James Bowman

The following is an excerpt from Honor: A History by James Bowman

At its simplest, honor is the good opinion of the people who matter to us, and who matter because we regard them as a society of equals who have the power to judge our behavior. This is what Professor Derek Brewer has called the honor group.4 Obviously, this definition includes an important variable term, since the people who matter are different for every individual. Honor groups form naturally around any corporate enterprise but especially those — like the armed services, police forces, fire brigades and sports teams — that are male-dominated. In such an environment, loyalty to the corporate entity, and a willingness to subordinate one’s individual inclinations to the greater good, will naturally be regarded as honorable; disloyalty and selfishness will be correspondingly dishonorable. Families are natural honor groups as well, the first with which we are all associated and one which may overlap with others that we join later in life. By their nature, these group loyalties will sometimes conflict with loyalties to a wider community and to absolute principles, which is why it is useful to distinguish between honor and ethics. It is sometimes necessary to put loyalty to principle ahead of loyalty to the group, but even the highest principled whistleblower or informer is likely to find himself regarded as a “rat” and a traitor by the conflicting standards of honor.

James Bowman

James Bowman has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New Criterion and other publications. He was the American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London and is currently a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Institute.

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