Why Honor Matters: An Interview With Professor Tamler Sommers

A cardinal theme for the Stoics, one which we have covered extensively here, is that of always acting with virtue, dignity, principle and honor. And not only when it’s convenient, but perhaps most importantly, when the costs to yourself might be too high to bear. It is why we were excited when we saw Professor Tamler Sommers’ new book on the subject titled Why Honor Matters, which came out earlier this month. We reached out to Tamler to help us in defining honor, when it can dangerously lead to pride, how we can act with honor, but remain pragmatic and achieve our objectives, and much, much more. This is one of our most extensive interviews to date, and we hope you enjoy as much as we did.

And for context, Tamler is currently an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, the host of the podcast “Very Bad Wizards” and the author of two previous books. He also holds a PhD in philosophy from Duke University.

Enjoy our interview with Tamler Sommers below!


In your book, you write about the topic of honor, which clearly is something that has both fascinated and vexed you for a long time. Why do you think you were so attracted to this seemingly old-fashioned idea and decided to write about it?

This was one of those happy accidents that happens academic life every so often.  At the start of my career, I worked on free will and moral responsibility, and the evolution of responsibility-related attitudes like outrage, resentment, gratitude, guilt, shame, pride.  A colleague in economics at the University of Minnesota, Morris named Steve Burke told me that I wasn’t taking culture into account enough and directed me to some research on gene-culture co-evolution.  This eventually led me to a book called Culture of Honor by Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen, and then to more research about honor cultures which I then applied to my work on responsibility.

What I found was that honor cultures had a starkly different way of understanding responsibility and its connection to freedom. Like most philosophers in my subfield, I was obsessed with the question of whether we can have free will in a world governed by the laws of nature. How can we blame, praise, and punish people for actions that didn’t originate in them, but were caused by factors that might trace back all the way to the big bang?  To my surprise, I discovered that honor cultures didn’t struggle with this problem, because they didn’t think a strong form of free will was necessary for holding people responsible for their actions. They didn’t regard the absence of control as an excuse for behavior. In honor cultures, you could get blamed for actions that weren’t intentional, for actions committed by relatives, ancestors, or other members of your group.

And the more research I did on cultural differences, the clearer it became that we were the weird ones, not them.  Most societies throughout history and even today are on the side of the honor cultures when it comes to responsibility. The exceptions were those of us who live in WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) societies, as the anthropologist Joe Henrich calls us.  Furthermore, the honor-oriented perspectives on responsibility were often just as coherent, “rational”, and empirically sound as our own. That became the central thesis of my book Relative Justice, which I published in 2012.

But my interest in honor didn’t stop there.  One of the great things about my job at the University of Houston is that I get to co-teach a course called “The Human Situation” in the Honors College, which is essentially a course on the great books of Western Civilization (although we’ve branched out to other traditions too in recent years).  In the Fall we read the ancients, beginning with either the Iliad or the Odyssey, and then Greek tragedies and comedies, biblical texts, histories, and philosophy.  I became fascinated by the honor cultures of ancient Greece. I was drawn to certain aspects of their way of life, their bravery, the solidarity, and their strong norms of hospitality.  I liked that people in honor cultures were expected to stand up for themselves and their principles, even in the face of tremendous risk. So while at first my interest in honor centered on its connection to moral responsibility, now I was interested in learning more about honor-oriented groups and communities more broadly.

Can you give us a clear definition of honor? How would you explain it to your children for example?

Definitely not!  Part of the problem with honor is that it’s so hard to pin down, which is why there’s almost no work on honor in contemporary philosophy.   Philosophers like their concepts crisp and definable, and the concept of honor is anything but. Think of how many categories we associate with the word: honor cultures, honor systems, honor codes, medals of honor, honorary degrees, honor rolls, honor worlds. Honor can be a verb (“Honor thy mother and father”), a noun (“We must preserve the family honor,” “I graduated with honors”), an adjective (honor society), and a form of address (“Your honor, I object!”).  Furthermore, honor makes no pretense to universality. The honor of the Mafia is different from the honor of hockey teams, which is different from the honor of an Eskimo tribe, which is different from the honor of stand-up comics. Anyone who wants to define honor with even a hint of precision is in for a rude surprise. Believe me, I know.

