The Decline of Traditional Honor in the West

Honor is traditionally reserved for men in Western society. This system, deeply rooted into our culture through the influence of Judeo-Christianity and its many iterations, has been for centuries one of the defining characteristics that separates us from other cultures. But as technology becomes a more prominent part of everyday life, honor will likely become less relevant to human interactions due to advances in artificial intelligence and automation

The “honor explained” is the decline of traditional honor in Western society. The article discusses what honor means, as well as how it has changed over time.

Manly honor horizontal long sword illustration.

This series of articles is now available as a professionally designed, distraction-free ebook that you can read at your leisure while offline. To purchase, go to this link. 

Our last three entries – on Victorian, Northern, and Southern honor, respectively – chronicled the penultimate expressions of traditional honor cultures in the West, while also hinting at the cultural factors that would finally undermine them almost completely.

Today, we’ll look at how those pressures became stronger, showed themselves, and eventually led to the abolition of conventional honor in the West over the twentieth century. At the same time, a discussion of these aspects is a great way to go over the topics we’ve covered so far. We’ve gone a long way since the first article, and this is such a complex subject that I believe this re-focus will be good.

On that point, this piece does, obviously, have a more haphazard feel to it than the others. The importance of understanding the complexities of honor’s past cannot be overstated. There is no obvious logical narrative to the growth and dying of honor, and it is hard to build one without excusing our literary talents, which are many. What follows are sketches of cultural forces that may each constitute a book in and of itself; each is interrelated and multi-layered. In the lack of a full-fledged essay on each cultural force/change, we’ve included a snapshot that is intended to offer you with an overview of the aspect and provide you with food for thought as you relate it to history and your own current life.

It’s also worth noting that the following list is not a list of “bad” items. Traditional honor, like every other cultural trend addressed, has its benefits and drawbacks. Traditional honor would not have vanished in the first place if this were not the case! What you’ll discover here is an explanation of what happened to traditional honor, rather than a laundry list of complaints about culture. These cultural revolutions, in my view, brought about both beneficial and bad changes, and our next and last piece in the series will focus on resurrecting those positive parts.

This post is just as bad as the previous — if it helps, think of it as a chapter in a book rather than an article. When you have some free time, read it.

Anonymity and Urbanization

Traditional honor can only exist among a group of equals who have close, personal connections. It is wholly external, and it is entirely based on one’s reputation as rated by other honor group members. There is no one to judge your claims to honor if you don’t have close relationships, and hence the prospect of a traditional honor culture collapses.

95% of Americans lived in tiny, rural villages in 1790. By the 1990s, three out of every four residents had relocated to metropolitan regions. While everyone in small towns can keep track of what their neighbors are up to, interactions in cities and suburbs are more impersonal and faceless; every city inhabitant has had the experience of being among a huge gathering of people and yet feeling completely alone. In a huge population, you may go your whole life without anybody checking in on you, much alone rating your reputation as honorable or dishonorable.


Civic involvement and community awareness have declined dramatically in both cities and small villages after WWII. While honor used to be focused on one’s clan, extended relatives no longer live near together, and familial ties have been reduced to the nuclear family, which is frequently divided.

Immoral, unethical, and cowardly activities are seldom known outside of one’s inner circle of family and friends as a consequence of these alterations. Even then, people are more inclined to shrug and remark, “It’s none of my business,” or “To each his own,” than to denounce and question the wrong conduct, for reasons we’ll describe below.

The internet has only served to hasten the trend toward impersonal and anonymous connections. Exaggerations of one’s deeds or bad behaviors are called out and questioned by one’s friends; traditional honor is supposed to serve as a check on people’s claims to merit and require them to stand behind and justify their attacks. On the internet, however, anybody may pretend to be a Navy SEAL or insult another person without having to verify their claim, face repercussions for their actions, or enable the person who was insulted to defend themselves. They may pretend to be anybody and say anything while hiding behind a screen.

Conflicts between conscience and honor arise as a result of diversity.

As we’ve seen in earlier entries, the honor code in England and the United States started to change from external actions (such as prowess and power) to internal moral qualities and character characteristics throughout the nineteenth century. Despite these alterations, the Victorian honor code, often known as the Stoic-Christian honor code, was based on traditional honor. While the code’s criteria had changed to internal qualities, a man’s commitment to those virtues was still assessed not just by his conscience, but also by his peers – his public reputation was still important.

This shift in traditional honor’s meaning also planted the seeds of its ultimate demise as a societal force. A traditional honor code based on moral virtues and character traits can only survive if the necessary virtues and character traits are agreed upon by the entire culture; aside from intimate, face-to-face relationships, a shared code is the second key element that allows a traditional honor culture to exist. Each member of the honor group is aware of the norms that must be followed in order to achieve and maintain horizontal honor, as well as how honor may be lost; this is crucial since honor that cannot be lost is not genuine honor.

