Manly Honor VI: The Decline of Traditional Honor in the West in the 20th Century

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 10, 2012 · 62 comments

in A Man's Life, On Manhood

Our last three posts – on Victorian, Northern, and Southern honor respectively, detailed the final manifestations of traditional honor cultures in the West, while also hinting at the cultural forces that were emerging even then that would eventually erode them almost entirely.

Today we will cover how those forces were amplified, manifested themselves, and led to the disappearance of traditional honor in the West over the course of the 20th century. At the same time, a discussion of these elements provides an excellent opportunity to review the concepts we’ve discussed so far. We’ve come a long way since the first post, and this is such a complicated topic that I think this re-orientation will be quite beneficial.

On that note, this post does admittedly have more of a scatter-shot quality than the rest. The complex nature of the history of honor cannot be reiterated too many times. Without excusing the limitations of our writing abilities, which are myriad, there is no clear coherent narrative to the evolution and death of honor, and it is impossible to construct one. What we offer below are sketches of cultural forces which could each be their own book; each is interconnected with the others, and multi-layered. In the absence of a tome-length treatise on each cultural force/change, what we have given is a snapshot that is simply designed to give you an overview of the element and provide you fodder for further pondering and connection-making to history and your modern life.

Also, it is very important to mention that the list below is not a list of “bad” things. Each cultural movement discussed has its advantages and disadvantages – as does traditional honor itself. Were it not so, traditional honor would not have disappeared in the first place! What you will find here is not a laundry list of complaints about culture, but a description of what happened to traditional honor. In my opinion, these societal movements brought about both positive and negative changes, and reviving those positive aspects will be the topic of our next and final post in the series.

This post is as beastly as the last – if it helps you, try to think of this not as an article but as a chapter in a book. Read it when you have a quiet block of time.

Urbanization and Anonymity

Traditional honor can only exist among a group of equal peers who enjoy intimate, face-to-face relationships. It is entirely external, and completely predicated on one’s reputation as judged by fellow members of the honor group. Without close ties, there is no one to evaluate your claims to honor, and thus the possibility of a traditional honor culture vanishes.

In 1790, 95% of Americans lived in small, rural communities. By the 1990s, 3 out of 4 citizens made their home in urbanized areas. While in small towns everyone can keep track of the doings of their neighbors, in cities and suburbs relationships tend to be more impersonal and anonymous; any city dweller has experienced the sensation of being in a large group of people and yet feeling entirely alone. In large populations you can live out your whole life without anyone checking up on what you’re doing, much less judging your reputation as honorable or dishonorable.

In cities and smaller towns alike, civic participation and community-mindedness has fallen significantly since WWII. And while honor formerly centered on one’s clan, extended families no longer live close together and familial relations have constricted to the nuclear family alone, which itself is often split up.

As a result of these shifts, immoral, unethical, and cowardly behaviors are rarely known outside one’s immediate circle of family and friends. And even then, for reasons we’ll discuss below, they are more likely to shrug and say, “It’s none of my business,” or, “To each his own,” than to condemn and challenge the errant behavior.

The internet has only accelerated the shift towards impersonal and anonymous relationships. Traditional honor is designed to act as a check on people’s claims to merit and force them to stand behind and defend their insults; exaggerations of one’s deeds or shameful actions are called out and challenged by one’s associates. On the internet, however, people can claim to be a Navy SEAL or issue the basest of insults to another person without having to prove their claim, suffer consequences for their character, or allow the insulted person to defend themselves. They can be anyone and say anything, all while safely ensconced behind a screen.

Diversity, Leading to Conflicts Between Conscience and Honor

As we have explored in previous posts, during the 19th century in England and the American North, the honor code began to shift from being based on outward behaviors (like prowess and strength) to inward moral virtues and character traits. Despite these changes, the Victorian, or Stoic-Christian honor code, remained rooted in traditional honor. For while the standards of the code had shifted to internal virtues, a man’s adherence to those virtues was not judged solely by his own conscience but also by his peers – his public reputation continued to matter.

This evolution in the meaning of traditional honor also sowed the seeds of its eventual destruction as a cultural force. An honor code based on moral virtues and character traits can only survive when the necessary virtues and character traits are agreed upon by the culture as a whole; besides intimate, face-to-face relationships, the second key element that makes a traditional honor culture possible is a shared code. Each member of the honor group understands the standards that must be kept to attain and keep horizontal honor, and everyone knows how honor may be lost; this is key – honor that cannot be lost is not true honor.

While the manly honor of courage and physical strength transcends culture, a moral honor code, because it deals with issues of philosophy and faith, is more open to differences of opinion and can vary from society to society and man to man. Could a man gamble and drink and still be honorable? Was it more honorable to fight over everything or to have the self-control to walk away from a challenge? Should a man’s honor code include Christian beliefs? What about Muslims and Hindus, did they not have their own codes of honor? These questions led to conflicts between a man’s allegiance to his conscience and his loyalty to the code of his honor group. This prompted debates about which allegiance – conscience or honor — to give higher priority, and which decision on that count was more honorable, or at least more deserving of respect. These conflicts in turn eroded the stability of an honor culture, as Frank Henderson Stewart explains:

“Once the shift is made from basing honor on a certain kind of behavior (always winning in battle, always keeping one’s promise) or on the possession of certain external qualities (wealth, health, high rank) to basing it on the possession of mostly moral qualities (the ones we refer to compendiously as the sense of honor) then the way is open for the whole notion of honor to be undermined. Imagine a German army officer of a hundred years ago who is challenged to a duel. He declines the challenge because is a devout Catholic, and the church strongly condemns dueling. Now for the honor code to be really effective, the officer must be treated as having acted dishonorably. Yet people may find it difficult to do so, since they are sure (we will assume) that he acted as he did not out of cowardice but because of his attachment to his faith. They are convinced (we will further assume) that he is profoundly committed to everything in the honor code that is not incompatible with his religious beliefs. In these circumstances people may feel it appropriate to say of him that he has a strong sense of honor; even if they do not, they will have to admit that he is a man of integrity, and having said this they will find it hard to say that because of his refusal to accept the challenge their respect for him is much diminished. And if the loss of his right to respect is not accompanied by any actual loss of respect, then the honor that is assigned by the honor code has been emptied of his primary content.”

The more diverse Western societies became, the greater the chance that a man’s personal values of faith and philosophy would not exactly align with the cultural honor code, increasing the likelihood of men opting out of certain provisions of the latter when they contradicted their conscience. Yet as Stewart points out, it was not possible for this trend alone to cause the unraveling of traditional honor – its effect was contingent on another cultural shift: tolerance. Traditional honor is inherently intolerant; if you fail to follow the code, you are shamed, you are despicable, you are out. In the hypothetical example of the German army officer above, his peers could have judged his decision to excuse himself from the duel on religious grounds as dishonorable and unworthy of their respect, thus maintaining the strictures of the traditional honor code.

However, a trend towards respect and tolerance for different viewpoints, which began in the 19th century, would become, some have argued, the virtue of the latter part of the 20th. The relativistic ideal of  “to each his own” would allow each individual to choose his own set of values without cultural repercussions – without shame.

Diversity, Leading to Tolerance and Relativism

Another one of the key elements of a traditional honor culture is the belief in the absolute superiority of one’s honor group, and that this excellence can directly be traced to the superiority of the group’s honor code to all others. Honor cultures are based on an “us vs. them” mindset. When tribes and communities were more isolated, maintaining this belief wasn’t hard; honor groups didn’t encounter too many others groups that were much different from themselves, and when they did, a battle between them would quickly and clearly establish the validity of their respective claims.

But the globalization that began in earnest during the 19th century and accelerated during the 20th, greatly diversified the populations of Western societies, bringing different cultures physically together, while also increasing general knowledge of societies halfway around the world. That each culture had their own variations on what constituted honor created doubt in some minds about the superiority of their own. It began to be posited that absolute belief in the rightness of a certain way had led to terrible societal ills – racism, chauvinism, war, slavery, persecution, and so on. At the same time, using violence or war to prove one’s honor fell out of favor (see “Wariness of Violence” below).

Instead, in an attempt to live peaceably with each other and avoid conflict, traditional honor was replaced with the ideal of tolerance and respect for all groups, even those on the fringe who did not fit into the majority culture. Whereas outsiders had formerly been treated badly, but invited to join the insiders and earn their esteem through adherence to the honor code, they were now encouraged to celebrate their own values as opposed to assimilating to dominate norms.

The only value most of society can now agree upon is openness. People generally fall into one of two camps. Either they do not believe that any specific honor code is the “right” one and that one is not necessarily “better” than another, or they remain an “absolutist” and believe they are following the one true code, they know that they should not shame or condemn others for not living up to their own chosen standards, should never assert the superiority of their code in public, and must at least give lip service to respecting the beliefs of others. You do your thing, and I’ll do mine.

