten honor codes and rules: Don’t jog around the bases too slowly after a home run. If you do, you’ll get hit. Don’t try to steal a base in a blowout. If you do, you’ll get hit. Don’t try to bunt your way on to first base when the pitcher is throwing a no-hitter. If you do… You get the idea. Virtually all of baseball’s unwritten codes revolve around the notion of respect: respect for the game, for your teammates, and for other teams. When players suspect they’re being shown up or disrespected, that’s when the fireworks begin.

When they’re not making fun of these rules, baseball journalists like to moralize against them—the vendettas, the vigilante justice especially. And that’s not surprising—most journalists operate within the moral framework of dignity, and honor and dignity understand conflicts in very different terms. In a dignity framework, all offenses should be addressed by an impartial third party—the league office, in this case. In honor cultures, turning to third parties when you’ve been insulted or offended indicates weakness or cowardice and a lack of self-respect. In honor cultures, people are expected to handle their own business.

My goal in this chapter is to map out the contours of honor and illustrate the ways it differs from other moral concepts and frameworks, such as dignity. A clearer sense of what honor is all about will help us see whether it is worth preserving.

Honor Groups

Honor is social; it cannot exist for individuals in isolation. For honor frameworks to function, they need what I’ll refer to as an honor group—a collection of people bound by a set of principles and values. Honor groups vary in size and structure. Their boundaries can be well defined (navy SEALs, Mafia families, hockey teams) or loosely defined (American southerners, chefs, stand-up comics). Each honor group has a set of codes, formal and informal, that determines how honor and dishonor are distributed among its members.

Anthropologist Frank Stewart introduced a helpful distinction between two dimensions of honor. The first is “horizontal.” Having horizontal honor means that you’re entitled to a level of respect just by virtue of belonging to the honor group. If you’re a “made man” in the Sicilian Mafia, for example, you’re entitled to an assortment of privileges within the Mafia structure. People in the community must treat you with respect and deference. You have distinctive forms of address (“a friend of ours”), you rarely pay for drinks or dinners, and other mafiosi can’t steal from you, assault you, or hit on your wife or girlfriends. A defining feature of horizontal honor is that it’s distributed equally to all group members. Another is that it is not tied to a specific action or achievement. We say “your honor” to judges simply because they are judges, not because of any verdict or decision they may have written. Unless they step down or get disbarred, they are entitled to this form of respect. We allow uniformed military to board planes early and often say “Thank you for your service” without having any idea what he or she did to serve the country. Eighteenth-century British aristocrats could move in the best social circles even if they had no specific accomplishments under their belt. Having horizontal honor is like being a member of a club. And membership has its privileges.

Membership also has its obligations and responsibilities. Made men must pay tribute to the Mafia family and risk life and limb when called upon to defend it. They are bound by the omertà vow of silence that prohibits cooperation with outside authorities—even when the price of silence is a long prison term. Soldiers are bound to follow orders from their commanding officers and never to desert their unit. Captains must go down with the ship. Failure to live up to your responsibilities can strip you of horizontal honor. As Stewart observes, horizontal honor is easier to lose than to acquire. Just ask Sean Tracey.

Indeed, for some people, horizontal honor can be impossible to acquire. Commoners in Victorian England couldn’t crack the aristocracy no matter how witty or talented they were. Jimmy Conway and Henry Hill from Goodfellas (played by Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta, respectively) could never be made men because they weren’t pure Italians. But not all honor groups have such impregnable barriers for entry. In principle, anyone can become a naval officer, a judge, a hockey player, or a comedian. But it can’t be easy either. Honor groups must be exclusive if they wish to preserve the prestige and status that come from belonging to them.

Honor groups typically take great pride in their exclusivity; they publicize it and use it to motivate the people in the group to perform exceptional acts. Perhaps the most famous example is King Henry’s Saint Crispin’s Day speech to his troops in Henry V:

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered—

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

In the speech King Henry employs the idea of horizontal honor to inspire men to risk their lives in battle. He doesn’t deny that the English gentlemen “now a-bed” had a much better chance of living to see tomorrow. Instead, he appeals to his soldiers’ sense of pride of belonging to the happy few, the band of brothers. The more exclusive the group, the more people want to belong to it and the more incentive group members have for living up to their responsibilities. This psychological insight is no less relevant in our own day: elite military groups around the world employ similar rhetoric. The slogan “The Few, the Proud, the Marines” is so effective that it appears on the Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame.