While the masculine honor of bravery and physical strength transcends culture, a moral honor code, which deals with philosophical and religious concerns, is more open to differing viewpoints and may vary from civilization to society and man to man. Is it possible to remain honorable while gambling and drinking? Was it more respectable to battle for everything or to have the foresight to back down from a challenge? Should Christian views be included in a man’s honor code? What about the Muslims and Hindus? Didn’t they have their own honor codes? These concerns led to tensions between a man’s commitment to his conscience and his honor group’s rule of conduct. This sparked disputes over which loyalty to prioritize – conscience or honor – and which conclusion was more noble, or at the very least worthy of respect. As Frank Henderson Stewart writes, these disputes damaged the stability of an honor culture:


“Once the shift is made from basing honor on a certain type of behavior (always winning in battle, always keeping one’s word) or on the possession of certain external qualities (wealth, health, high rank) to basing it on the possession of mostly moral qualities (the ones we refer to compendiously as the sense of honor), the entire notion of honor is open to being undermined.” Consider a hundred-year-old German army commander who is challenged to a duel. He refuses the challenge since he is a devoted Catholic, and dueling is strictly prohibited by the religion. Now, in order for the honor code to be really effective, the officer must be regarded as if he or she has committed a dishonorable conduct. People may find it difficult to do so, though, since they are certain (we shall presume) that he behaved as he did not out of timidity, but out of devotion to his beliefs. They are confident (and we shall presume) that he is deeply dedicated to all aspects of the honor code that do not conflict with his religious views. People may feel it is appropriate to say of him that he has a strong sense of honor in these circumstances; even if they do not, they will have to admit that he is a man of integrity, and having said that, they will find it difficult to say that their respect for him has been greatly diminished as a result of his refusal to accept the challenge. And if the loss of his right to respect isn’t followed by a genuine loss of respect, then the honor conferred by the honor code has lost its basic meaning.”

The more varied Western nations evolved, the more likely it was that a man’s personal beliefs and philosophy would conflict with the cultural honor code, leading to men opting out of specific elements of the latter when they went against their conscience. However, as Stewart points out, this tendency could not have caused the disintegration of conventional honor on its own; it was dependent on another cultural shift: tolerance. Traditional honor is intrinsically intolerant; failure to observe the code results in humiliation, despicability, and expulsion. In the hypothetical case of the German army officer, his peers may have seen his choice to abstain from the duel on religious reasons as dishonorable and unworthy of their respect, upholding the conventional honor code’s strictures.

However, others have claimed that a movement toward respect and tolerance for differing ideas that started in the nineteenth century would become the virtue of the twentieth century. The relativistic ideal of “to each his own” would enable each person to pick his or her own set of values without fear of societal ramifications – or guilt.

Tolerance and relativism are the results of diversity.

Another important aspect of a traditional honor culture is the belief in one’s honor group’s total supremacy over all others, and that this superiority can be connected directly to the superiority of the group’s honor code over all others. Honor cultures are divided into two groups: “we” and “them.” Maintaining this idea wasn’t difficult when tribes and communities were more isolated; honor groups didn’t meet many other groups that were quite different from themselves, and when they did, a struggle between them would swiftly and plainly confirm the truth of their respective claims.


However, globalization, which started in earnest in the nineteenth century and increased in the twentieth, substantially varied the inhabitants of Western civilizations, physically bringing diverse cultures together and boosting popular awareness of communities halfway across the globe. The fact that each culture has its own definition of honor cast doubt on some people’s belief in their own culture’s supremacy. It was suggested that total confidence in the correctness of a certain approach had resulted in dreadful social problems like as racism, chauvinism, war, slavery, persecution, and so on. Using violence or war to show one’s honor fell out of favor at the same period (see “Wariness of Violence” below).

Traditional honor was replaced with the concept of tolerance and respect for all groups, even those on the margins who did not fit into the mainstream culture, in an endeavor to live in peace with one another and avoid confrontation. Outsiders were formerly treated severely before being allowed to join the insiders and gain their respect via obedience to the honor code; today, instead of adapting to dominant standards, they were encouraged to celebrate their own ideals.

The only virtue on which the majority of society currently agrees is openness. Generally, people fall into one of two factions. Either they do not believe that any particular honor code is “right” and that one is not necessarily “better” than another, or they remain a “absolutist” and believe they are following the one true code, in which case they are aware that they should not shame or condemn others for failing to live up to their own chosen standards, should never assert the superiority of their code in public, and must at the very least pay lip service to respecting the beliefs of others. You go ahead and do your thing, and I’ll go ahead and do mine.