This “to each his own” ethic is incompatible with traditional honor, for, as philosopher Allan Bloom argues,

“Men must love and be loyal to their families and their peoples in order to preserve them. Only if they think their own things are good can they rest content with them. A father must prefer his child to other children, a citizen his country to others. That is why there are myths to justify these attachments. And a man needs a place and opinions by which to orient himself…[In traditional honor societies] the problem of getting along with outsiders is secondary to, and sometimes in conflict with, having an inside, a people, a culture, a way of life. A very great narrowness is not incompatible with the health of an individual or a people, whereas with great openness it is hard to avoid decomposition.”

Choose Your Own Honor Code

Traditional honor codes are designed to motivate people to adhere to a standard that the group believes promotes its best interest. In seeking to avoid shame, group members are impelled to submerge their own personal interests for the sake of the common good.

In the increasingly diverse society of the 20th century, ideas of what constituted the common good splintered. And with that splintering came uncertainty about who should be shamed or honored for what. Thus with more and more people opting out of certain provisions of the shared cultural honor code without any consequences, a cycle began: because people who opted-out weren’t shamed, this decreased the honor given to those who kept the code (see “Egalitarianism” below), making them more likely to opt-out too, and the cycle would continue, unraveling the honor code further.

As the benefits of keeping the shared honor code dried up, people became increasingly unwilling to deny their own personal needs for the good of the group. They rebelled against authority — “the man” — and the idea that a common good should be dictated. In the absence of a shared honor code and an agreed upon common good, people began to celebrate pursuing whatever one deemed to be their personal good (follow your bliss!).

Because no honor code was judged to be better than another, individuals were free to pick and choose values from each of them in order to assemble their own personal patchwork honor code. While each individual man’s assertion of his own values could have caused great conflict in theory, in practice it was used to eliminate discord: “I’ve got my values. You’ve got your values. To each their own.” Bloom elaborates:

“Conflict is the evil we most want to avoid, among nations, among individuals and within ourselves. Nietzsche thought with his value philosophy to restore the harsh conflicts for which men were willing to die, to restore the tragic sense of life, at a moment when nature had been domesticated and men become tame. The value philosophy was used in America for exactly the opposite purpose–to promote conflict-resolution, bargaining, harmony. If it is only a difference of values, then conciliation is possible. We must respect values, but they must not get in the way of peace.”

Because every man has the freedom to assemble his own set of values, respect is now given to a man not based on which values he chooses to live, but that he chooses to live with values, any values, at all. Deprived of the chance to earn honor from one’s peers, but still desirous of finding meaning in life, the goal becomes selecting values that together add up to and convey a unique lifestyle – one that embodies a morally-neutral attribute: purpose. Bloom again:

“A value-creating man is a plausible substitute for a good man, and some such substitute becomes practically inevitable in pop relativism, since very few persons can think of themselves as nothing. The respectable and accessible nobility of man is to be found not in the quest for or discovery of the good life, but in creating one’s own ‘life-style,’ of which there is not just one but many possible, none comparable to another. He who has a ‘life-style’ is in competition with, and hence inferior to, no one, and because he has one he can command his own esteem and that of others.”

The amount of esteem one gets from living their values now depends on their fidelity to their personal code. Or as Bloom puts it: “Commitment is the moral virtue because it indicates the seriousness of the agent. Commitment is the equivalent of faith when the living God has been supplanted by self-provided values.” We often admire men, even when we don’t agree with their values, as in, “I don’t really understand it myself, but he sure is sincere/serious about it/passionate/totally into it.”

The ability to choose one’s own code evolved honor’s meaning from outward displays of behavior centering on valor, to personal suffering – holding to your private code despite criticism from others or obstacles in the way.

The Shaming of Shame

In traditional honor cultures shame is seen as an essential part of life – it’s what motivates members of the honor group to behave in ways that benefit the common good of the tribe. Moreover, without shame, honor itself is not possible (see “Egalitarianism” below).

But beginning in the 20th century, with the rise of psychology and the shift to individualism over group identity, shame began to be seen as a neurosis that sickened the psyche, and as an impediment to resisting authority and following one’s personal passion and inner compass. Shame, it was argued, had outlasted its usefulness in a modern society that had solved the problems of basic survival, and was now a hindrance to the fulfillment of personal potential and destiny. Shame, it is now said, gets in the way of being comfortable in your own skin and being whoever you want to be.

For example, refusing to procreate or go to battle could get a man shamed in a primitive tribe that depended on reproduction to keep the tribe going and needed to defend itself from enemies. But in a peaceful modern society, on what some see as an already crowded planet, there no longer seems to be a pressing need to get men to adhere to such traditional (some would say outdated) standards. We have lost the sense of an immediate connection between an individual’s behavior and its effect on society as a whole. A prevailing modern view is that one person’s lifestyle choices will have absolutely no effect on the lifestyle choices of another, or on society as a whole.

So while shame was formerly seen as the thing that made honor, and therefore manliness, possible, it is now the favorite target of men’s groups and male psychology gurus who argue that it’s actually what holds men back from discovering their manhood. For example, the Mankind Project, which holds weekend retreats with the goal of initiating men into manhood, argues that the “New Macho” code requires a man to “let go of childish shame.” They posit that “Shame is one of the primary emotional states that locks many men into a perpetual cycle of self-hatred and self-destructive behavior. This behavior has wide reaching damaging effects on those around him. It harms his ability to create healthy relationships and nurture healthy families.” For this reason, a big part of MKP retreats center on getting men to rid themselves of shame.

Similarly, Robert Glover, the author of the very popular No More Mr. Nice Guy, a guide to moving from unhappy pushover to confident, assertive dude, argues that “Nice Guy Syndrome” emerges during boys’ “formative years,” when they received “messages from their families and the world around them that it was not safe, acceptable, or desirable for them to be who they were, just as they are.” [emphasis mine] Glover argues that a rejection of “who they are” results in childhood feelings of abandonment, which, as the boy grows into a man, results in “a psychological state called toxic shame,” which is “not just a belief that one does bad things, it is a deeply held core belief that one is bad.” By ridding themselves of this “toxic shame,” Glover argues, men can stop trying to be “good” for others, hiding their flaws, and trying to become “what they believe other people want them to be.” In other words, they can free themselves from the basic strictures that once constituted traditional honor.

Egalitarianism and Inclusion

Honor groups are inherently competitive, exclusionary, and hierarchical. There can be no true honor without the possibility of losing it and being shamed and disgraced – without the possibility of either failing or excelling a clear standard and one’s peers. Esteem and respect doled out equally to all is empty and meaningless. Or as M.I. Finley put it, “When everyone attains equal honour, then there is no honour for anyone.”

In an honor group, certain rights are exclusively available to those who keep the standards of the code and achieve horizontal honor, while special privileges are open only to those who excel their peers and achieve vertical honor. At the same time, competition and set standards mean that not everyone will make the cut, and that those who fall short will suffer shame, or at least hurt feelings. Having to compare oneself to others can lead to feelings of inadequacy, and the pain of being excluded and deemed unworthy.

While traditional honor codes award esteem based on merit (although sometimes bloodlines as well), modern societies have moved towards granting more rights and privileges on the basis of the idea of human dignity, that all people — regardless of skill, popularity, or contribution to the group — deserve a basic level of compassionate treatment.

In the 1960s, as shame increasingly came to be seen as a negative, a movement emerged which posited that removing the feelings of pain that come with not performing as well as one’s peers could increase young people’s sense of well-being.

In 1969, psychologist Nathaniel Brandon published a very influential paper called “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” in which he argued that “feelings of self-esteem are the key to success in life.” Brandon’s ideas were first institutionalized when a task force, charged by the California state legislature, formulated a set of recommendations entitled, “Toward a State of Esteem.” The report argued that low self-esteem caused a variety of ills ranging from academic failure to teen pregnancy, and that teaching self-esteem in schools would be a “social vaccine” to inoculate kids from these problems. It recommended that every school district in California strive for “the promotion of self-esteem…as a clearly stated goal, integrated into its total curriculum and informing all of its polices and operations” and that “course work in self-esteem should be required for credentials…for all educators.”

Other states and schools were swept up into this movement and incorporated self-esteem-boosting exercises into their curriculum and programs. These exercises and guidelines – which often revolved around eliminating competition from the classroom — were designed to make students feel good about themselves, under the belief that these good feelings would then beget all sorts of success for them.

However, as later researchers found out, true self-esteem actually has two components — feeling good and doing well. The self-esteem movement had gotten their order mixed up. While the California report posited that low self-esteem causes problems like teen pregnancy and welfare dependence, studies have shown that the opposite is true; low self-esteem is the consequence, not the cause, of such behavior. Thus you can’t start with “feeling good” and have it lead to doing well. It happens the other way around. Feeling good, and true self-esteem, naturally follow from doing well. You can’t pump kids full of self-esteem — it’s something they have to earn for themselves, through true merit.

