in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 29, 2021

Podcast #402: Why Honor Matters

In today‘s world, honor is typically thought of in terms of integrity — doing the right thing when no one is looking. But traditionally, honor meant having a reputation worthy of the respect of others. If people think about this type of honor at all these days, it’s usually in a negative way, associating it with pistol duels, honor killings, and toxic shame. But my guest today argues that for moral life to be robust and vital, a culture of honor is absolutely necessary. His name is Tamler Sommers. He’s a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, co-host of the podcast Very Bad Wizzards, and the author of the new book Why Honor Matters. Today on the show, Tamler and I discuss honor— what it is, why it disappeared from our moral ethos and vocabulary, and why we should bring it back. Tamler makes the case that honor culture fosters community and encourages risk taking for the sake of excellence, while our modern dignity culture atomizes us and encourages us to play it small. He then makes a counterintuitive argument that the contained aggression and violence that honor promotes can have real benefits and shares one way honor is making a comeback in the form of the “restorative justice movement.” We end our conversation discussing why stories of honor are so appealing to humans and whether it’s really possible to revitalize honor in modern Western society. 

Show Highlights

  • What is honor? How is it actually defined?
  • Horizontal vs. vertical honor 
  • What are honor groups? Why are they so important in this discussion?
  • Honor culture in the mafia 
  • The function of shared honor codes 
  • How shame can sometimes be a good thing 
  • Ancient societies’ use of honor codes 
  • Honor vs. dignity 
  • How violence and aggression can actually be good for society 
  • Honor culture in the NHL 
  • Gangs, guns, and honor 
  • The core principles of an honor culture
  • How to inject honor back in the justice system 
  • How to develop a shared, group honor code 
  • Is Tamler bullish on honor cultures making a comeback?
  • What are the challenges to honor making a comeback?

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Why Honer Matters poster.

Connect With Tamler 

Tamler on Twitter

Tamler’s website

Very Bad Wizards podcast

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Today’s world honor is typically thought of in terms of integrity. It’s doing the right thing when no one else is looking but traditionally, honor meant having a reputation worthy of the respect of others. If people think about this traditional type of honor, these days it’s usually in a negative way, associated with pistol duels, honor killings and toxic shame.

My guest today argues that for moral life to be robust and vital, a culture of honor is absolutely necessary. His name is Taylor Sommers, he’s professor of philosophy at the University of Houston. Co-hosted the podcast, Very Bad Wizards, and the author of the new book, Why Honor Matters. Today on the show, Tamler and I discuss honor, what it is, why it disappeared from world ethos and vocabulary, and why we should bring it back. Tamler makes the case that Honor Cultures fosters community and encourages risk-taking for the sake of excellence while our modern dignity culture atomizes us, and encouraged us to play it small.

He then makes a counterintuitive argument that the contained aggression and violence that honor promotes, can have real benefits and shares one way honors making a comeback in the form of the restorative justice movement. We enter conversation discussing why stories of honor are so appealing to humans, and whether it’s really possible to revitalize honor in modern Western society. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at Tamler joins me now via Tamler Sommers, welcome to the show.

Tamler Sommers: Thank you for having me.

Brett McKay: So, you just published a book. I was telling these people before the show, when I got the book review copy, I was so excited to see it because we wrote us a long in-depth series about this topic a long time ago, and when I was writing it I was just … There’s nothing on this topic out there, your book Why Honor Matters. Let’s define honor because I think it’s one of those words that it gets thrown around a lot, but I don’t think a lot of modern folks really know how to define or describe it. If you ask them like what is honor, they’ll usually give a definition that means integrity, living according to your own personal values, but that’s not what honor is. So walk us through, what is honor and what are the founding fathers said when they swore upon their sacred honor, or what Achilles talked about when he talked about his honor.

Tamler Sommers: Well I think I’m one of those people who has a hard time defining honor, in spite of having written a book about it. Part of the problem with it is, it is a word that’s an umbrella term that applies to so many different things, so many different kinds of, it can be an adjective to honor somebody. You call judges your honor, there’s honor. It can be a verb, honor thy father and mother, but I think one of the helpful things if you look at some of the anthropology and some of the work that’s written about it, is this distinction which you talk about on your blog actually. I would point listeners who aren’t familiar with that series that you did, because you did it a while back. It was a few years ago.

Brett McKay: Yeah, 2013.

Tamler Sommers: Yeah, so you talked about this distinction that Frank Stewart introduced between horizontal and vertical honor. That’s how I think a helpful way of pinning down what honor is, and how it’s essentially tied to being in a group. So let me just talk about that. Horizontal honor is, it means if you have horizontal honor that you’re entitled to a level of respect or esteem, just by virtue of belonging to an honor group. Honor groups vary, there’s so many different kinds of honor groups, but when you’re in an honor group, just belonging to it, just being a member of it entitles you to a certain degree of respect or esteem.