As philosopher Allan Bloom argues, the “to each his own” ethic is irreconcilable with traditional honor.

“In order to maintain their families and peoples, men must love and be devoted to them.” They can only be satisfied with their own goods if they believe they are excellent. A parent must prioritize his kid above other children, and a citizen must prioritize his nation over others. That is why these bonds are justified by myths. And a guy needs a home and a set of values to guide him… [In traditional honor societies,] getting along with outsiders is secondary to, and often at odds with, having an inside, a people, a culture, and a way of life. A high degree of narrowness is not incompatible with an individual’s or a group’s health, but a high degree of openness makes it difficult to prevent disintegration.”

Choose Your Own Code of Honor

Traditional honor codes are intended to encourage individuals to follow a set of rules that the community feels is in its best interests. In order to prevent embarrassment, group members are compelled to put their own personal interests aside for the greater good.

Ideas of what constituted the common good fragmented in the increasingly varied society of the twentieth century. As a result of the splintering, there was confusion over who should be humiliated or praised for what. As more people opted out of certain provisions of the shared cultural honor code with no repercussions, a cycle began: because those who opted out were not shamed, the honor accorded to those who followed the code decreased (see “Egalitarianism” below), making them more likely to opt out as well, and the cycle continued, further unraveling the honor code.


People grew more hesitant to sacrifice their own personal demands for the welfare of the collective as the advantages of maintaining the shared honor code dwindled. They defied authority — “the man” — and the notion that the common good should be imposed. People started to enjoy following whatever they perceived to be their own good (follow your passion!) in the absence of a shared honor code and an agreed upon common good.

Individuals were allowed to pick and choose values from each honor code to create their own personal patchwork honor code since no honor code was regarded to be superior than another. In principle, each man’s declaration of his own ideals may have produced a lot of conflict, but in fact, it was utilized to avoid it: “I know what I stand for.” You know what you stand for. “To everyone his or her own.” Bloom goes on to say:

“The evil we most desire to avoid, among countries, people, and inside ourselves, is conflict. At a time when nature had been tamed and man had grown tame, Nietzsche believed that his value philosophy might restore the brutal conflicts for which men were prepared to die, to restore the tragic sense of existence. In America, the value concept was adopted for the exact opposite reason: to encourage dispute resolution, negotiating, and harmony. Conciliation is feasible if there is merely a disagreement of values. Values must be respected, but they must not obstruct peace.”

Because every man has the freedom to choose his own set of values, respect is now given to a man not for the values he chooses to live by, but for the fact that he chooses to live with values at all. When one is denied the opportunity to gain respect from one’s peers but still wants to find meaning in life, the aim becomes identifying values that add up to and represent a distinct lifestyle – one that exemplifies a morally neutral attribute: purpose. Bloom once more:

“A value-creating man is a reasonable alternative for a decent man, and because few people can see themselves as nothing, some such substitution becomes virtually unavoidable in mainstream relativism.” The respectable and approachable nobility of man is found not in the pursuit or discovery of the ideal life, but in the creation of one’s own ‘life-style,’ of which there are numerous options, none of which are similar to another. He who has a ‘life-style’ is in competition with, and so inferior to, no one, and he may command his own and others’ regard because he has one.”

The degree of respect one receives as a result of living their ideals is now determined by their adherence to their personal code. “Commitment is the moral virtue because it reveals the seriousness of the actor,” Bloom says. When self-provided values replace the real God, commitment is the equal of faith.” “I don’t really understand it myself, but he definitely is sincere/serious about it/passionate/totally into it,” we say, even if we don’t agree with their views.


The power to select one’s own code shifted the meaning of honor from outward shows of courage to internal pain — sticking to your own code despite criticism or hurdles.

Shame Shame Shame Shame Shame Shame Shame Shame Shame Sham

Shame is a necessary aspect of life in traditional honor cultures; it is what pushes honor group members to act in ways that benefit the tribe as a whole. Furthermore, honor is impossible without shame (see “Egalitarianism” below).

However, with the emergence of psychology and a trend toward individuality over collective identification in the twentieth century, shame came to be considered as a neurosis that poisoned the psyche, as well as a barrier to defying authority and following one’s particular passion and inner compass. Shame, it was suggested, had outlived its use in a contemporary society that had overcome fundamental survival difficulties, and was now a barrier to realizing one’s full potential and destiny. Shame, it is now widely accepted, comes in the way of feeling at ease in your own skin and being the person you want to be.

In a primitive group that relied on reproduction to keep the community running and required to defend itself from attackers, declining to breed or go to war, for example, may have a man disgraced. However, in a calm contemporary society, on what some perceive to be an already crowded planet, there does not seem to be a compelling need to compel males to follow such conventional (and some would argue antiquated) ideals. We’ve lost sight of the direct link between an individual’s actions and their impact on society as a whole. The popular belief nowadays is that one person’s lifestyle choices have little bearing on the lifestyle choices of others or on society as a whole.

