The Human Condition:

The Power of Personal Honor – December 22, 2013

Knight in armor

If I have a sense of personal honor, I got it from my parents. From my mother mostly, as I remember it, although my father’s influence was almost as strong. Mother was around more, and it’s her voice I hear in my head.

If I did or said something wrong when I was growing up, she would say, “We don’t do that,” or “We don’t say things like that.” In every case “we” was the family, the closest human association I knew,1 the only club I could join at the time, because I’m talking about a child of four, five, or six years old. The family included not just my parents and my brother, the nuclear family, but stretched to the august heights of my distant grandparents, and to the breadth of my far-flung aunts, uncles, and cousins. When I did or said the wrong thing, I was letting them down, embarrassing them, and separating myself from what they held to be important. The idea that these interpretations of right and wrong might just be my mother’s own rules didn’t occur to me. The invocation of family heritage and watchfulness was the main thing.

My mother’s second line of defense was, “You’re better than that.” This came later, at the age of seven, eight, or nine. When I did or said the wrong thing, I was letting myself down, abusing an image of the proper person that I was supposed to be, the image I was supposed to carry inside me. It was a one-two punch: you’re letting us down, and then you’re letting yourself down.

And I have to say it worked. It socialized the wild demon that lives in every child. It set boundaries and limits. It made me conscious of my actions and speech. It built a conscience inside my head.

My father worked in a different way. He did not so much admonish as demonstrate. He always—as far as I could tell—spoke the truth. He did the right thing. He stepped outside of his comfort zone to preserve and protect what he saw as good and right, as belonging to the natural order.2 And if I asked him why, he would try to explain it all. He showed that he believed in a larger world beyond himself. In that larger world, in the society of which he partook and tried to demonstrate for us boys, telling the truth and keeping your promises were rewarded, law and reciprocity were the natural mechanism and the way that society worked, and the world made sense. The idea that this model of the world might just be my father’s personal view didn’t occur to me. The invocation of rightness and its reasonableness was the main thing.

Believing in this rightness built confidence. It helped me see that the world was a place in which right action and right speech worked to my benefit. This was not necessarily a safe or an easy world to inhabit, but one in which a human being could function. It reassured the timid child that there was a purpose to life. It made me conscious of what the world expected of me.

These weren’t acts of calculation or genius on my parents’ part, but simply the way their fathers and mothers had socialized and taught them in the past. And yes, I also experienced not a few angry shouts and spankings along the way. Still, I remember the admonitions and the demonstrations more.

In Freudian terms, these parental interactions constructed the superego which oversees the ego and suppresses the id. In terms of Transactional Analysis, they became the inner “parent” which instructs the “adult” and corrects the “child.”

Perhaps this sense of honor and restraint can grow naturally in a human being, without the influence of parents and their admonitions and demonstrations. Yet I tend to think not. A conscience, a sense of personal honor, the positive positioning of self in the world, a personal code that describes things one will always do, things one will never do—these are different from instinct. Instinct is what we inherit from our long evolutionary development and share with the animals. Conscience and honor are what we learn from our parents and teachers, and reinforce through our associates and nearby social partners, during our relatively short childhoods and then share with other fully developed human beings.

Perhaps a child can learn a conscience and a sense of honor by bumping along in contact with other children and the über-society of distant, uncaring adults. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, about children organizing their own society on a desert island, and Leon Bing’s Do or Die, about the socialization of gang life in Los Angeles, suggest otherwise. Children’s view of life, unguided by caring adults, is necessarily fragmentary and self-centered. And what one can learn by brushing up against the larger society’s laws and institutions without patient guidance is usually how to avoid exposure and exploit the cracks, rather than how to navigate the channels and make a contribution.

Conscience and personal honor are part of a two-way mechanism. They compel you to say and do the right things, to keep your promises, to live and perhaps die by your personal code. At the other end of this mechanism are the people who have developed for themselves an unspoken sense of your inner constraints and compulsions. These are your high school and college teachers, corporate supervisors, early mentors, army sergeants, teammates and opponents, lovers and spouses, business associates, competitors, and casual acquaintances. They expect you to tell the truth, turn in your homework, show up for appointments, honor your commitments, fulfill your contracts, do your job, and perhaps go up that hill and die for your country. Or not. If you cannot or will not do these things—or perhaps do not even know that the obligation exists—then these people will know it. They will no longer hold you accountable and will avoid being in your company.

Conscience and personal honor are the flip side of human trust. As a coin cannot have only one side,3 so trust cannot exist without an anchor point within the person who is asking for, expecting, or receiving another’s trust. That anchor point is adherence to a code that rises above the animal instinct of “I’ll get mine and to hell with you.”

Curiously, people who have a code of honor are also more likely to extend trust to others. Not blindly and not to everyone or just anyone, of course. A person of honor looks for it in others. It’s something about the focus of the eyes, the quality of the smile, the underlying assumptions of casual talk and humor, the outcomes of observed actions. You sense it. You know it. And you put your faith in it. Or not. Those who do not live by their own code of personal honor cannot pass invisibly and seamlessly through society. They leave a trail of disappointment, if not of outright betrayal and disaster. For all their jokes and smiles, they cannot hide what they are. Honest people—people who are honest with themselves and others—will know them and step aside, turn away, find others in whom to place their trust. Or so I believe.

The personal code, the sense of honor, is at the core of every decision, the pivot point upon which every choice turns. It’s buried so deep in the psyche that the person of honor does not actually have to think “This is wrong” or “That’s something I won’t do” or “I shouldn’t say that.” The impulse itself comes wrapped in a red haze, a warning sense, a visceral repulsion. The sense of honor is buried so deep that the person will suffer deprivation and indignity, go to torture and death, rather than violate it. It becomes what the person is and does.

It’s not that someone is always watching, even if you can’t see him, and will tattle on you to authority or to your friends. It’s not that God is always watching and will dispatch you to Hell the moment you’re so careless as to die. It’s not that mother or father is watching—from the other side of the room, from the kitchen, or from somewhere up in Heaven—and will feel shame at your words or deeds. It might start that way, but the obligation to parents usually fades by the end by childhood. No, it’s that you yourself are watching. And this is the one person you cannot evade, cannot successfully lie to, cannot convincingly cheat, and who will know that you are untrue and found wanting.

The power of personal honor is the underpinning of social interaction. If I lose it, I become something like an animal. If too many around me lose it, we slip back not just beyond the teachings of our enlightened ones or the wisdom of the ancients, but beyond the social cohesion of the hunter-gatherer tribe. We become a monkey troop—and that’s a hard place for any individual to exist.

1. The dogs were another category of association, not so demanding but equally filled with responsibility.

2. As I’ve told elsewhere (see Son of a Mechanical Engineer from March 31, 2013), on a trip to Canada when I was very young, my family was out walking on a promenade along a shoreline protected with armor rock. A beautiful mahogany speedboat, totally unattended, had just broken away from the dock at a marina out on the point and was drifting down onto this rocky shore. My father climbed down over the rocks, waded into the water, and held off the boat until someone could get in touch with the marina to send a launch to retrieve it. He broke a finger wrestling with that errant speedboat. This is a memory I’ve carried to this day, and it taught me something about civic duty.

3. I suppose early markers of trade—scratches and dabs of paint on flat stones used for counting sheep and such—had only one side. But by the time coiners were pressing images of kings and gods onto precious metal, both sides were struck. Like the milling around the edge of a coin, it reduced the places where a person of dubious intent might shave a bit of the metal for himself.