Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Wistful Quest for Honour

As in The Walking Dead, the protagonists in the wonderful postapocalyptic movie, Mad Max: Fury Road, wrestle with the question of whether to hold on to ethical principles and fight for something greater than themselves or to regress along with the world and act as narrow-minded animals. A quotation at the end of Mad Max reads, “Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.” The heroes search, then, for honour despite the futility of that effort. Their honour is at best tragic, although perhaps the world’s indifference to our struggles is a precondition of moral value. There would be a worse sort of absurdity to the lack of impediments in heaven, since in that deathly state of bliss there would be no need for improvements nor any desire at all since a desire entails a lack of fulfillment.

In our hypermodern culture, though, honour itself is outmoded.

What is Honour?

Honour isn’t just about moral reputation or respect for someone’s high moral standing; it’s not just a matter of performing deeds of renown. An honourable person has integrity and so honour is opposed to hypocrisy. This means that an honourable person has no inner conflict, so that he doesn’t wear different faces, as it were, in different companies. He’s discovered his deepest self and honours that self in his actions and beliefs, regardless of the circumstances. So honour is a virtue, not just a matter of obeying moral laws.

Still, honour is a masculine preoccupation, which is odd because the interest in morality is universal. Moreover, honour is a mainstay of tribal societies as opposed to those ruled by law. A society that can’t afford the governmental institutions to guarantee a monopoly on the use of force within its borders relies on a code of honour so that its members don’t descend into anarchy when an opportunity arises to take advantage of each other. Desert tribespeople, for example, feel honour-bound to shelter travellers, and lords of medieval Europe would back up their word by pledging their estates “on their honour.” These prescriptions, that strangers in need should be assisted and that oaths should be kept are implicit rather than codified, because there’s no institution that could enforce such prescriptions in pre-industrialized societies. Honour works by an appeal to prestige that depends on how the rest of a population feels about each of its members. If you have honour, you enjoy society’s goodwill towards you, if not necessarily any protection by an all-powerful government. If you’ve committed some dishonor and your shameful act is discovered, you’ll be shunned, at a minimum, rather than automatically punished in some regulated fashion.

I’d submit, then, that honour arose prehistorically as a modification of the power dynamics that stabilize groups of social animals. Alpha wolves are more respected than betas in their packs, but that respect is little more than fear, because wolves lack the self-control to be interested in questions of what they should do as opposed to what they must do. Human societies are still defined by their dominance hierarchies, and there’s a sense of “honour” that captures the animalistic origin of this only-slightly-more-sophisticated form of social interaction. After all, honour can apply to rank rather than merit, so that an unscrupulous aristocrat, for example, can have more honour than a Christ-like peasant, because the aristocrat has access to more privileges in his society. The “respect” shown to such a high-ranking individual is akin to both fear and jealousy, whereas that shown on moral grounds is a kind of awe that something as virtually unnatural as morality could break into dismal nature. When the morally-compromised masses bow before a monk who always obeys a stringent moral code rather than succumbing to the natural course forced on creatures that lack autonomy, their reverence indicates that they recognize that the monk stands apart from nature and has even miraculously reversed its flow, like Moses parting the Red Sea.

In any case, the hypothesis is that moral hierarchies function like dominance ones or crude, power-based pecking orders, in that they stabilize a social group by dividing it into classes whose members feel obligated to maintain their place rather than upset the social order. When animals first became people, they acquired self-control through language, reason, introversion (self-reflection), curiosity, and creativity, and so they sought to set themselves apart from the “lower” animals, by making their societies meritorious rather than necessary or naturally compelled. Beta animals rally to their alphas for protection from the elements, and fear of the alpha’s wrath is the mechanism that solidifies their social arrangement. Again, human groups are still largely shaped by the same mechanism, but we’ve supplemented it with another hierarchy befitting our freedom and the emergent choice we face, of what we ought to do now that we needn’t necessarily do anything (because we have sufficient control over our actions). In the interim between animalistic dominance hierarchies and lawful civilizations, we used morality and the mechanisms of ostracism and fame to maintain a social order. 

At least, this explains the peculiar fact that men care more about honour than do women. Males tend to rule animalistic dominance hierarchies, because the subordinates’ fear is needed to cement the group for the sake of the hunt, which is carried out mostly by males. Thus, if honour is to substitute for naked force as a device for social control, males will nevertheless prefer a hierarchy that approximates the older form of society. Women have fallen under the honour code as well, as when maidens were honour-bound to maintain their virginity until they married, but the moral value of their chastity was dubious because their feudal society was palpably patriarchal. Women were regarded as possessions rather than moral agents, so when a maiden was despoiled, the disgrace was suffered not so much by her but by her family and particularly by her father or male guardian who was perceived to have neglected his duty to protect her “honour.”