While shame was formerly seen to be the catalyst for honor and hence manliness, it is now the focus of men’s organizations and male psychology experts who say that it is really what prevents men from realizing their masculinity. The Mankind Project, for example, claims that the “New Macho” ethic demands a man to “let go of childlike guilt,” and offers weekend retreats with the intention of introducing men into manhood. “Shame is one of the key emotional states that traps many men into a never-ending cycle of self-hatred and self-destructive conduct,” they claim. This conduct has far-reaching negative consequences for others who are around him. It interferes with his capacity to form good relationships and raise healthy children.” As a result, a significant portion of MKP retreats focuses on helping men overcome their guilt.

Similarly, Robert Glover, author of the bestselling No More Mr. Nice Guy, argues that “Nice Guy Syndrome” develops during boys’ “formative years,” when they receive “messages from their families and the world around them that it was not safe, acceptable, or desirable for them to be who they are, just as they are.” [italics mine] Glover claims that a rejection of “who they are” causes early emotions of abandonment, which leads to “toxic shame,” which is “not simply a notion that one commits wrong things, it is a firmly held fundamental belief that one is evil” as the boy develops into a man. Men may stop striving to be “good” for others, hide their imperfections, and become “what they feel other people want them to be” if they can get rid of this “poison guilt,” according to Glover. In other words, they have the ability to break out from the core tenets of conventional honor.


Inclusion and Egalitarianism

Honor societies are by their by nature competitive, exclusive, and hierarchical. There can be no meaningful honor without the risk of losing it and being embarrassed and disgraced – without the risk of failing or succeeding in front of a clear standard and peers. It is useless and pointless to give everyone the same amount of regard and esteem. “When everyone achieves equal honor, there is no honor for anybody,” M.I. Finley phrased it.

Certain benefits are only accessible to those who uphold the code’s standards and earn horizontal honor in an honor group, while extraordinary privileges are only available to those who outperform their peers and obtain vertical honor. At the same time, competition and established criteria imply that not everyone will make the cut, and those that do will be embarrassed, if not outright injured. Comparing oneself to others may lead to feelings of inadequacy, as well as the agony of being rejected and thought inadequate.

While traditional honor codes award respect based on merit (and occasionally bloodlines), modern societies have moved toward granting more rights and privileges based on the concept of human dignity, which holds that all people, regardless of skill, popularity, or contribution to the group, are entitled to a basic level of compassionate treatment.

As shame became more widely seen as a negative in the 1960s, a movement arose that claimed that reducing the pain associated with not doing as well as one’s peers may improve young people’s sense of well-being.

In 1969, psychologist Nathaniel Brandon wrote “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” a seminal work in which he asserted that “self-esteem sentiments are the key to life achievement.” Brandon’s views were formalized when a task commission convened by the California state legislature issued a series of proposals titled “Toward a State of Esteem.” Low self-esteem, according to the paper, causes a wide range of difficulties, from academic failure to adolescent pregnancy, and that teaching self-esteem in schools would act as a “social vaccination” to protect children from these issues. It was suggested that every California school district strive for “the promotion of self-esteem…as a clearly stated goal, integrated into its total curriculum, and informing all of its policies and operations,” and that “course work in self-esteem should be required for credentials…for all educators.”

Other states and schools were caught up in the movement, and self-esteem-building activities were introduced into their curricula and programs. These activities and standards – which frequently centred on removing rivalry from the classroom – were created to help pupils feel good about themselves, with the hope that these positive sentiments would lead to all kinds of achievement.

True self-esteem, however, includes two components, according to subsequent research: feeling good and achieving well. The self-esteem movement had messed up their sequence. While the California study claimed that low self-esteem causes issues such as adolescent pregnancy and welfare dependency, research have demonstrated that poor self-esteem is the result of such conduct rather than the cause. As a result, you can’t start with “feeling good” and expect to succeed. In this case, it’s the opposite way around. Doing well leads to feeling good and having real self-esteem. Self-esteem isn’t something you can provide to a child; it’s something they have to acquire for themselves, by actual merit.


Despite these results, virtually every school has rules in place to safeguard students from feelings of shame. Every kid, regardless of accomplishment, must get an award during an awards ceremony. A “participation award” is given to every player on a sports team. Regardless of a student’s popularity or engagement in school activities, high school yearbooks are obliged to include a photo of each student an equal number of times. To avoid causing a youngster disgrace if he trips over his rope, schools make them use invisible jump ropes instead of actual ones.

