The virtue of honor has lost its influence in our culture. It no longer serves as a healthy restraint to inappropriate and disrespectful behaviors. As a social virtue, honor use to be taught in families, mentored by parents and reinforced in communities. But honor appears to have been displaced by a sense of entitlement — by the demands of self-interest over concern for others.
Honoring includes a protective form of respect. It shares company with virtues like humility, gratitude and courtesy. It flourishes best in the hearts of humble people who value their fellow human beings.
To harm another or his property is to dishonor him.
Dishonoring is a form of devaluing. The disappearance of honor and the virtues that support it is evident everywhere in the cultural life of 21st century America. This is where things begin to break down and liberty is threatened.
A culture of law
When the virtue of honor is absent, maintaining civility falls to the role of law and law enforcement. Absent the virtue-forming influences of family and cultural expectation, social authority in the form of law and punishment must enforce honor and respect. A culture lacking a shared value of honor, leads to expansive social authority over individual conduct.
When everyone does what is right in his own eyes and looks out for himself at the expense of others, society suffers and law enforcement increasingly steps in to regulate individual lives.
A culture of law, however, is not a good substitute for one of honor. Law is more of a negative consequential force than a positive culture shaping influence. Obviously, human flourishing cannot occur without some degree of law and law enforcement. But expansive law rarely provides the best context for such flourishing.
The fact that America has put more of its citizens in prison than any other nation (1 out of every 100) should be cause for deep concern. Our prisons are overcrowded and unable to be effective places for reform. Our legal system is weighed down, sluggish and sometimes wrongly weighted toward those of resource and influence. Our families are dysfunctional and our tax burden only increases.
Looking for solutions
How can we correct this downward spiral toward social ruin? Increased government is the default mode of politicians but it has obviously not helped. The over-sized and corrupt government in America has sadly become a source of devaluing and dishonor. Where there is a justifiable and pervasive distrust and cynicism toward government, the virtue of honor is threatened.
Over the past several decades, the primary cultural substitute used to replace honor has been a required form of tolerance that tolerates no exceptions. But coerced tolerance is a poor replacement for the virtue of honor. The popular version of tolerance being enforced today has left many feeling that they are under some form of societal coercion — requiring them to affirm a politically approved set of morals and values. And when people feel this way, they perceive it as a threat to liberty.
Tolerance is a virtue that can only function in the context of actual disagreements — especially strong disagreements. The virtue of tolerance is unnecessary to those who surrender or minimize their differences. Truly tolerant people treat respectfully those with whom they strongly disagree. Forced agreement only threatens true tolerance. And it will do no good to pretend that disagreements do not exist. If, however, the virtue of honor is restored, the true practice of tolerance will be easier to encourage.
Robust and respectful conversations
When we feel a need to demand tolerance, it should alert us to a greater need to teach virtues that promote true tolerance. Virtues like honor and neighbor love facilitate true tolerance whereas forced tolerance threatens these qualities. But a shared commitment to honor and respect one another will necessitate robust and respectful conversations about our differences and the common good. The tyranny of tolerance forecloses on those conversations.
The American experiment has taught us that a free society is the best context for human flourishing. But freedom itself cannot flourish without deeper commitments to personal and civic responsibilities that promote healthy social order. We cannot afford, therefore, to be indifferent to the need for virtue-forming influences through families and Churches. Without widely shared virtues like honor, narrowly defined self-interests will threaten our common good. Liberalism without virtue and character ultimately destroys itself.
I believe that Churches must renew their roles in the lives of families and communities. As Churches become the humble, redemptive and truth-telling communities of love that Jesus intended them to be, they will serve as surrogate families for redeemed people. The Church is directed to: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). In a pervasively dysfunctional society, regaining such a vision for the Church is not only a matter of obedience to the Lord, it may also be the best hope for our nation.