Honor – Definitions and Meditations

I have no idea why the idea bubbled up, other than my wondering how, exactly, one would define “caddish” behavior in modern terms. Those of us who have read books written during Victorian times, or patterned off of those, recognize a cad when we see one in action. “Sleezy” doesn’t work, because caddish behavior did not necessarily imply that the man’s manner was unctuous, slimy, and somewhat dirty. There’s a sense of disrespect at a fundamental level by the cad for his cad’s victim, and an unwillingness to accept responsibility. Like another famous definition, those who read/imprinted on Victorian-era books “know it when I see it.”

Which then led me to thinking about honor, and the different kinds of honor. One is primarily external, and often involves group behavior. The other is far more internal and individual.  They are not exclusive, and a person can have both kinds of honor. The blog post below, by a clinical psychiatrist who used to blog as Dr. Sanity, has a very nice “matrix” of the two kinds.


Dr. Sanity used the terms “guilt culture and shame culture.” I’ve also seen the “shame culture” described as “primal honor,” the honor of the code duello, and the Southern Cult of Honor (see the book Honor and the Old South by Bertram Wyatt-Brown). Shame-based codes of honor focus on “how do others see me?” If an action will make others view you poorly, you don’t do it. If no one knows? Not so much of a problem. So if your daughter flirting with a boy from outside your social group makes you look weak, you punish her, because others will talk. If you steal from your employer and no one notices, then it’s not a problem (as long as you are not caught, of course.)

Guilt culture is more internalized. You conduct is between you and . . . Your deity, your personal moral standards, whatever you use as a guide. Even if no one knows, you still will, and so you act or keep from acting. Some sociologists and psychologists say that internalized honor is a more “advanced” behavior than is external honor. I don’t know enough to argue one way or another. And it is often a continuum, depending on the individual, the culture, and the situation.

In a very, very broad sense, shame culture is found in Asia and Islamic cultures, while guilt culture is found in Jewish and Christian cultures. I say very, very broad, because once you start picking at things, you can easily find shame culture in Christian societies, especially those that came from the old Roman Empire (Spain, Italy, Portugal, the Balkans, and thence Latin America).

But not always. Self-control in the sense of not “losing one’s cool” and showing dramatic anger is associated with guilt culture, but then think about the scene in the Godfather when the (impulsive, stupid, and soon to be deceased) character barges in on the main character as the main character is dining. They are both Sicilians. Same culture. But the viewer knows who is in control – not the guy shouting and waving his hands.

Over the decades I picked up on the guilt-culture concept of honor. It probably suits my personality better, although which came first is something that could be argued for hours, probably. This led to some awkward moments over the years, and some rewarding moments. Today, having a strong sense of internalized honor is sometimes denigrated as stuck-up, repressed, good-goody, “too devout” [your guess is as good as mine on that one. I didn’t feel like staying around to ask questions about her personal systematic theology], and in some circles “too white.” I went to a college with an iron-clad honor code, and watched a few people get expelled for honor code violations. It wasn’t pretty. We all knew the rules, and the vast majority of us agreed to live by those rules because them made life better for us as a group. No one could say that they didn’t know the penalties for lying, cheating, or theft.

You don’t hear the word used much anymore. Honor of any kind seems to be out of favor in the mass media, where “authenticity” and “cultural relativism” and “follow your happiness” are more important than not hurting one’s fellow man. I remember the “if it feels good, do it” phase in pop-culture. That hasn’t worked so well, looking back over the last decades. There are problems with either kind of honor, some that affect the individual, some that affect society. I’d prefer to live in a guilt-culture than a shame-culture. That’s how I try to operate. Self-control, acting properly when no one else is around . . .

Just ignore the chocolate in my desk drawer. It is only for emergencies. And besides, I can stop any time. 😉

29 thoughts on “Honor – Definitions and Meditations

  1. Cultural relativism means that no one has any moral right to object to you choosing to exterminate an alien culture.

    Likewise ‘follow your happiness’. If 1619 is correct, so also authenticity.

  2. Should v Ought, eh?

    My take is that a Shame culture is weaker against sins of commission, but stronger against sins of omission.
    And Vice Versa Guilt culture.

    That’s because man is not a rational creature, but a rationalizing one.
    The goad of “what if someone sees me” can be rationalized away by “nobody is going to see me”, or worse “even if someone did, they wouldn’t dare disrespect me by telling”.
    OTOH, it’s easy to come up with reasons why you couldn’t have done something you ought have. It’s much more difficult to convince witnesses, or people you let down.