Psychology’s Expansion

People were increasingly interested in the individual workings of their minds and the variances of their unique psyche after Freud’s psychoanalysis and Jung’s interpretation of dreams. Whereas in a traditional honor culture, one’s personal identity could not be separated from one’s identity as a member of the group, and one’s own feelings and needs were subordinated to the common good, psychology encouraged people to see themselves as distinct individuals with their own feelings and needs as real and important as the group’s. Psychologists said that ignoring or repressing such sentiments was harmful to one’s health and well-being.

Debates about whether what were traditionally considered disgraceful character faults — drinking, gambling, obesity, serial adultery – should be renamed and treated as disorders and addictions demonstrate the contradiction between psychology and traditional dignity.

However, a narrative from World War II may be the greatest and most memorable way to express the tension that occurred between conventional respect and honoring one’s own distinctive psychology.

Following his spectacular victory in the Sicily campaign, George S. Patton came by a hospital tent to see the injured in 1943. These trips were enjoyable for him, as well as the troops and personnel. He would give out Purple Hearts, encourage the guys, and give rousing speeches to the nurses, interns, and their patients that were so moving that they brought tears to many of the faces in the room. When Patton approached the tent on this particular occasion, all of the troops sprang to attention save one, Private Charles H. Kuhl, who sat slouched on a stool. Patton asked Kuhl how he was injured, and the private answered, “I suppose I simply can’t take it,” despite the fact that he had no visible injuries. Patton did not think that “battle exhaustion” or “shell-shock” were legitimate conditions or justifications for medical care, and had just been informed by one of Kuhl’s division commanders that “the front lines seem to be thinning down.” At the hospitals, there seems to be a high number of’malingerers,’ who are feigning sickness to escape combat service.” He grew enraged. Patton struck Kuhl in the face with his gloves, grabbed his collar, and dragged him out of the tent. Patton kicked him in the shins and asked that this “gutless bastard” be denied admission and instead sent back to the front lines to fight.


Patton smacked another man in a hospital a week later, who informed the general, in tears, that he was there because of “his nerves,” and that he couldn’t “bear the bombardment any longer.” Patton, enraged, brandished his single-action Colt handgun with a white grip and yelled:

“You yellow son of a bitch, your nerves, Hell, you’re simply a goddamned coward.” Put that goddamned weeping down. I’m not going to let these courageous soldiers who have been shot witness a yellow bastard sobbing… You’re a disgrace to the Army, and you’re returning to the front lines, where you’ll most likely be shot and killed, but you’ll fight. If you don’t, I’ll purposefully place you against a wall and have a firing squad murder you. In fact, you God-damned sobbing coward, I should kill you personally.”

When the first slapping episode was exposed in the news, it caused a worldwide controversy; many people were shocked and demanded Patton’s resignation from leadership, as well as the Army itself. In the face of widespread public outrage, Eisenhower was furious with Patton, but ultimately decided to keep him because he was “indispensable to the war effort – one of the guarantors of our success.” Nonetheless, Ike chastised him, relieved him of command of the 7th Army, promoted Omar Bradley to lieutenant general over him, barred him from playing a key role in the D-Day invasion (despite strategic considerations), and ordered him to apologize to the two soldiers he slapped, the hospital staff, and his troops.

Despite the uproar caused by Patton’s slapping incident, and many people’s outrage at what they saw as brutal and out-of-control behavior, the vast majority of the public (roughly 9 to 1) supported Patton; even Kuhl’s own father wrote to his Congressman expressing forgiveness for the general and his desire not to see him disciplined. Even at this late date in the century, the attitude of Patton’s own soldiers is the most significant indicator of the vitality remaining in traditional honor.

Patton’s repentant message never got beyond his first word – “Men!” – when he went to apologize to his men, who were assembled in a big olive grove and sitting on their helmets. Major Ted Conway of the 9th Division recalled what happened at that point:

“…the regiment as a whole exploded.” It sounded like a touchdown had been scored in a football game, because the helmets began flying into the air, showering steel helmets all around, and the guys simply chanted ‘Georgie, Georgie’ – a name he despised. “At easy, take seats,” he said, or at least that’s what we believe he said. The bugler was then ordered to sound “attention” once again, but nothing occurred. All of a sudden, there was a slew of cheers. Finally, General Patton stood there shaking his head, tears flowing down his cheeks, and saying, “To hell with it,” or words to that effect, he walked off the stage. At this point, the bugler sounded “attention,” and everyone grabbed the nearest available steel helmet, put it on, making sure to button the chin strap (which was a favorite Patton quirk), and saluted to the right as General Patton stepped into a command car and drove down the side of the regiment, dust swirling… He was a hero to us. We were on his side of the argument. We were aware of what he’d done and why he’d done it.”


