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Alexander Hamilton defending his honour by accepting Aaron Burr's challenge to a duel.

Honour or honor (see spelling differences), is the evaluation of a person’s reputation, trustworthiness and social status based on that individual's espousals and actions. Honour is deemed exactly what determines a person's character: whether or not the person reflects honesty, respect, integrity, or fairness. Accordingly, individuals are assigned worth and stature based on the harmony of their actions, code of honour, and that of the society at large. Honour can be analysed as a relativistic concept, i.e., conflicts between individuals and even cultures arising as a consequence of material circumstance and ambition, rather than fundamental differences in principle. Alternatively, it can be viewed as nativist — that honour is as real to the human condition as love, and likewise derives from the formative personal bonds that establish one's personal dignity and character.

Dr Samuel Johnson, in his A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), defined honour as having several senses, the first of which was "nobility of soul, magnanimity, and a scorn of meanness." This sort of honour derives from the perceived virtuous conduct and personal integrity of the person endowed with it. On the other hand, Johnson also defined honour in relationship to "reputation" and "fame"; to "privileges of rank or birth", and as "respect" of the kind which "places an individual socially and determines his right to precedence." This sort of honour is not so much a function of moral or ethical excellence, as it is a consequence of power. Finally, with respect to women, honour may be synonymous with "chastity" or "virginity".

Honour, sex, and violence

Traditionally, in Western society, honour figured largely as a guiding principle. A man's honour, that of his wife, his blood family or his beloved, formed an all-important issue: the archetypal "man of honour" remained ever alert for any insult, actual or suspected: for either would impugn his honour.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

The concept of honour appears to have declined in importance in the modern secular West. Popular stereotypes would have it surviving more definitively in alleged "hot-blooded" cultures (Italian, Persian, Arab, Iberian, etc.) or in more "gentlemanly" societies (like the "Old South" of Dixie). Feudal or other agrarian societies, which focus upon land use and land ownership, may tend to "honour" more than do deracinated industrial societies. An emphasis on the importance of honour exists in such institutions as the military (officers may conduct a court of honour) and in organisations with a military ethos, such as Scouting organisations.

"Honour" in the case of females is frequently related, historically, to sexuality: preservation of "honour" equated primarily to maintenance of virginity of unattached women and to the exclusive monogamy of the remainder. One can speculate that feminism has changed some linguistic usage in this respect. Conceptions of honour vary widely between cultures; in some cultures, honour killing of (mostly female) members of one's own family are considered justified if the individuals have "defiled the family's honour" by marrying against the family's wishes, or even by being the victims of rape. These honour killings are generally seen in the West as a way of men using the culture of honour to control female sexuality [1].

Cultures of honour and cultures of law

One can contrast cultures of honour with cultures of law. In a culture of law there is a body of laws which must be obeyed by all, with punishments for transgressors. This requires a society with the structures required to enact and enforce laws. A culture of law incorporates an unwritten social contract: members of society agree to give up most of their rights to defend themselves and retaliate for injuries, on the understanding that transgressors will be apprehended and punished by society. From the viewpoint of anthropology, cultures of honour typically appear among nomadic peoples and herdsmen who carry their most valuable property with them and risk having it stolen, without having recourse to law enforcement or government. In this situation, inspiring fear forms a better strategy than promoting friendship; and cultivating a reputation for swift and disproportionate revenge increases the safety of one's person and property. Thinkers ranging from Montesquieu to Steven Pinker have remarked upon the mindset needed for a culture of honour.

Cultures of honour therefore appear among the Bedouins, Scottish and English herdsmen of the Border country, and many similar peoples, who have little allegiance to a national government; among cowboys, frontiersmen, and ranchers of the American West, where official law-enforcement often remained out of reach, as is famously celebrated in Westerns; among the plantation culture of the American South, and among aristocrats, who enjoy hereditary privileges that put them beyond the reach of codes of law. Cultures of honour also flourish in criminal underworlds and gangs, whose members carry large amounts of cash and contraband and cannot complain to the law if it is stolen.

Once a culture of honour exists, it is difficult for its members to make the transition to a culture of law; this requires that people become willing to back down and refuse to immediately retaliate, and from the viewpoint of the culture of honour, this tends to appear to be an unwise act reflecting weakness.

Related concepts

In contemporary international relations, the concept of "credibility" resembles that of honour, as when the credibility of a state or of an alliance appears to be at stake, and honour-bound politicians call for drastic measures.

Compare the concepts of integrity, face (social custom) in stereotyped East Asian cultures, or of mana in Polynesian society.

The ancient Greek concepts of honour (timē) included not only the exaltation of the one receiving honour, but also the shaming of the one overcome by the act of hubris. This concept of honour is akin to a zero-sum game.

