Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

85. Treasuring Honour

Note: This post is the eighty-fifth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

I've spent the last week thinking about what is meant by 'honour' - it's not as easy to describe as some of the other guardian precepts such as 'be obedient' or 'dispense largesse' and this might be a bit of a muddled post due to the lack of clear understanding on my part.

At any rate, looking at the Wikipedia entry for 'honour' it covers a wide range of topics, with a relationship to the guardian syndrome seeming to be the only common thread. After thinking about it for a while, the common thread that I came back to was similar to Wikipedia starts with, "Honour is the evaluation of a person's social status as judged by that individual's community."

After thinking about it for a while, I came back to 'Systems of Survival' and was reminded that Jane Jacobs had gone through a similar thought process,

"I put [honour] last .. because it's such a catchall. What does 'honour' mean? It's not honesty, with which it's often vulgarly confused. 'On my word of honour' can solemnize almost anything, including a promise to cover up the truth, or to lie if pressed. Even children know that. 'Honour among thieves' is not an oxymoron.

...consider what, if anything, the following have in common: the members of a monarch's annual honours list, students in a high school honours course; recipients of honourable discharges, honoraria, honorary degrees, and honourable mentions in competitions; bearers of honorifics such as the Honourable Member, the Honourable Penelope So-and-so, the daughter of a titled aristocrat, an honourary chairman, and His Honour, the mayor?

It comes clear once we recognize what dictionaries themselves tell us. Honour is recognition of status and the respect owed to status. It's much the same as 'face' in China.

Here is the crux, for either honour of face. The respect is owed, and the self-respect earned, because honour implies moral obligations, and it's possession certifies that the obligations attached to a position - whatever they may be - are honourably fulfilled."

We know that the Guardian syndrome is hierarchical, and that the hierarchy gives those on top power over those below and we saw how this can be mitigated by the precept of 'dispense largesse'. Honour serves as another bulwark against abuse of power by those at the top of the hierarchy. Those below don't have the power to affect the comfort or convenience of those above, but they do have some power to bestow or to withhold honours from their leaders.

The wording of the precept by Jane Jacobs, not 'Be honourable', but 'Treasure Honour' is interesting. It almost makes 'honour' sound like a quantity to be accumulated or hoarded, in the same manner that an avaricious person would treasure treasure.

The conclusion I'm led to is that, in somewhat the same manner that 'comfort and convenience' serves as the end goal for the Commercial Syndrome, the accumulation of honour serves as the goal for guardians. I say 'somewhat' because 'comfort and convenience' is the end goal for the commercial syndrome, while for the guardian syndrome honour is a personal goal for the guardians themselves - something that will keep them working towards the end goal of the guardian syndrome (the common good?).

It makes me think back to Howard Margolis' 'Fair Share model' in which people try to maximize two functions, one which represents their personal welfare and one which measures the welfare of the social group they are part of.

Still, trying to come up with an analytically workable definition of honour is difficult. It seems that honour increases with the level of power/status obtained and decreases to the extent that any abuse of that power or failure to use the power successfully (i.e. losing a war) takes place. Now all we need to do is measure all of those things accurately!

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