The other dimension of honor in Stewart’s account is “vertical.” Once they belong to an honor group, members compete for vertical honor to improve their status within the group’s hierarchy. In contrast to horizontal honor, vertical honor is acquired through one’s actions and achievements and cannot, by definition, be distributed equally among the group members. The honor culture of ancient Greece had three different words to distinguish three categories of vertical honor. The first, geras, or gera for the plural, refers to the more material, tangible forms of honor. After a successful raid, for example, the kings would divvy up the bounty (jewels, armor, captured slaves, and mistresses) in accordance with how much each warrior had contributed to the victory. The more value you had to the group, the more gera you would receive. Geras therefore has both material and symbolic value. It can add to your material wealth, but more important your gera serves as an indication of your worthiness. Some modern examples of gera include medals, titles, salary raises, named chairs, the Heisman Trophy, Academy Awards, or the Nobel Prize. Meryl Streep’s three Oscars along with her twenty nominations may not be worth much money (for someone in her income bracket anyway), but they serve to mark her as the greatest film actress of her generation.

Not surprisingly, the distribution of gera is something that people in honor cultures take very personally. When Agamemnon takes away Achilles’s slave mistress, Briseis, whom he had acquired as geras from a previous battle, Achilles is so enraged that he stops fighting for the Greeks in the Trojan War. The source of Achilles’s rage isn’t his attachment to Briseis, but rather the symbolic challenge to his honor. By stripping Achilles of his geras, Agamemnon sends the signal “You’re not as valuable as you think you are to the Greek army.” Achilles can’t let this stand, and he decides to prove his worth by sitting out the war, knowing it will lead to massive casualties for the Greeks until he returns.

The second Greek word for vertical honor, tîmê, refers to a more intangible form of honor. Your tîmê represents your worth, your value, to the group. (Your geras can be a marker for your tîmê.) Although tîmê is intangible, it does have tangible effects. Your tîmê determines how people treat you relative to others—as an object of admiration and deference or one of ridicule and contempt. And it influences how you regard yourself—with pride or shame. If you live in an honor culture, your tîmê is a significant part of your identity, what constitutes you as a person. Anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers describes this form of honor as “the value of a person in his own eyes but also in the eyes of society.” Tîmê has both public and objective criteria. You can’t have tîmê unless you’re truly valuable to the group. But your objective value isn’t sufficient for tîmê; your group must acknowledge your worthiness as well. William Ian Miller, an expert on the honor cultures of the Icelandic Sagas, captures this idea well in his book Humiliation:

In an honor based culture there was no self-respect independent of the respect of others, no private sense of “hey, I’m quite something” unless it was confirmed publicly. Honor was then not just a matter of the individual; it necessarily involved a group, and the group included all those people worthy of competing with you for honor. Your status in this group was the measure of your honor, and your status was achieved at the expense of the other group members who were not only your competitors for scarce honor but also the arbiters of whether you had it or not.

Of course, everyone—honor culture or no—enjoys being recognized for their accomplishments. Everyone likes to be admired. The difference is one of degree. In honor cultures, public recognition constitutes a central part of one’s self-worth. That said, it’s a common misconception to think that public recognition is the only thing that matters in honor cultures. It’s just as important to be worthy of your acknowledged honor, to prove to yourself and the community that you’ve earned your tîmê.