So the best I can do is give some characteristic features of honor-oriented communities.  One defining feature is a heightened concern for personal reputation and group reputation.  People in honor cultures care more about how they’re perceived, their value and worth to their group.  Along with that comes a heightened sensitivity to insult or slights or challenges to their reputation. Because challenges you don’t respond to can lead to diminished status and reputation.  So like I said earlier, you find this strong conviction that people should handle their own business in honor cultures, and not turn to third parties to resolve their own conflicts. Which is why you have stop snitching campaigns, or why baseball and hockey players never speak to the media or the officials about their beefs and feuds.  Honor cultures tend to place a higher value on virtues like courage, hospitality, loyalty, integrity, and solidarity with the group. And you find real sense of collective identification and collective responsibility in honor cultures. They’re tribal, in other words, but not in the way that word gets tossed around today. Today when we speak about tribalism, we often mean people identifying with an ideology – a political ideology or a racial or ethnic identity.  If you’re in an honor culture, you identify with actual people, the people in your community. Finally, honor communities tend to be more egalitarian in practice, if not always in theory. And that helps to build cohesion within communities.

Obviously to the Stoics and the Christians, pride is considered a sin and a dangerous temptation. Talk to us about where honor ends and pride begins? How does one balance those two poles? Because when some people think negatively about honor one of the first examples that comes to mind is dueling, which has always seemed like honor turned into reckless pride.

It’s funny, I read a lot about dueling and it may have been what surprised me the most in my research.  It turns out that duels have a bit of a bad rap these days. The practice offered a lot of social benefits, including what I was alluding to earlier – the greater egalitarianism of honor communities. The philosopher Anthony Appiah has written about this in his book The Honor Code.  Duels were one of the things that served to maintain the egalitarian codes of an honor group.  Early opponents of the duel, such as Francis Bacon and Cardinal Richelieu, opposed dueling precisely on these grounds.  Bacon wanted to expand the power of the monarchy and further distinguish ranks among gentlemen. The equalizing function of duels was an obstacle to the kind of hierarchy he wanted to create.

Duels were also much safer than how they’re portrayed today.  The famous ones we hear about (like Hamilton and Burr) resulted in deaths.  But death or any kind of serious injury was far and away the exception rather than the rule.  And this was by design. Dueling rituals were designed to testify to the honor of the combatants while at the same time minimizing the risk of death or injury. The combatants would use inaccurate pistols and swords that were modified to reduce the harm they would cause.  And most challenges were resolved without fighting of any kind. According to the sociologist Randall Collins, the point of the duel was more “to demonstrate one’s status-group membership than to establish dominance over one’s opponent.” So “it was less important to win than to display courage.”  As long as you showed up and showed some heart, you could leave the duel with honor. Duels were also a way of demonstrating loyalty to your group or family – again, often at very low (but not negligible) risk.

As for your question about pride, I’m not sure how to answer that.  I’m Jewish and don’t the know details about the Christian conception of pride as a sin.  But I can say this: honor has an essentially social element. Honor necessarily involves public recognition, and pride may not – at least in principle.  You can’t truly have honor if the group doesn’t recognize you as having honor. Having said that though, it’s a common misconception to think that public recognition is the only thing that matters in honor cultures.  Honor has an internal aspect as well. It’s just as important in honor cultures to be worthy of your acknowledged honor, to prove to yourself that you’ve earned the honor that’s conferred upon you.

If we were to think of the most honorable and principled Stoic, Cato comes to mind. Yet if you read Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman’s biography of him, Rome’s Last Citizen, it’s also clear that Cato’s uncompromising commitment to his ideals was so impractical as a politician that it partly hastened the conflict that ended the Roman Republic. Again, in terms of balance, how do you suggest people navigate honor with pragmatism, and their high minded commitments with the reality of getting things done in the world?