Despite these findings, policies designed to protect young people from feelings of shame remain in place in nearly every school. At an awards ceremony, every child, regardless of their achievement, must receive an award. All players on a sports team receive a “participation trophy.” High school yearbooks are required to show a picture of each student an equal number of times, regardless of that students’ popularity or involvement in school activities. Schools have children use invisible jump ropes instead of real ones so as to not cause a child embarrassment for tripping up on his rope.

The Rise of Psychology

With Freud’s psychoanalysis, and Jung’s interpretation of dreams, people began to be more interested in the individual workings of their mind and the variations of their unique psyche. Whereas in a traditional honor culture, one’s personal identity could not be separated from one’s identity as part of the group, and one’s own feelings and needs were subservient to the common good, psychology encouraged people see themselves as distinct individuals and to view their own feelings and needs as just as real, and important, as those of the group. Psychologists argued that ignoring or suppressing those feelings was unhealthy and comprised one’s well-being.

The tension between psychology and traditional honor can be seen in debates over whether what were once seen as shameful character defects – drinking, gambling, obesity, serial infidelity – should better be relabeled and dealt with as diseases and addictions.

But perhaps the best and most memorable way to explain the conflict that arose between honoring traditional honor, and honoring one’s individual psyche, can be conveyed in a story from World War II.

In 1943, coming off his dazzling victories in the Sicily campaign, George S. Patton stopped by a medical tent to visit with the wounded. He enjoyed these visits, and so did the soldiers and staff. He would hand out Purple Hearts, pump the men full of encouragement, and offer rousing speeches to the nurses, interns, and their patients that were so touching in nature they sometimes brought tears to many of the eyes in the room. On this particular occasion, as Patton entered the tent all the men jumped to attention except for one, Private Charles H. Kuhl, who sat slouched on a stool. Kuhl, who showed no outward injuries, was asked by Patton how he was wounded, to which the private replied, “I guess I just can’t take it.” Patton did not believe “battle fatigue” or “shell-shock” was a real condition nor an excuse to be given medical treatment, and had recently been told by one of the commanders of Kuhl’s division that, “The front lines seem to be thinning out. There seems to be a very large number of ‘malingerers’ at the hospitals, feigning illness in order to avoid combat duty.” He became livid. Patton slapped Kuhl across the face with his gloves, grabbed him by his collar, and led him outside the tent. Kicking him in the backside, Patton demanded that this “gutless bastard” not be admitted and instead be sent back to the front to fight.

A week later, Patton slapped another soldier at a hospital, who, in tears, told the general he was there because of “his nerves,” and that he simply couldn’t “stand the shelling anymore.” Enraged, Patton brandished his white-handled, single-action Colt revolver and bellowed:

“Your nerves, Hell, you are just a goddamned coward, you yellow son of a bitch. Shut up that goddamned crying. I won’t have these brave men here who have been shot seeing a yellow bastard sitting here crying…You’re a disgrace to the Army and you’re going back to the front lines and you may get shot and killed, but you’re going to fight. If you don’t I’ll stand you up against a wall and have a firing squad kill you on purpose. In fact I ought to shoot you myself, you God-damned whimpering coward.”

When the first slapping incident leaked to the press, it became an international scandal; many were horrified and called for Patton’s removal from command altogether, and even the Army itself. Faced with an intense public outcry, Eisenhower was incensed with Patton, but ended up retaining him, feeling he was “indispensable to the war effort – one of the guarantors of our victory.” Still, Ike gave him a sharp censure, relieved him of command of the 7th Army, promoted Omar Bradley to lieutenant general over him, kept him from having a central role in the D-Day invasion (although strategic factors were also involved in that decision), and also ordered him to apologize to the two soldiers he slapped, the hospital staffs, and his troops.

And yet despite the brouhaha Patton’s slapping incident created, and the vehement protest of many over what they labeled as brutal and out-of-control behavior, the great majority of the public (about 9 to 1) sided with Patton; even Kuhl’s own father wrote to his Congressman to express forgiveness for the general and his desire not to see him disciplined. And the reaction of Patton’s own men is most telling in gauging the life left in traditional honor, even at this point mid-century.

When Patton went to issue an apology to his troops, who were gathered in a large olive orchard and seated on their helmets, his penitent address never got past his first word – “Men!” It was at that point, Major Ted Conway of the 9th Division remembered:

“…the whole regiment erupted. It sounded like a football game in which a touchdown had been scored, because the helmets started flying through the air, coming down all over, raining steel helmets and the men just shouted ‘Georgie, Georgie’ – a name he detested. He was saying, we think he was saying, “At ease, take seats,” and so on. Then he had the bugler sound “attention” again, but nothing happened. Just all these cheers. So, finally General Patton was standing there and he was shaking his head and you could see big tears streaming down his face and he said, or words to this effect, “To hell with it,” and he walked off the platform. At this point the bugler sounded “attention” and again everybody grabbed the nearest available steel helmet, put it on, being sure to button the chin strap (which was a favorite Patton quirk) and as he stepped into a command car and again went down the side of the regiment, dust swirling, everybody stood at attention and saluted to the right and General Patton stood up in his command car and saluted, crying…He was our hero. We were on his side. We knew what he had done and why he had done it.”

Leon Luttrell of the 2nd Armored Division, who was in the same hospital as one of the slapped soldiers, also affirmed his loyalty to Patton:

“I was in the hospital recovering from my wounds, for which I received the Purple Heart, when he slapped the solider and branded him a coward. I can only say that none of us felt sorry for the soldier…I never heard anyone say that he was not the great leader, and best general in the Army.”

What accounts for the supportive reaction of Patton’s men? Combat represents the rawest distillation of the purpose of traditional honor; in war, submerging one’s own needs to the common good is not an abstraction, but a true matter of life and death. As another of Patton’s soldiers put it in commenting on the slapping incident, “his reaction was not entirely unnatural for a man who had seen many brave men die for their country’s safety and who realized the unnecessary casualties that can be caused by one weakling who fails to do his duty.”

Patton represents a fulcrum in the evolution of honor – the civilian media found his actions abhorrent, while the general public and his own troops thought they were perfectly understandable.

The media view would gather strength among civilians and military personnel alike in the ensuring decades. Post-traumatic stress syndrome was officially identified in 1980, and admitting to suffering PTSD and seeking treatment for it has become far more acceptable. There are even those who believe a Purple Heart should be awarded to those who suffer from it, and that PTSD should be applied retroactively to pardon and overturn decades-old dishonorable discharges and even executions. For example, in 2006 British Parliament voted to pardon the 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers who had been executed during WWI for cowardice, desertion, and falling asleep on guard duty, under the assumption that the men may have failed in their duty because they were suffering psychological distress caused by the war. Similarly, American veterans of the Vietnam War who were given an “other-than-honorable” discharge during that conflict for things like desertion and drug use have recently launched a class-action lawsuit against the armed forces, claiming they were suffering PTSD at the time and demanding that their discharges be retroactively upgraded. Said John Shepherd Jr. a claimant in the suit who was given an “other-than-honorable” discharge for refusing to go on patrol: “I want that honorable. I did do my part, until I really felt it wasn’t worth getting killed for.” What’s so interesting about Shepherd’s statement is that his claim to honor is based on a contradiction to traditional honor, which dictates that a man cannot abandon the group because of personal inclinations and beliefs.

The military has had a difficult time sorting through these issues since WWI, as they have had to weigh difficult questions as to whether you can make an ethical or moral distinction between bullet and shrapnel wounds and invisible psychiatric scars, whether the latter merits disability pay or even a Purple Heart, and whether those awards sap a man’s motivation to make a recovery. The main dilemma has been, as Edgar Jones, author of Shell-Shock to PTSD, put it: “How does the military avoid encouraging individuals to shirk their duties (and hence increase the risk of others getting killed or wounded) without burdening commanders with soldiers who will fail to carry out their duties, while also looking after those who breakdown as a result of combat?” In short, what role should traditional honor play within a traditionally honor-bound organization operating in a modern world?

Authenticity & Sincerity

It’s rather hard to wrap our minds around now, as honor has become synonymous with integrity, but traditional honor was only concerned with a man’s public reputation, not his inner thoughts and private behavior. What mattered was only what your peers saw you do – this alone was the evidence they used to judge your honor. For this reason, one of the sort of paradoxes of traditional honor is that it has always involved the hiding and covering up of one’s flaws.

Think of the many presidents who had an affair during the course of their tenure in the White House. In some cases the press knew about the canoodling going on at the time, but they never printed a word about it. One, because “snitching” about such a thing was considered dishonorable, and two, because they did not think that such private liaisons had anything to do with the effective fulfillment of the POTUS’ duties. As long as they maintained an honorable front, the demands of traditional honor were met, and everything was gravy.