For example being a made man in the Mafia. Just for being a made man, you get a bunch of privileges within that structure. The people in the community have to treat you with respect or deference, now I’m taking this from the movie Donnie Brasco. I guess you get called a friend of ours rather than a friend of mine, and you definitely don’t pay for drinks or dinners. Importantly, and this is in the research on the Mafia, once you’re a made man, other mafiosi can’t steal from you, they’re not allowed to assault you.

They’re not allowed to hit on your wives or girlfriends, and that’s just because, it’s not for anything that you’ve done, it’s just because you’re a made man in the Mafia. So that’s the defining feature of horizontal honor, is that it is distributed equally to all group members. Just because they belong to a group, it’s not tied to a specific action, or your actions, or your achievements. When we say your honor to judges, we say that just because they’re judges not because, “That was a great decision that you handed down, or that you wrote, that was a great verdict.”

It’s just unless they get disbarred or they retire, they’re just entitled to this form of respect. In uniform military, some airlines allow to board a plane early and will often say, “Thank you for your service.” Again, we don’t know what they’ve done to serve our country, but just by virtue of belonging to the military, we think they’re entitled to that a degree of respect. That’s horizontal honor, the kind of honor you get from just from belonging to a group.

Vertical honor is the flip side of that. Vertical honor is the thing that you compete for once you’re in the honor group. Vertical honor, unlike horizontal honor, can’t be distributed equally among the group members, because that’s how you move up and down in the hierarchy. Is based on how much vertical honor you either have or lose within the group, and you have it or lose it through your actions and through your achievements. Sometimes your status, either going up or going down, sometimes that’s formal like with rank in the military.

Sometimes it’s more informal being, this is an example I use in the book, being the comics comic. Like within the stand-up community, there are comics that are known as that it’s just this informal title. You’re the comics comic, you make even the comics laugh. That’s an honorable position to hold, not that you get any money for it, not that you get any official recognition, that’s just how you’re known. People will treat you in a certain way because for the moment at least, you are the comics comic. Or like we both do podcasts, and unfortunately for me your podcast is ranked higher in the iTunes rankings than our podcast. So right now for the moment, we’re coming at you but right now you have more vertical honor as a podcaster than we do.

Brett McKay: Maybe I don’t, because it’s people outside the group of podcasters who are determining that vertical, so maybe it’s not vertical honor. Am I the podcasters’ podcaster?

Tamler Sommers: Yeah, I know that’s actually a good point in fact. Are you the podcasters’ podcast. We don’t really know have podcasters’ podcasters. Yet you’re right it’s too diffusive community really, and it’s so spread out. There are these famous podcasts that I’ve never heard of, even though this is a thing that I do and I’m sure most people haven’t heard of ours. So, yeah it’s actually a really good point that when things are too anonymous, and there’s no way of really allocating this form of respect, then the honor structure disintegrates and there really isn’t one for podcasting.

Brett McKay: No honor amongst podcasters.

Tamler Sommers: No honor, right exactly. I guess there are ceremonies and stuff for it like awards, but-

Brett McKay: It’s self congratulatory, but I guess that’s what honor, like vertical honor is. It’s self congratulatory, you’re honoring what the values that you guys in that horizontal group honor.

Tamler Sommers: Yes, exactly. It’s not, to say that it’s self congratulatory, it makes it almost sound a little petty but it certainly doesn’t have to be if you’re the captain of a hockey team or something like that. That’s really, people really respect that and what you did to earn that title. It’s not something that the person just tried to do so that the player so they could put on his resume or something like that, it’s something that means a lot. It’s just a part of their identity.

Brett McKay: Just a recap, so honor is about group. That’s an important aspect because, and we’ll talk about why that’s important here in a bit. Honor’s about a group, you really in a way you own your honor but you don’t. It’s dependent on other people as well recognizing your honor, it’s about respect. Then you can have honor within a group, just by being a member of the group and then you can get more vertical honor by doing certain things. Let’s talk about, you talked about there’s certain rights and privileges that come with being part of an honor group and having that honor, but there’s also responsibilities. What are some examples and what happens if you don’t live up to those responsibilities?

Tamler Sommers: Yes, so once you’re in an honor group, you have a certain set of responsibilities. Maybe if you’re to go back to the Mafia example, if you’re made man in the Mafia, now you’re bound by the Omerta value. You’re not allowed to cooperate with the authorities and if you do, that’s one of the ways you can get kicked out of the honor group. You are bound to pay certain amounts of money to people who are higher up than you in the Mafia structure. If you don’t do that you’ll lose vertical honor, and at a certain point you can get booted out of the group, if you don’t live up to your responsibilities.

I think this is one of those misconceptions, people think of it of belonging to an honor group as just these unearned privileges. Especially when they’re talking about horizontal honor, but they’re not unearned in the sense that often it comes with certain burdens. Burdens of hospitality, burdens of taking risks in defense of your group, even being willing to sacrifice your life. Think of the Navy SEALs, if you belong to a unit and the Navy SEALs, you are bound never to leave one of your fellow officers in the … Even if they’re dead, you’re not allowed to leave them on the battlefield without bringing them back.