Well first of all, I don’t find non-honor cultures to be all that pragmatic.  On the contrary, I think honor cultures have a huge advantage in getting things done because of how skeptical they are of abstract and universal principles and idealized solutions.  Honor codes are local, not universal, and adapt to the particular needs of each community. Honor codes are tailored to people as they are, not how we wish them to be or how we imagine they would be if they were “rational.”  Consequently, honor is full of compromises, dealing in grays rather than black and white. And since honor is a thoroughly non-ideal form of value, it can operate with a more accurate understanding of human psychology. That’s the source of its tremendous motivational power.  Whenever communities need people to risk their lives or safety – like in the military, for example, or in protest movements – chances are they’ll turn to a more honor-oriented value system.

It’s not a stretch to say we live in a time where honor is in decline, outside, perhaps of the military (but even the fact that military service is such a small part of the experience of most people’s lives sort of goes to that point). What do you think we lose because of that and how can we get it back?

One of the biggest things we lose is that powerful motivational framework I just described.  Rights-based moralities mostly tell us what not to do. Don’t violate someone else’s rights. Don’t infringe on their autonomy.  But they lack a theoretical and, more importantly, a motivational structure to encourage acts of positive virtue. Refusing to take risks or act courageously doesn’t violate anyone’s rights usually.  Honor frameworks recognize that it’s hard to be brave, to risk your safety for the good of the group. We need deep internalized incentives – what evolutionary biologists and behavioral economists have called “commitment devices” – to overcome our natural impulse toward comfort and safety. Honor frameworks offer a rich tapestry of codes and incentives to counteract this impulse. Honor cultures tend to attach great value to acts of courage that benefit the group – and they have whole set of norms that encourage bravery and discourage being a coward.  If you’re a coward in an honor culture, your status goes down. So honor-oriented values are tremendously effective for motivating acts of positive virtue.

Having turned away from honor, our society has become extremely risk-averse in morally detrimental ways.  And we don’t have the moral systems or language or motivational framework in place to try to change that. I go through a bunch of examples in the book.  One of them is our shameful refusal to accept more Syrian refugees because of the infinitesimally small chance that one of them might engage in terrorist activities.  Police militarization is another. Zero-tolerance policies in schools. And even mass incarceration – one of the major causes of our insanely high prison population is our aversion to violence of any kind.

Another downside of rejecting honor is the lack of community and solidarity you find in the modern world.  Honor cultures encourage loyalty to your in-group – and would reject the cosmopolitan idea that our obligations towards all human beings are equal.  This is not always a good thing. But one major upside is that they have a whole suite of rituals and ceremonies for bringing the community together.  We don’t really have that in our larger and more disconnected society.

Finally, I think we’re losing a sense of personal accountability as we turn away from honor.  This actually relates to my earlier work on the connection between honor and responsibility. Remember that teenager who killed four people while driving drunk in Texas – and then his lawyer brought in a psychologist who testified that he suffered from ‘affluenza’, a diminished capacity to connect actions with consequences because of a privileged upbringing and permissive parents? Everyone mocked that defense strategy (and rightly so), but inf act the diagnosis is totally consistent with widely accepted legal and philosophical ideas about responsibility. Our focus individual freedom has led philosophers and legal theorists to place a very strong “control condition” on responsibility. To be morally responsible in the modern sense, individuals must understand the consequences of their actions, intend to perform them, and know whether the act is right or wrong.  And when you take the control condition to its logical extreme, the result is that no one is morally responsible for their actions. Why? Because our actions are the product of our heredity and environment, and ultimately we have no control over either.

In most honor cultures, taking responsibility is a bedrock moral principle.  So they place a lot less emphasis on control. They make distinctions between intended and unintended actions, but they typically don’t see control as the whole story.  They often regard it as shameful to make excuses by claiming lack of control. One example I talk about is Oedipus Rex, who took every step he could to avoid fulfilling the prophesy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. But through a series of accidents, he ends up doing both. Oedipus had no way of knowing that these two people were his parents. He had no intention of committing parricide and incest and every intention to do the opposite. Yet when he discovers what happened, he doesn’t make excuses—he doesn’t let himself off the hook. He blinds himself and wanders away from his kingdom in shame. You might think that’s irrational or even pathological. But let’s not overlook the moral advantages of this way of thinking either, especially when compared to the modern temptation to search for every possible excuse for our conduct, to constantly let ourselves off the hook.