Today, we demand congruence between a man’s private life and his public persona. To offer the appearance of an upright reputation, while doing some not-so-upright things behind closed doors, strikes us as rank hypocrisy. We believe that a hypocrite cannot be a good man, or a good public servant. So when his private indiscretions are discovered, a man is quite often drummed out of office.

Wariness of Violence in a Litigious Society

In the most basic, primal form of traditional honor, if you got hit, you hit back, and might made right. If a man was insulted, he would challenge the accuser to a physical throwdown – perhaps to the death; if he emerged triumphant, then his honor was maintained, even if the accusation had been true, and even if he lost, his willingness to fight helped him preserve at least some face. Men also fought and used violence to solve disputes, to initiate newcomers and test their worthiness for being included in the group, to gain status among existing members, and to test and prepare each other for battling a common enemy.

Starting in the 19th century with the emergence of the Stoic-Christian honor code, the use of violence to maintain and manage honor began to be questioned. Self-control and self-mastery were celebrated as Stoic ideals and also essential to rising in the new economy; for this reason, violence began to be associated with the “brutish” lower-classes who weren’t interested in becoming gentlemen and getting ahead. Self-discipline was needed to navigate the new landscape, and violence began to be seen as wild and destructive — an impediment to the ordered, civilized society the upper classes were trying to build. Gentlemen no longer felt that maintaining an increasingly anemic concept of honor was worth dying or even fighting over; they considered themselves above it – that such scuffles were a waste of their time and energy.

In the 1960s, fighting and aggression were also painted as incompatible with the push to make men more sensitive and compassionate. The traits were linked to things like domestic abuse and rape, and the idea that many men will become predators to women if not taught to control their dark, macho impulses. In schools, fighting was condemned as leading to injury of body and feelings, the weak being unfairly dominated by the physically strong, and the potential for volatile distractions from their educational mission. Instead of being encouraged to duke it out in the schoolyard to resolve disputes and confront a bully, boys were taught to use strategies of conflict resolution and to tell an adult what was going on so they might intervene.

Honor and its attendant violence had also been a part of rough societies as a method of enforcing justice — when formal legal systems were non-existent or seen as inadequate for satisfying honor’s demands. But as court systems became more established in Western societies, solving disputes mano-a-mano became less necessary…and legal. With the closing of the American frontier, vigilantism was no longer tolerated. In the 19th century, in both the North and South, men had shot and killed an insulter point blank, without even a duel, and been completely acquitted for the deed – because, the killer would argue, it was the only honorable reaction, and what else could their peers have expected them to do under such circumstances? In the 20th century, simply punching another man could land you in court and jail. In an increasing litigious society, disputes began to be settled with a civil suit in a courtroom, not with a revolver on a field of honor.

Perhaps most importantly, personal violence suffered from its association with its ultimate manifestation: war. Just as men in traditional honor societies fought with each other for a variety of reasons, going to war as a tribe could be justified on several grounds. It was not just for protection of the tribe or the acquisition of territory, but simply for the sake of honor itself — a display of strength, retaliation for insults real or perceived, or the simple assertion of superiority.

In the aftermath of World War I this approach to war was called into serious question. It was argued that a globalized, technological society now made possible war with a level of scale, intensity, duration, and ultimate death toll and destruction that could now only be justified in the most dire of circumstances and under the clearest, most immediate threats. The decision to go to war could no longer be trifled with, or done under the “senseless” rationale of honor, for the mere flexing of national muscles in the modern age could have dire and wide-ranging consequences. War for the sake of honor had to be reigned in lest the world turn into one blood-splattered battlefield.

World War II only strengthened this nascent attitude. European powers waited to enter the war until the threat of German invasion became overwhelmingly real, and America stayed out of it until the Japanese directly attacked Pearl Harbor. Once the full extent of the horrors of the Holocaust became known at the end of the war, a staggeringly powerful moral reason was retroactively added to the rationale of getting involved. The war could clearly be seen through the lens of good and evil, and is in fact referred to as the “Good War” for this reason. All future wars have been judged by the yardstick of WWII and found terribly wanting. Vietnam of course became the ultimate symbol of senseless war and the senselessness of honor generally. Some felt that it continued for so long simply because LBJ would not let himself be dishonored — that he was willing to let thousands of men die in order to save personal and national face.

All armed interventions after Vietnam have had to be sold to the public based on threats to safety and moral obligation. For example, in a traditional honor culture George W. Bush would have only needed to rationalize the Iraq War as a way to avenge his father’s honor, or simply as a way to demonstrate American strength after 9/11 – a general flexing of muscle done as a warning to others in the Middle East. But because we live in a post-honor society, the reasons he gave for the war were the liberation of an oppressed people and the threat of WMDs – even if the latter had to be pulled together on shaky evidence.

In the absence of a clear good vs. evil storyline post-WWII, the West has avoided total war in favor of limited war — holding back on marshaling all its resources and men, and restricting goals to attrition and hazy humanitarian concepts of “nation-building.” Despite the number of armed engagements the United States has fought in the past decades, war has not formally been declared since the Big One.

General MacArthur, who was denied his desire to expand the Korean War into China, believed that limited war broke the bonds between the leaders and the led, as it gave them a dishonorable goal — anything short of total victory – and robbed the value and purpose of their sacrifice.

Limited wars are fought by necessity because of the public’s opposition to the draft. Because society and its leaders believe that wars should only be fought under the most overwhelmingly compelling of reasons, they feel that men should only be forced to fight under the same requirement. Compounding this resistance to universal conscription has been the rising belief in each individual’s uniqueness and worth, and the smaller size of families. Parents are unwilling to risk the lives of their children when they only have one or two to begin with. For these reasons, military service has been taken up by an increasingly small proportion of the citizenry, creating a yawning gap between warriors and civilians.

The State of Honor Today

For the reasons outlined above, traditional honor cultures unraveled over the course of the 20th century. The only widespread form of shared honor that thrives today is what James Bowman calls “anti-honor-honor.” The anti-honor-honor group consists of those who see traditional honor as anti-feminist, anti-egalitarian, hypocritical, an incitement to violence, exclusionary, and uncompassionate – thoroughly silly, if not dangerous and wholly outdated. Those who ascribe to the anti-honor-honor philosophy do not believe men should be shamed into conforming to traditional standards of masculinity, and celebrate a new kind of manhood, where men are free to be whoever they wish.

Yet, a shadow of honor in its most basic form – bravery for men, chastity for women – continues to linger on. “If you doubt it,” Bowman writes, ”try calling a man a wimp, or a woman a slut.” And you can’t reverse that either; men will generally shrug if you call them a slut (tellingly, there still really isn’t a popular derogatory word for a man who sleeps around), and women won’t usually be offended if called a wimp.

Bowman puts it best when he says we now suffer from “cultural phantom limb syndrome.” “Any coherent idea of honor was amputated from Western culture three-quarters of a century or so ago, leaving nothing behind but a few sensitive moral nerve endings that make themselves felt every now and then when our residual sense of propriety and public virtue is outraged and we don’t know why.”

When these moral nerve endings make themselves felt, the result is a kind of short-term orgy of outrage, that, because there are no structures in today’s culture to which to channel and deal with the emotions, ultimately dissipate as quickly as they arose.

Take the case of Sandra Fluke. When Rush Limbaugh called her a slut in February, his comments provoked widespread outrage…and then the wave crested and went away as quickly as it had risen. In a traditional honor culture, Fluke’s father would have challenged Rush to a duel (now that is something I would have paid to watch) in order to defend her honor and to resolve the scandal in a clear and definitive way. The interesting thing about the Fluke affair is that at the same time she advanced a liberal, progressive cause, she appealed to the ethics of traditional honor. That she considered being called a slut the basest of insults, and that she appreciated President Obama for standing up for her and essentially defending her honor, directly harkened back to an ancient culture of honor. It was an interesting juxtaposition.

In some ways, the standards of traditional honor have endured more for women than for men. For example, during this past election Newsweek called Mitt Romney a wimp on its cover, which in ancient times would have been the most inflammatory of insults, essentially an invitation to single combat. But Romney was utterly unfazed and did not bother responding at all. At the same time, tabloids in the UK published photos of Prince Harry nude, but declined to do the same for naked pictures of Kate Middleton, in order to protect her modesty.

Women are more likely to be respected for their chastity, or at least suffer no ill consequences for it, while men who fight for no “good” reason are considered thugs, lunkheads, or deviants, and told to correct that behavior or be kicked out of school or put in jail.

Traditional manly honor, both as it relates to primal honor based on bravery and strength and higher moral virtues, continues to live on in pockets of modern society: police and fire departments, fraternal lodges, some churches, and in the military, most especially in those units which see combat firsthand.


