18 Pages

Smith’s ambivalence about honour


Honour, Montesquieu tells us, is the ‘principle of monarchy’ (1989: 27). Monarchy ‘assumes … preeminences’ and ‘ranks’, and it is ‘the nature of honour … to demand preferences and distinctions’ (27). In monarchies (and honour cultures more generally), ‘ambition’, the desire for honour, is a source of social order. ‘Honour makes all parts of the body politic move’ (27). People seek honour, as it were, from below, and honour is bestowed from above, ultimately, by the king. Or to use Montesquieu’s preferred metaphor, honour is conferred from the ‘centre’ and pursued from the periphery (27). Elsewhere I have argued that honour and the form of respect of which it is

the distinctive object (and through which hierarchies of honour are themselves constituted), form a dyad that opposes the dyad characteristic of liberal moral and political order, namely, the equal dignity of persons along with its distinctive form of respect (as I argue, respect for one another as mutually accountable equals) (Darwall 2008). Both honour respect and second-personal respect (as I call respect for our equal authority to hold one another answerable) are forms of recognition for persons, but persons conceived in two fundamentally different ways.1 We can appreciate this difference by reflecting on a phrase that is sometimes used to signify equality under law, namely, that the law is no ‘respecter of persons’. Familiar as this phrase may be, it can sound odd to contemporary ears. What can it mean to say that the law does not respect persons? Isn’t the very idea of equal legal dignity that the law respects all persons equally? What this phrase means, of course, is that the law does not respect differences or ‘distinctions’ between persons, specifically, that it pays no heed to differences of social status – Montesquieu’s ‘rank’ and ‘preeminence’ – that it is the nature of honour respect to constitute. Honour respect is in this sense quite precisely a respecter of persons. It respects, and thereby constructs, the persona in its classic sense of social role or ‘mask’, the ‘face’ of social self-presentation. It is possible to occupy any given social status, rank, or role only if the attempt to do so is appropriately recognized or honoured by others. Honour respect and respect for equal dignity thus define two opposing

conceptions of social and moral order. The most obvious difference between them, of course, is between the hierarchy and equality they respectively

recognize and support. No less significant, however, are different forms of relationship they respectively mediate. We treat one another as equals by engaging and relating to them on equal terms ‘upon ordinary occasions’, as Adam Smith puts it (Smith 1976a, TMS I.iii.2.3, p. 53), by holding ourselves answerable to one another, whereas honour respect and contempt manifest themselves in very different forms of treatment – deference or disdain, for example, or by just playing social roles that support or undermine the roles that others attempt to play. This puts mutual accountability at the heart of a society of equals and makes it an anathema to cultures of honour. In the former, holding someone accountable is itself a form of respect for their equal authority as persons. In the latter, it is often most naturally taken as an insult: ‘You talkin’ to me?’. A number of recent writers, most prominently Emma Rothschild, but also

others, including Samuel Fleischacker, Charles Griswold and myself, have stressed strong egalitarian themes in Adam Smith’s writings (Rothschild 2002, Fleischacker 2005, Griswold 1999, Darwall 2004, 2006). For my part, I have argued that we can find in Smith an early form of the idea I develop in Darwall (2006), namely, that we share a common basic standing (secondpersonal authority, as I call it) to make claims of others and hold ourselves accountable to one another. But this is only part of the story. Although Smith had a detailed appreciation of the conflicts between an order of honour and one based on equal respect, he was nonetheless drawn to certain aspects of honour culture. In what follows, I wish to explore what we might call Smith’s ‘ambivalence’ about honour. On the one hand, Smith calls the disposition to admire those of rank and wealth ‘the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments’, and he notes that it is almost impossible to treat those of exalted rank ‘as men’ and ‘reason and dispute with them upon ordinary occasions’ (TMS I.iii.3.1, p. 61; I.iii.2.3, p. 53). On the other, there are many passages in which Smith praises a concern with rank and criticizes those who are oblivious to it and prepared to suffer insults to their honour and station as ‘mean-spirited’ (TMS VI.iii.16, p. 244). ‘Magnanimity, or a regard to maintain our own rank and dignity in society’, he writes, ‘must characterize our whole stile and deportment’ (TMS I.ii.3.8, p. 38). It is not surprising that Smith’s thought displays these complexities and

tensions. In addition to the fact that Smith was an enormously subtle philosopher and moral psychologist, we should also bear in mind his social and political context. Smith was not the only acute moral philosopher of his time to show ambivalence about honour. Kant was another who played an important role in shaping liberal egalitarian moral and political ideas while also having one foot in an earlier ethic of honour.2 In mid-to late-eighteenthcentury Europe, a fundamentally hierarchical order along with its traditional status notions of rank and honour were just beginning to shift towards a conception of moral and political relations grounded in equal dignity and equal respect.