Olin Conference January 5, 1995 Olin Center, Olin Conference. Democratic Honor. May 1995
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The John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy


Democratic Honor

May 19-21, 1995



Honor has nearly disappeared from the agenda of contemporary political science, an absence all the more striking since it remains a topic of continuing interest among anthropologists and sociologists. If "democratic honor" were in fact the oxymoron or atavism some take it to be, that might account for the silence. We may be managing well enough with our substitutes: reputation, respect, self-esteem, credibility, responsibility, commitment, human dignity, and the like. But is that so?

Our inclination to look further gets some encouragement from Tocqueville's analysis in Democracy in America (vol. 2, pt. 3, ch. 18). By distinguishing manifestations of esteem and glory from the rules by which they are awarded, Tocqueville leads us to see that every society has honor, even if democratic society is less obsessive and flamboyant on this point.

In our opening session Thomas Pangle will consider classical and modern liberal formulations of honor, as well as the continuing critiques that have been offered of honor. From a certain philosophical position, honor is only a consequence or appendage of a particular way of life, rather than an end in itself. From a certain biblical standpoint, honor is the public face of pride, a manifestation of human presumptuousness and rebellion. From a certain democratic standpoint, honor is a badge and instrument of class oppression, unjust and insupportable. We hope this session would also ask whether democratic society needs, or is able, to produce an alternative or substitute more congenial to its principles and tastes.

In the second session Elizabeth Fox-Genovese will look closely at how honor manifests itself in smaller, more intimate settings. The domestic hearth is where Tocqueville looked intently to trace the outlines of the emerging democratic ethos: the relations between husband and wife and between parents and children, the education of the young for adulthood. In predemocratic times honor centered on the integrity of the family name, with many implications for standards of sexual conduct, the transmission of property, and intergenerational bonds. Concurrent with the democratic transformation of honor is a series of related changes: the redefinition of the family, the virtual disappearance of the legal category of bastardy, and deep divisions over what constitutes masculinity and femininity. Whatever is taught about honor at home may be said to both reflect and reshape the status of honor in the society as a whole.

In this session Eugene Genovese will also examine honor in those enclaves or corners where it continues to hold sway at the margins, as it were, of modern democratic society, and where it sometimes erupts into violence. We might consider some colleges with their honor codes, or families or regions with traditions of military service, or gangs of criminals of whatever ages. Here individuals pledge their word and (often) their lives. How and why do such apparent atavisms survive? Is the democratic mainstream poorer for dismissing such preoccupations as absurd and fantastic?

In another session Charles Fairbanks and Wilson Carey McWilliams will explore the status, character, and prospects of political ambition in contemporary societies. Ambition, which the Greeks called "love of honor," used to be the link between the private satisfactions and the public virtues of aspiring and actual leaders. The Federalist not only tried to make ambition counteract ambition (#51) but expected "the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds" to prompt leaders to "plan and undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit" (#72). Traditions of public service in particular families may recall the origins of such concepts in the incorporation of traditional nobilities and gentries into court bureaucracies or parliaments, traditions of dubious status in societies that reject class distinctions. We would also like to ask whether current hostility to government both bureaucratic and elective still allows us to think of political ambition as honorable.

In a final session we would look at honor among the nations as it manifests itself (or fails to do so) in the conduct of foreign policy and war. Democratic practice in these areas has not always been as dismissive of considerations of honor as current theory. The defining document of the Americans' struggle for independence pledges its signatories' "sacred Honor." The Federalist speaks of an "honorable determination" to vindicate the cause of popular self-governance (#39), and of a foreign policy intended to "vindicate the honor of the human race" (#11). Subsequent American foreign policy pronouncements as well have asserted a connection between national interests and the cause of liberty abroad. That connection has been held to implicate the nation's honor, insistently so in the early formative years and sporadically thereafter. Are such appeals and considerations still intelligible and persuasive?

Also in this session we would like to look at the role of honor in democratic warfare. Democrats are suspicious of any group that purports to have a code not generally shared by the society as a whole, detecting in such distinctiveness notions of superiority and elitism. But can we do without such notions? We depend upon an army's fidelity to its code of honor to keep it from being menacing to those it is sworn to protect or wantonly brutal to enemy noncombatants. Nor are such notions absent in families who cherish their traditions of military service extending over generations.

Conference Schedule

Friday, May 19
1:00 p.m.
McCormick Theological Seminary
5555 S. Woodlawn, The Common Room

Session I
The Classical and Modern Liberal UnderstandingsThomas Pangle,
University of Toronto

Film Studies Center, Cobb Hall
5811 S. Ellis Ave., Room 306

Session II
A Showing and Discussion of On the WaterfrontDavid Bromwich,
Yale University

Saturday, May 20
10:00 a.m.
McCormick Theological Seminary
5555 S. Woodlawn, The Common Room

Session III
Honor and the FamilyElizabeth Fox-Genovese,
Emory University
Honor on the Margins of Democratic SocietyEugene Genovese,
University Center of Georgia

McCormick Theological Seminary
5555 S. Woodlawn, The Common Room

Session IV
Honor and Political Ambition in Contemporary SocietyCharles Fairbanks,
Johns Hopkins University
Wilson Carey McWilliams,
Rutgers University

Sunday, May 21
10:00 a.m.
McCormick Theological Seminary
5555 S. Woodlawn, The Common Room

Session V
Honor Among the NationsAdam Shulsky,
RAND Corp.
Honor in Democratic WarfareCol. Daniel Kaufman,
U.S. Military Academy


Hillel Fradkin, University of Chicago
Ruth Grant, Duke University
Steve Kautz, Emory University
Harvey Mansfield, Harvard University
Arthur Melzer, Michigan State
Anne Norton, University of Pennsylvania
G.M. Tamás, Institute of Philosophy, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Karl Walling, Air Force Academy
Delba Winthrop, Harvard University

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