The 2nd Armored Division’s Leon Luttrell, who was in the same hospital as one of the slapped troops, reaffirmed his devotion to Patton:

“I was resting in the hospital from my wounds, for which I was awarded the Purple Heart, when he smacked the solider and called him a coward.” Only one thing I can tell is that none of us felt sorry for the soldier… I never heard anybody suggest he wasn’t a brilliant leader and the Army’s greatest general.”

What accounts for Patton’s men’s enthusiastic response? Combat is the most bare-bones expression of traditional honor’s goal; in war, sacrificing one’s personal wants for the greater good is a genuine matter of life and death. “His response was not altogether unusual for a guy who had seen many courageous men die for his country’s protection and who recognized the senseless fatalities that may be caused by one weakling who fails to fulfill his job,” another of Patton’s troops said of the slapping incident.

The civilian media viewed Patton’s acts reprehensible, but the broader populace and his own men believed they were completely justified.

In the next decades, the media’s point of view would gain traction among citizens and military people alike. Since the formal identification of post-traumatic stress syndrome in 1980, confessing to having it and seeking treatment for it has become significantly more acceptable. Some even argue that people who suffer from PTSD should be given the Purple Heart, and that PTSD should be used to pardon and overturn decades-old bad discharges and even executions. For example, in 2006, the British Parliament voted to pardon 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers who were executed during WWI for cowardice, desertion, and falling asleep on guard duty, based on the theory that the men may have failed in their duty due to psychological distress brought on by the war. Similarly, American Vietnam War veterans who were discharged with a “other-than-honorable” discharge for reasons such as desertion and drug use have filed a class-action lawsuit against the military, claiming they were suffering from PTSD at the time and demanding that their discharges be upgraded retroactively. “I want that honorable,” said John Shepherd Jr., a claimant in the complaint who was given a “other-than-honorable” discharge for refusing to go on patrol. I performed my bit until I decided it wasn’t worth risking my life for.” What’s fascinating about Shepherd’s comment is that it contradicts conventional honor, which states that a man cannot forsake the community due to personal preferences and ideas.

Since WWI, the military has struggled to sort through these issues, debating whether there is an ethical or moral distinction to be made between bullet and shrapnel wounds and invisible psychiatric scars, whether the latter merits disability pay or even a Purple Heart, and whether such awards sap a man’s motivation to recover. “How does the military avoid encouraging individuals to shirk their duties (and thus increase the risk of others being killed or wounded) without burdening commanders with soldiers who will fail to carry out their duties, while also looking after those who breakdown as a result of combat?” asked Edgar Jones, author of Shell-Shock to PTSD. In other words, what role should traditional honor play in a modern-day honor-bound organization?


Sincerity and Authenticity

It’s difficult to grasp today, since honor has become associated with integrity, yet traditional honor was concerned only with a man’s public image, not his inner thoughts and private actions. Only what your peers observed you do counted; this was the only evidence they needed to determine your honor. As a result, one of the ironies of traditional honor is that it has always included the concealment and concealment of one’s shortcomings.

Consider how many presidents have had extramarital affairs during their time in office. The press was aware of the canoodling going on at the time in certain situations, but they never reported a word about it. One, since “snitching” about such a thing was deemed dishonorable, and two, because they didn’t believe such private liaisons had anything to do with the President’s responsibilities being carried out effectively. The standards of conventional honor were satisfied as long as they kept an honorable front, and everything was OK.

We now expect that a man’s private life and public image be in sync. We believe it is blatant hypocrisy to provide the image of an upright reputation while doing some less-than-upright activities behind closed doors. A hypocrite, we feel, cannot be a decent individual or a good public servant. As a result, when a man’s private affairs are exposed, he is often removed from office.

In a litigious society, there is apprehension about violence.

If you were struck in the most basic, primitive manner of traditional honor, you hit back and put things right. If a man was insulted, he would challenge the accuser to a physical combat – perhaps to the death; if he won, his honor was preserved; if he lost, his readiness to fight allowed him save at least some face, even if the allegation was genuine. Men also battled and utilized violence to settle disputes, introduce newcomers and assess their worthiness for inclusion in the group, earn prestige among current members, and test and prepare each other for a shared adversary.

With the rise of the Stoic-Christian honor code in the 19th century, the use of violence to protect and govern honor started to be questioned. Violence became associated with the “brutish” lower-classes who weren’t interested in becoming gentlemen and getting ahead, as self-control and self-mastery were celebrated as Stoic ideals and also essential to rising in the new economy; as a result, violence became associated with the “brutish” lower-classes who weren’t interested in becoming gentlemen and getting ahead. To negotiate the new environment, self-discipline was required, and violence came to be perceived as untamed and destructive — a hindrance to the upper classes’ efforts to create an orderly, civilized society. Gentlemen no longer believed that upholding a dwindling sense of honor was worth dying for, much alone fighting for; they saw themselves as above it, and that such squabbles were a waste of their time and energy.