Another misconception about honor is that it’s always zero-sum, gained at the expense of the others. This is often true but not always. The most respected players on American football teams, for example, earn the title of captain. The title is honorific (so to speak), and it doesn’t come with additional salary or benefits—a better parking space, at most. But captains take great pride in the title because it’s a sign of how much their teammates value their leadership. Not everyone can be a captain, but there is no set number of captains either. Teams can have more than one captain, or they can have none at all; it all depends on who is worthy of the title. Another example comes from the world of stand-up comedy. Comedians compete to be known as the “comic’s comic”—the person who kills not just with drunken audiences but also with a tough crowd of fellow comics. Like “captain,” the title that brings no money or even celebrity, comic’s comics usually don’t appeal to the widest audiences. But it’s arguably the highest form of praise within the group of comics. As with “captain,” there is no set number of comic’s comics. But there can’t be too many either. Like all forms of honor, tîmê needs to be a relatively scarce resource to be genuine. The Comedy Cellar in New York is famous for its “comedians table,” where comics compete in a battle of vicious insults. Comedian Patrice O’Neal was a legend in the comedy world for his performance at the table. Although he had only one stand-up special under his belt, he was considered a true comic’s comic. Every year after his untimely death at the age of forty-one, comics from all over the world perform a benefit to support his family and honor his memory.

The final category of Greek honor is kleos, often translated as “glory.” Kleos is the highest form of honor and the easiest to describe. In the Greek world, if you have kleos, the poets will tell your story for generations. They’ll compose epics of your adventures and odes to your character and your virtues—your name will ring out forever. The greatest warriors, like Achilles, Hector, Ajax, and Odysseus, and the most virtuous women, like Penelope and Antigone, had kleos, which is precisely why we still read about them today. Woody Allen once wrote that he did not want to be immortal through his work; he wanted to be immortal by not dying. Kleos doesn’t quite give you that, but it gives you all the immortality that it’s possible to have.

Examples of people with kleos in our own time include Babe Ruth, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, Winston Churchill, Balzac, Tolstoy, Susan B. Anthony, and Abraham Lincoln—the people we studied in school and our children study and their children will study. King Henry appeals to kleos when he says that the band of brothers will be remembered “from this day to the ending of the world.” When presidents start talking about their historical legacies, they’re making their bids for kleos. The prospect of kleos provides people with incentives to perform actions of bravery and heroism. Political scientist Sharon Krause documents the role of reputation and a sense of honor for motivating heroes like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and the women suffragettes. (Abraham Lincoln, for example, paused before signing the Emancipation Proclamation to say, “If my name ever goes down in the history books, it will be for this act.”)

Whereas honor systems offer plenty of incentives—tangible and otherwise—for maintaining a high reputation, dignity cultures are mildly embarrassed about rewarding good behavior. Dignity embraces the Kantian idea that people should be moral only for the sake of being moral, not for any personal benefit. In real life, however, rewards are more effective for promoting virtuous behavior. Lacking such incentives, cultures of dignity focus more on preventing wrongdoing than promoting virtue. They have elaborate systems of punishment for deterring wrongdoing but no organized way to encourage people to go above and beyond the call of duty. Kleos can move people to go well above and beyond the call of duty for the good of the group.

All the forms of honor I’ve described in this section have motivational power. This robust motivational structure is largely absent in Western liberal morality, and it’s perhaps the greatest potential advantage of reclaiming honor as a core value. Liberalism, with its focus on human dignity and individual liberty, gives us plenty of reasons to refrain from wrongdoing—through punishment and other mechanisms—but provides little to inspire exceptional or heroic behavior. Since individual and group honor is so central to self-conception, people in honor groups go to great lengths to increase rather than decrease it. Of course, honor’s motivational power is an advantage only if it motivates good behavior. In the last section of this chapter, we’ll explore some characteristic norms of behavior in honor cultures. But first let’s turn to the source of honor’s motivational power: the connection between honor and identity, honor and the self.

Honor, Dignity, and Identity

In a seminal essay, “On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor,” sociologist Peter Berger argues that the primary distinction between honor and dignity involves their relation to identity. Honor cultures, writes Berger, have a relatively stable set of institutions and institutional roles. The roles adopted by the group members constitute a significant part of their identity, their sense of who they are as people. The modern concept of dignity, by contrast, “implies that identity is essentially independent of institutional roles.” Dignity sees the institutional roles relating to gender, ethnicity, or family as obstacles rather than pathways to self-discovery. “The implicit sociology [of dignity],” Berger writes, “views all biological and historical differentiations as either downright unreal or essentially irrelevant.… [T]he individual can only discover his true identity by emancipating himself from his socially enclosed roles—the latter are only masks, entangling him in illusion, alienation, and bad faith.”

