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.


  1. Thanks for that post---didn't know about that Kristol essay. I tend to think aristocratic honor---abstracting away from its martial bits, but keeping the competitive aspect---is compatible and supportive of a liberal society in many ways. For instance, it seems to me that it can provide a powerful impetus for the rich to voluntarily support social causes, as Aristotle thought it should. And it may also provide executives with a motivation to avoid anti-competitive practices, since honor can only be won in the market if the market is competitive.

    Maybe I'm not being deep enough, but it seems clear that the honor-minded person would be deeply committed to liberty. Without it, how can you choose which competitions to engage in, where you can compete for honor? Honor-minded people also tend to care more about their informal rules they hold each other to than do they rules imposed from the outside. Wouldn't they naturally chafe at laws that limit how they compete--laws designed to promote 1) safety (think steroid bans or helmet-to-helmet tackle rules), or 2) equality (forcing them to let in/keep some member they don't respect)? I don't know that liberty has an intrinsic value on this type of honor, but it has a very strong instrumental, I would think?

    --Dan Demetriou

  2. "...instrumental value." Sorry.

  3. I think Tocqueville's main concern definitely is the effect that equality has on honor, and he actually sees liberty (the "virile" love of liberty) as somewhat of an antidote. Kristol's article does get there to a certain extent when discussing the love of liberty expressed in the desire for self-government. I think he's saying that if we can focus on that, we will not sink into the conformism, materialism, mediocrity, and potential despotism that Tocqueville feared.