Fighting and hostility were also seen as incompatible with efforts to make men more sensitive and empathetic in the 1960s. The characteristics were related to domestic violence and rape, as well as the concept that if males aren’t taught to manage their dark, macho urges, they would become predators of women. Fighting was frowned upon in schools because it resulted in bodily harm and emotional distress, the weak being unjustly controlled by the physically powerful, and the possibility of explosive diversions from their teaching objective. Instead of being pushed to fight on the playground to settle disagreements and confront bullies, boys were trained to utilize conflict resolution skills and to notify an adult what was going on so that they might intervene.


When formal legal systems were absent or deemed insufficient to meet honor’s demands, harsh civilizations used honor and its concomitant violence as a means of imposing justice. However, as Western nations’ judicial systems grew more entrenched, resolving disagreements one-on-one became less necessary…and lawful. Vigilantism was no longer acceptable when the American frontier was closed. In the nineteenth century, men in both the North and the South shot and killed an insulter in broad daylight, without even engaging in a duel, and were acquitted – because, the killer would argue, it was the only honorable response, and what else could their peers have expected them to do in such circumstances? In the twentieth century, merely hitting another guy may result in you being prosecuted and imprisoned. A civil action in a courtroom, rather than a revolver on a field of honor, started to resolve conflicts in an increasingly litigious culture.

Personal aggression, maybe most crucially, suffered from its link with its ultimate manifestation: war. Going to war as a tribe might be justifiable on numerous grounds, just as men in old honor societies battled one other for a number of reasons. It wasn’t only for tribal security or territory conquest; it was also for the purpose of honor — a show of power, revenge for actual or imagined insults, or the plain expression of supremacy.

This attitude to combat was seriously questioned in the wake of World War I. It was suggested that a globalized, technological civilization now allowed for wars of a magnitude, intensity, length, and eventual death toll and damage that could only be justified in the most severe of circumstances and in the face of the clearest, most urgent dangers. The choice to go to war could no longer be taken lightly or based on the “nonsense” justification of honor, since simply flexing national strength in the current day may have disastrous and far-reaching effects. War for the sake of honor had to be restrained, lest the whole world devolve into a bloodbath.

This fledgling mindset was further bolstered by World War II. European governments waited until the prospect of German invasion became overwhelmingly apparent before entering the war, but America remained out until the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor directly. When the entire scope of the Holocaust’s atrocities became known at the conclusion of the war, a staggeringly strong moral argument was retrospectively added to the justification for involvement. The conflict could plainly be perceived as a battle between good and evil, and it is known as the “Good War” as a result. The yardstick of WWII has been used to assess all subsequent conflicts, and it has found all of them to be woefully inadequate. Vietnam, of course, became the ultimate emblem of irrational war and irrational honor in general. Some speculated that it went on for so long because LBJ would not allow himself to be disgraced, and that he was ready to let thousands of soldiers die in order to defend his own and the country’s reputation.


After Vietnam, all military operations had to be presented to the public as a matter of public safety and moral responsibility. In a traditional honor culture, for example, George W. Bush would have have needed to justify the Iraq War as a method to revenge his father’s honor, or simply as a way to display American power after 9/11 – a broad flexing of muscle done as a message to others in the Middle East. However, since we live in a post-honor world, he justified the war by citing the liberation of an oppressed people and the fear of WMDs, even though the latter was based on dubious evidence.

Because there hasn’t been a clear good vs. evil plot since WWII, the West has eschewed total war in favor of limited conflict, limiting aims to attrition and fuzzy humanitarian ideals of “nation-building.” Despite the amount of military conflicts the US has waged in recent decades, no official declaration of war has been made since the Big One.

General MacArthur thought that limited war shattered the links between leaders and followers because it gave them a dishonorable aim – anything less than ultimate victory – and removed the meaning and purpose of their sacrifice.

Due to widespread hostility to the conscription, limited conflicts are waged out of necessity. Because society and its leaders think that wars should be fought only for the most compelling of causes, they believe that men should be compelled to fight under the same conditions. The growing confidence in each individual’s individuality and value, as well as the smaller number of families, have exacerbated opposition to universal conscription. Parents are hesitant to put their children’s life in danger when they only have one or two to begin with. As a result of these factors, military duty is being taken up by a less and smaller percentage of the population, resulting in a widening divide between combatants and civilians.