Traditional honor unraveled in the 20th century as agreement was lost as to what constituted the common good of society, and people opted out of the code to pursue their own personal good without shame. Lacking a shared honor code and a close-knit honor group to judge one’s behavior, honor moved from being an external concept synonymous with “reputation,” to a wholly internal and private thing, identical to “integrity.” Everyone is free to construct their own honor code, and only your own conscience (or God) can be the final arbiter of your honor. At least for those who still pay attention to their conscience (or God).

The result of this shift in the meaning of honor has been an exponential increase in individual freedom. But it has its downsides as well. What those downsides are, why reviving some aspects of traditional honor is desirable, and how to do it in an anti-honor-honor world will be the subject of the next and final post in this series.

Manly Honor Series: 
Part I: What is Honor?
Part II: The Decline of Traditional Honor in the West, Ancient Greece to the Romantic Period
Part III: The Victorian Era and the Development of the Stoic-Christian Code of Honor
Part IV: The Gentlemen and the Roughs: The Collision of Two Honor Codes in the American North
Part V: Honor in the American South
Part VI: The Decline of Traditional Honor in the West in the 20th Century
Part VII: How and Why to Revive Manly Honor in the Twenty-First Century
Podcast: The Gentlemen and the Roughs with Dr. Lorien Foote


Honor: A History by James Bowman

Honor by Frank Henderson Stewart

The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom

I Was With Patton: First-Person Accounts of WWII In George S. Patton’s Command by D. A. Lande



{ 62 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Carter December 10, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Thanks for the manly honor series Brett! “I think the fact that we’re all going to die one day is reason enough to stop complaining”- Dave Matthews

2 Colin December 10, 2012 at 8:48 pm

Fantastic article. A relative of mine served under Patton and called him one of the greatest men to ever live.

3 Stengel99 December 10, 2012 at 8:53 pm

WOW! This one requires some serious rereading and digestion. I am eager to read the next post; hopefully it will address the issue of “traditional honor is gone. So what now?”

4 Alexander December 10, 2012 at 9:01 pm

Brett —

I’ve always been sort of curious about this: the evolution (or de-evolution) of honor. I think you really honed in on one of the key points, that is, people can’t really duke it out and shake hands afterward anymore.

If my neighbor falls on my lawn and hurts his leg and, god forbid, doesn’t like me – he can sue me and probably win.

Now, it’s kind of interesting to hear my dad tell stories of how he came as an immigrant and lived in Queens, NY his entire life.. he had all these stories of fights, knives, gangs, and in general, manly stuff.

I think the anonymity of the internet is another big issue, which is why I try to stay away from any and all discussion boards.

Really fascinating stuff though either way and definitely needed addressing.

5 Joe December 10, 2012 at 9:37 pm

Absolutely beautiful post. I learned a lot. Exquisitely written. I do believe that the absence of honour culture in the modern world has led to many societal ills, so I’ll be very interested to read the final instalment in this series.

6 Phil December 10, 2012 at 9:59 pm

Very thought provoking!

My late father used to chide me for “having no ‘killer instinct.’” My response to that always was, “what purpose, in today’s world, that legitimately serve?” He was a product of the early to mid-20th Century, me a product of the mid to-late 20th Century.

The world changed between his coming of age and mine, in many ways. He never could grasp that concept. Yet he spent his adult life 100 yards from where he spent his childhood, I spent my adult life 30 miles from where I spent my childhood – in a large cosmopolitan city.

What a difference that can make.

7 Tac December 10, 2012 at 10:49 pm

Fascinating wrap up. Although there is still one modern culture, ironically more in the city than outside, that is still deep into the old honor system in some ways….that being modern criminal gangs.

But this really does show the evolution of honor. And I understand fully the ‘phantom limb syndrome’. It seems that almost daily someone makes a statement that has me thinking “in a more civilized time I’d take you out back and discuss your mouth with you”. Laws are fine, but honestly they do not substitute well for honor when it comes to speaking/interacting civilly with others. I think that if our Victorian ancestors were to walk down a modern street, they’d be locked up within a couple hours for pummeling someone who had the audacity to curse them out, insult them, or make a pass at their girl.

I think we need a blend. Not so far as dueling, but shame needs to come back. Shame is a consequence of an action, and helps people interact more civilly with one another.

8 Dan F. December 10, 2012 at 11:03 pm

Brett and Kate,
Great job on this one. It puts much into perspective, including generational gaps. There’s alot to think about, especially how it affects us as a society, and men in particular, in connecting our individual roles with that of the group. I don’t think that there will be a return to the past’s traditional honor, or if there is, it will be “remixed” and altered to suit the society at the time. This also brings up the question of violence: is there an appropriate substitute that satisfies a man in the same way? That is, can the modern ideas of conflict resolution and peace be reconciled with the primal urges of me to fight it out? I think the answer would lie in a similar way to limited war. Heh, I’m now imagining Fluke’s father challenging Rush to a boxing match. Anyway, this will give me a lot to think about.

9 David Y December 11, 2012 at 6:39 am

Brett & Kate. Thanks for this great series.

I’m sure I am not the first, and won’t be the last to hope that you can put all this into book form. It will be worthwhile to read this again all the way through in one go.

10 James December 11, 2012 at 7:34 am

It would seem to me that one group that seems to have managed to harmonize these many different qualities of honor, integrity, tolerance, shame, and conscience (or listening to God’s advice) is the healthy 12 and 12 group. It is nothing short of a miracle in such a chaotic society.

11 Rob D December 11, 2012 at 9:16 am

I have loved these articles. The information presented here have done so much to explain a lot of behaviors that have always seemed contradictory to me (I got a psych undergrad degree to go with my software development – long story).

I think one place that you didn’t touch on (so far at least) is the concept of the honor group at work, and the honor group concept that is currently emerging in colleges with the “bro” or “brah” culture.

Inside of professional groups, there is definitely a concept of traditional honor, right down to measurement of capability by peers. You see it most often in high-bar-to-entry professions, where finding a job is almost entirely dictated by who you know and who will vouch for you in a “new” setting. This transformation might be worthy of an article in and of itself if you’re feeling motivated.

The Bro culture often popular at college is very similar to this concept, but it begins at an earlier stage and tends to disappear as the group disperses after college. Alas, it wasn’t really a popular concept when I was still in school, but it fits very well with a lot of what you’ve talked about in these articles.

12 CBMurphy December 11, 2012 at 10:37 am

There’s no question honor is a tricky virtue, and I always hesitate to embrace the hubris that our age is unique. I think you’ve made a good case that every age had it’s challenges to “honor” (pagan vs Christian in Roman Empire’s Decline, colonist vs native in early US history, even southern gentleman and abolitionists).
I particularly tricky when one’s worldview (and politics) preordains you to know who is the villain and who the hero in any situation. I think we have to give paradox a role in analysis, too. Without it we are lost. God forbid I should defend Mr. Limbaugh, but since there is an assumption that we all “know” he’s wrong, we are looking for ways to evaluate what happened so that our point of view, our tribal loyalties if you will, remain unchallenged. Whose honor is at stake when women say they can’t afford their own contraception? Have we shifted to a place where the government has taken on roles that used to be allocated to men for the care of feeding of their families? (For good or bad, I’m just saying. I don’t like easy answers.)
I think a man has to walk his own path, skeptically aware of the paradoxes of his time. There is some guidance in listening to the body and the archetypes of masculinity, but tribalism trumps all. Even when we think we’re post tribal.

13 Terry December 11, 2012 at 10:55 am

First of all, I am a woman, not a man. I joined this web site because the values that it promotes are crucial to society, and to men in particular. I also joined because as the mother of a son who is growing up in this modern, broken-down and disgusting world, I believe that it is important for him to learn about what it really means to be a man and about honor — the two go hand in hand, as a guy without honor is not a man, he’s just a male.

The multi-part article on honor is extremely important. It hits the nail on the head as regards the downfall of honor in the 20th century. The modern focus on the individual as opposed to group norms and shame has caused the decline and disintegration of honor, and with that, has come the decline and disintegration of morals, ethics and of society.

The lack of honor among today’s males affects women in a very negative way as well as society as a whole. I am an example of that. Personally, after having become single and having experienced the modern dating world, full of males and few men, I chose to stop dating several years ago and I have no interest in resuming. The respect that I once held for the opposite gender has plummeted to below zero. Millions of women find themselves in this predicament. We are not happy about it, and it affects us physically and emotionally in an extremely negative way, but at least we avoid being hurt by selfish, self-centered, egotistical, lying and cheating males who cannot be trusted to do the right thing. If there was a “code of manly honor” that was enforced by society, I guarantee that there would be a better quality of male out there and a whole lot more men! Unfortunately, a society that tells people that they are individuals, that morals and ethics are relative, and that each person can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, with whoever he wants will soon destroy itself – and that is the point that we have all reached now. I’m just sitting quietly on the sidelines, staying out of the fray and watching all the disgusting people run by on their way to nowhere.