Milan Kundera’s great novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being talks about this too — how pernicious this self-exonerating mindset can be.  The protagonist Tomas is shocked to see that many of his fellow Czech countrymen who had collaborated with the Soviet regime feel no guilt, no sense of responsibility, simply because they had no knowledge of the atrocities that the Soviets had committed. So he compares them unfavorably to Oedipus.  Kundera writes: “When Tomas heard Communists shouting in defense of their inner purity, he said to himself, ‘as a result of your “not knowing,” this country has lost its freedom, lost it for centuries, perhaps, and you shout that you feel no guilt? How can you stand the sight of what you’ve done? How is it that you aren’t horrified? Have you no eyes to see? If you had eyes, you would have to put them out and wander away from Thebes.’”

So the focus on the control condition for responsibility in individualistic cultures inevitably leads to a culture of excuses and ever-increasing shamelessness. The anthropologist Dan Fessler asked focus groups of eighty Indonesians from the Bengkulu Province to come up with the fifty-two most commonly discussed emotions and then rank them according to their frequency in society. He did the same for a focus group in Southern California. Shame was second for the Indonesians but forty-ninth (!) for the Californians—well behind “bored,” “frustrated,” “offended,” and “disgusted.” And of course shame, of has deep connections with honor.  Many anthropologists refer to honor cultures as shame cultures or “honor/shame cultures.”

You can see the effects of shame’s disappearance from our moral vocabulary. To this day, virtually no one in the financial industry has taken responsibility for their role in the 2008 banking crisis that sent the economy into near depression.  And that shamelessness persisted long after the collapse. Senior executives at banks were bailed out by the government and still received bonuses in the millions. When the public expressed their outrage, the executives complained that they were being singled out, vilified, all part of a cynical attempt to generate “class warfare.”  Yes, honor cultures probably rely too much on shame, but our alternative is this epidemic of shamelessness.

As for how we can get it back, that’s a tough question.  I don’t think it’s possible to get it back at the national level here in the U.S. or in most Western countries.  The country is too big, too anonymous, and disconnected. Honor needs a group, a collection of people bound by a shared set of principles and values.  And it needs a society where people know each other. Most people I interact with have no idea who I am. My reputation doesn’t matter in the majority of my daily interactions.  The currency of honor gets devalued, because nobody really knows who you are to begin with. Honor needs people who care about their reputation and status. That’s the motivational engine that drives behavior in honor cultures.

But I think we can get honor back at more local levels – smaller groups like sports teams, community organizations, neighborhoods, jobs, and schools.  Communities where people know and care about each other are ripe for introducing and encouraging honor-related values.

One of the things you do talk about in the book is the need to stand up for oneself and in some ways, the healthy nature of resolving conflict where two senses of honor are in conflict. If someone insults you, or attacks you, what do you think the right response is? How do we know when to let things go and when to stand and fight?

If we can only learn one thing from honor cultures, I’d want it to be their approach to conflicts.  We’re always trying to avoid conflicts, and when can’t avoid them we marshall them out to lawyers or law enforcement. Honor cultures recognize that conflicts have great value.  That can be a problem when they escalate out of control. But when conflicts are contained and handled by the people who are directly involved, they can foster deep sense of social harmony and cohesion within communities.  Honor cultures recognize that. In fact, this idea of conflicts as a way to build solidarity has been a topic in sociology for a long time. The 19th century sociologist Georg Simmel described conflicts as an integrating force that offer “inner satisfaction, distraction, relief” and give ‘vitality and reciprocity’ to relations we might otherwise avoid.” Conflict, according to Simmel, not only preserves social relations but “is one of the concrete functions which actually constitute it.”  In other words, internal conflicts do more than just strengthen or revitalize the bonds within a group. They are a part of solidarity. Conflict is one of the materials out of which social relations are constructed. Think of the closest married couple you know, or the closest family. Are they the ones with the fewest arguments and conflicts? Probably not. Too much agreement and aversion to conflict are often signs of emotional distance and a deadening of the relationship.