Today’s State of Honor

Traditional honor cultures disintegrated during the course of the twentieth century for the reasons stated above. Today’s only prevalent form of shared honor is what James Bowman refers to as “anti-honor-honor.” Traditional honor is seen as anti-feminist, anti-egalitarian, hypocritical, an invitation to violence, exclusive, and uncompassionate by those who consider it as stupid, if not dangerous, and completely outmoded by the anti-honor-honor camp. Those who follow the anti-honor-honor concept think that men should not be humiliated into adhering to conventional masculine ideals, and instead celebrate a new style of manhood in which men are free to be whatever they want.

Nonetheless, a specter of honor in its most basic form — courage for men, chastity for women – persists. “Try calling a guy a wimp or a woman a slut if you don’t believe me,” Bowman writes. Men will shrug if you label them a slut (tellingly, there isn’t a widespread disparaging term for a male who sleeps around), and women won’t be upset if you call them a wimp.


“Cultural phantom limb syndrome” is the best way to describe it, according to Bowman. “Any cohesive notion of honor was excised from Western civilization three-quarters of a century or more ago, leaving just a few sensitive moral nerve endings that make themselves known every now and then when our residual sense of decorum and public virtue is insulted for no apparent reason.”

When these moral nerve ends become visible, the outcome is a kind of short-term orgy of anger that, since there are no mechanisms in today’s society to channel and cope with the feelings, dissipates as swiftly as it appeared.

Take, for example, Sandra Fluke. Rush Limbaugh’s remarks about her being a slut in February sparked significant uproar… The wave then crested and dissipated as fast as it had risen. In a traditional honor culture, Fluke’s father would have challenged Rush to a duel (now there’s something I’d pay to see) to protect her honor and put a stop to the issue once and for all. The intriguing thing about the Fluke story is that she promoted a liberal, progressive cause while still appealing to traditional honor norms. The fact that she thought being branded a slut was the most heinous of insults, and that she admired President Obama for standing up for her and effectively preserving her dignity, spoke to an old tradition of honor. It made for an intriguing contrast.

Traditional honor standards have lasted longer for women than for males in several aspects. For example, Newsweek dubbed Mitt Romney a wimp on their cover during the election, which would have been the most incendiary of insults in ancient times, virtually an invitation to single combat. Romney, on the other hand, seemed unconcerned and did not answer at all. At the same time, British tabloids released naked images of Prince Harry, but refrained to do so for Kate Middleton in order to preserve her modesty.

Women are more likely to be appreciated for their chastity, or at the very least not suffer repercussions for it, but males who fight for no “good” cause are labeled as thugs, lunkheads, or deviants, and warned to stop or face expulsion from school or imprisonment.

Traditional masculine honor, both as it pertains to primordial honor based on courage and strength and higher moral values, is still alive and well in parts of contemporary society, such as police and fire departments, fraternal lodges, certain churches, and the military, particularly in combat groups.


Traditional honor began to fall apart in the twentieth century as consensus on what constituted the common good of society eroded, and individuals chose to ignore the code in order to pursue their own selfish goals without shame. Honor shifted from being an exterior notion associated with “reputation” to a fully internal and private phenomenon, equivalent to “integrity,” due to the lack of a common honor code and a close-knit honor group to assess one’s actions. Everyone is allowed to create their own honor code, and the ultimate arbitrator of your honor is only your conscience (or God). At the very least, for those who still listen to their conscience (or God).


Individual freedom has increased exponentially as a consequence of this change in the concept of honor. It does, however, have certain drawbacks. The next and last piece in this series will discuss those drawbacks, why resurrecting certain components of traditional honor is important, and how to achieve so in an anti-honor-honor culture.

Part I of the Manly Honor Series: What is Honor? Part II: The Western Tradition of Honor’s Decline, from Ancient Greece to the Romantic Era Part IV: The Gentlemen and the Roughs: The Collision of Two Honor Codes in the American North Part III: The Victorian Era and the Development of the Stoic-Christian Code of Honor Part III: The Victorian Era and the Development of the Stoic-Christian Code of Honor Part III: The Victorian Era and the Development of the Stoic-Christian Code of Honor Part III: The Victorian Era and the Development of the Sto Part V: The American South’s Honor Part VI: The Western Decline of Traditional Honor in the 20th Century Part VII: How and Why to Resurrect Manly Honor in the 21st Century Podcast: The Gentlemen and the Roughs with Dr. Lorien Foote


James Bowman’s Honor: A History

Frank Henderson Stewart’s Honor

Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind

D. A. Lande’s I Was With Patton: First-Person Accounts of WWII under George S. Patton’s Command





The “modern examples of honor” are seen in the decline of traditional honor. Honor is a term that has been used for centuries and is defined as being esteemed or held in high regard. The modern examples of honor are seen in the decline of traditional honor in Western society.

Related Tags

  • false honor meaning
  • honor in ancient greece
  • defending one’s honor
  • the importance of honor
  • having honor