    *Most* of the time, I think guilt culture is preferable.
    That said, I’d love to see Mike Fink pound the snot out of David French.

  3. Protestant culture is primarily guilt (or were, before Cultural Marxism). Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish cultures are a mix of guilt and shame. The rest of the world is shame, with occasional (exceptional) individuals who internalize guilt.

    • For Catholic, at least, the shame aspect is actually guilt– because of the obligation to not lead people astray or scandalize them. It’s an additional sin on top of whatever you already did wrong.

      So, to sin in such a way as to lead others to sin is a guilt you must bear, difference between that and shame is it’s bad even if everybody says it’s cool.

  4. *snaps fingers*

    Internal vs External honor!

    I’ve been thinking on this since I first read that article by Dr. Sanity, and just now crystalized into a shorthand that may actually get through!

  5. I believe that excessive concern about what-will-people-think arises in a closed environment where you are going to be dealing with the same set of people for years or decades or even the rest of your life…environments such as a traditional village or employment with a company or university or government agency where there are really no alternative jobs for what you are doing.

    And social media turns the entire world into a sort of village, where something you said 30 years ago can easily come back to haunt or destroy you.

      • Yes. Twitter, in particular, is effectively a slander machine. FB is also bad but not quite as bad as Twitter.

        A Soviet WWII attack pilot named Anna Timofeeva-Egorova wrote a very good memoir. From her childhood, she remembered her mother’s prayers….”kneeling before the icons, as she firstly listed all our names, the names of her children, begging God for health and wisdom for us, and then at the end of each prayer repeating: ‘God save them from slander!’ Back then in my childhood, I didn’t understand that word…” but after her brother was arrested as an Enemy of the People, she understood.

        I reviewed the book here:


        • The one that I hadn't even heard of was “detraction.”

          Which is basically “making folks think badly of another for insufficiently just and merciful reasons — even if it’s true.”

          Which is most of gossip. Yeah, there’s important things where folks Need To Know– say, you’re proposed wife #6, and the nosy neighbor lady quietly takes you aside and asks if you know about X, Y and Z for the guy who is proposing to you. Vs the more standard “aow, my ghaaaawd! Becky, did you hear about (scandalous claim)?!”

          *A* way to tell the difference is reaction of the informer if the informee goes “yes. I know that. He told me.”

          If they’re disappointed, it’s probably gossip. If they’re relived and/or want to make sure you understand the risks involved but are not unhappy you know of the issue, it’s probably not detraction.


          I wasn’t taught the word as a kid, but I did get lectured up one side and down the other about how evil it is to abuse the truth for the purpose of causing harm, especially causing unjust harm.

            • ‘s actually kinda juicy, it’s a mortal sin to abuse the truth to cause harm.


              Detraction (from Lat. detrahere, to take away) is the unjust damaging of another’s good name by the revelation of some fault or crime of which that other is really guilty or at any rate is seriously believed to be guilty by the defamer. An important difference between detraction and calumny is at once apparent. The calumniator says what he knows to be false, whilst the detractor narrates what he at least honestly thinks is true. Detraction in a general sense is a mortal sin, as being a violation of the virtue not only of charity but also of justice.

              This actually makes the English slander laws make some sort of sense, if you assume they’re more focused on intent than stuff that is easier to prove.

              ….note, still think they’re WRONG, but they make sense.

  6. That’s how I try to operate. Self-control, acting properly when no one else is around . . .

    Just ignore the chocolate in my desk drawer. It is only for emergencies.

    Gave up sweets for Lent this year. It’s fascinating how the training to have that little thing of “but I promised” running in the back of your head works like a muscle– use to be, I didn’t even try the “it’s Sunday, you can have what you gave up” thing, because I knew I couldn’t do it. Now, I can, and I keep remembering I gave up sweets BEFORE I reach for them on the shelf!

    (Yes, I’ve done coffee, several times over the years. Yes, I did it honest, including switching to herbal tea for the morning something-warm, and didn’t drink caffeinated sodas, and only had one day of minor headache that may have been unrelated. No, it did not go well, people around me noticed I was not waking up any faster, nor sleeping any better, at the end of the 40s days than at the beginning. For simple quality of life for those around me, Not Doing That Again.)

    • Lots of studies that chocolate, and indeed coffee, are medicinal.

      The lack of such studies regarding bacon are obviously an example of funding bias.