That’s an obligation that you get, because you are bound by the code of that honor group. You need this kind of shared code, this shared commitment, the shared value system in order both to allocate vertical honor within the group, and to know when someone hasn’t lived up to their minimal responsibilities to even have the horizontal honor. You also need it as a way to motivate people to sacrifice in such a way that they’re able to live up to their responsibilities, and in some case exceed. Go above and beyond the call of duty.

Brett McKay: That’s where the role of shame comes in. That’s one of the critiques people often give towards honor cultures that there’s this toxic shame, but shame can actually be a strong motivator to get you to do, to hold up to your obligations that you have for being part of that group.

Tamler Sommers: Yeah, and shame can have its downsides. I think we’re all learning right now what happens when you have a culture of shamelessness. One of the almost funny things about Trump is how little shame he has about just flagrantly lying, or misleading the public. He will, this is a guy that is not burdened by that feeling of shame for better and for worse, in my view mostly for worse, but or … Another example I use in the book, the banking crisis that was caused by a lot of people who afterwards just refused to take any responsibility for what they had done to the entire country. There was no structure really in place to shame them into, not into, or punish them, or lower the amount of respect that they were getting within their own communities. So it has a real downside when there is no set of principles that when you fail to live up to them, you will feel shame and you will be shamed by others.

Brett McKay: Well let’s talk about why this, you can be shameless today … For many centuries, honor was for the guiding moral paradigm for people living in the West, but now it’s not anymore. Why is that? What changed?

Tamler Sommers: Well as we were saying before honor needs a group, honor as a value system needs a group to function. It is essentially social and it cannot exist for individuals in isolation. So for the whole motivational and ethical structure to work, you need a collection of people that know each other, and that are bound by a shared set of principles and values. Again, you need this shared set of values because that’s how honor is allocated within the group. In the last few hundred years in the modern world and especially in the West, these communities, these societies were growing much bigger and crucially much more anonymous.

So the currency of Honor, whether you receive honor or dishonor that gets devalued, because nobody really knows who you are to begin with. I was thinking about this just the other day, how rare it is that I interact with somebody that knows who I am. That has the slightest clue Who I am, what I’ve done, the good things that I’ve done, the bad things that I’ve done. In 90% of my day-to-day interactions, that doesn’t happen. At least when I’m out of work, when I’m out shopping, when I’m out, just when I’m not at home.

Honor needs people who care about their reputation and their status within a community, but if you don’t have that community, and nobody knows what your reputation is, well then the whole motivational engine that drives behavior in honor cultures is stripped away. So that’s one side of it is just society’s getting bigger and more anonymous. The other side of it is ethical. One of the downsides, it’s undeniable that one of the downsides of some honor cultures is that there is a kind of oppressive structure that imposes restrictions, not just on a person’s role and behavior, but on what they’re allowed to do, and what they’re not allowed to do. In some cultures, girls are prohibited from getting an education because that’s not deemed a proper role.

To find out who you are and what your values are, you need to be able to get an education. People do want, people have a desire to shape their own identity and they have a resistance to being assigned a certain kind of role in life. I think the morality of dignity, which is a morality that is centrally focused on protecting individual rights, and expanding individual freedom autonomy that reflects that aversion to honor culture, telling me who I am, what I can do, what I can’t do and it’s so complicated. That in conjunction with free-market capitalism, and it all led to an honor being downplayed both as unethical, set of unethical value system and also as something that can even function to motivate behavior, and to shape people’s attitudes.

Brett McKay: Well let’s talk about the ethics of contrasting honor and dignity culture. So dignity it’s all about the individual, the worth of the individual. You have value worth because you’re a human being, you exist. So how does dignity culture motivate individuals to do the right thing? How do they even determine what’s the right thing? With honor, each group had its little code and the way they enforced that was through shame, and also giving vertical honor to be excellent at the code. What’s dignity culture, how does dignity culture figure out what’s right and wrong, and then how do they either enforce or motivate those ethical behaviors?

Tamler Sommers: Yeah, so this is one of the problems of dignity cultures and it’s a big one, because it focuses on individual rights and autonomy and respecting people’s autonomy, respecting their person hood. It’s mostly if not exclusively, just telling us what not to do. Don’t violate their rights, don’t infringe their autonomy, but both had again a theoretical and I think even more importantly at a motivational level, it doesn’t really have anything in place to get people to perform acts of positive virtue. When you say do the right thing, dignity is much more focused on getting people not to do the wrong thing, not on doing the right thing.

So there’s nothing … Something like acts of courage, acts of risk-taking, dignity just doesn’t have much to say about that because to not take risks or to not be brave doesn’t, most of the time doesn’t violate anybody’s rights. It doesn’t infringe on anybody’s autonomy. Now where honor cultures and the norms of honor cultures, one of the guiding principles that seems that most of them have in common is that they attach great positive value to acts of courage that benefit the group. They have a whole set of norms that encourage bravery, and strongly discourage being a coward.

