Honour is one of those words that gets bandied about rather a lot. Sometimes it’s used just as a label, as in the Honours of Scotland; ‘it wasn’t me, Your Honour’; and ‘she gave him a gong in the Honours’. We also talk about ‘honour’ killings, as well as Honorary degrees. But what does it mean when we say things like: ‘I’m honoured to meet you;’ ‘I promise on my honour;’ or even ‘wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her?’ These usages seems to invoke a sense of respect and virtue, something that is more about an orientation or a behaviour.
Honour is one of those old-fashioned words, like manners. But when we use it of someone, we refer to that rather rare and durable characteristic of their being reliably moral. We think people are honourable if they do the right thing. We tend to notice it all the more if it proves costly: our mental picture is probably of a tweedy and stoic English gent standing on a lonely pier, waving goodbye to his true love because she deserves better. So is honour as outdated as curtsying to cakes, and should we have none of it? On the contrary, we need honour more than ever, and we need to start teaching it to our children again.
One of the reasons it’s out of vogue is our tweedy gent – we think honour is about loss and sacrifice, and we’d rather have a ready-meal and a boxed set. But honour is vital to trust – it’s a down-payment and guarantee of future behaviour. Being honourable makes it less hazardous for those dealing with us. That is why the Quakers cleaned up in the Victorian business era – their honour, reinforced by the wider Quaker community – reduced legal bills, giving them a competitive advantage over non-Quaker businesses. So honour reduces risk, if you want to be instrumental about it, so the London Stock Exchange’s motto of ‘my word is my bond’ was rather a necessary one, before the 1986 Big Bang and the advent of electronic trading. Honour is also rather vitally about discipline – it’s about learning to delay gratification, as in the famous marshmallow experiments – because developing the character trait of patience is a crucial life skill, for all those occasions when waiting well and playing the long game is the only option available. It may also be about service and sacrifice – about putting others first, just because their humanity demands it of you.
But if doing the right thing by others reduces relational risk for them, it is still fundamentally about risk, on your part. For virtuous behaviour is undertaken for its own sake, not for what it might give you. It’s different from the prevailing ethical norm, that of utilitarianism, which is about calculating odds so that everything is basically ‘worth it.’ Honour may lead to reward, but it might also lead to sadness and disappointment. Of course this is true of any action, but with a premeditated utilitarian act you are wagering on a good outcome. Not so here. For the act to be honourable, it needs to be done in spite of any likely positive outcome: it purely needs to be the right thing to do, on that day, with the information you have available to you. That’s why it’s not sexy, because there are no guarantees, which is probably why the virtuous tend to be drawn to religion, which at least promises a reward in the life to come.
So how might one practise honour? The first step is to stop keeping score. It’s not honour if you’re only doing something for what you might get out of it – that is calculation not virtue (see my Sticker-Chart Generation blog). It may be good behaviour, but it the intention is essentially selfish, so you can’t claim points for honour. Instead, as Anne Herbert put it, ‘practice random kindness,’ like smiling at strangers, writing out-of-season thank-you cards, and offering to babysit for a neighbour. There are now websites that give you suggestions if you’re short on ideas, like Random Acts of Kindness and People United. There’s even a Kindness Advent Calendar which needn’t be confined to December.
As well as these positive acts, you might push yourself in harder ways. You might intervene in a tricky situation in order to help someone vulnerable, you might deny yourself a pleasure that does not serve the good, or you might allow your ethical sixth sense to whisper rather more loudly than you normally let it about your current life choices. Even practising waiting well will flex this virtue muscle – for the bus, for your turn, for your anger to die down.
None of this is easy, which is why honour is lapsing in our lexicon. But without it we are no better than the AI we fear may take our jobs. And this might just be the selfish reason we all need, to start getting a lot better at being unselfish. Not as a strategy, but as a radical declaration of our humanity.