Likewise, honour is more important to tribal than to civilized societies, because the former forage for food and use honour as a supplement to fear in the animalistic hunt. Even in medieval societies in which the peasants farmed and raised livestock to feed themselves, they did so thanks to their lord’s largesse, since the lord owned all the land; moreover, the lord typically engaged in ritualistic hunting for sport, almost as if to reveal the primitive source of the honour corresponding to his formal rank.

Elements of the Hypermodern Disgrace
Whatever the origin of honour may be, clearly both the interest in honour and honour itself are in decline in postindustrial societies. Rule of law replaces the code of honour, so that if you ask a lawyer or a legal scholar whether legal disputes are about discovering the moral course of action, she’ll likely laugh and dismiss the question. Morality is the ideological waste over which mere philosophers squabble, whereas those in the legal profession are charged to solve real-world problems of how power is distributed. Thus, when the legal system is shown to be rigged, as when O. J. Simpson could afford a team of super-lawyers to get away with murder, the question of whether the unsettling outcome is immoral is irrelevant to those operating within the system. As long as no law is broken, all actions are permitted in a liberal society, which is the society ruled by law rather than by, say, a dictator’s whim. The law is part of the social contract in which we forfeit our primitive inclinations to do whatever we want, in exchange for equal protection by the government. The law is supposed to be impartial in that it maximizes liberty and thus the freedom to sin, while preventing a collapse into the anarchic state of nature. We’re equal under the law because we’re each sovereign in our liberal society, and so (theoretically) the law has no favourites, but merely averts chaos like any other social convention such as a rule about which side of the road to drive on. The moral issue of what people ought to be is thus left to each free individual to figure out, and the more complex the society, the more an explicit, not to mention Kafkaesque legal framework is needed to replace the unsystematic code of honour.

There are numerous other reasons why honour has little place in technologically-advanced societies. The value of liberty derives from the rationalism that drove technoscientific progress over the last several centuries in the West, and so that value entails liberty for all rationally-autonomous persons, including women and minorities that can think for themselves and decide how to act based on their judgments. The feminist revolutions in the last century, however, had the unintended consequence that men lost their respect—both from women and increasingly from themselves. Women’s empowerment has befuddled men, because it’s forced a gender-neutral standard of personhood on everyone, casting doubt on all sexual instincts and traditions so that men no longer know whether to serve the rational ideals of the Enlightenment or the biological imperative to attract a mate. Those two goals are at loggerheads, because logic dictates that we attend to each other’s minds and ignore our bodily distinctions and degrading, beastly impulses, whereas the latter come to the fore in all mating rituals. Thus, feminism settles into a politically-correct form of transhumanism which condemns heterosexuality itself as oppressive. The upshot is that masculinity becomes a sin and so men and women are equally deprived of the happiness engineered for them by the genes that build our bodies. Men can no longer be virile without being accused of belittling the equal personhood of those who are inevitably harmed by his displays of manliness, be they women, children, or weaker nations. Men are deprived of the ideal that defines their gender, since that ideal becomes another dubious metanarrative, a mask concealing an amoral power advantage. In so far as honour is part of that ideal, honour is likewise “problematized,” to use the postmodern jargon. 

Likewise, technological progress and globalization undermine the masculine ideal, by forcing manual labourers who are disproportionately men to compete with machines and thus to lose their economic security, their self-respect, and hence the respect of their peers. This trend threatens women as well, as software become more sophisticated so that white-collar and service sector jobs are threatened by artificially-intelligent machines. But men are on the front lines of this class war, because they have traditionally performed the bulk of manual labour which is more easily and efficiently performed by robots.  The result isn’t just a squeezing of the middle classes in fattened nations like the US and parts of Europe, which had hitherto dominated the capitalistic games of exploitation. As large companies require fewer and fewer human employees, whole parts of the globe become economic dead zones. This largely explains why the Muslim world has so many angry, unemployed males, for example.

