What does honor mean in America today

Have the Honor: what is honor and why is it still so important?

As early as 1984 Otto Angehrn wrote an "Obituary for Honor" - and rightly so: "Honor" has long since lost its meaning as a yardstick for correct behavior in Europe. Anyone who calls someone "honorable" today means an individual and his or her personal integrity: "The honor of this world cannot give you any honor / What in truth lifts and holds you / Must live in yourself," wrote Theodor Fontane in 19th century. Honor has become an inner greatness.

But this kind of "honor" is not meant when people demand "respect", see their honor insulted, declare someone a "man of honor" or use violence in the name of (lost) honor. So what do you mean when a Turkish proverb says that losing your honor is worse than losing your life?

What honor means

Historically and presently, there are similar notions of honor around the world. They have also shaped European history, from the world of Homer and the Romans to medieval knights and modern duels. Today we find honorary presentations mainly in Mediterranean cultures, in the Near and Middle East, in southern Italy, Greece, Albania, Turkey, the Levant, Pakistan, Afghanistan, but also in Africa and East Asia. Despite their differences, there are some similarities between them.

Traditional honor can be defined very simply as the "right to respect". It is on the one hand part of the self-image (the feeling of having this right) and on the other hand a social status (the knowledge of others about this right). But: Honor comes to a person not by itself, but always depends on the recognition by a certain social group and on the fulfillment of the social norms that are defined by this group - the "code of honor." Such a group can be an extended family, a clan, a village community , a tribe, an ethnic or religious group or a social class (for example nobility, knighthood, military). This right to respect is only ever in the eyes of the respective reference group, who can grant or deny it: honor, the you cannot lose is not an honor. It is important to justify it and, in an emergency, to defend it yourself (!) or to restore it - ideas of honor always have an H nec on vigilante justice. The only decisive factors are the norms and reputation in the reference group, not state laws or other social conventions.

Shame and shame

The opposite terms to honor are shame and shame: a violation of the social order is perceived by the community as shame, about which the individual feels shame. He is thus called into question as a whole person. The distinction between horizontal and vertical honor is also helpful: the horizontal honor results from the mutual respect of all who belong to a group; Within this group, the vertical honor goes to particularly deserving people, for example outstanding individuals, the elderly or certain social roles (father, head of the family).

Honor is thus part of a social system of order that understands people primarily as a social being who has to fulfill certain role expectations and subordinate its own interests to those of the group. Such a moral order is built on core values ​​such as belonging, loyalty, obedience, sense of duty, authority, reverence, purity and strong social cohesion.

Honor in women: sexuality and honor killings

The psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen have determined the following characteristics of traditional cultures of honor:

  • Dominance of men with close social connections (clan, tribe, elected community)
  • Autonomy and freedom as male ideals: Men are only obliged to the group's own authority figures, not to other authorities
  • special value of status and reputation, therefore harsh reaction to perceived insults
  • Willingness to defend one's status oneself, including through the use of force
  • Guests and clients enjoy unconditional protection (holy hospitality)
  • Men are allowed premarital and extramarital sex
  • Concern for the vulnerability and virginity of women: Men have to watch over the women belonging to them (wife, daughter, sister)
  • Control of female sexuality and the female body through concealment, spatial isolation or genital mutilation
  • physical and verbal violations of female honor must be avenged by a man in charge of protection

A strict distinction between men and women becomes clear here: While men have a kind of "heroic ethos" (courage, self-defense, reaction to insults, strength, perseverance, hospitality, honesty, reliability, generosity), women are primarily concerned with their ethos Sexuality and a corresponding good behavior. This also ties male honor to that of women: their behavior becomes the linchpin of family honor and every undesirable act is strictly sanctioned as shameful, dishonorable behavior. Verbal attacks against women to be protected require a corresponding masculine reaction in order to preserve the honor.

At the same time, women are of the utmost importance to the system as, through marriage, they deepen relationships between families or within family clans. They are therefore often the object of arranged or forced marriages. While young men have to acquire, maintain and sometimes restore their honor through appropriate behavior, the honor of an unmarried woman is directly linked to her status of virginity and can only be lost by her. This then means "shame" for the family that has failed in its duty of supervision and thus loses its family honor. In the worst case, restoring this family honor requires what is known as "honor killing".

The man-woman difference is so great that the model of the sworn virgin has established itself in various regions (e.g. Albania and Afghanistan): If a family no longer has a male head, a woman can ritually give up her female gender and the sexuality associated with it and in this way is made a man. Only then can it exercise an authority function.