If you’re a coward in an honor culture, your status goes down but dignity has nothing like that. Even at the level of the morality of it, there’s nothing really wrong with being a coward that ethics of dignity doesn’t really attach any negative value to that. I think that’s led to one of the most frustrating things for me about modern life, is how risk-averse we are as a culture. We don’t have a moral language to try to change that, and I give a bunch of examples of this in the book,  what I call my cranky chapter. The chapter where I start about all the things that are wrong, when we have rejected honor to such a degree.

Brett McKay: Right, like making bike helmets. You have to wear a bike helmet now when you ride a bike, because you’re going to fall off and crack your skull open.

Tamler Sommers: I know, that’s a huge pet peeve of mine. I have to say though, I feel like I’m winning. That at least here in Houston, it does seem like the tide is turning against bicycle helmet.

Brett McKay: Well, yeah and actually I think doesn’t it say something bike helmets actually make you less safe? Right, because drivers see you’re wearing a bike helmet so they drive closer to you, and then because you’re wearing a bike helmet you think you’re safe. So you do dumb things, but when you’re not wearing a bike helmet, you have to be more careful, pay more attention.

Tamler Sommers: The drivers treat you like, they stay further away. Yeah I mean there are some studies, that’s the ultimate irony of this. Of many of these cases is that the actual risk is so minuscule, or maybe in this case non-existent but I don’t even rely, I try not to rely on those studies because that just plays their game.

Brett McKay: Exactly.

Tamler Sommers: You know what I mean? I don’t even like … It’s fine if it adds a little risk to your life.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk some more about honor, because you have this whole chapter. One aspect that’s often attributed to honor, or people think go hand-in-hand is aggression and violence. You make an interesting case, the dignity culture say aggression or violence is bad because that violates the rights of others, so you avoid it but you make the case that it actually no aggression and sometimes violence can actually be good and virtuous, and bring communities closer together. So walk us through that counterintuitive argument.

Tamler Sommers: Yeah. Under in certain conditions and the condition that I focus on in the book is when the violence is contained. When the threat of escalation is contained, then violence can … Well there’s a couple of things. It can be a safe way to release pent-up aggression that has been building up that kind of resentment and bad feeling, and then it’s a way, release for that. It can also be a way to prove your courage, and prove the fact that you’ll stand up for yourself. Show, demonstrate the self respect that you have, it can show your loyalty to your friends or one of the examples I use is this bar fight culture in Lafayette Louisiana.

That there’s an honor code that guide these people, if they get insulted they get into fights outside the bar. The basic core principles are just honor principles, stand up for yourself, stand up for your friends. They have in that case informally certain sets of constraints and boundaries to keep the violence from getting out of hand. Once the fight is over, once the person can no longer defend themselves, if you still go at the person at that point it becomes dishonorable. So that’s now like once you win, it’s over. It’s also dishonorable to fight somebody who you know you can beat.

This is a thing that saved my ass number of times, because I was a talker in the bars when I was younger, but I couldn’t, I can’t fight. Anybody who would almost certainly have kicked my ass but sometime because especially when I was younger and I looked even younger. Like up till I was 25, I looked like I still in high school. People would just say all right, because it just, it wouldn’t have been honorable to fight me.

So they have all these built-in constraints. Fair fight, equal numbers, and it is a way to prove their self-respect and loyalty to their friends, and to enforce and clarify certain boundaries. I talk a lot about this book by Elijah Anderson about the inner-city neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and how fighting there even among friends can be ways to prove your worth. Also again to establish norms and boundaries within a friendship, what you’re allowed to say, what you’re not allowed to say. Then maybe the best example is, or the one I go into the most detail is the NHL in hockey.

Where fights are again a way of bringing the team together, building solidarity within the team, but also a way to keep people from engaging in really because it’s such an inherently violent game. So taking cheap shots that could either take out your star score or for a series, or for the season, or for their career, there’s this established informal code in place, that allows people to stand up for their teammates when someone takes a cheap shot at them.

If the team is frustrated because they’re getting destroyed, to allow them to take out some of that frustration in a relatively safe way, and again there, there’s this built-in form of containment. There’s the hockey officials who are these master psychologists trying to figure out exactly when a fight should happen, shouldn’t happen, when to stop it, when to let it go and at a larger level the league office. So that if brawls get completely out of control, then they can step in and prevent them.

Brett McKay: Right. So without that honor culture, the culture of Honor, violence sounds like it could escalate? People just go right to I’m just going to kill you, annihilate you? The individuals, the highest thing in a dignity culture, the worst thing you do to somebody is just kill them. Just take away their identity, is there anything, that’s what’s happening now or it might be too much into that?

Tamler Sommers: It’s funny because this is something I’m working on hopefully in the New York Times, but that was the thing that they were trying to press me is does low level violence actually prevent lethal violence, or greater violence. I was thinking about that and trying to think if I could honestly say that low-level violence actively prevents more lethal violence, and I’m not sure that I can say that. Well certainly, sometimes low-level violence does escalate into lethal violence, and so there’s definitely going to be a lot of cases where … So I think what the claim that I feel confident about is that low-level violence when constrained by the right kind of honor codes, or by something else, can definitely be a safe way of releasing aggression and preventing further harm.