In a dignity framework, your institutions and roles can conceal one’s true self from the individuals themselves. This makes room for the idea of false consciousness. Thus, it can make sense for people in dignity cultures to say, for example, that Muslim women don’t really want to wear a veil in spite of what they tell outsiders. Or that American women aren’t truly choosing to be stay-at-home moms even if they say and believe they want to do so. The dignity framework allows for the separation of the true self from an oppressive social structure when that social structure can influence the beliefs and desires of the oppressed.

This idea can have tremendous moral advantages. Many honor cultures do indeed have oppressive social structures that impose restrictions on not just a person’s role but also what he or she is permitted to do. In certain cultures, for example, girls are prohibited from getting an education because it is not deemed a woman’s proper role. Preventing people from getting educated is a genuine obstacle to self-realization and therefore an infringement of basic human autonomy. In other honor groups, the surrounding environment makes it necessary to adopt a pose or a role even when it doesn’t reflect who the person is. Sociologist Elijah Anderson gives a moving account of the struggle that children face in the inner-city neighborhoods of Philadelphia. “As a means of survival,” he writes, “one often learns the value of having a ‘name,’ a reputation for being willing and able to fight.” The code of the street imposes this burden on the so-called street kids as well as on the “decent kids”—the ones who don’t want to start trouble but just wish to be left alone. The decent kids have to campaign publicly for respect too. Otherwise, they can be ostracized, robbed, assaulted, taken for a punk. Parents encourage aggressive behavior and sometimes punish them for not fighting back against a bully or assailant. Anderson writes that “to avoid being bothered decent and street youths alike must say through behavior, words, and gestures, ‘If you mess with me, there will be a severe physical penalty—coming from me. And I’m man enough to make you pay.’” The sad irony to this aspect of the code is that to live a decent, peaceful life, the kids must engage in public displays of aggression. “With the right amount of respect, individuals can avoid being bothered in public.” But to get respect, they have to fight back when someone steps up to them.

The same dynamic is found in prisons. I recently spoke to some former inmates who have been through the Prisoner Entrepreneurship Program (PEP), a Texas organization that offers job training and character building for prisoners about to be released. Knowing the environments that most prisoners come from, the program begins with a “degangsterization process,” where the inmates give each other “sweet names” (like Candy Corn or Milli Vanilli) to help them shed their former images. “Degangsterization,” one prisoner told me, “is really a process of self-discovery.… When you’re in prison,” he says, “you take on an identity for survival. When you get into PEP, you can find out who you are.” This is a perfect description of the benefits of moving from an honor to a dignity culture as it relates to identity. By rejecting the primacy of social structures both formal and informal, dignity offers more freedom—indeed, unlimited freedom—for individuals to determine their own values and identities.

But this liberty, like most liberties, comes at a cost. Institutions provide stability and structure. They provide boundaries for people to explore without getting lost. Many of the young men turned to gangs in the first place to find community, stability, and social support that society failed to provide. In prison the inmates have the regimentation of prison life to ground them. As many prisoners report, life can be much harder to navigate post-release. (The PEP program establishes halfway houses and continued job training for ex-cons to ease the transition.) This phenomenon is familiar to people in dignity cultures. With no institutional boundaries, Berger writes, discovering one’s identity “becomes the goal of an often devious and difficult quest.” Dignity, in other words, offers little guidance for people who want to “find themselves.” Without any constraints on identity, people risk getting lost, alienated from the self they now have the freedom to discover. Just as the constraints of an art form can bring out the artist’s creativity, the constraints of institutionalized roles can make the project of self-realization more manageable.