Paradoxically, the ideal of honour is paramount in precisely that latter part of the world which has less and less reason to be proud. The desert cultures of the Middle East are tribal, as shown by the Sunni and Shiite split, and thus they’re heirs to codes of honour, so that Muslims are horrified by violations of their right to be respected as servants of Allah. To overcompensate for the fact that Americans and the Chinese are eating the lunches of beleaguered Muslims in the Middle East, an astonishing number of Muslims denounce even the most trivial perceived stain on their honour, as when Western cartoonists mock the Muslim faith. Some Muslims even take up arms in a cult of terroristic jihad against the forces of secular individualism, joining cults like al Qaeda and Islamic State which boast the traditional values of camaraderie, including the manly ideals of honour and adventure. Moreover, honour hasn’t disappeared from the United States itself. You can find a code of honour in the US military, in inner city “gangsta” culture, and in the growing sport of mixed martial arts—all of which are dominated by men. The military is, of course, a rigid dominance hierarchy in which the hunting of humans replaces the foraging for food. Gangster culture is explicitly tribal and American MMA is dominated by the UFC which explicitly ranks fighters in a hierarchy of skill levels, as in the Ultimate Fighter tournaments.

But these latter bastions of honour are under siege. Like their blue-collar brethren, soldiers compete with machines so that their weapons accomplish their objectives more and more without human intervention, which means the soldiers require less martial skill and so earn less honour in combat. This development is depicted in the movie A Good Kill, in which a drone pilot longs to fly a jet again so he can at least pretend to be face to face with his enemies before dropping bombs on them, and so that he needn’t feel like a coward killing from a position of absolute safety. Indeed, the increasing use of machines in the US military (drones and satellites rather than conventional aircraft and human intelligence) stems not from a need to trim the military budget, since that budget is practically limitless. Instead, it’s another consequence of feminism, filtered through Obama’s neoliberalism: feminine values, which are ever more socially influential in technologically developed nations, require that war be as bloodless as possible since war is perceived as a savage affront to our dignity as rational individuals. As for the honour of gangland squabbles over street corners in drug-infested, crumbling American inner cities, the classic television show Wired makes the crucial point: as brave and desperate as many of those youths may be, they’re pawns in a corrupt system that includes the police force, the media, the educators, and the government. Moreover, while the impoverished gangster or “thug” wants primarily just to survive another day, he has dubious, materialistic values that trickle down from the prevailing Wall Street ideology and end up in infamous rap music: the dream is hardly to be ethical or to stoically live with dignity in a horrific world; instead, it’s to fulfill the cliché of conspicuous consumption, buying “fast cars and fast women,” fur coats and flashy jewelry. Finally, American MMA is more capitalistic than spiritual, because the operative American religion isn’t Christianity but individualism, and so the vast majority of UFC combatants fight for slave wages and are thereby dishonoured as well as discouraged about the value of cage fighting.

Materialistic consumerism is yet another nail in the coffin of honour in the most “civilized” parts of the world. To care about honour, first you must care about the quality of the inner self, since that’s the source of the self-control needed for moral action which deserves respect. But in a materialistic culture, what you own is more important than who you are, and so the whole question of morality is increasingly archaic. The goal now isn’t to fulfill your inner potential, but to measure your objective pleasure by your amassed money and possessions.  

Ethics without Honour?

You might be wondering whether any of this matters since we can just dispense with talk of honour and support our morality in some other way, such as by turning to religion, reason, or our conscience. Needless to say, though, old-time religion is as outmoded as honour, since the ascent of reason that’s been sustained by an elite modern faith in the individual roused the Western world and discredited the old noble lies—popularly called myths—so that now Judaism and Christianity are practiced either purely for the social benefits, as forms of cultish enslavement, or as vehicles for cathartic release of fears. The Western social norm has become secular, egoistic, and materialistic, owing to the tide of rationalism from the Scientific to the Industrial Revolutions, and so theistic religious ideology has been epistemically marginalized. To be sure, monotheism is still culturally influential, but because the traditional metaphors are plainly anachronistic, the myths don’t inspire their alleged devotees to carry on a religious way of life. True, a tiny minority of Jews studiously upholds the formalisms of its religious covenant with the desert God Yahweh, bowing and praying at just the right times, as though attempting to thereby relate to a creator of galaxies would be anything other than palpably ridiculous. But the majority of Christians don’t know what to do with their resurrection myth, since the Gnostics are mostly long gone, and so their faith doesn’t lead them to fulfill their potential.