Sometimes you do need forms of containment in place that don’t come from the specific Honor Culture. So one example that I talked about in the book is gangs in urban America. They used to settle their disagreements with fists, they had a lot of beefs but the beefs would end in fistfights rather than gunfights, but then all of a sudden guns came into the picture. So a lot of those beefs would escalate into gunfights, and you had skyrocketing murder rates. The best programs, the best policing programs of a way of containing it, it does come from outside. So it’s not part of the honor code, but what it does is it just takes the guns out of the picture.

It doesn’t stop them from engaging in their activities, it just means that when violence occurs, guns can’t be involved. So if you take that out of the picture, then some of the good stuff that comes from violence, the way of proving respect, the way of earning respect, even often from your opponent. If I ever did get into a fight and I would lose it, even as a loser you get respect just because you showed a little heart. Some of the good stuff can come without, when the threat of actually dying or getting seriously hurt is taken out of the picture.

This guy David Kennedy, who instituted this program in Boston and has been trying the group violence intervention, he’s been trying to institute it all over the country. He’s had great success when it’s allowed to be implemented properly, he tells the story in his book, Don’t Shoot, about in Boston where they cut homicides by more than half in one year through this program. The marker of success was when one of the cops came in and he was singing practically, he was so happy he said, “I just saw a fist fight. I haven’t seen a fist fight in years.” That was the sign that the strategy was a success.

Brett McKay: Well another point you make about dignity culture when it comes to violence is that dignity cultures don’t have a good response to when violence is being done to you, or you’re oppressed, but honor culture does.

Tamler Sommers: Yeah, so honor culture encourages, I would say the core as I understand it, the core principle in an honor culture, both at the level of the individual and your group is stand up for yourself, stand up for your group, handle your business. So dignity cultures don’t have that. Now obviously if somebody is assaulted or threatened, their rights have been violated. So what a dignity culture does is they find ways to punish you, or lock you up, or put you away, whereas honor cultures encourage the people involved to sort out their own conflicts. This isn’t just through acts of violence and acts of revenge, they have structures in place to mediate conflicts.

Especially if you’re talking about within group disagreements, a real feud will disrupt the harmony of the group, and even a feud with other groups could lead to a long-running multi-generational blood feud. Everybody has an interest in avoiding that, but they have this strict code of we don’t like when third parties deal with our own conflicts. That’s something that it’s our responsibility to deal with, so they have all these structures in place where people face-to-face sort out their differences, and find ways to resolve their conflicts. If somebody was wronged, then someone has to make up for it in some way.

These often have the special benefit of bringing communities closer together, just because conflicts are exciting and people have opinions about it. This is how norms get shaped and further clarified is through these sessions, these mediation process of conflicts. That’s exactly what we’ve lost in our culture. If you look at our legal system, and then you look at how conflicts get sorted out in smaller honor cultures, it couldn’t be more different. One is completely bureaucratic alienating to both victim and the offender, and it just keeps them entirely separate from each other, and the other actually allows them to learn about each other, to learn what they did and how it feels, and what they can do to take responsibility and make it up to them.

Brett McKay: That in your chapters you talked about how honor, your injecting honor back into our jurisprudence might have a lot of benefits, because the dignity culture as you said, when you a victim, when the state brings a case against the perpetrator, they’re not bringing it on behalf of you. It’s on behalf of the state, the people. Why do you think that idea of a third party enforcing the law has … You say maybe it’s contributed, the United States have one of the largest prison populations in the world. How has dignity culture, the jurisprudence that’s come out of dignity culture contributed to that you think?

Tamler Sommers: Yeah, this is the chapter, this is chapter six in the book. It’s probably the thing that I’m most proud of, most excited to pursue in further research, and it’s related to a lot of my early work on responsibility and free will. I think that and there’s so many elements to how rejection of honor, and honor values has led to what I think is maybe the greatest moral ill of our society, mass incarceration. So there’s at the practical level, there’s again this resistance to violence of all kinds. Any act of violence is considered a violation of Rights, and so it has to be punished.

This is how you have zero tolerance policies for fighting in schools. You fight, you get expelled or you get suspended, and that’s led to the school to Prison Pipeline. Then you had all the violence shoots up, starting in the mid-60s through the 90s, and all of a sudden there is harsher sentences, and three strikes and you’re out and ballooning prison population as a result of this attitude towards sentencing for violent crimes. So at the practical level, just when you become so scared of violence, and so concerned for the safety of individuals who aren’t violating other people’s rights, then the only way to handle the fact the inevitable violent conflict, is by diverting the violence into prisons rather than letting mostly affluent citizens have to take a little risk that they might be a victim to it.

Then at a theoretical level, this is where I think it’s the biggest fraud that the morality of dignity is perpetuated. Punishment itself is a violation of someone’s rights. You’re kidnapping them, you’re putting them in a prison, in some cases even killing them. So they have to figure out why that’s okay that they do it, and so they come up with this framework, this ideal of blind and impartial justice that punishes people, criminals according to their culpability. According to the severity of their crime and the level of, the degree of blame worthiness that they had for committing it.

