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.
Two developments of 19th century in Europe and America have contributed to the obscuring of this essentially local quality of honor. One was the rise of the modern nation state. Patriotism in its modern sense depended on an idea of the whole nation as a single honor group. The second development, discussed in Part I below, was the modernization of traditional honor and its removal from the exclusive province of an aristocratic élite. This development began in the 18th century and attempted to fuse honor and ethics. The Victorian idea of the “Christian Gentleman” — a man of honor yet one who owed allegiance to a universal and ethical and not just a local and honorable standard — was a new thing in the world of honor, but too delicate a hybrid, as it now seems, long to outlast its times. Almost the only relics of him now remaining are the “honor systems” or “honor codes” you still find on some university campuses which, for all their other successes, have never been quite successful in persuading young people that it is honorable to inform on their fellow-students who have committed infractions. The nation-as-honor-group was a hardier growth, but it, too, came under a great deal of pressure in the aftermath of the First World War, when honor resumed some of its previous disreputability although in a different way. Previously, the law and the church had looked askance at such honor-related phenomena as dueling. But in the 1920s and 1930s honor itself, even in the form of patriotism, fell into a very considerable disrepute. This is discussed further in Part II.
The honor of the savage, like that of the snowball victim mentioned above, is what I shall call reflexive honor, which is familiar to all of us, even if we have no words in which to express it and even if we are ashamed of it. So far as we can tell it is nearly inseparable from the human condition, and it is certainly engaged wherever there is fighting, which is nearly everywhere. But it must be distinguished from cultural honor — like that of the Victorian gentleman, for example — which comprises the traditions, stories and habits of thought of a particular society about (among other things) the proper and improper uses of violence. In fact, it is because of the decline of cultural honor in the West that the word “violence” itself has come into currency with a new and generic sense. Originally it referred only to criminal violence, as its relation to “violate” reminds us. But its modern sense makes it difficult if not impossible for us any longer to express the distinction, so central to cultural honor, between good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust fighting.