Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 17, Issue 5, pp 893–911 | Cite as

What Should Realists Say About Honor Cultures?

  • Dan DemetriouEmail author


Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen’s (1996) influential account of “cultures of honor” speculates that honor norms are a socially-adaptive deterrence strategy. This theory has been appealed to by multiple empirically-minded philosophers, and plays an important role in John Doris and Alexandra Plakias’ (2008) antirealist argument from disagreement. In this essay, I raise four objections to the Nisbett-Cohen deterrence thesis, and offer another theory of honor in its place that sees honor as an agonistic normative system regulating prestige competitions. Since my account portrays honor norms as radically different from liberal ones, it actually strengthens Doris and Plakias’ case in some respects: cultures of honor are not merely superficially different from Western liberal ones. Nonetheless, the persistent appeal of honor’s principles, and their moral plausibility in certain contexts, suggests not antirealism, but pluralism—a reply on behalf of realism that itself has considerable empirical support.


Cultural psychology Social psychology Honor cultures Metaethical realism Moral disagreement Pluralism 



Thanks to Mark Collier, Peter Nichols, and two anonymous referees for excellent feedback on earlier drafts of this paper.


  1. Abbott G (2005) Execution. Summersdale Press, West SussexGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson E (1999) Code of the street. Norton, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  3. Appiah K (2010) The honor code: how moral revolutions happen. Norton, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  4. Barnes C et al (2011) Living dangerously: culture of honor, risk-taking, and the non-randomness of ‘accidental’ deaths. Soc Psychol Personal Sci 3(1):100–107CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Baumeister R et al (2010) Consensus statement: a statement of consensus reached among participants at the ‘edge: the new science of morality’ conference., available at
  6. Bell D (2007) The first total war: Napoleon’s Europe and the birth of warfare as we know it. Houghton Mifflin, BostonGoogle Scholar
  7. Benedict R (1934/2005) Patterns of culture. Mariner, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  8. Bloomfield P (2008) Disagreement about disagreement. In: Sinnott-Armstrong W (ed) Moral psychology volume 2, the cognitive science of morality: intuition and diversity. MIT, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  9. Bosson J et al (2009) Precarious manhood and displays of physical aggression. Personal Soc Psychol Bull 35(5):623–634CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bourdieu P (1966) The sentiment of honour in Kabyle Society. In: Peristiany J (ed) Honour and shame: the values of Mediterranean society. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  11. Brennan G, Pettit P (2004) The economy of esteem. Oxford University Press, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Clendinnen I (1985) The cost of courage in Aztec society. Past Present 107:44–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cohen D et al (1999) ‘When you call me that, smile!’: how norms for politeness, interaction styles, and aggression work together in Southern culture. Soc Psychol Q 62(3):257–275CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Collier M (2013) The Humean approach to moral diversity. Scot J Philos 11:41–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cunningham A (2013) Modern honor. Routledge, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  16. Demetriou D (2013) There’s some fetish in your ethics. J Philos Res 38:377–404CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Doris J, Plakias A (2008) How to argue about disagreement: evaluative diversity and moral realism. In: Sinnott-Armstrong W (ed) Moral psychology, volume 2: the cognitive science of morality. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  18. Doris J, Stich S (2005) As a matter of fact: empirical perspectives on ethics. In: Jackson F, Smith M (eds) The Oxford handbook of contemporary philosophy. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  19. Evans-Pritchard E (1940) The Nuer, a description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people. Clarendon, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  20. Fields R (1991) The code of the warrior: in history, myth, and everyday life. Harper Perennial, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  21. Frank R (1985) Choosing the right pond: human behavior and the quest for status. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  22. Fraser B, Hauser M (2010) The argument from disagreement and the role of cross-cultural empirical data. Mind Lang 25(5):540–559CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. French P (2002) Honor, shame, and identity. Public Aff Q 16(1):1–15Google Scholar
  24. French S (2003) Code of the warrior. Rowman and Littlefield, LanhamGoogle Scholar
  25. Gibbard A (1992) Wise choices, apt feelings. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  26. Gilmore D (1990) Manhood in the making. Yale University Press, New HavenGoogle Scholar
  27. Graham S (1998) Honor among slaves. In: Johnson L, Lipsett-Rivera S (eds) The faces of honor. University of New Mexico Press, AlbuquerqueGoogle Scholar
  28. Griffith S (ed) (1963) Introduction, the art of war. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  29. Haft A (1996) The mercurial significance of raiding: baby Hermes and animal theft in contemporary Crete. Arion 4(2):27–48Google Scholar
  30. Haidt J (2012) The righteous mind. Pantheon, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  31. Haidt J, Joseph C (2007) The moral mind: how five sets of innate intuitions guide the development of many culture-specific virtues, and perhaps even modules. In: Carruthers P, Laurence S, Stich S (eds) The innate mind 3. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  32. Herzfeld M (1985) The poetics of manhood: contest and identity in a Cretan mountain village. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  33. Hicks F (1979) Flowery war in Aztec history. Am Ethnol 6(1):87–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Horowitz R, Schwartz G (1974) Honor, normative ambiguity and gang violence. Am Sociol Rev 39(2):238–251Google Scholar
  35. Huizinga J (1950) Homo Ludens. Routledge and Kegan Paul, LondonGoogle Scholar