14 Bob December 11, 2012 at 11:57 am

This is excellent. Our notion and understanding of honor has definitely changed over time, and I believe that is a good thing. While there is a downside to that, there was a downside to earlier understandings of it, e.g., challenging someone to a duel to defend one’s honor. It is interesting that you can still see this sort of thing in some Islamic cultures. They seem to be where we were 100 and more yrs ago. In that context I think that the change in our understanding of honor has been an evolution not a de-volution.

15 Bruce December 11, 2012 at 12:00 pm

What I find so interesting about the concept of honor and what I love about these articles is how each honor group comes to the assumption of the infallibility of their code. The circumstances of my upbringing gave me sufficient inclusion to allow for a fundamental understanding of the unwritten rules of the small rural Midwestern town where I lived, but also gave me the outsider’s ability to ask “Why?” and question what had always gone unquestioned. I’ve always found the concepts of honor to be loosely applied when the tangles of family and money come to fore, for this is a world where absolutes have become untenable. I’ve yet to become convinced this is a bad thing.

16 John Hritz December 11, 2012 at 12:09 pm

A couple of points. You are not drawing a very marked distinction between honor and face. It is tied to your concepts of vertical and horizontal honor.

It has become common to use the terms interchangeably. In Japanese bushido ( the samurai honor code), they are held apart.

Face is reputation. It is horizontal honor. Loss of face is a consequentialist view.

Honor is adherence to a code of conduct and is conferred on you by your superior or master. You lose honor by failing to do your duty. You do your duty regardless of the consequences to yourself. It is a way of repaying your debt to your master. So it corresponds to your notion of vertical honor. In Japanese bushido, honor is direct. Face is indirect. Someone can save face for you. Your acts to preserve face for yourself lead to dishonor.

An example from samurai legend is of a soldier sent to avenge the murderer of his master. In his terror, the man spits on the samurai. The samurai sheathes his sword and leaves because to kill him would be personal. This would violate the principle of restraint.

So-called honor killings in the Muslim world are actually about face. Duels and other violent acts are not about honor they are about reputation.

There have always been people who swear an oath (soldiers) and those who don’t (civilians). Society gives special privileges and protections to people who do swear an oath and have more expectations of them as a consequence.

Thanks for putting together this series of essays. I look forward to the next one.

17 Scott Hinrichs December 11, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Very interesting series of articles. You note that honor based civic organizations have been on the decline for some time now. From my perspective of having been involved in the Boy Scouts most of my life, I would say that this is true to a certain extent. These organizations have tried to evolve, but their basis in the honor cultures of the past hampers their evolution.

Still, it seems that a significant number of people still seek out honor based associations, many of which seem absolutely tribal in nature. We see this in politics, social issues, and gangs, for example. Those tribes that gain sufficient power are constantly trying to enforce their view as the single honorable and acceptable view.

While it is always difficult to see trends when you are in the middle of events, it does not seem that intertribal competition is dissipating. Rather, it seems to be on the increase in many ways. It will be interesting to see how you sort this out in future posts.

18 Nate December 11, 2012 at 2:21 pm

Good article!


“However, as later researchers found out, true self-esteem actually has two components — feeling good and doing well. The self-esteem movement had gotten their order mixed up. While the California report posited that low self-esteem causes problems like teen pregnancy and welfare dependence, studies have shown that the opposite is true; low self-esteem is the consequence, not the cause, of such behavior. Thus you can’t start with “feeling good” and have it lead to doing well. It happens the other way around. Feeling good, and true self-esteem, naturally follow from doing well. You can’t pump kids full of self-esteem — it’s something they have to earn for themselves, through true merit.”

You mentioned research on this. I’ve been reading some material about positive beliefs and self-image helping you to create circumstances in your life that will benefit you. I’m very interested in what research is for or against this idea.

19 Jon Lambert December 11, 2012 at 3:17 pm

I was hoping you would be doing an article on honor in the wild west since you had covered both north and south up to the civil war. Since it appears you won’t be is there any particular reading you could recommend on that particular subject?

20 James December 11, 2012 at 4:09 pm

First let me say I’ve really enjoyed this series. You raised a few questions about how the military deals with PTSD and similar issues; as a military man, I’d say the way we’ve held on to some aspects of “traditional” honour provides an answer to those questions.

It’s been said that a soldier doesn’t fight for his country, his general, or “the cause” so much as he fights for his buddy in the foxhole next to him. That ethic is an essential part of the respect we have for anyone who wears the uniform – what you’ve referred to as horizontal honour. That same ethic motivates me not to feign injury or mental stress. I would be ashamed to do so; I’d feel unworthy of my uniform, and I don’t think I’d be able to look my shipmates in the eye. Maintaining this sense of honour would naturally prevent our servicemen (and women) from claiming PTSD en masse, allowing the military to provide adequate treatment for those who need it.

Of course, I’m clearly biased. Along with “traditional” concept of honour I have an “us-vs-them” mentality (shown by the fact that I use the Canadian spelling of “honour” on an American website) and I believe in the superiority of my own moral code.

21 Joe S. F. December 11, 2012 at 4:56 pm

Shrinks you can’t live with but without them there would be no use for those retarded chairs. But all in all Brett great post and maybe the true honor of today is admitting that there is no longer any and that you have to replace it with self-discipline and hold yourself up to your on scruples.

22 Zyll December 11, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Excellent job, Brett & Kate!

I enjoyed reading response #15, where Bruce talks about the assumption of the infallibility of each group’s honor code.

Yes, critical thinking is cultivated by testing assumptions. However, in this context it begs the question: what point is there in having an honor code if it is not supreme in guiding group behavior? The moral relativism of “a world where absolutes have become untenable” is the unmitigated playground of megalomaniacs and dictators. Only cultural mores or “religions” are able to resist outside tyranny.
The fundamental problem is this: you cannot escape absolute truth in life. You have a belief system, whether you acknowledge it or not. Even “Atheism” is an “ism” with a set of absolute beliefs and code of honor to which you pledge allegiance. The real-world effects of using psychological and scientific theory to destroy cultures and belief systems is that evil and tyranny are allowed to flourish. What’s that quote… the only thing needed to allow evil to triumph is for good men to turn a blind eye? Something like that. Constraining evil is the goal of any honor system, and if you don’t have the courage of your convictions and absolute belief your code is the highest truth, then you have no sense of outrage when victims are violated.

23 Bobby G. December 11, 2012 at 5:14 pm

I think these are the most thought provoking articles I have ever read in my life. It makes so much sense of the conflicts between individuals and societies throughout history.
One that comes to mind is the teachings of Jesus. Jesus, though a jew, challenged the jewish code of honor. For example, the jewish code said, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” however, Jesus turned that idea on its head by teaching that people should, “turn the other cheek”. He unhindged a lot of these teachings by using-”You have heard it said…but I say unto you…” and so on. It was and is a conflict of who’s Code of Honor is superior.
I can’t wait for the final article!

24 Zyll December 11, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Oh! And I’m all for shame. Shame is a useful tool to maintain order.
– This discussion has “Lord of the Flies” written all over it.

25 Enzomiles December 11, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Thank you for this post, it connected a lot of dots for me. It will be interesting to see your revised traditional honor system. The problem, I think, will be the buy in. A lot of men are pulling a John Galt right now except the earth didn’t fall when atlas shrugged. Women, technology, and government have picked up the slack. With a lot of men going to porn, video games, hookups, and drugs to meet their emotional needs I don’t see what the incentive will be for them to take on commitment and sacrifice again. Seems to me that things will have to get really bad and collapse before society goes back in the traditional honor direction.

26 Ken December 11, 2012 at 8:55 pm

I have taught honor to my son. I have watched as honor has become a thing of the past and it has led to leaders in today’s world being yellow bellied liars and cowards.
My father was a good man’s man and he taught me to be a man of my word.
To keep your word and change not is a Godly and honorable thing. Some have taught on honor but no one like Kenneth Copeland of Kenneth Copeland ministries. I’ve learned a great deal about honor from God’s men of today and those who went before me decades and centuries ago.
Thank you for this teaching.

27 Brad Norcross December 11, 2012 at 9:27 pm

Can’t wait for the next one! You’ve touched on a lot of things that have bothered and intrigued me about our culture today and I’m excited to see your thoughts in the next issue.

28 Bob December 11, 2012 at 9:50 pm

“I have watched as honor has become a thing of the past and it has led to leaders in today’s world being yellow bellied liars and cowards.”

I think in today’s world anyone who at least tries to live a life of integrity (honesty), without concern for the political or other ramifications of their actions, and “do unto others as he would have them do unto him” is a man of honor. The rest is all superfluous.