  7. Interesting post and thought provoking. Taking that to the next step, I ‘think’ the military operated/es on a shame culture. The ‘public’ formations for both praise (promotion/medals) and punishment ‘usually’ gets the point across.

    • Very few men will advance against machine guns while alone.
      Military courage is part shame of being thought a coward or a shirker, and part guilt/fear of not doing your best and maybe letting your buddies down. The more experienced you are (generally), the more it is guilt instead of shame.

  8. I was thinking of posting this yesterday for a different topic: https://youtu.be/4IBegL_V6AA . It’s Jordan Peterson more or less interviewing Jonathan Haidt, who summarizes the experience that led him to Moral Foundations Theory. That ‘theory’ identifies the difference between Left and Right. Haidt goes on to show that the Left now is betraying their own foundations as mobs form, creating a tribal culture.

    This is relevant because shame is a social cohesion mechanism, important for maintaining a hunter gatherer band, a tribe or a clan. Duty is a more internal value, but to the same purpose.

    (I read the guilt/shame essay years ago. Good stuff.)

  9. Reblogged this on Head Noises and commented:
    Timely meditation on honor, and self control– which feeds into a well formed conscience.

    Told you it was timely.

    Plus, I’m just delighted to have a way to explain “shame vs guilt” in honor terms– shame is external honor, guilt is internal. Reality matters for the latter, other folks’ belief for the second.

    • Which feeds into the existence of cancel culture, because if you’re a postmodernist, reality doesn’t exist, per se.

            • You only need the audio … but if you can’t manage it, read Haidt’s =The Righteous Mind=.

              Brief summary: Conservatives recognize and honor six moral foundations (or five, or seven, depending on exactly where you draw the lines). Liberals recognize only Equality and Care/Harm Prevention. Conservatives also recognize Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty. Thus, eg., a conservative’s moral concerns are read on the Left as attempting to enslave women. Liberals don’t/can’t/won’t believe that conservatives mean what they say The only thing that could motivate a liberal is a desire to enslave others, and so they are sure that is the conservative intent.

              And yet, Haidt points to the way that Leftists on campus bond together, creating chants and swaying together to intimidate not only conservatives but also faculty and administrations trying to preserve free speech on campus. They are engaging in the Sanctity/Degradatin/Disgust motivation that they refuse to believe in The more loudly they condemn, the more their behavior apes the tribal religion.

              This is also linked to Postmodernism. (Peterson’s point here.) The PoMo creed holds that object truth does not exist (and the creed is held as truth absolute). Instead, there is only power, and people speak in the interest of the intersecting groups to which they belong. This implies that individuals exist only as manifestations of the power interests of groups, and thus that individual rights are meaningless, and free speech is meaningless, and from this follows the conflation of violence and speech. Haidt then notes that under civilization, the State holds a monopoly on violence (with varying exceptions for self-defense, etc.) and this confation puts at risk State sovereignty, popular sovereignty, and any notion of ordered liberty under law.

  10. Only partially formed thought: I’m thinking there’s an interrelationship between internal and external rule enforcement and proscriptive vs restrictive rules – do this, this and this vs. don’t do that or that.

    At the national level we have the US Constitution with its list of things the Federal government can’t do, about which Barry complained that it was just negative rights and so somehow defective as such. I know the places where their constitution is a shopping list of “positive rights” detailing what the government should do end up being solidly in the hellhole class of locales.

    Still thinking it through though…

  11. On an SF Note, Lois McMaster Bujold has one of her characters, Aral Vorkosigan, make this “useful distinction”, in “A Civil Campaign” : “Reputation Is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself”. I would personally amend that to “think” rather than, “know”, but I still find it a useful one.

  12. My internal definition of honor has always been something like Bujold’s. As someone else put it, “Honor is what lets you look yourself in the eye every morning in the mirror.”

    I once broke off a budding relationship when I realized that his definition was, “Honor is the excuse teenage gangstas give for shooting each other.” No more, no less. Ending that relationship was the right choice, as later events confirmed.

    Is our current “cancel culture” serving as a way to quickly and forcibly shift the US from a dominant guilt culture to a dominant shame culture? Is that someone’s intent?

    • “Is our current “cancel culture” serving as a way to quickly and forcibly shift the US from a dominant guilt culture to a dominant shame culture? Is that someone’s intent?”

      Partly, yes. Everything the Left does in in service to power. A malefactor cannot influence a virtuous person’s honor. They can, however, publicly shame them. Shame is a weapon.

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