If I feel particularly energetic after my weekend bike ride, I finish off my workout with one or two laps around Lake Merced in San Francisco, a popular recreation spot. At one corner of the lake is a small sign saying ‘Broderick-Terry Duel’. Most people completely ignore it. The sign points towards an unseen location, where two stone obelisks mark the site of a duel fought between United States Senator David C. Broderick and ex-Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, David S. Terry, on September 13, 1859. Although the two men had been friends at one time, Broderick was an abolitionist, while Terry was pro-slavery. Intense political disagreements led to mutual resentments and, on a point of honor, Terry challenged Broderick to a duel and shot him. Broderick died from his wounds three days later. The duel drew national attention and it fueled both attempts to outlaw dueling in California (the Terry/Broderick duel has been called the last ‘significant duel’ in California) as well as the push towards civil war.
The point of honor that Terry could not overlook was a speech by Broderick in which he doubted Terry’s honesty and stated that he was a “dammed miserable ingrate”. Clearly, for Terry, ‘honor’ meant something close to ‘reputation’. Only something involving his sense of self, the core of his identity, would be worth fighting for, and perhaps dying for. In the present Western world it is equally clear that we no longer live in an ‘honor culture’. The very concept of honor has changed radically and the word itself has been virtually expunged from everyday language. Some intellectuals have used this fact to argue that we live in a ‘post-honor’ society while Conservatives such as William Bennett decry the moral bankruptcy of our times and argue that it’s time to “restore the ancient and vital concept of honor in private and public life.” The evidence seems overwhelming. Books such as the memoir of the disgraced and convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, illustrate the degree to which members of Congress on both sides of the aisle profit from trading stocks that are directly affected by pending government policy.
But is it really true that, as a society, honor no longer plays a pivotal role in our lives because we don’t use the word as often? Are cars any less important to us because we no longer use the word ‘automobile’ frequently? It’s true that we no longer have a ‘culture of honor’ but that is simply because we have moved beyond a frontier society to one where the state has replaced the individual as the entity responsible for enforcing laws. Also, the concept of honor used to have much more of a social content. What was honorable used to be dictated by the social hierarchy. The higher a person’s social status the more honorable they were deemed to be. Similarly, a person’s sense of honor was derived from the honors they received according to the position they held. William Bennett wants “the nation to make pronouncements on fundamental matters of right and wrong” and of course, persons in positions of authority, with a strong sense of their own honor, would naturally be the people to make these pronouncements. However, in the Western world today it’s the personal that dominates the social. A person is honorable to the extent that they dance to their own drummer. What matters is how closely they live according to their own idea of the good life. Honor is now purely an individual affair.
An honorable person today is one who resolves conflicts by referring to the yardstick of their own honor. This is particularly true when problems, temptations and dangers make it difficult to choose the right path. The objects of honor may be a particular cause, a belief system, professional standards, justice, personal ideals, love or friendship, but leading an honorable life means choosing the good life, according to your own highest standards, and doing your best to remain loyal to it through thick and thin. William Bennett will no doubt disagree, but this transition from a social to an individual concept of honor, represents genuine moral progress. Honor is now constituted by what people are not by their wealth or position in society.
“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.” Declaration of Independence