As for East Asia, there are a few words more to say. First of all, in lands such as Japan, honour was always seen as an almost-duty (by Samurai, but also the common citizenry). When you lost your honour or the situation made you lose it, there was only one way to save your dignity: death. Seppuku (vulgarly called "harakiri," or "belly-cutting") was the most honourable death in that situation. The only way for a Samurai to die more honourably was to be killed in a battle by a sword. Today, people in Japan, and Tahiti, hold on to their dignity and don't want their honour to be lost.Yet there are others who still stick to old Eastern values, even in a Western world.

For a similar concept with many connotations opposite to honour, see shame.


  • "Mine honour is my life, both grow in one. Take honour from me, and my life is done. Then, dear my liege, mine honour let me try; In that I live, and for that I will die." — William Shakespeare, Richard II (1.1.182-185)
  • "Oh Lord! How many of these you surely have spilt over the world, who suffer for the black so-called honour what they would not suffer for you!" (Lázaro) [...] "I make you know that I am, as you see, a squire; but, by God!, if Ï meet the count on the street and he does not fully take off his hat before me, next time I will know to enter a house, simulating to have some business there, or cross to another street, if there is one, before he reaches me, so that I will not take off mine. That a hidalgo does not owe anything to anybody but God and the king, nor it is proper, being a good man, to lose a comma of care in regarding himself highly." (The Squire) — Anonymous, Lazarillo de Tormes, Third Tract.
  • "Honour thy father and thy mother; that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee." — KJV Holy Bible (Exodus 20:12).
  • "To the King, one must give his possessions and his life; but honour is a possession of soul, and the soul is only God's." — Pedro Crespo in Pedro Calderón de la Barca's The Mayor of Zalamea, 1st day.
  • "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of the divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." — Thomas Jefferson [2] [3]
  • "... Honour ... remains awake in us like a last lamp in a temple that has been laid to waste." — Alfred de Vigny, Servitude et grandeur militaires (1835).
  • "... during the time that the aristocracy was dominant, the concepts honour, loyalty, etc. were dominant, during the dominance of the bourgeoisie the concepts freedom, equality, etc." — Marx and Engels, The German Ideology.
  • "We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst." — C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
  • "Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing." — Robert E. Howard, The Tower of the Elephant
  • "I will to my lord be true and faithful, and love all which he loves and shun all which he shuns." — Anglo-Saxon oath as quoted in Civilization IV, similar to the Buddhist Oath of Refuge.
  • "I will be forced to sink [the US ships], because even if I have one ship left I will proceed with the bombardment. Spain, the Queen and I prefer honour without ships than ships without honour.", Casto Méndez Núñez on the Valparaiso bombardment.
  • "To die with honour, when one can no longer live with honour." — Giacomo Puccini, Madama Butterfly
  • "We have no other choice. Our submission would serve no end; if Germany is victorious, Belgium, whatever her attitude, will be annexed to the Reich. If die we must, better death with honour." — Prime Minister de Broqueville of Belgium, responding to Germany's demand for Belgium's capitulation, 2 August 1914
  • "Rather fail with honour than succeed by fraud" — Sophocles
  • "In contrast to the purely economically determined "class situation" we wish to designate as "status situation" every typical component of the life fate of men that is determined by a specific, positive or negative, social estimation of honour. This honour may be connected with any quality shared by a plurality, and, of course, it can be knit to a class situation: class distinctions are linked in the most varied ways with status distinctions. Property as such is not always recognised as a status qualification, but in the long run is, and with extraordinary regularity." Max Weber
  • "Peace is a precious and a desirable thing. Our generation, bloodied in wars, certainly deserves peace. But peace, like almost all things of this world, has its price, a high but a measurable one. We in Poland do not know the concept of peace at any price. There is only one thing in the lives of men, nations and countries that is without price. That thing is honor." — Józef Beck

Honours and awards

Main article: Honors in psychology

See also

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
  • Il Canto di Malavita is a collection of three recordings from PIAS of the folk music of the Calabrian Ndrangheta, an organised crime group operating in southern Italy. Members call themselves L'Onorata, the "men of honour"; the lyrics to these songs prominently feature murder and revenge against betrayers and informers, and offer a glimpse into the self-image of a culture of honour.


  • Bowman, James. Honor: A History. Encounter Books, 2006. ISBN 1594031428. [Cf. excerpts from writings of James Bowman on Honor. Personal website of James Bowman. Accessed May 16, 2007.
  • de Secondat, Charles, Baron de Montesquieu. The Spirit of the Laws. 2 vols. Originally published anonymously. 1748; Crowder, Wark, and Payne, 1777. External link to digitized copy of The Spirit of the Laws book in public domain..
  • d'Iribarne, Philippe. "The Logic of Honour: National Traditions and Corporate Management". Welcome Rain Publishers, 2003. ISBN 978-1566491822.
  • Nisbett, Richard E., and Dov Cohen. Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. Westview, 1996. ISBN 0-8133-1993-5.
  • Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2002. ISBN 0-670-03151-8.