You see this in all these Supreme Court rulings, that is the guiding principle. Criminals, once you’re not in a civil case but a criminal case, they have to be punished according to their culpability, and people of equal culpability have to get the same punishment. That whole system, that whole framework is just built on both empirically false and incoherent ideas about autonomy and responsibility and it by definition excludes the victim. The victim just becomes a vessel to determine how severe the wrongdoing was, but their interests, their desires, their needs, all of that is considered completely irrelevant to the criminals’ culpability.

Most of the time criminals don’t know their victims, and so they don’t know how much harm the victim will experience through their crime, or how much, what the victim wants afterwards. All that stuff doesn’t play into assaulting them, or mugging them, or robbing their house, or whatever it is. So the victim is now removed from the equation, and very often doesn’t want to be removed for the equation, and then for some reason once you cross that civil that line from civil case to criminal case, now it becomes the people or the state versus the criminal, rather than the victim but there’s no justification for that.

It’s a totally arbitrary line to draw, and there’s no justification for matching punishments to degrees of culpability. The whole thing is based on an illusion at both a practical level and especially a theoretical level. The tragedy of it is that it’s had massive practical, it’s caused so much suffering and so much injustice. In that chapter there’s this movement called restorative justice, which I think is one of the most exciting new movements in criminal justice reform. I really is … I don’t know how explicitly it embraces this, but it’s modeled on the way honor cultures handle conflict.

They bring the parties, the people who were affected by the crime, the people who were involved in it, it bring them together, and it just says how can we make this right, how can … Somebody was wronged, let’s try to come up with a solution and that solution may involve punishment, it may involve prison time, or it may involve some restitution. But it allows them to meet face to face and hash out what happened, the harm that was committed, and how the offender can take responsibility and try to do something to make it better, to make up for it, to atone for it.

It’s funny people think of restorative justice as this hippie-dippie hug it out approach to justice, but I think it has at its core these really strong honor principles on are related virtues of I handle my … I’m looking my offender in the face, and I’m telling them what they did, and I’m telling them what I want them to do. As the offender, you actually have to really face at an emotional level what it was, what harm it was that you caused. When you look at these, when you just witness them, these sessions, you really see people from completely different walks of life learning to understand each other, and learning to understand their own attitudes and behaviors, at such a deep level.

It’s such a win-win and yet it violates so much of this illusory framework that we’ve set up, especially at the criminal level, at the adult criminal level that there are so many obstacles to implementing it. It’s just sad that as I try to show, and I will continue to try to show, the obstacles aren’t based on anything real. They’re just based on what this blind impartial justice ideal that can’t be defended, both either theoretically or practically. So yeah, that’s a long-winded way. You could get me talking about this for hours, because this is the thing like buy stock in restorative justice.

It’s already spreading through the schools and that’s great, and it’s had a really huge positive impact reducing suspensions. People are starting to use it in juvenile courts, but the real barrier is once you get to adult criminal courts.

Brett McKay: There’s restorative justice moving, how do you … We talk about honor, it borrows from honor in a way. How do you develop that shared group honor code? Do people just step up to the plate like they intuitively have that honor code of what it means to be a good member of the community, and like when they’re confronted with it they own up to it?

Tamler Sommers: Well, the way these things work both in honor cultures and restorative justice, is you have to have a skilled mediator but one that is known too. Not somebody who’s anonymous, not somebody who’s completely impartial, but someone who’s part of the community that guides the discussion. If you look at it in schools for example, there are people that run the sessions, with schools as a small enough community where these are the values of our school, this is how you violate them, how can we make this right. There’s no single punishment, it will always depend on the particularities of that conflict. So it’s flexible, like every conflict is different and so these sessions allow the participants in the conflict, the people involved to get out and to address every particularity of what it was they experienced.

None of that could be specified in advance, some of it is even unknown, but you do have that person, that mediator who is guiding the discussion. In this case, a form of containment where if it starts to go bad, they’ll stop the session and then they’ll go to more traditional disciplinary approaches. Also, there’s the informal that there are other people that attend these sessions, and they get to see how this is worked out. So just knowing that other people are actually watching you and judging you to some degree by how you handle yourself, that can have a huge positive effect, and it can be a strong communal feeling, because everybody’s there to support each other.

Brett McKay: So yeah, there was another point I loved about, that you made in the book was that compared to dignity culture, honor culture actually allows a lot of flexibility in either morality or jurisprudence. By flexibility, I mean that in a positive way. It can adapt to different circumstances.

Tamler Sommers: Yeah, I think that honor is based in fact, it’s not based on some idealized version of what you want society to be. If you look at those philosophical, the political theories that have dominated in the 20th century and still dominate today, they’re idealized. This goes all the way back to Locke and Hobbes. You’re not talking about real people in real situations, you’re talking about how people would be if they were rational. If you’re behind a veil of ignorance, what would their desires be, what principles would they choose to adopt. Honor just doesn’t do any of that.

