Modern Honour

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We need some sense of public conduct, some sense that it would not be acceptable to take an excessive amount of water from a river, for example. In short: I think we need some modern code of honour.

Talking about honour seems rather olde worlde. It sets off images in my head of knights kneeling before fair damsels (of the distressed kind); it transports me to a world where derring is done and swashes buckled.

Modern Honour

Perhaps it is just the word itself that sounds old. Perhaps the reality is still around under another name. So, first up: what do I mean by the reality? For me honour is about the individual’s relation to their group. Knights are defined by the position below the king and above the peasants. The honour of a pater familias is connected with his position in the family. Honour means being in good standing with the group that someone is part of or identifies with.

One candidate for the modern equivalent is reputation — in the sense used in libel trials. This applies to public figures and so is about this individual’s relationship to their public. The public is in some sense their community — the people who talk about them.

From the trials reported in the media (one means of public discussion), it seems that modern reputation or honour is mostly concerned with money and sex (allegations of corruption and sexual impropriety). This is much narrower than older ideas of honour. Codes of honour were once extremely detailed — taking in greeting, seating placement, obligations of providing for others and much else. Most of this has died, and I don’t regret its passing. I’m an Australian, and like most Australians I have a decidedly relaxed attitude to authority.

Modern Problems

It seems to me that our modern societies cannot survive with their current wasteful modes of living (pioneered by the West and being rapidly and enthusiastically adopted by others). It seems to me that this problem (or the many problems that make it up) is collective. Global warming is global, not local, and pollution of water or air does not observe our political boundaries.

Collaborating across political borders is extremely difficult. Even within one political entity it is difficult. Australia is a federation of states, some of which have the same river running through them. One of Australia’s major river systems (the Murray-Darling) crosses through several states. This river provides the water needed by farmers for irrigation along its course. Can the states agree on the allocation of this water? A government authority has been trying to sort out the mess of water allocation from this river for years, so far with little success.

It seems we need some sense of public conduct, some sense that it would not be acceptable to take an excessive amount of water from a river. In short: I think we need some modern code of honour. What would it take for a farmer to be seen as honourable for not taking all the water he could get, in order to not impoverish those who live downstream?

A code of honour stands against unfettered competition (‘doing whatever it takes’ in the words of Graham Richardson, an Australian ex-politician). In warfare, honour meant that enemies were treated with dignity and not demeaned. In other areas it meant a web of obligations regarding the correct way to act. Honour is a code of means more than ends. It is a refusal to adopt particular means even if the ends themselves may be desirable (or even honourable).

Our public morality seems to be that of contest — and a contest where ‘dirty tricks’ are increasingly used and even expected. I remember reading a management thinker saying, “It is useless to criticise effective behaviour”. That is, companies will behave as they do while it is in their interest to do so. This is pretty much the same as ‘whatever it takes’. And the means that companies are willing to adopt in this cause has recently been exposed through a financial crisis in the West. The practises that these companies engaged in are not remotely honourable.

There are different problems here. Regulating a corporation as an individual is one of them (and a fairly complex one I think). There are others about incentive schemes as well as transparency and accountability.

Modern Selves

Another problem I think is the way we think of people. Much of recent Western history has been about seeing the individual standing heroically against their community. The romantic artist loyal to their vision despite public criticism or disinterest has been a heroic figure in the West for the last 200-300 years. The individual is set apart in space from others. The modernist fascination with novelty and innovation has the effect of setting the modern individual apart in time. The modernist outlook likes those who start again, who have a new way of dealing with a problem or project.

This is very different to the notion of someone who pursues a craft — who is loyal to a tradition, perfecting skills handed down. For a craft, the products are new each time, and innovation occurs — but the worth is not the novelty, the worth is that the result is better. And the criterion of judgement is agreed — both by peers and often by the tradition too. The craftsperson is in harmony with their community in both space and time.

The Modern Challenge

I think that we need a way to talk about our selves as social beings. This is the reason I find honour fascinating.

I don’t want to idealise the codes of honour — they were often violent ways of perpetuating appalling inequity. I have no desire to live as a medieval serf. I do want to keep what we have learned about the extraordinary capacity of an individual — and the great benefits of creativity and innovation that individuals can bring.

But I think they raise a question for us: can we find a way of acknowledging our relatedness to others while acknowledging the importance of the individual? This may seem very abstract and divorced from practical reality. I think it is as practical as (one part of) finding a way to negotiating water rights. I very much look forward to your comments.

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