No Honor in Love and War?

The Philodemic Room

April 16, 2016

The Society gathered for the 141st Richard T. Merrick debate on Saturday, in its best formal attire at a slightly too early hour in the morning to discuss a weighty topic: Resolved: Honor holds humanity back.

Four of our most eloquent seniors keynoted the debate:

On the affirmation:

Mr. Danny Graff (SFS ’16) of California.

 Chancellor Madeleine Ringwald (COL ’16) of New York

 On the negation:

Mr. Andrew Shaughnessy (COL ’16) of Kansas

Chancellor Michael Whelan (COL ’16) of Connecticut 

Our four keynoters competed for the Merrick Medal, awarded to the speaker who best exemplifies the Society’s motto of Eloquentiam Libertati Devinctam – “Eloquence in Defense of Liberty”. To award the medal we proudly welcomed our esteemed judges:

The Reverend Charles Currie, S.J., Executive director of the Jesuit Digital Network, highly accomplished President of Wheeling College and Xavier University.

The Honorable Mike Ferguson, Chairman and CEO of Ferguson Strategies LLC, member of Congress from 2001-2009.

The Honorable Joan Plaisted, former Senior Advisor at US Mission to the United Nations, former US Ambassador to the Marshall Islands and Kiribati

 Doctor Gideon Rose, Editor, Foreign Affairs Magazine, member of the Council on Foreign Relations, former Associate Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council.

Mr. Graff began solemnly, quoting a work of Daoist philosophy to elucidate how Daosim lacks a concept of honor. He defined honor as a concept of morality beyond the law that is particular to a community. For Mr. Graff, the most troubling aspect of honor is its demand for the sacrifice of the ethical in its service – he contended that honor can require us to act inhumanely to preserve our reputations. Thus in forcing us to submit to the court of public opinion, honor creates the fear of being dishonored. Mr. Graff inveighed against the refrain, “death before dishonor,” maintaining that we should not romanticize violence nor be complacent with an unjust system.

In response to the shortcomings of honor, Mr. Graff recommended a Buddhist approach: compassion. Posed counter to honor, compassion and love do not require violence. He counseled that we not be limited by tradition and implored the Society to ask, “Why, Why, Why,” in the manner of Vonnegut in search for a better world.

Mr. Shaughnessy immediately demanded of the Society, “Is there nothing in life worth dying for?” He defined honor as the idea of socially-defined obligations, a concept that is value-neutral and is the mechanism by which we are compelled to follow duty. He claimed that historically, a code of honor was based on retaliation, becoming internalized during the Victorian Age. Honor’s dialectical nature means that it reflects our past and our culture, enabling us to understand notions of human dignity from history. For Mr. Shaughnessy, honor is value-neutral, thus societal context determines the morality of its consequences. He found enormous benefits to honor is its cultivation of civil society, moral conduct in war by the military, and prevention of unjust wars. He affirmed that honor is indispensable to modern society, as it enforces our sense of obligations and remains an intrinsic part of the human condition.

Chancellor Ringwald asked of the Society, “Can we do better?” She examined honor empirically, drawing on psychological findings that societies highly based on honor valued self-defense, retaliation, and hyper-masculinity. The gendered concept of honor led to a code that damaged those left without access to honor as well as those with it, with Chancellor Ringwald citing the 38 million American women who have experienced domestic violence. Honor leaves out women, only giving them honor in chastity, and even leads to honor killings, which draw on the same sexist ideas of a woman’s place. Chancellor Ringwald contended that honor led to grave acts of revenge on the part of the United States for September 11, 2001 in Iraq, at Abu Ghraib, as well as motivating Trump’s campaign to win back American honor. She argued that honor creates an idea of a dignity that is earned, as opposed to inherent dignity. With characteristic passion, Chancellor Ringwald argued that the liberators of society always rejected what was honorable in favor of the right, and that no progress towards a society of self-actualizing individuals will be made if we hold on to our idea of honor.

Chancellor Whelan opened with an idiosyncratic jest, asking if honor had held him back from paying off attendees to support him. Moving to more serious matters, he held that honor is a tool, a duty enforced by social norms, and then sought to capture the essence of honor through an account of space exploration. He read a beautiful quote from Carl Sagan on the “Pale blue dot,” of Earth from millions of miles away, emphasizing the ‘smallness’ of humanity. Yet, what propelled Voyager I into space was the US’s compromised sense of national honor after the Soviet launch of Sputnik! Using the example of the moon landing to show that violence was not always the only way to defend honor, Chancellor Whelan made a case for honor as the key to human greatness. Only by challenging each other’s honor and responding peacefully can we successfully follow our duty to explore the stars, and reach greatness.