It is about the facts on the ground, and it can adapt honor norms. Honor values are continually evolving to meet the challenges of the whatever environment they’re facing. They don’t have some ideal that is again impossible to live up to, and also not even necessarily coherent that stands in the way of the real challenges. The very diverse challenges that any community will face, so they’re not burdened by this philosophical baggage that idealized systems of morality will impose on people.

Brett McKay: You just mentioned throughout the book and through our conversation, there are downsides to honor if it goes, if it runs a mark.

Tamler Sommers: Yes, sure.

Brett McKay: Violence, revenge, shaming that’s just goes beyond what’s necessary, so how do you bring back honor? I think you talked about with restorative justice movement, but how do you bring back honor but contain it so we can get the benefits without as many of the downsides, because again you can’t eliminate all the downsides because then you wouldn’t have honored. That’s what a dignity culture would try to do, let’s make honor safe.

Tamler Sommers: Yeah, but so safe that it ends up disintegrating because you won’t tolerate just a single exception to whatever. Yeah, I know but I want to because I’ve really just been singing honors praises in this. I want to acknowledge the downside of it. In the last chapter of the book, I separated into two categories. This is the two problems with honor that are just inherent within the value system. The first is the threat of escalation, so when you have these conflicts and because there’s this guiding code to always stand up for yourself and to always respond to challenges, this can lead to escalating feuds, long-running cycles of violence. It’s not that it can do it, it has done it and there’s so many examples of it.  Hatfield and McCoy, the Palestinians and the Israelis, gang wars, this is-

Brett McKay: Catholics, Protestants.

Tamler Sommers: Yes, exactly right. So, that’s something that needs to be contained. Then even maybe a deeper level, I think honor doesn’t really place any restrictions on the content of the norms for allocating honor. So there’s nothing within honor that will prevent really abhorrent values from governing who gets honor, and who gets dishonored. This is how something like honor killings happen, so if you have a value system that thinks that any woman who has had extramarital sex deserves to die, and that if she doesn’t the family will be shamed within the community, then there’s nothing built-in to honor, to prevent that from being the guiding norm.

I do think for all the shit talking on doing about rights based moralities that enforcing a minimal set of rights, is crucial for allowing honor to work its magic without having some of the downsides that honor can bring. So I do think that whatever system in place, there has to be is if the honor group goes outside just respecting basic human rights, then at that point I think it needs to be controlled or contained, maybe even by an outside party. Hopefully it could be controlled or contained by structures that are already within the honor group, because honor groups have such a resistance to outside interference.

If not, then I think it does … Then you do need some minimal enforcement of basic human rights in some way of trying to encourage honor groups to embrace better norms for allocating honor and shame, and dishonor and so forth. Then I think an easier problem although it’s practically can be thorny as hell is containing the threat of escalation. I think that David Kennedy program that I talked about where they allow the gangs to do their business for the most part, but whenever gun violence happens, then they crack down like crazy on the whole community. So all they’re saying is, no guns.

Just do what you’re going to do, but anytime if you bring guns into the picture, then we’re coming down hard. We’re punishing every marijuana sale, we’re punishing every any bit of violence. Once you cross that line, then your whole community suffers and that encourages. It A, I think helps to shape the norms. Now all of a sudden it’s not going to be honorable to gun down some guy you’re beefing with, and because now you’re hurting the whole community by doing that. It also allows people to I think do, it prevents the arms race that can sometimes happen within honor groups where now you’re carrying guns, and you’re shooting people just to show, just to prove that you can’t be messed with.

All of that gets taken care of, but it requires this outside form of containment on what level of violence is going to be tolerated. There are other really good policing or community organizations that deal with gang violence in a different way, and really encourage strong forms of mediation, bringing in former gang leaders. I talked about those two,     but I think as a better example of containment of the threat of escalation that the ceasefire project are now called group violence and intervention, it’s a great example of that.

Brett McKay: Okay, this is great. Are you positive, are you bullish on honor making it come back or do you think it’s going to be an uphill battle?

Tamler Sommers: I think it’s definitely going to be an uphill battle. I’m bullish on restorative justice, I think I’ve made that clear. Put all your money in that, but the challenges that honor faces especially in a society like ours which is so big, and now so polarized and there’s so many diverse ways that we get our news, and just our … We’re told from so many different sources what to think, there seems like there’s less and less common ground in terms of the values to accept than there ever was. Now I don’t know, maybe that’s not true, maybe in the 60s and 70s there was just as little and I wasn’t around then.

I think just the hugeness of American society and modern society in general and the anonymity, makes it a struggle or a challenge at least on a national level. I think that when you narrow the community, then I think the honor naturally emerges when you narrow the focus. What kind of groups are we talking about? Are we talking about sports teams, are we talking about a university or college, talking about a school? Then some of these honor values I think can make a comeback, and we don’t even have to do that much because honor, once you’re in a small group where you do have shared values, I think these honor related attitudes tend to emerge without doing much.

You see this in sports all the time, and sometimes it’s the coach trying to instill this set of honor values, but often it’s just these things organically emerging as a way of adapting to the specific context, or the specific environment that people are in. So at that level, I am more bullish about honor making a comeback. It’s almost like it’s not even necessarily a comeback, because it’s already there in a lot of these smaller communities.