29 Brett McKay December 12, 2012 at 12:48 am


The information came from “The Optimistic Child” by Dr. Martin Seligman. You can read more in this post:

We didn’t do a specific post on honor in the American West because it’s similiar to Southern honor, and there aren’t any books specifically on the topic (at least that I know of). So I’m afraid I don’t have any suggestions on that front.

Thanks for the comment. I’m am very interested in hearing from service members about their experience with, and opinion of, the state of honor in today’s military, so I hope some other men join in with their comments.

30 Tom December 12, 2012 at 7:50 am


I’m surprised you didn’t focus more explicitly on the women’s rights/feminist movement as another reason for the decline of traditional honor in the West in the 20th century (though I guess you hinted at it a little). Now, as you said well at the beginning of the article, there are both positive and negative changes with every societal movement, and the women’s rights movement is a huge positive in general, so don’t think I’m saying that I’m against women’s rights. But it’s had an affect on traditional manly honor, especially as elements grew into extreme feminism.

In large part, men act in relation and in response to women. If women (and society in general) expect and demand men to act in honorable ways towards women (whether it be expecting men to help them with opening the door, expecting men to propose marriage, or expecting men not to look for sex before entering a serious relationship with women), then men often will often rise the occasion and act in these honorable ways. If women (and society in general) don’t expect men to act in honorable ways towards women, then men will be less inclined. And if women (and society in general) explicitly discourage men from acting in honorable ways towards women, by calling such honorable acts sexist, then men will be even less inclined.

31 Conner December 12, 2012 at 11:36 am

Best Art of Manliness post ever? Very likely. Thanks, guys!

32 PWDB December 12, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Honor finds its root in having something of worthy to defend. Today, a majority of the populace have debt, disobedient children, divorce, and cheap possessions lacking value. Feed men soy (which the body converts to estrogen in the bloodstream) and hops (decreases the formation of testosterone) then expect a ninnies and pansies to follow. Our setting, food, work, public law, and knowledge base all play a part in the formation of honor, ethics, virtues.

33 Ryan Bales December 12, 2012 at 9:09 pm

Excellent post. I would like to comment on women. Earlier in the comments, I saw someone mention women and feminism. I’ve been on dates and opened car doors, helped women climb steep slopes, pulled out chairs, all that. Some of the women thought I was the sweetest guys, the others thought I was trying too hard. They say nice guys are too safe and want a bad boy for more excitement. They then go on tirades about hating men because they were used. So for awhile, I turned into the guy that used girls and they asked me where that came from and why I was so cold. I said “I fell for the nice guy trap with you and made sure I wouldn’t fall for it again.” Since being in the military, I have realized what real b.s. is and these women fall right into that b.s. category.

34 Ryan Bales December 12, 2012 at 9:16 pm

Also, the military thing… I wonder what ever happened to officers like Maj. Winters, Hal Moore, Patton, Schwarzkopf, and others. Not that they stopped being good men at heart, but why they broke the mold. I’m not going to use any names for OPSEC reasons, but I’ve been under some really crappy leadership from E-6 and up. It has made me question at times why I got in the military. When you have an officer or NCO who will go to bat for you even if he falls out of grace with the Brass, his men will follow him to hell. Now the guy that just uses a unit as a stepping stone for promotion, turns into a yes man, and doesn’t look out for his men are all reminiscent of Lt. Dyke of Easy Company.

35 Andrew December 13, 2012 at 3:39 pm

1. I think it’s very good that we have evolved to a point where the importance of an integrity between public and private life has become somewhat key.

2. The problem I see is because there is no standard other than self-reliance, and individualism of the person, we have little consistency of the positive point mentioned in #1.

3. It would be nice if in the 21st century we find some third way that combines the positives of both traditional honor and this self-expression, self-determination society while recognizing the negatives of both and finding ways to minimalize their defects. It will probably take a good two to three generations before some combination will take hold.

36 Chris Gould December 13, 2012 at 5:37 pm

I love it. This series has been amazing, and I really appreciate the effort you have put into it. If this finds its way into a book, I will be in line to buy it! Thank you!

37 Bobby G. December 13, 2012 at 6:40 pm

Ryan Bales- To answer your question, there are still plenty of Maj Winters and Hal Moores in the Army and in all areas of life. We just haven’t heard about them. These men are known to us because they were/are exceptional in their time. In other words, men in the military are no different that those in the civilian world. Most that are in charge over others are not very good at it. Some are overly ambitious. Some don’t care. We all like to think that putting on the uniform transforms men into something other than normal but, alas, it doesn’t. The Pattons, Moores, and Winters are remembered in a good light not because they were military men but because they were great men. Always strive to be a good man and you will be a good leader,

SSG Bobby G. Mullen

38 Ryan December 13, 2012 at 7:09 pm

This series has been incredibly interesting!

I think it might be worthy for AOM to take a look at the Virginia Military Institute. This is one of the last colleges actually teaching it’s students about honor. They host annual honor conferences, and are one of the last schools in the United States to have a single sanction honor system. Any infraction of “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do” results in an instant dismissal from the school. VMI also actively teaches Cadets to search out their core values, and helps all to learn about integrity.

39 Julian Burnell December 14, 2012 at 5:26 am

Thank you for this excellent series, and for achieving the apparently impossible goal of defining honour! This is all very thought-provoking and will bear a great deal of re-reading.

40 Herbert West December 14, 2012 at 6:57 am

While I agree that the change from groupthink to individualism has a lot of growing pains, I cant fathom some of the comments that seem to regard a society where you are free to form your own honour code, and follow it, as long as you dont interfere negatively with other peoples freedoms, inferior to one that has an enforced code of “honour”.

Always, always remember that if we ever go back to one single definying characteristic of manliness or womanliness, or honour, or whatever shorthand you want to put on your lazyness to think about right or wrong, and be handed one, it _MIGHT NOT BE THE ONE YOU LIKE_.

Its very, very easy to wax on an on about how good honour is, if you happen to be one of those who have the means to enforce it. It sucks if you are on the other end. And whatever power fantasies you have, stop for just a moment, and imagine yourself at the barrel, and not the trigger, of the gun.

41 Rob December 14, 2012 at 8:21 am

I am currently at cadet at Virginia Military Institute, where our esteemed Honor Code is one of the most, if not, the most stringent collegiate honor codes nationwide. VMI attempts to maintain many of its archaic traditions mostly pertaining to the Ratline (freshman indoctrination system), however, the current shifts in American culture and legal trends have eliminated many of these events. Along with that, the traditional sense of honor in an individual’s “toughness” no longer held in such high regard, and is in some cases laughed at when cadets display their bravado during physical or military training events. I recognize an incongruity between our binding honor code: “A cadet will never lie, cheat steal, nor tolerate those who do” and the sense of individualism that America’s youth are raised in today that often is contrary to binding honor codes such as ours. This has caused a rebellion against the formal rules at the school, and the discipline has noticeably eroded over the years. This can be very hypocritical when VMI displays a corps of cadets having excellent appearance, steadfast discipline, and a sense of integrity while one can simply walk inside barracks and see many instances contrary to these claims. Don’t get me wrong, I love my school. I just see many flaws that can be attributed to an institution holding on to a traditional sense of honor that is not compatible with the environment that current cadets have been brought up in. I believe that VMI can still produce honorable men and women in accordance with its mission, but it must change the formal and informal rules and regulations to redesign an environment where honor can develop and thrive almost endogenously in modern society.

42 Marc December 14, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Great series, I’m looking forward to the last post.

43 David D. December 14, 2012 at 12:23 pm

I think your quote concerning Nietzche was actually the most salient. His core challenge of “what do you do when you learn your not actually forced to act a certain way?” is really the prime issue here. The USA in particular simply has too much experience with the world not ending over you opening a door for a woman or not shooting a man for an insult for it to be an accepted truth that “things MUST be this way”.

We are in a transition state as a society towards recogonizing that we are accountable to not only living to our own codes, but being educated enough to construct them in the first place. Integrity is already being shown as the replacement for the social trust component that honor used to fill.

44 Ian December 14, 2012 at 1:17 pm

I have very much enjoyed reading this series of articles, and look forward to reading them again. This article is superb, perhaps solely for being open to interpretation. my $0.02, for what it’s worth:
I think the “scattershot” approach to this article is entirely appropriate; Honor is an ideal that was the goal to a lot of institutions, and those institutions eroded in differing ways. A global sense of honor had to have tolerance, if only to have other honor groups to compare itself to. The modern world is inherently intolerant: Groups that still practice honor forms like the Boy Scouts, Churches, and the military are vilified for their exclusivity. Value choice and tolerance may not have been so much of a causal factor to the decline of honor groups as openness was/is: Our forebears were able to pick a group at will. The ability to arbitrarily pick and choose after the fact is what, I think, lead to it’s decline. (Think admitting women to all-male clubs, and so on)
I also agree with Tom about the hidden(?) role of women in regards to male honor. Part of a honorable existance is the rewards it bequeths, and having a woman that compliments the stature of the man is one of them. My grandmother went to a all-girl prep school in the 1920′s, and the girls set the standards for the other women regarding dates and appearance. Males seeking a date would have to adhere to those standards set, or he would be left empty-handed. While not essentially a form of manly honor, it was, however a reinforcing aspect. The non-structual approach to the 1960′s Women’s movement undermined women’s honor in the name of non-repression.
Like I said, I’ve enjoyed these articles; knowing the past defines our future. I think honor, and honor groups can thrive in the 21st Century, provided we separate them from our job enviroment (where litigation is omnipresent) and national laws and employ them on a more personal scale. Diversity is good, for how else can we define ‘Us’ and ‘Them’?