Opening the floor, Ms. Kurek asked, following Mr. Graff, “to whom, to whom, to whom?” She argued that honor was about duty in relationships, and that an inherent dignity begets respect in contrast to the zero-sum game of honor. Ms. Caroline Egan (COL ’15) countered that honor creates space of previously marginalized groups to claim it, pushing themselves to the front to say, ‘We have honor too!’ Yet for Ms. Burke, all these movements had dignity, not honor. Using the story of Agamemnon, she argued that honor is game in which the male players use all other people as currency, and as lived, honor served to oppress, with grotesque consequences. Mr. Willis replied that these were not fixed values in honor, but if we broke the vase of honor, we could never get it back, and rather, we should try to progress to new interpretations of honor. Bringing up his thesis, Mr. Kleinman pointed out that absolute ideas of honor lead to large-scale destruction through war yet Ms. Hernick posited that honor was vitally necessary for people to aspire to greatness. Mr. Fletcher countered that honor, by virtue of its reliance on tradition and institutions, impedes freedom for humanity to choose its values, but Mr. Schafer highlighted how honor helps enforce norms and defend societal order.

Returning to the stand, Chancellor Whelan praised the floor’s quality. He followed Mr. Schafer’s argument by positing that honor was a positive means of enforcing liberal, democratic norms today. He pointed to a lack of honor as a public force in compelling virtuous behavior, as evidenced by the continuation of the name of the Washington football team and the destruction of the beautiful Penn Station in 1963. Through the mechanism of public shame, honor functioned to preserve good conduct, but now it has been watered down. He held that in our pluralistic society, we cannot rely on laws alone but instead require honor to enforce liberal democratic norms.

Chancellor Ringwald quickly responded by asking if we agree with all the social norms of today. She agreed that honor is a tool, but one that operates in “ideologically violent way,” and in a sense becomes a weapon to police different groups. Marginalized groups never define the norms enforced by honor, which keeps class, gender, and racial oppression alive today. Chancellor Ringwald argued that honor impedes progress, that each times it requires reconstruction, it slows down beneficial self-actualization. Drawing from Christianity, she illustrated how crucifixion was intended as a dishonorable punishment, noting that many people of justice were not ‘honorable.’ She denounced the physical and ideological violence brought by honor as perpetuating oppression and not bringing liberation.

Mr. Shaughnessy implored the Society to look at honor’s contemporary form, which he claimed implied the protection of human dignity at all costs. He held that we can distinguish between the values behind honor and its form, which is value-neutral. Posing the counterfactual of a world without honor, Mr. Shaughnessy warned of a society requiring a totalitarian system to enforce order and society. For smaller organizations today, honor has a huge existential value, and today, honor is becoming a mechanism to enfranchisement of different groups. He argued that ‘honor killings’ are Orientalized by the West, while domestic violence remains the real problem. On the practical side, honor affords an obligation to something else, to one another. Mr. Shaughnessy emphasized honor’s ‘existential value’ in the understanding that humanity will endure, quoting Winston Churchill to show a strong sense of honor and strength.

Mr. Graff opposed this ‘bleak’ version of the world, imploring the Society to search for progress to a better world. He called the ‘tool’ argument bankrupt, as it did not reconcile with the terrible effects ideologies of honor have had on millions of lives. Mr. Graff demanded that we leave behind systems that compel us to do anything and rather should move to treat humans as agents, not targets of enforcement. In contrast to controlling ideas of honor, Buddhism and Daoism, do not have ideas of honor, he emphasized. Their devotion to compassion extends common love to all. Mr. Graff brought up honor’s negative effects today in honor killings and suffering. He implored the Society to recognize a hope for progress to a better day, ending with the simple exhortation to “be kind.”

And then, as always, the Society divided itself to vote, and with 31 negating, 2 abstaining, and 34 affirming, the resolution was affirmed!

After the debate, the keynotes selected from the floor speakers the person most deserving of the Father Ryder Gavel, designed to recognize the most outstanding floor speech of the Merrick debate. After deliberation, Ms. Ashley Burke emerged triumphant, winning with an uncharacteristically serious speech that still lacked none of her formidable rhetorical abilities.

Our judges then announced the winner of the 141st Merrick medal, Chancellor Madeleine Ringwald! With her family present, it was truly a wonderful celebration of her great talents. Huzzah!

Each of our keynotes brought exceptional eloquence and purpose to their speeches, engaging deeply on these fundamental questions, with Mr. Shaughnessy’s logical mastery, Mr. Graff’s philosophical profundity, and Chancellor Whelan’s pathos. Our floor speeches were also quite exceptionally good this morning. The seniors have made a great contribution to our Society with a truly phenomenal Merrick debate! Huzzah for all!


Garrett Hinck

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