Brett McKay: I think you do see dignity culture trying to even get a toe in on those little smaller communities.

Tamler Sommers: That’s right.

Brett McKay: Where it’s the outside force saying here are these rules, these regulations. You don’t do this, don’t do that and then it’s always a battle between them.

Tamler Sommers: Right, and you see this with sports. You have the classic dignity culture. There’s this guy Ryan Brown, this is one of the guy who wrote against honor. Do you know this guy because he’s also from Oklahoma?

Brett McKay: No, I don’t.

Tamler Sommers: He wrote a book these psychologists, I think at University of Oklahoma who wrote a book very critical of honor. He tells the story of going to a doctor and Alabama, and the way that Alabama doctor was talking about the football team in the University, and how much he identified with that, and how completely irrational it was for this doctor in Alabama to identify with the college football team, and how we have to shed ourselves of these attitudes where we care so much about a team that we don’t play for, and we’re not involved in. So you have this constant thread or encroachment, and often it’s in the language of it’s so irrational.

It’s so irrational to care more about the members of your community or your group, than the whole human race. Dignity is just like you have one community, and it’s the human race, the other rational agents, persons. Anytime you start conforming your behavior to a smaller community or smaller group, and maybe favoring their interests over others, you’re considered irrational, or immoral, or identifying with something that doesn’t make sense to identify with. I don’t know, it seems like these things ring hollow.

Brett McKay: I think it does.

Tamler Sommers: We say we when you’re talking about the Red Sox, but you’re not on the Red Sox, that doesn’t make any sense. Well, but nobody has ever been convinced by that reasoning. If you understand it, then you are not going to be talked out of it by somebody who is yeah, in this kind of rational robotic way trying to explain to you, as if you didn’t know why, that you’re not a member of the team. As if this doctor didn’t know that he’s not a member of a team. It’s so ridiculous that … Yeah, I think those things do ring hollow and I think you’re right. Then even at the level of within our own culture, I think all of us have some honor whether it’s dormant or not. We have some honor related virtues and attitudes that are just waiting for the right environment to grow, and to flourish, and to be born or reborn.

Brett McKay: I think you’re right and that’s why movies that stir you, like Lord of the Rings, or Braveheart or even anything like The Godfather. Use the example The Godfather, you’re like yeah it’s bad what he’s doing, but I get that and I like that.

Tamler Sommers: You respect that they’re living according to their code and they’re willing to take risks, and they’re willing to risk their life for the family, for their community and although you don’t necessarily embrace the codes, or exactly what it is that they’re fighting for. Just the loyalty that they’re showing and the courage is, yeah we feel really nostalgic for it, because it’s exactly the thing that’s missing in our own lives is the ability to take risks and show loyalty to a community. Demonstrate that kind of loyalty.

If you’re in the military or at a much less serious level, if you play sports that’s one way of doing it, but most people aren’t either of those things. They’re not in the military, they’re not on a team, they’re just doing, they’re just living their lives and they don’t have that community or shared value structure. We still see it just like with these movies, the fact that the Odyssey and the Iliad that we still read them, and we still love them. All the Greek tragedies, Shakespeare plays, these are all just, it’s like our honor receptors get triggered by these things. Then we go back to our regular lives, not in that context anymore and it again stamped down. So that’s the bridge that just needs to happen.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Well Tamler, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Tamler Sommers: Well, so I’ve just developed a new web page, and you can see some of my publications, some of the books that I’ve written. It’s being updated, but that’s a good place to go and then you can follow me on twitter @tamler, you can listen to my podcast so we can maybe start approaching the Art of Manliness and the iTunes rankings, get some of the little vertical honor that might come with that.

Brett McKay: It’s not vertical honor, I thought we decided it wasn’t.

Tamler Sommers: Yeah, it’s not. I don’t know, do you ever look at the rankings you have?

Brett McKay: I do.

Tamler Sommers: Yeah.

Brett McKay: I don’t even know how they determine them.

Tamler Sommers: No it’s like, especially the rankings within the categories but I guess the rankings of the episodes are more determined by downloads with the ranking.

Brett McKay: I look at that.

Tamler Sommers: Yeah, so Very Bad Wizards this is a podcast I do with David Pizarro, who’s a Cornell psychologist. It’s a very informal, often dirty bad language, inappropriate jokes, on issues in moral psychology.

Brett McKay: That’s awesome.

Tamler Sommers: So you can check out that. I guess that’s it.

Brett McKay: Cool. Well Tamler, thank you for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Tamler Sommers: Yeah, thank you. Thank you for having me, it’s been really fun.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Tamler Sommers, he’s the author of the book Why Honors matters, available on and bookstore everywhere. You can also find more information bout his work at, also check out his podcast Very Bad Wizards. Also, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources, read and delve deeper into this topic.

Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast, for more manliness tips and advice, make sure you check out the Art of Manliness website and if you enjoyed the podcast, and got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us reviews on iTunes or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.

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