Well-functioning honor cultures find ways to balance the structure of imposed roles with enough individual freedom to avoid oppression. An example I’ll return to several times in this book is the honor culture of the National Hockey League. A core element of the NHL’s honor code is that players understand and embrace their role for the team. The roles determine how the player should behave on the ice. The role of skill players is to generate scoring through shots and assists. The enforcer’s role is to intimidate opponents and protect his teammates from taking cheap shots. The role of the “agitators” is to get under their opponent’s skin, to probe for weakness or make them lose their cool. The code demands that players accept their roles and not stray from them. As enforcer Don Cherry puts it, “The crusher who becomes a rusher [to score] soon becomes an usher.” Accept who you are, in other words, or your new role will be to serve beer to the fans.

The players don’t just accept their roles to stay in the league, however. And they don’t regard them as veils or disguises that conceal their “true identity” as hockey players. The roles allow them to discover their identity as hockey players. They take pride in excelling at them. Enforcer Jeff Odgers describes it like this:

As kids we all had visions of being the guy who was on the power play and who scored that big goal in overtime. That is what we all strived for. But as you get older and wiser, you realize some of your limitations, where your skill level was, and what you could bring to the table. At a certain point you come to the realization that if you want to make it in this league you have to adapt and embrace whatever role the coaches have in mind for you. For me that was being a tough guy. No, it wasn’t as sexy as being a goal scorer, but it was my ticket to play and I was able to do so for a pretty long time. I just wanted to be in the NHL more than anything in my life, and that is how I was able to make my dream come true. I didn’t love fighting, but I did enjoy being respected and liked by my teammates for protecting them. There is great honor in that.

Odgers is not showing bad faith; the remarks demonstrate no false consciousness. Odgers recognizes that he is working within externally imposed constraints. But he also understands that it is precisely these constraints that enable him to gain honor and to realize who he is as a hockey player.

This connection between identity and institutional roles is found in many honor subcultures, like the military, the Mafia, and urban gang culture. The sharply defined roles provide structure and norms of behavior for members. The rigidity of the roles varies according to the group, and almost all have some flexibility. But they do not have unlimited flexibility and therefore do not provide unlimited autonomy. Of course, the same is true for nonhonor cultures as well. We all have biologically and socially imposed limits on what we can do. What distinguishes honor and nonhonor societies is the way they understand these limits—as veils or obstacles to self-discovery or as an indispensable means of forming one’s identity.

This might sound rather abstract, but as we’ve seen, identification leads to action. Since honor can constrain identity, it may also constrain the behaviors that we’re motivated to perform. So let’s examine the norms of behavior in honor groups to get a better sense of the actions that honor’s elaborate network of incentives typically motivates.

Honor Norms


  • "Sommers's arguments for honor make it sound like an attractive and necessary virtue." —The Atlantic
  • "Why Honor Matters positions a culture centered in honor against one that its author calls a dignity culture."—Wall Street Journal
  • "This is a top-notch study and a priority resource for those interested in ethics and philosophy."—CHOICE
  • "Sommers's vivid style and engaging anecdotes will appeal to general readers as well as to those interested in moral and political philosophy. It draws comparison to William Ian Miller's Eye for an Eye."—Library Journal
  • "A philosopher offers an impassioned... defense of honor cultures."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Beautifully written, fiercely argued, and very timely, Why Honor Matters is really going to shake things up."—Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy
  • "A funny, smart, provocative book in defense of honor--without which, says Tamler Sommers, liberal democracies become craven and selfish. A timely book for liberals and conservatives alike."—Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, and Professor of Practice, Institute of Global Affairs, London School of Economics
  • "Any defense of honor must explain what it is, acknowledging its dangers while suggesting how to mitigate them and showing the good that it can do. Tamler Sommers accomplishes all three tasks splendidly; in sparkling prose, sprinkled with everyday examples, he shows why now, as always, honor matters."—Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at NYU and author of TheHonor Code

On Sale
May 8, 2018
Page Count
272 pages
Basic Books

Tamler Sommers

About the Author

Tamler Sommers is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Houston. He is the host of the podcast Very Bad Wizards and the author of two previous books. Sommers holds a PhD in philosophy from Duke University. He lives in Houston, Texas.

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