Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Kristol's Take on Honor in Democracies

Last week I read an article by William Kristol from 1984: "Liberty, Equality, Honor," in Social Philosophy and Policy. In the first part of the article, he takes on a couple of the biggies that everyone had to deal with at that time, Rawls and Nozick. Most of his article deals, however, with the question of whether or not democracy's core values of liberty and equality are compatible with honor, or as he puts it, "Could liberty and equality perhaps be understood as honorable?" He then proceeds to deal with some of the thinkers I've tackled in the past few years--Hobbes, Locke, and (now) Tocqueville.

First, what Kristol has to say about Hobbes and Locke:

"If honor seems to lack interpretation today, the reason can surely be traced back to its repudiation in the thought of those modern political philosophers who laid the groundwork for our belief in equality and liberty. Hobbes's egalitarianism led him to debunk honor, reducing it to 'the opinion of power' and asserting that it does not alter the case of honor, whether an just or unjust.' Locke's liberalism seems to leave room for a discussion of honor only in the context of explaining the Biblical injunction to honor they father and they mother.... As for Locke, his inattention to honor follows from the primacy of the necessity of human appropriation, given the virtual worthlessness of the materials provided by nature or God."

My first book on this topic was on Hobbes and honor, tracing Hobbes's debunking of honor in detail, and discussing the ramifications of his (and generally liberalism's) rejection of honor in favor of self-preservation. My second book dealt with Locke and Rousseau, and again I traced in detail the liberal turn in Locke away from honor as a warlike value in favor of equality, contractualism, and the pursuit of worldly comfort. Probably the reason why I have pursued some of the questions that Kristol raises here has to do with a mutual inspiration. In the comparison of ancients and moderns that Strauss developed, we are able to see not just the strengths but the considerable flaws in modern political thought.

Kristol then turns to Tocqueville, because Tocqueville as an outside observer of the 19th Century American scene could see both sides of this divide, and addressed directly the very question that Kristol raises and that I have been exploring and want to explore further -- is there any honor to be found in the American democratic system?

"Yet Tocqueville found that there did exist an American conception of honor; and the American Founders, who established a regime based on the principles of equality and liberty, did not entirely shun the term, or the notion, of honor. Is there--or can there be--an 'American' understanding of liberty and equality that makes it possible to think--and not simply in a wishful or edifying way--of equality and liberty in conjunction with a certain (democratic and liberal) notion of honor?"

Kristol seems to think that Tocqueville provides a path to democratic honor, a way to transcend (not to leave behind but to go beyond) the so-called "bourgeois virtues" that are based on rational self-interest to something more solid (because, as we see, rational self-interest does not necessarily lead to agreement on values or support stability in areas such as business, family life, education, etc.). Kristol gets from Tocqueville that "the task of self-government" itself "is honorable." I am still evaluating whether that is true, and if so, whether it is enough. It is not clear to me yet that this is Tocqueville's message, but it may well be. If so, does it serve, as the old aristocratic honor did, as a source of self-control, sense of responsibility and obligation? I am not sure.

There is much left to do and I am more excited than ever about my current project.