One thing I discuss at length throughout the book is restorative justice, a recent movement that challenges the depersonalized nature of our approach to punishment.  One of its architects, the great Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie who just passed away, has argued that that modern industrialized societies suffer from too little conflict.  In his mind, the reduction of conflicts reflected the depersonalization of social life that we experience every day. Everyone lives in their own corner, their own bubble, or echo chamber as we call it now.  Conflicts provide opportunities for social engagement and active group participation. They provide opportunities for “norm-clarification” within the group. Not just clarification in the sense of reaffirming existing community values – but also in the sense of discovery.   Conflicts can illuminate the presence of norms that were previously unknown, unarticulated, or even undetermined. According to Christie, our bureaucratic institutions have stolen our conflicts. We need to steal them back.

Now I know honor cultures are famous for multigenerational blood feuds.  But because the stake can be so high, honor cultures require expert peacemakers to resolve disputes before they get out of control.   And they develop rituals and techniques that allow people to hash out their differences face to face. Mediation sessions builds courage, resilience, accountability, and empathy among the participants.  So yeah – I’m very excited about restorative justice as a positive movement in schools, juvenile courts, and ultimately the criminal justice system. And restorative approaches are modeled on conflict-resolution rituals in honor cultures.

Now I know your question was in part about how individuals should know when to stand up for themselves and fight.  Well, there’s no general principle, it’s a virtue that we need to learn and develop. But I think this idea of handling your business is healthy, not just for getting in physical fights, but more broadly – standing up for yourself in your job, school, or personal life.  I get very frustrated by the whole free speech debate, for example. I know there have been some troubling incidents. But I tend to have little sympathy with people who complain about the “chilling effect” of political correctness. They whine about how scared they are to say anything controversial.  But why are they scared? When you look at the data, you find very few cases of people actually getting fired in academia for expressing controversial viewpoints. These days, if anything, being controversial usually puts people on the map. What they’re really afraid of is being condemned on Twitter or social media or on campus.  Well that’s too bad! If you really believe what you’re saying, and you aren’t just saying to become the next cause célèbre in the free speech wars, then take the heat. Twitter mobs aren’t real mobs. This ties back to the rampant risk-aversion in society. Nobody wants to take any risks, so they want free reign to say what they want with no pushback.

Last question: Just curious if you’d read much of the Stoics and had any favorite quotes or examples worth sharing with us that relate to your book?

I’ve taught Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and a bit of Seneca.  In general, I like the Stoics when they advocate embracing what you have and not fretting too much about what you can’t control.  Like when Epictetus says “”He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”  But I have mixed feelings about their views on emotion. I agree we should sometimes get a grip on extreme emotions so that they don’t lead us to be either unhappy or non-virtuous.  But I have a higher opinion of anger and grief than they do.

And there are certain aspects of their moral philosophy that I find repellent.  Take their emphasis on minimizing attachments. Well, that’s fine when you’re talking about attachment to money or professional success.  But when they want me to minimize attachments to family and friends, now I jump ship. Epictetus’ famous aphorism, for example: “If you are fond of a jug, say you are fond of a jug; then you will not be disturbed if it be broken. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that you are kissing a human being, for then if death strikes it you will not be disturbed.”

Or Marcus Aurelius: “‘Look to no other guide even for an instant than reason alone, to remain ever the same in the face of severe pain even after losing a child or during long illnesses.”  To remain the same after losing a child strikes me not only as impossible, but undesirable. It’s not an ideal we should aspire to.

Now people have pointed out to me that child mortality rates were much higher in the time they’re writing.  When half of your children wouldn’t make it to adulthood, life would be unbearable if you think about each child the way we do today.  And that’s a fair point. But still, I was talking to Nancy Sherman about this – the Georgetown philosopher who has written extensively about the Stoics.  She was telling me about the Stoic compromise of viewing the health of people you care about as “preferred indifferents” – not goods, not virtues, but things you’d rather have than not have.  I can’t get on board with that, this idea that the health of people I love is a preferred indifferent.

I’m with Aristotle – sometimes life deals you cards that make a fully virtuous or flourishing life impossible.  We just have to accept that, embrace our personal relationships, and run the risk of overwhelming sadness if something tragic happens.  It’s funny, honor cultures are on both sides of this debate, depending on which one you’re talking about. Some lean towards the Stoic view.  Showing sadness or grief can be shameful, a sign of weakness. But others, like the Ancient Greek honor cultures, are constantly weeping and grieving for their loved ones.  And their relationships seem much closer as a result.