A Brief Account of Honor

By Varian Tippens

Earlier this semester the Introduction to Philosophy class I’m in discussed the concept of Citizen Solidarity. The idea is that there ought to be a norm in society whereby citizens show a default presumption in favor of one another over the state, with regard to all manner of non-violent, civil affairs. This manifests in two ways. First, citizens exhaust all possible options to handle matters of civil conflict without involving the state — e.g calling the police. The easiest example of this happens frequently — suppose you see someone smoking a cigarette where it is prohibited. The smell may be revolting to you, but to manifest citizen solidarity would be to first tolerate this discomfort or disgust and move along, but not to call security. Second, citizens assist their fellow citizens in avoiding the state whenever possible. If a cop is lying in wait as a speed trap and you see your fellow citizen speeding, heading toward it, solidarity with him dictates that you would flash your headlights, warning him of the impending state-agent, and allowing him to escape the trap.

Citizen solidarity is a way to maintain a healthy space between the governing and governed. To manifest a presumption in favor of one’s fellow citizen keeps the state out of civil life unless absolutely necessary, and it is precisely when this fails to obtain that a state meets one criterion for being tyrannical.

Now, the class broadly agreed with instantiating the norm qua citzens and qua students, and I do as well. But a month later I was walking with two other students to a nearby parking lot — where nobody would reasonably be forced to wade through a cloud of smoke — and pulled out a Parliament to enjoy, while we were conversing about midterm essay topics. As luck would have it, an older woman was walking by, saw my cancer stick, stopped, and ordered us declaratively, “You can’t smoke here. You have to go off campus.” The three of us perched up, having been warned of such a situation, and — I’m embarrassed to say — froze. Without standing up for the ideas in class, I just said, “okay,” and we walked off.

When this happened, the three of us experienced disappointment and a sense of helplessness, for she ordered us to move along instead of speaking with us like people, and we just took it, despite our conviction in the importance of citizen solidarity, and our knowledge that she was in the wrong, here. Our weakness of will was reflected in a sense of helplessness and a side of disempowerment. Her palpable satisfaction in having her command obeyed was especially frustrating.

I can’t speak for the other students, but the reason why I was froze was because I am well aware of the punitive disposition that University Administrations have toward their subordinates. Earlier that day, I was reading about the events transpiring at University of California, Santa Cruz, where impoverished and underpaid graduate students are striking for a minimally decent standard of living. Were I to be jettisoned from this University right now, I would immediately transition from PhD student to homeless beggar.

Later that evening we talked about what had happened. One of the students defended what we did, saying that talking back and expressing our resentment at her for treating us as things to be ordered and not things to be reasoned with would have done more harm than good — its just not worth it. The other student took the approach of explaining why we had scampered off — the risk of disciplinary action or a $250 fine is too great for students like us, who lack resources. I suggested that we had made a mistake, and that we should have asked her to consider the question of whether her decision to enforce such a petty rule is something she should ever do, given that she’s our fellow campus citizen and not a security officer. Had she refused to engage us in conversation about this issue, then we could rightfully tell her to fuck herself as we walked away with heads held high, with honor.

Some things are valuable as means, and others as ends in themselves. The latter are those things that are valuable for their own sake. They are valuable in our having them, or in their obtaining in the world. People, relationships, and freedoms are all valuable for their own sake. 

Means, on the other hand, are valuable as tools to help us obtain ends. The most obvious — and perhaps most powerful means in the United States — is money and material objects. Being a billionaire is valuable not for its own sake, but because such resources afford you the ability to take care of people, maintain and cultivate relationships, and enact your freedoms. But if you had all the money in the world it wouldn’t matter if people want nothing to do with you, and you couldn’t manifest freedom of expression or association. Wealth doesn’t matter if you have no valuable ends.

Someone who has honor recognizes this simple yet profound point, and acts on the presumption that ends are the sources of value, and means are to be traded for them. When an end is threatened, she stands in defense of it regardless of the means she may have to give up. When she has an end, she cherishes it, and displays joy and pride in their manifestation. We recognize someone with honor by these facts. Such an individual has reflected on and answered the question of which end(s) he would be willing to trade all of his means for. He has a definitive answer to the question of what he would be willing to endure homelessness, prison, or death for. As illustrated by dystopian literature, mere biological survival in itself is not an end.

But of course everyone has traded ends for means at some point throughout their lives. Most students don’t choose to go to college, it is a requirement given the job market. In order to make money, we sacrifice some freedom. If you agree not to use certain phrases or words in order to get a job, you sacrifice expressive freedom for job security. A reasonable principle is that if everyone does this, then prima facie making such a trade isn’t wrong. Indeed, one might think this is a constraint on moral evaluation.

But it is not ubiquitous practice to trade every end for mere means, though certainly some people have done this. It is plausible to think that this is the deal a tyrant makes, or perhaps a ruthless CEO of a large company. To trade all ends is a grave mistake, though to trade some is not. What I suggest, then, is a modest conception of honor. The individual who we describe as having honor is one who is willing to sacrifice all means for at least one end. This may be a person, a relationship, or some freedom. But the honorable individual is uncompromising with regard to something of intrinsic value. 

It is well known that in Sparta, male children around age seven were given up by their families in order to undergo the rigorous training and education of the agoge, where they would learn combat techniques but also be taught to protect one thing that Spartan’s considered an end — the state. One way of conceiving of this, though I’m not certain of it, is that the Spartan children were taught that to protect the state is to protect the people one cares about. Surely people are ends in themselves, and so once these children developed and defended their country in warfare, they demonstrated their honor; they were willing to sacrifice one of the most tempting means to conserve — survival — for the end of the state. This was considered a condition of citizenship, and only citizens had the power to contribute to the decision-making of the state.

In the United States, mere birth is a sufficient condition for citizenship, and there is certainly no requirement that politicians prove a sense of honor before being elected into power. I worry about this, though, because it is precisely when someone has no honor that the governed have no assurances that they won’t use their power to trade our ends, for possession of their own mere means.

I’m convinced that Rod Serling saw the importance of honor in an individual and society, for he forcefully asserts in his popular series that if one has no honor, and gives up his integrity, he may find himself in the Twilight Zone.

(This episode can also be found on Netflix)

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