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Two of a kind: Are norms of honor a species of morality?

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Should the norms of honor cultures be classified as a variety of morality? In this paper, we address this question by considering various empirical bases on which norms can be taxonomically organised. This question is of interest both as an exercise in philosophy of social science, and for its potential implications in meta-ethical debates. Using recent data from anthropology and evolutionary game theory, we argue that the most productive classification emphasizes the strategic role that moral norms play in generating assurance and stabilizing cooperation. Because honor norms have a similar functional role, this account entails honor norms are indeed a variety of moral norm. We also propose an explanation of why honor norms occur in a relatively unified, phenotypically distinctive cluster, thereby explaining why it is tempting to regard them as taxonomically distinct.

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  1. Note that we use the terms “norms of honor”, “honor codes”, and “honor norms” interchangeably. Similarly, we make no distinction between “morality” and “moral norms” for present purposes.

  2. Leung and Cohen (2011) distinguish three types of culture: honor, dignity, and face. The culture of face is, like an honor culture, highly concerned about socially onferred status, and many socially important behaviors are motivated primarily by emotions of pride and shame, rather than by conscience and guilt. Here we effectively treat the concerns of face cultures as a species of honor norms, and do not attempt the analytic task of distinguishing the primary norms of the two. That said, Leung and Cohen suggest a key difference between honor and face cultures is that the social hierarchy is steeper, more pronounced, and relatively stable in a face culture, whereas honor cultures are relatively egalitarian. When we restrict our focus to cultures that defend honor with violence, we appear to have converged on a very similar understanding as Leung and Cohen, because the use of violence is likely a symptom of an unstable status hierarchy.

  3. For a wide-ranging discussion of the variety of different honor cultures and codes, see Tamler Sommers Why Honor Matters (2018).

  4. The relationship between “morality”, descriptively defined, and “morality”, normatively understood, takes us into fraught meta-ethical debates which we dare not enter at present. Suffice to say we think there is some relation between the two, and this is part of why we think the present project has interest for debates about moral realism. But for all we say here, it is possible the descriptive definition is entirely irrelevant to the normative understanding.

  5. See also Brennan et al. (2013) and O’Neill (2018, Sect. 3). Southwood (2011) uses the terms “practice-dependent” and “practice-independent” in a somewhat more subtle way—distinguishing them from conditionality/unconditionality by referring to what grounds the normative judgment that such-and-such should be done. According to Southwood, a normative judgment is practice-dependent just in case it appears to the judging agent that a social practice plays a non-derivative role in justifying acting in accordance with a corresponding principle (p. 778). While this strategy has some evident attractions for distinguishing the moral from the conventional in comparison with alternative proposals, for our purposes we can treat it along with other proposals relating to the motivational force of norms. We also register some concern that this criterion is both highly individualistic and introspective: it turns on how the justification of a norm appears to a given individual. We suspect for purposes of explaining social phenomena, a concept like this unlikely to be particularly fruitful on this point, see Gaus (2014).

  6. Bicchieri (2006) discusses two categories of non-conditional norms: personal norms and moral norms. Personal norms, for instance how one takes their tea, do not concern us here.

  7. See O’Neill (2018) for a recent review.

  8. On this point see: Joyce (2006), Gavrilets and Richerson (2017) and Stanford (2018).

  9. Of course, there are norms for which there seems a good case to categorise them either as a norm of honor or as a moral norm. Keeping promises for instance, may sound like a moral norm, but what about swearing an oath, which is usually construed as a matter of honor? Any attempt to distinguish honor and morality on the basis of content would need to adjudicate such cases, but because we think this approach ultimately unsatisfactory, we will leave the matter unresolved. See Scanlon (1998, 323–326) for an attempt to make good the distinction between promises, which are entered into freely, and oaths made on the basis of honor. Although both are related to assurance in some way, Scanlon argues that the first create specifically moral obligations, while the second are related to aretaic values, but not distinctly moral obligations.

  10. There is good reason to think violence is frequently “moralistic” in the sense that it is committed to achieve what is seen as a moral goal (Black 1983). Fiske and Rai (2014) argue moral motivation is actually essential to the vast majority of violent behaviour. Nonetheless, we suppress these concerns at present for the sake of testing the hypothesis that morality and honor can be distinguished along these lines.

  11. There are any number of examples of this in the history of moral philosophy. Kant (1785) argues in the first lines of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals that nothing can be called “good” without qualification except the “good will,” which is aimed at the moral law, not personal benefit. More generally, Baier (1954, 104–105) argues that to act from the “moral point of view” is to act on the basis of principle or distinctively moral reasons. Whatever “moral” principles and reasons are, they are not merely prudential. Even if prudence is the ultimate foundation and justification of morality (e.g., Gauthier 1986; Moehler 2018), the moral norms are not identical with prudential norms.

  12. Obviously, norms can be stupid, inefficient, and fail to serve any useful purpose—our claims about the functions of these norms should not be taken to imply that we neglect that possibility. On “bad norms” see Brennan et al. (2013, Chapter 8), Abbink et al. (2017) and Thrasher (2018). But at the same time, many norms clearly do serve functions that may be of individual and social benefit.

  13. The principal competitor to MAC at time of writing is Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), developed by Graham et al. (2011, 2013). Compared to MFT, MAC has a clearer rationale for what it would take to identify a new domain of moral thinking. Although the general theory motivating MFT is evolutionary, in practice its proponents have relied heavily on factor analysis of survey responses to questions like “Is the following factor relevant to whether or not a given behaviour is moral” to identify moral domains, but such a process is highly sensitive to the inventory of questionnaire items used. MAC uses a similar methodology, but is more explicit and consistent in its evolutionary criterion guiding the development of the questionnaire items. More work needs to be done showing the links between the empirical data in MFT and the underlying theory, and there are questions about the replicability and robustness of MFT cross culturally (Curry et al. 2019a; Purzycki et al. 2018). For these reasons, MAC is a better basis for our inquiry, though it too is almost certainly not the final word on these matters. In recent work using US populations, Davis (unpublished manuscript) has found further evidence that folk use of the term “moral” is inconsistent with understanding morality in terms of distinctive content or force of norms, and is consistent with the more pluralistic domains of morality associated with either MAC or MFT.

  14. Another alternative is that honor norms form a cluster whose unity is explained by common ancestry (Millikan 1999). But we find this implausible in the present case, given evidence that honor cultures arise spontaneously in the right environmental circumstances. One example is the US prison system, especially in states like California and Texas, where dramatic growth of the prison population has put traditional norms of prison behaviour under stress, and led to the emergence of gang organisations that are particularly florid examples of honor culture (Skarbek 2014).

  15. It is perhaps no surprise then that honor norms and honor language are still commonly used in explicitly martial contexts.

  16. Although we argue honour norms are functionally “pro-social”, the norms themselves may require or allow what is typically considered “anti-social” and violent behaviour. But, as we have already argued, a considerable amount of violence is done is “moralistic” in one way or another (Black 1983; Fiske and Rai 2014).

  17. On this point, see also Harman (2015).


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Thanks to Patrick Emerton, Taylor Davis, Erik Kimbrough, Matthew Lindauer, Elizabeth O’Neill, Jordan Adamson, Tom Parr, and audiences at Monash University and the California Workshop on Evolutionary Social Sciences for comments on previous versions of this paper. Funding was provided by Australian Research Council (Grant No. DP150100242).

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Correspondence to Toby Handfield.

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Handfield, T., Thrasher, J. Two of a kind: Are norms of honor a species of morality?. Biol Philos 34, 39 (2019).

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