Thus, Christianity doesn’t promote honour, the search for your true character so that you can earn respect for practicing the virtues of honesty and integrity. In the Catholic Church, for example, which is the most hierarchical form of Christianity, the priests are mocked rather than respected for their involvement in the Catholic rape culture or cover-up; the Church’s notorious hypocrisy demonstrates the vacuity of Christian myths in hypermodern societies. In a nutshell, the Christian narrative isn’t psychologically compelling, not even as pure fiction, given our contemporary background assumptions, and so it has no ethical impact on us. It doesn’t effectively teach us to be kind, to respect each other as equal children of a loving God. Of course, the scriptures say that’s how we should behave, but because the narrative can no longer be taken seriously, as Bishop John Spong pointed out, the moral lesson doesn’t take hold. Indeed, what the New Testament actually says is that morality is impossible for humans because of our original sin, so we should surrender ourselves to Jesus and let him “take the wheel,” as it were; once the resurrected Jesus lives in us, our works will match our faith. Again, though, the meaning of the old Eleusinian and Gnostic metaphor of redemption through rebirth is long since lost, and we see Christian leaders, from televangelists to Catholic priests and bishops disgraced by their frauds and rape sprees. Contemporary Christianity is therefore ethically irrelevant in the informed West. Our ethics are determined by secular institutions, from Hollywood to associative advertising to humanistic schools.

As for reason as a basis of honour, there’s a different problem: reason has only instrumental value, meaning that it can tell us what the facts are, such as the facts of how best to achieve a goal, but it can’t decide our ultimate values for us. Thus, reason can’t tell us the nature of our deepest self and so it can’t define our highest potential. Reason can inform us as to what we tend to desire, but it can’t evaluate which desires are more important or which figure into the character we should choose to build for ourselves. Reason can show us the pieces of the puzzle that add up to a self, but it can’t motivate us to discard some or to assemble new ones, in service to a vision of our ideal self. The naturalistic fallacy precludes logic or science alone from having normative implications. Honour requires a leap of faith, a choice of who we want to be, an aesthetic inspiration which motivates the creative act of forging a unified self. In short, honour requires something akin to a religious impetus: faith in oneself, nonrational belief in the self we should be, which guides our actions so we don’t stray from that ideal and so we remain true to our convictions.

And as for conscience, of course we can consult our feelings about how to live and whom to respect, rendering our best private judgment, but whether the promptings of our conscience have any merit or are themselves corrupt is the very question at issue. If we lack a sense of honour, for the above reasons, we lack also an ideal of a unified self, which means we have no idea what we really are. We don’t understand our potential and so we have little defense against our inclination to be hypocritical. We lack principles and so we think nothing of straying from them. We are indeed corrupted by self-serving, materialistic propaganda and we welcome replacement myths about the magic of the free marketplace and the virtue of selfishness. We worship celebrities not because we respect their moral standing, but just because we’re jealous of their fame and fortune. Our private ethical assessments are thus untrustworthy. We can’t guide ourselves to be better persons and to respect that which deserves to be respected, because we’ve been infantilized. To compensate for this downfall, we content ourselves with feel-good postmodern rationalizations, pretending that moral judgments are as arbitrary as taste in fashion, that moral values are unreal and that talk of human potential is insidious since it presupposes some patriarchal or other hegemonic agenda.

Morality is indeed subjective. That’s because it’s a system of rules for subjects, for people who differ from material objects due to our (limited) self-control. Just because something is created by people doesn’t make it arbitrary or unreal; for example, we create all our technology and those creations are all-too real. Even if moral principles were fictions, they would be subject to aesthetic standards of judgment, and fictions too can have real consequences: witness the Bible’s undeniable historical impact. The question, then, is whether hypermodern culture provides for social as well as scientific enlightenment. Does our abundance of information pertaining to the natural facts suffice for a worthy vision of which sort of character deserves respect? If we tend to behave differently depending on the circumstances, adapting like a multitasking computer, do we become internally fragmented, divided against ourselves so that we’re more easily conquered by power elites? We think in terms of isolated problems which can each be solved by consuming the appropriate product or by conducting a rational analysis. But we lack the big picture because myths are anathema to jaded hypermodernists like us. We’re soulless just to the extent we’re mythless. We lack honour or any sense of where honour might be found because the transient contents of our minds aren’t united by a viable myth, vision, or philosophical worldview. The idolizing of reason leads to juvenile scientism, sanctimonious new atheism, or rank Philistinism which exacerbates big business’s mass infantilization of consumers.

Our technological power, too, corrupts us, as is apparent from how social media degrade the quality of communication as much as they promote a higher output of messages. There’s an old saying that if something’s easy to obtain, it’s not worth having. If technology empowers us so that certain goals are much more easily achieved, those goals may no longer be worthy even of our attention. Instead of rushing to communicate on the web, we might reflect on whether we have anything worth saying. But that would require soul-searching, which would involve introversion and a foundational leap of faith in one direction or another, an artistic choice of which sort of self we should create with our thought patterns and actions.  

