Of Honor

“Honor” is one of those terribly frustrating English words with discordant meaning. On the one hand, honor is a cherished virtue, a rare treasure found among men and women of great character. Call this Type A honor. On the other hand, honor is a gesture, a trinket dispensed to the meritorious, recognition for excellent behavior. This, call it Type B honor, is typically found in the company of an indefinite article and the otherwise seldom-deployed verb phrase “bestow upon.”

Type A honor reflects the best sort of public behavior humans can offer. It is lovely in the sense that it is patient, kind, considerate, and forgiving of innocent trespass. It is courageous in the sense that it is staid in adversity, durable against insult, and refuses to cower when threatened. It is temperate, prudent… you see where I’m going with this. Type A honor is the muscle that quickens the skeleton of justice. Thumbnail economic reasoning suggests that the spillover benefits of private type A honor are not captured in its price, suggesting that it should be under-supplied. Whether or not it actually is under-supplied is not a question I believe cannot easily be answered.

Still, the theory strikes me as reasonable. And I believe it strikes ordinary people as reasonable, too. That’s why we have type B honor. We bestow ribbons and medals to Soldiers and Sailors, we erect monuments and statues, we sing songs, tell tales, and speak in awed, hushed tones about those among us who have acted with greatness. This compunction to reward honor, whether intentional or not, compensates the honorable for their private excellence.

Think for a moment just who typically bestows type B honors. Think for a moment about the incentives generated. Describe quietly to yourself as you reflect on this the likely agency problems of the sovereign awarding honors. Compare that to private honors offered by people unencumbered by a principal-agent problem. Consider the incentives produced when we sketch out a short list of the things we wish to honor. Consider what acts count as “honorable” in your daily private life. Compare that to what counts as “honorable” on the battlefield or in business, sports, or politics. If type B honors are useful at modifying behavior, it might be worth reconsidering from time to time whether or not we’re actually honoring honorable behavior.

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