  36. Iliffe J (2005) Honor in African history. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  37. Jacobs A (1979) Maasai inter-tribal relations: belligerent herdsmen or peaceable pastoralists? In: Fukui K, Minzokugaku Hakubutsukan K (eds) Warfare among East African herders. National Museum of Ethnology, OsakaGoogle Scholar
  38. Johnson L (2009) Thomas Hobbes: turning point for honor. Lexington, LanhamGoogle Scholar
  39. Jones GF (2000) Honor bright: honor in western literature. Frederic C. Bell, SavannahGoogle Scholar
  40. Krause S (2002) Liberalism with honor. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  41. Lebow RN (2010) Why nations fight: past and future motives for war. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Leiter B (2008) Against convergent moral realism: the respective roles of philosophical argument and empirical evidence. In: Sinnott-Armstrong W (ed) Moral psychology volume 2, the cognitive science of morality: intuition and diversity. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  43. Loland S (2002) Fair play in sport: a moral norm system. Routledge, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  44. McHardy S (2004) School of the moon: the highland cattle-raiding tradition. Birlinn, EdinburgGoogle Scholar
  45. Montesquieu C (1989) Spirit of the laws (trans: Cohler et al.). Cambridge University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  46. Nietzsche F (1966) What is noble. In: Kaufmann W (ed) Beyond good and evil. Random House, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  47. Nisbett R, Cohen D (1996) Culture of honor: the psychology of violence in the south. Westview Press, BoulderGoogle Scholar
  48. Nisbett R (2003) Geography of thought. Simon and Schuster, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  49. Nozick R (1974) Anarchy, state, and utopia. Basic Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  50. O’Neill B (2001) Honor, symbols, and war. University of Michigan Press, Ann ArborGoogle Scholar
  51. Olsthoorn P (2014) Honor in moral and political philosophy. SUNY Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  52. Peristiany JG (1966) Honor and shame: the values of Mediterranean society. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  53. Pettit P (1997) Freedom with honor: a republican ideal. Soc Res 64(1):52–76Google Scholar
  54. Pitt-Rivers J (1966) Honour and social status. In: Peristiany J (ed) Honour and shame: the values of Mediterranean society. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  55. Plakias A (2013) The good and the gross. Ethical Theory Moral Pract 6(2):261–278CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Prinz J (2007) The emotional construction of morals. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  57. Rachels J (1986/2003) The challenge of cultural relativism. In: Rachels J (ed) Elements of moral philosophy. McGraw-Hill, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  58. Rawls J (1971) A theory of justice. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  59. Rhodes R (2012) Heroes great and small: the rebirth of honor (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation). Available:
  60. Robinson P (2006) Military honour and the conduct of war: from ancient Greece to Iraq. Routledge, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  61. Rodriguez Mosquera P et al (2002) Honor in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. J Cross-Cult Psychol 33(1):16–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Rozin P et al (1999) The CAD hypothesis: a mapping between three moral emotions (contempt, anger disgust) and three moral codes (community, autonomy, divinity). J Pers Soc Psychol 76(4):574–586CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Schneider J (1971) Of vigilance and virgins: honor, shame, and access to resources in Mediterranean societies. Ethnology 10(1):1–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Scott W (1814/1972) Waverly. Penguin, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  65. Sessions L (2004) Sportsmanship as honor. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 31(1):47–59Google Scholar
  66. Sessions L (2010) Honor for us. Continuum, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  67. Shweder R et al (1997) The ‘big three’ of morality (autonomy, community, divinity) and the ‘big three’ explanations of suffering. In: Brandt M, Rozin P (eds) Morality and health. Routledge, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  68. Singh S (1965) Ancient Indian warfare: with special reference to the Vedic period. Motilal Bararsidass, DelhiGoogle Scholar
  69. Smith E et al (1994) Inuit sex-ratio variation: population control, ethnographic error, or parental manipulation? Curr Anthropol 35(5):595–624CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Sneddon A (2009) Normative ethics and the prospects of an empirical contribution to the assessment of moral disagreement and moral realism. J Value Inq 43:447–455CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Sommers T (2008) The two faces of revenge: moral responsibility and the culture of honor. Biol Philos 24:35–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Sommers T (2012) Relative justice. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  73. Stewart JH (1994) Honor. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  74. Street S (2006) A Darwinian dilemma for realist theories of value. Philos Stud 127(1):109–166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Toch H (1969) Violent men. Aldine, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  76. Trungpa C (1988) Shambhala: the sacred path of the warrior. Shambhala, BostonGoogle Scholar
  77. Twain M (1883/2009) Life on the Mississippi. Signet, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  78. Vandello J, Cohen D (2003) Male honor and female fidelity: implicit cultural scripts that perpetuate domestic violence. J Pers Soc Psychol 84(5):997–1010CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Vandello J et al (2008) Precarious manhood. J Pers Soc Psychol 95(6):1325–1339CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Walzer M (1977) Just and unjust wars. Basic Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  81. Welsh A (2008) What is honor? Yale University Press, New HavenGoogle Scholar
  82. Wilson JL (1838) The code of honor; or rules for the government of principals and seconds in dueling. Available:

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Minnesota, MorrisMorrisUSA

Personalised recommendations