45 Max December 14, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Brett and Kate,
Excellent job on these posts! One can really take a step back and make several inferences and deductions about where/who we are as individuals and as a culture. Keep it up.

46 Doug MacKay December 14, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Brett & Kate -

I printed this one out to read and am about a quarter of the way through. Excellent job; very thought provoking. I tend to think these notions of honor may be cyclical in nature rather than linear. I can’t help but think there is nothing new under the sun and I”m also reminded of the book of Judges when everyone did as they saw fit. We’re kind of in that phase today, once again. Even the rise of feminism, to a certain degree, may reflect the lack of honor in men’s lives today. IN a way, we are to blame for leaving marriages, having adulterous affairs, and leading women to fear that their man is not to be trusted, therefore, she needs to get a job just as a hedge, rather than out of true career interest. I am, in the end, reminded of the Judge Deborah in Israel, who rose up to defend her people when no man had the honor to do so. At least from one perspective, it is nice to know that God is still with us and that the patterns are familiar. I would be interested on your thoughts on this notion, but perhaps you address them later and I will get to them. Again, many thanks. Have a great Christmas.

47 Bennett December 14, 2012 at 10:27 pm

We’ve become a culture that can’t tell the difference between anything. Egalitarianism, post-modernism, deconstructionism, feminism, philosophical materialism, and a host of other intellectual forces have it to the point where it’s considered gauche at best, and CrimeThink at worst to believe that there is a difference between men and women, between right and wrong, truth and fiction, hell, some scientists trying their hand at writing pop religion books can’t even tell the difference between “something” and “nothing.” When there’s such a general muddle of intellectual, moral, and social boundaries, to the point that definitions don’t even hold stock, much less prestige for upholding the concepts they represent, it’t a small wonder that honor is on the decline–nobody anymore could agree who has it, what it is, if its good, or whether it exists.

48 senor December 17, 2012 at 7:09 am

I’m a proud southerner who recognizes that my region is the last bastion of tribal honor, and think that such honor is a good thing, despite–as you wrote–that it does denote intolerance. It does not have to denote racial intolerance, though. African-American culture is also a culture of personal honor, with all the good and bad that go with it, which may be reason why, in the last several decades, there has been a reverse migration of sorts by African-Americans back to the South.

49 Edmund December 17, 2012 at 1:41 pm

Thank you for such a well written and well examined issue that is ignored at best by most now a days.

50 Jason December 18, 2012 at 9:22 am

As a Marine in 2001-2002 I was at the Defense Language Institute to study Russian. During one of our ass-chewing sessions by our detachment Gunny, he said something that hit home the idea of traditional honor among the military: “You all are Marines! You are the closest thing to knighthood that America has!” One of the three core values of the Marines is Honor. Walk the line. Do not bring shame to yourself, your unit, or your country. The best way to avoid scandals is to not put yourself in compromising positions.

51 Cory B. in B.A., Ok. December 18, 2012 at 10:54 am

Thanks so much for this series, Brett. It has been an excellent source of confirmation in more ways than one.

52 rico567 December 23, 2012 at 12:16 pm

The most interesting post in the comments for this segment is by “Herbert West.” It’s a perfectly illustration of how any claim to manhood in a dawning 21st century United States is immediately leapt upon as a power trip….while a trip through these essays indicates that it is -in fact- anything but.

53 Dave December 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm

@Terry, there are worthy men out there. I’m sure it’s hard not to get discouraged, but hang in there. It was interesting to read a woman’s point of view because, in my opinion, the feminist movement has been one of the main causes of the decline of manly honor. Yes, it has achieved many positive things—no man today wants to go back to treating women they way they did in the early seasons of “Mad Men”. But after being told for years by feminists that men shouldn’t be chivalrous to or protective of women, that many of them take offense to simple things like picking up the check or holding a door, that in fact men aren’t even needed anymore for procreation, should we be surprised by what many men have done in reaction to these developments. But not all of us have turned into Phil Donahue (and my wife is every bit as good-looking as his is).

54 JWard December 28, 2012 at 3:46 pm

This is a very interesting piece, but I just wanted to comment to say that PTSD is not a purely psychological disorder; it is the result of head trauma, a physical injury. It cannot be compared to weakness or cowardice. I also think someone whose mental state has deteriorated to the extent that they are unwilling or unable to serve on the front lines could be more of a liability than an asset. You need to know that your fellow soldiers have your back, and someone who has lost his nerve (beyond that which can be pumped up by a pep talk) will not have your back.

55 Rosyid January 4, 2013 at 7:59 am

This is interesting. A great article. It made me think about the popularity of My Little Pony :FiM, among male audience. It create ‘bronies’ community with ‘tolerance’ as one of main value. The interesting fact is sometime to show the like in public, considered Manly. To insulting the like for the show considered main insult, end with internet Flame duel. The more manly a bronies will ‘tolerate’ to extremes, with kindness (duel is still main option, but more civil). This show even like by numerous military personnel. Plus, one of main villain named ‘discord’. I think it is not a coincidence, according to this article, that some reason this show drew more male audience than it supposed to be. It is in relation with the change of perception of honor. Great insight. Thank.

56 Alexander January 18, 2013 at 6:36 pm

I noticed you haven’t touched on “honour killing” in which a father will kill a daughter that disgraces the family(real or imagined), not the accuser or perpetrator.

It is a problem in the indo-canadian community of BC , congruent with traditional honour. violence for the good of the group(think).

57 Robert January 21, 2013 at 1:56 pm

I think you under emphasize the increased effectiveness and law enforcement here. Honor, more than anything else, is a signaling mechanism in societies with week states. When members of societies can’t count on the state to protect property or enforce contracts, codes of honor are important because they demonstrate a man is worthy of trust because he obeys the code, and too fearsome to cross or steal from because he has and will defend his honor.

As the state is more and more effective at enforcing law and order, extra-legal system like morality actually make society work less smoothly. That’s why you see honor primarily exist in places where the state is week, like developing countries, black markets (see omerta) or in crumbling suburbs and the urban core (street gangs). Honor, respect, have a “platoon” of men to be able “roll deep” with all were very important in crack age Baltimore, for example.

58 T February 2, 2013 at 10:14 am

Just reading these articles, thank you Mr. & Ms. McKay.

I think road rage might be an example of phantom honor. How infuriating to endure the incessantly insulting behavior of other motorists! The occasional retaliatory behavior we read of might all be about honor, in a phantom kind of way.

59 A March 11, 2013 at 1:11 am

I have dealt with men from all over the world and the “honor code” is pretty universal. I feel we lose something without it.

60 seth May 30, 2013 at 2:50 pm

I’ve yet to find a “bad” article on this site. I wonder about the usefulness of “honor” nowadays with the movement toward political equality and the necessity for manly honor. Of course it IS necessary from my view, but society seems ashamed in traditional values. While we do so, we also tolerate WWE, MMA and other “fake” violence and dishonorable conduct. Where did this all come from? How do we as a society get to a point where we not only permit such conduct but actively encourage it and make it big business? Men no longer have traditional hunting and gathering responsibility, so we have to resort to this sort of thuggery. It is disgraceful to me. I’ll never allow my son (if I have one) to do that sort of thing.

61 Juan June 17, 2013 at 6:44 am

Great post!
Reading the section about shame reminded me of the chorus lyrics to the Robbie William’s song “Better Man”:
“As my soul heals the shame
I will grow through this pain
Lord, I’m doing all I can
To be a better man”
I think it highlights that challenge, something to overcome, is necessary for improvement. Shame at not living up to the standards of an honor code should be and sounds like it was a primary source of motivation for becoming a better person. Without being shamed for negative behaviors people see no need to improve themselves, unfortunately.

62 David Somers December 11, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Who says courage or physical strength transcend culture any more than a moral honor code does or should? That is just as much a philosophy or belief (faith) as any other proposed standard for honor. In fact, one might successfully argue that courage and physical strength are actually rooted in moral or ethical beliefs.

The only thing that transcends culture is the God who created all cultures. His standards for honor should be followed by men everywhere.

Great post, by the way. I just wanted to interject some food for thought.

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