Honor is about common knowledge?

[epistemic status: musing, just barely grounded in history. Inspired by chapter four of the Elephant in the Brain.]

I’ve often mused how in (most parts) of the modern world, physical violence is utterly out of the question (no one expects to be murdered over a business deal), but we often take for granted that people are going to scam us, lie to us, try to cheat us, fail to follow through on an agreement, or otherwise take advantage of us, in the name of profit (the prototypical used car salesman is an excellent example, though it is broader than that.)

In contrast, in many other times and places, the reverse has held true: physical violence is common and expected, but lying or reneging on a promise is seen as an atrocious crime. To take a concrete instance, the Homeric Epics are populated with brutal thugs, and outright murderers (Odysseus is praised for “cleverly” slitting the throats of a group of sleeping Thracians and taking their stuff), but their norms of hospitality and ξενία (“guest friendship”), are regarded as sacred.

It is almost as if the locus of “civilization” has shifted. It used to be that to be civilized meant keeping one’s commitments, but , and now it means not outright murdering people.

I want to explore the connection between honesty and violence, and why they seem to trade off.

Why do “honor cultures” go with violence? 

There’s one natural reason why violence and sacred honor go together: if you don’t keep to your commitments, the other guy’ll kill you.

Indeed, he probably has to kill you, because your screwing him over represents an insult. If he doesn’t challenge that insult, it implies weakness on cowardice. He’s embedded in a system that depends on his physical courage: he has serfs to oppress, he has vassals to protect (and extract taxes from), and a lord or sovereign to whom he owes military service.

If it becomes common knowledge that he’s not challenging insults, and therefore, is presumably not confident in his own military prowess, those serfs and vassals might think that this is a good time to try and throw off his yoke, and other enemies might think that his land and stuff is ripe for the picking, and attack.

In the ancient world, the standard of what behavior was unacceptable was determined by the common knowledge that behavior was unacceptable, because that common knowledge impels the victim to seek recompense.

If an affront is weird enough to not land in the common knowledge as an insult, one might be able to let it pass, but in practice, one can’t be sure what others will view as an insult, so people were probably erring on the side of false negatives, to avoid the possibility of seeming weak. So, actions that we would consider innocuous (like minor lies), are big deals, and this becomes encoded in the culture.

A lord cannot afford to appear weak. Honor culture, and respect for commitments, follows from that.

Why does the modern world expect liars?

There’s a crucial difference in the modern world, though. In our era, the government maintains a monopoly on force.

This means, of course, that directly attacking someone who’s wronged you is out of the question. The government frowns on such behavior. Instead, disputes are handled not by duels or armed conflict, but by the courts.

This changes the rules of the game. Any scam that is legal enough to hold up in court is “fair game”, and if you don’t read the fine print on a contract that you signed, you might get screwed over.

In the modern world, the standard of what behavior is unacceptable is determined by the government and the courts. Anything that is clearly breaking the law is out, but any infractions that adversarially bypass the legal system (like a scam-y contract), is treated as “the sort of thing that happens” in the marketplace, a risk to protect against.



I’m sure I’m not the first person to say something like this. Anyone have sources for academic analyses of the roots of honor cultures?

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