Sam’s post puts me in mind of a problem Julia Annas spells out with Aristotle’s concept of greatness of soul. By Aristotle’s reckoning, someone with greatness of soul does what is honored by people, but does not do it for the sake of being honored. Instead, he does it out of honor, the noun rather than the verb—because it is the right thing to do. But if that’s the case, then what’s the point of the honoring in the first place? Why do we need to make reference to it at all to describe an honorable person, if it comes from within rather than without?
Sam’s answer is the classic economics one—we need honorable people in the world, and if we make them take on all the costs of being honorable without any reward, there will be fewer of them. This, of course, simply casts aside Aristotle’s requirement for greatness of soul in favor of of allowing in external incentives.
There’s a middle ground here, though, I think. Consider that honoring may also serve as information. What is honorable is not something we simply know the same way we know how to breathe. We learn what is honorable by, at minimum, using what is honored as a starting point. Aristotle did—though he and the Hellenistic schools that came after him (and used the same starting point) ultimately revised conventional notions substantially in the course of their inquiries.
Because few of us become truly honorable, and we are naturally drawn to being honored the way that econ 101 would lead us to expect, I do think that Sam’s story plays a big role. The informational honoring and the incentivizing honoring are not mutually exclusive. But I do think Aristotle was correct that those who are most praiseworthy do not do the honorable thing for praise.