Why Honor Matters

Quick — who’s your favorite character in The Godfather?

The most popular answer to this question surprised me. About half the people who are asked pick Sonny: Santino Corleone.

“Everyone loves Sonny,” writes Talmer Sommers in his book Why Honor Matters.

Sonny is a hothead. He’s the oldest of the Godfather’s three children and arguably the most unstable, impulsive, and violent. The guy is a moral sewer — he cheats on his wife, speaks out of turn, and almost goes out of his way to find violence. He single-handedly almost brings the whole family from the apex to ruin. He’s the reason his father gets killed. In the end, it’s his impulsive behavior that gets him killed at the tollbooth.

And yet we love Sonny. Sommers argues, “we love him for his passion, courage, guts, integrity, and most of all for his loyalty to his family.”

When he learns that his sister has been abused by Carlo, her husband, Sonny loses his temper. There is no hesitation. No deeper consideration. He just hops in his car, heads straight for Carlo, and gives him the beating we all know he deserves. “When it comes to defending his family,” Sommers writes, “Sonny doesn’t calculate the best move, the most profitable move … Sonny just acts out of stubborn passion and a sense of honor.”

Honor might be about business for Michael, the cold calculating brother, but for Sonny it’s deeper. It’s personal.

But what is honor? A word? A tangible thing with value? A shared belief?

Honor can be a verb (“Honor thy mother and father”), a noun (“We must preserve the family honor”), an adjective (honor society), and a form of address (“Your honor, I object”). … Honor spins a dizzying web of values, virtues, codes, commandments, and prohibitions that are constantly changing and evolving. And honor makes no pretense to universality. The honor of the Mafia is different from the honor of hockey teams.

So, our definition of honor can change over time and depend on context. Furthermore, our cultural attitudes toward honor are all over the map. Sommers writes:

When it comes to honor we’re positively schizophrenic. On the one hand, we have deep nostalgia for the honorable way of life. … But at the same time, we find many aspects of honor to be absurd, petty, and morally reprehensible. After all, doesn’t honor lead to blood feuds, pointless duels, vigilantism, revenge, racism, nationalism, terrorism, bullying, and violence against women? Isn’t one of the signs of civilizations progress that we’ve put honor in the rearview mirror and replaced it with a commitment to dignity, equality, and human rights?

Nobody teaches us about honor. Sommers was trained in the Western ethical tradition in school, “which meant that [he spent his] time engaging in debates between harm-based theories (such as utilitarianism) and dignity- or rights-based theories (from Locke, Kant, and John Rawls).”

Then he stumbled upon so-called honor cultures, “societies where honor was a central part of their value system.” He writes,

To my surprise these cultures had a starkly different way of understanding responsibility and its connection to freedom. Like most philosophers in my area, I was obsessed with questions about how we can be truly free 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? 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 can get blamed for actions that weren’t intentional, for actions committed by relatives, ancestors, or other members of your group.

Most societies throughout history have been on the side of honor, the exceptions being the “WEIRD (Wester, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) societies.”

Sommers was drawn to the courage, integrity, solidarity, drama, and sense of purpose and meaning that exist within honor-based cultures. He regards these as “attractive values and characteristics, important for living a good life.” He also says that he has “come to believe that the Western liberal approach to ethics is deeply misguided. The approach is too systematic, too idealized and abstract—incapable of reckoning with the messy complexity of the real world.”

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The rest of the Why Honor Matters goes on to offer a defense of honor. Sommers’ ultimate conclusion is that “honor systems flourish only when they’re effectively contained. Fortunately, honor can be contained; we can restore honor into a larger value system while at the same time limiting its potential abuses.”