Honour in the Undead God

On my blog I’ve called for a viable postmodern religion, one that’s naturalistic and consistent with existential authenticity, that is, with distaste for delusions. Any such religion would provide for a sense of honour, by inspiring us to create worthwhile unified selves. These selves would consist of patterns of higher-order thoughts that would further liberate us from our animalistic neural modules. Those thoughts in turn would amount to contemplations of a staggering vision of the universe and of our place in it.

I’ve set out my personal vision in my rants within the undead god. Mind you, I regard those philosophical speculations as fictions, as artistic renderings or models of the world. They’re attempts to answer the big question of what we should do, given what and where we are on the cosmic scale. To wit, we’re effectively at war with nature because nature is monstrous whereas sentient creatures have the potential to redeem the undead god. Pride in our intelligence isn’t the original sin; that sin, rather, is the universe’s inherent pointlessness, its demonic simulation and thus mocking of intelligence and creativity. Our mission as fully awakened outsiders is to remake the world in our image, to learn about natural processes so that we can undo them, replacing them with our artifices so that the childlike, mythopoeic vision of our ancestors might ironically be vindicated and the world might be enchanted, if only for a tragically limited period. This aesthetic, pantheistic myth implies that a certain sort of character is honourable: not the extroverted social insider, but the introverted outsider; not the unenlightened beta but the detached omega or the sociopathic alpha and avatar of monstrous nature; not the ultrarational atheist or the crazed religious fundamentalist, and not the deluded liberal humanist or the straightforwardly evil, so-called conservative, but the alienated and blackly-comedic observer of cultural and political conflicts from a great distance who beholds the underlying, esoteric dynamics; not the happiness-seeker but the science- and art-centered ascetic.

This calling of mine is little more than a howl at the moon in the outer wilderness. We should be self-conscious about the aesthetic nature of philosophy. Intellectual models are artworks made of ideas. Indeed, everything in nature can be interpreted as a product of some forces, initial conditions, and materials, so this detached perspective on my philosophical output flows from the message itself. The point is that if you’re stuck in a decaying, undead god that most people can’t call by name for fear of losing hope in the merit of any of their plans, all you can do, in the end, is rant to inspire the existential rebellion. Science corroborates the Gnostic suspicion that we are in fact trapped in an inhuman monster. Contrary to Gnosticism, though, there is no transcendent salvation nor any redeemer sent to enlighten us and show us how to escape. There is no permanent escape. All prophets are, at best, mad geniuses, but their ideas are artworks created by their alienation and imagination, not revelations from any extraterrestrial intelligence.

Not all diatribes are equally meritorious, though. Some are merely insane, while others testify to the artist’s honour, to what Nietzsche called the overman’s nobility. Existentially authentic honour isn’t anything to brag about, because in this neo-Christian outlook, those with honour are social outsiders, those with the least rather than the most happiness and material success—as long as the losses are cultivated in the war between the enlightened individual and the monstrous world. 


  1. Excellent read. This 'satanic rebellion' is what I've grown to suspect over the past few years. There is that call to 'rant,' as it were, because that's all we can do. So it's a losing struggle against undead nature in the sense that we're so alienated to the extent that the collective hardly hears us, or hardly cares as well. Also, it's still a losing struggle even if we heroically (and temporarily) rally the collective to some aesthetic myth, as its ultimately just another recycled survival strategy within the undead god. Any aesthetic qualities, or collective versions of survival are ultimately just naive infantile conceptions of immortality - which is revealed to be a myth that obfuscates the reality that we are merely prolonging the undead decay. So we ironically perpetuate our mythic imprisonment.

    1. That's sort of the conclusion I come to in "Can we Transcend the World's Monstrousness?" But In "Enlightenment and Suicide" I formulate the problem in terms of a dark side and a light side of the enlightened worldview. The tragedy consists of the fact that ultimately we're all doomed, but that doesn't mean we should just live any way we please. No one can endure the perspective that constantly takes into account everything's ultimate fate, because we're easily-distracted animals. But if we train ourselves to think in aesthetic terms, we can more easily tolerate the dismal facts of nature and appreciate the comic aspect of the world's absurdity.

  2. You really hit it out of the park again, I was wondering what was percolating behind the short comedy bits. Put this in the central Map. Excellent.

    1. Thanks! This article is listed in the Map of the Rants, but I shortened the title.