The Death of Honor

Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders are the three choices left in the two major political parties in the United States today.  We have a crony capitalist liar who degrades women, allies, and listeners with his vulgar, insulting, and vile comments on basically every subject imaginable, who changes his mind on subjects constantly, showing he has thought no further than the next sentence on any give policy choice, and who lies so constantly that it is nigh impossible to actually catalog his deceptions.  Hillary Clinton is a criminal who may or may not be a robot, but who certainly is nearly (if not equally) as morally corrupt as Trup.  Which leaves Bernie Sanders, a man who seems to at least have more integrity than Hillary or Trump, but who is, at the very least, completely ignorant about the history of Socialism, and is lying about his ideas having any positive impact on America.  We have these choices because we are living in a culture where honor has died.

Western Culture has always been different from Eastern Culture (as much as such broad and overarching terms can be used).  In Eastern Culture there has long been a moral focus on the nature of honor in society.  Publicly disagreeing with your parents isn’t wrong because your parents are always wiser or smarter than you are, but because such disagreements disrupt the fabric of culture itself.  This idea isn’t as prevalent in Western Culture, where independence and self reliance are considered more important than cultural ties.  While the roots of this conflict in Western Culture are much deeper, the real impact of valuing the individual over the group started to show up in the Enlightenment and thereafter.

The Enlightenment taught that you didn’t need an authority beyond yourself to know what is right or to be successful.  Every man became an island to himself, having sufficient wisdom and ability to discern right from wrong, to understand the world, to discern truth and error.  As Des Cartes famously said, “Cogito ergo sum.”  While Des Cartes argument was not about self sufficiency, ultimately that is the consequence of his philosophical position.  He did not need anyone outside of himself to prove his existence, to teach him logic, to show him right from wrong, etc.  Des Cartes, and other Enlightenment philosophers changed the world so that the individual was elevated higher than he had been at any point since perhaps the time of Aristotelian thought.

Once the individual became more important than society itself, the very concept of honor became endangered.  Personally, I never really noticed this much until I started thinking about it over the last few years.  Consider, when society is nothing more than a group of individuals, each one working toward his or her own personal happiness, what is honor?  Isn’t the greatest honor the fact that others recognize that you have achieved your goal?  Isn’t the most important principle achieving happiness, so that honor is nothing more than whatever pragmatism it takes to be successful?

I could go on about how these differences are seen in our culture now as opposed to a hundred or so years ago.  For instance, in the past, did it matter if a man found himself sexually attracted to another man?  Homosexuality certainly existed a hundred years ago, but at the point, the honor of society demanded that those who felt such inclinations repress their own desires, because sexual activity was seen as not merely a matter of personal pleasure, but also about the continuation of society itself.  Protecting marriage wasn’t about making sure that two adults were “comfortable” or “happy” but had to do with culture providing an institution that would be beneficial for potential children that might come from that union.  Yes, there were people who married who could not have children (for instance, an older widow remarrying) but the point was that marriage was not about those individuals, it was about the larger society, and therefore those individuals were expected to behave in their marriages just as those who could have children.

Vulgar language was seen as harmful to society, because how you carried on in public directly reflected the moral standards of that society.  If it was okay to curse and shout profanity in a public place, then what was allowed in private behavior?  Wise governments long understood that they couldn’t control private behavior, but at the same time, enforcing public morality would encourage private morality as well.

Consider what General George Washington wrote in his order regarding profanity:

The General is sorry to be informed that the foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing, a vice hitherto little known in our American Army is growing into fashion. He hopes that the officers will, by example as well as influence, endeavor to check it and that both they and the men will reflect that we can little hope of the blessing of Heaven on our army if we insult it by our impiety and folly. Added to this it is a vice so mean and low without any temptation that every man of sense and character detests and despises it.

Washington understood the importance of public behavior as it pertains to asking for blessings on a nation.  This understanding requires that man is not central in theology, but rather that God, the creator, is central.  Honor was important in society because the leaders wanted the blessings of heaven, and understood that the only way to enjoy that blessing was to first honor the Lord of Heaven.  Society was not about the individual, but was formed to honor God, so that every member of that society could enjoy the blessings that came from so honoring God.

In a post Nietzsche world, where the idea “God is dead” is the heart of culture, there is no longer any room for honor.  I posit this as my current explanation for why Trump is the “presumptive” Republican nominee, and why Clinton will likely be the Democrat nominee.

In politics today, the only honor is winning.  If lying, changing your positions, or even breaking your vows is what it takes to win, then so be it.  The electorate doesn’t expect honor of our politicians, because we don’t expect honor of ourselves.  We are living the death of honor.