22 July 2013

A Matter of Honor

Long ago I posted here about Nate Oman's valuable insight that contract law (and remedies for breach of contract) are an example of the modern substitution of law for the older notion of honor. This is part of the process of secularization described by Charles Taylor in his tome This Secular Age (on which I posted many times; you can go here and here and even here for some samples).

Justice and honor are distinct. Justice entails vindication of rights, and rights exist regardless of the "quality" of a person. Honor seems peculiar in the modern, Western and middle class world but it was a pervasive way of thinking about human relationships until well into the 19th century in America (Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, anyone) and is certainly the principle notion of interpersonal relationships in much of the world today. (Which goes far in explaining American incomprehension of what motivates so much of what goes on in the Middle East.) Honor is about the person and his or her status. If someone violates your rights, you go to court. If someone dishonors an equal, you duel. Or at least you used to.

All of which is a long way of getting around to this piece in "The Ethicist" column of the New York Times that I'd characterize it as "The Case of the Duped Donor." Read it, it's short and I agree with the The Ethicist's conclusion that legal action is inappropriate even though I think there's a case in fraud. I'm less sanguine about his assertion that some effort to shame publicly the duplicitous friend is out of line. The Donor was dishonored by his erstwhile friend and shaming him is appropriate even if a duel is not. Of course, challenging the friend to pay up as promised is a better first step.

Thinking about honor and appropriate responses to dishonor is not something we do anymore. Perhaps it's time we should.

No comments:

Post a Comment