What honor is good for

Now at the latest the question arises, what is honor good for and why its importance is unbroken in many places. An honor-based common law has some advantages in certain circumstances. It offers orientation in societies in which there are hardly any formal legal structures and protection of the individual by state institutions (police, judiciary); or these structures exist but are considered weak or corrupt. Honor is a model of social organization when the rule of law, the state monopoly on the use of force and social security systems are not or hardly developed. It shows people as reliable and trustworthy, it creates trust and stability, through the exchange of favors and assistance, a system of mutual obligations is established that can be counted on in an emergency - greetings from "the godfather". Honor obliges to loyalty and support, thus ensuring material security and protection and satisfying the human need for social recognition.

For migrants from cultures with an honor-based customary law, this can mean protection and orientation in the foreign majority society, but also social appreciation: Because the status of honor is independent of material criteria, equality with the others is maintained even if they are economically inferior. This makes it particularly attractive for young people from precarious social backgrounds to secure their self-confidence through their honorary status: You yourself have honor, the majority of society does not.

Honor is therefore not simply associated with certain cultures, but can also develop anew in specific social contexts, for example in slums, ghettos, some large city districts, conflict regions or in organized crime: all forms of organized crime derive their efficiency essentially from ideas of honor; Associated with this are a code of honor, group loyalty, a strong sense of belonging, trust, authority, vigilante justice, individual willingness to make sacrifices and social favors.

Honor and religion

Religion does not necessarily need honor, but it is often closely related to it. Representations of honor require strong identifications with the respective group and, in addition, sacred, inviolable values ​​that must be defended at all costs. Religions can affirm and support these values, for example by sacralizing loyalty to the family or the preservation of virginity. For example, Islamic hadith literature supports and legitimizes the concept of honor by repeatedly emphasizing the importance and respect for honor; the code of honor of the Japanese samurai was closely related to Zen Buddhism. Religions can also become one by themselves honor group by tying honor to religious affiliation and only granting honor to members of their own religion. Religions can religiously charge and legitimize specific practices of honor cultures, but they can also offer resistance. Very often, notions of honor are so strongly anchored regionally that in case of doubt, honor-based customary law prevails over religious law or religious law integrates customary law and brings it into harmony with religious norms.

Christianity has always struggled with the heroic honor model, but accepted it as a social reality. The solution, which was particularly popular in the Middle Ages, was to accept honor, but to civilize it through "gentle" virtues such as piety, mildness, kindness, loyalty or moderation. This mixture of fighting strength and gentleness shapes the ideal of the knightly hero to this day, even if it was more ideal than social reality even then. However, indirectly, Christianity has contributed to the transformation of traditional concepts of honor: the prohibition of polygamy and the comparatively strict management of kinship marriages have increasingly restricted the formation of clans, extended families and tribes in Europe over the centuries. The social class and not the family clan became the reference system for European ideas of honor, which made the system more flexible. Exceptions confirm the rule, the nobility has always secured its honor through kinship relationships, for the Mediterranean region (southern Italy, southern Spain) more robust clan structures can also be established; Here in particular it was customary on the part of the church to grant the normal population exceptional permits for kinship marriages (mostly between cousin and cousin).

Honor today

The state's monopoly of force, individualization, the ideal of personal freedom, the Enlightenment concept of dignity and the internalization of honor into decency or integrity have made traditional notions of honor into a social relic in Europe; the use of the term honor in the Nazi era ultimately morally disavowed him. To the extent that the above-mentioned factors erode, concepts of honor can definitely experience a comeback, at least in specific social subsystems, also religiously supported. As a possible form of social organization, the importance of honor remains unbroken, as incomprehensible as this thinking may seem today. (Christian Feichtinger, July 10, 2019)

Christian Feichtinger studied Catholic Religion, Religious Studies and Applied Ethics and is an assistant at the Institute for Catechetics and Religious Education at the University of Graz.


  • Burkhart, D. (2006): A History of Honor. - Darmstadt.
  • Nisbett R. E./Cohen D. (1996): Culture of Honor. The Psychology of Violence in the South. - Boulder.
  • Stewart, F. H. (1994): Honor. - Chicago.
  • Vogt, L. (1997): On the logic of honor in contemporary society. Differentiation, power, integration. - Frankfurt.

More posts in the religious studies blog