Is honor a Christian virtue? A republican virtue? Certainly some idea of “honor” was vital for the political and moral life of the early American republic, and whether this idea was properly described as of Christian or Enlightenment (or, as is even more likely, of much more ancient) origin is impossible to answer. Some scholars have argued that the constitutional oath (sworn by, for example, the President upon assuming office) reflects a commitment to the virtue of honor in both an official and a personal way. And some founders sometimes spoke of a possible conflict between Christian and republican virtues. For example, John Adams wrote that “it may be well questioned, whether love of the body politic is precisely moral or Christian virtue, which requires justice and benevolence to enemies as well as to friends, and to other nations as well as our own.” Adams, Defence of the Constitutions (1787).
Here is a new book examining the virtue of honor as a civic good. It will be interesting to see whether the author explores some of these issues. The book is Why Honor Matters (Basic Books) by philosopher Tamler Sommers.
To the modern mind, the idea of honor is outdated, sexist, and barbaric.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.