Thursday, January 26, 2017

Doing the Honours

What’s an honour? People will sometimes say things like “this is a great honour” when giving an acceptance speech, or an inauguration speech, or something like that. What do they mean? Do they always mean the same thing? I’m going to work on the assumption that they do usually mean basically the same thing, and make a suggestion as to what that might be. Then I’m going to use that analysis to try to explain something else that people say in acceptance speeches which might otherwise seem a little puzzling.

Honours come in a few varieties.
  • Practical honours: sometimes people say it’s an honour when they’re chosen to do something. Winning an election, getting a prestigious job, being someone’s maid of honour, and so on.
  • Accolades: a recognition for having done something well. These sometimes have a monetary prize attached, as with Nobel Prizes, and sometimes they don’t, as with knighthoods.
  • Unearned honours: as well as achieving honour and having honour thrust upon them, some people are born honourable. In the UK, the children of barons and viscounts (and the younger sons of earls) are styled as the Honourable. And there are other hereditary titles and positions too.

What unifies all of these, while excluding things that aren’t honours? My suggestion is that an honour is an instance of people saying you’re good which gives you an additional reason to be good.

With practical honours, the conditions are usually fulfilled in a pretty positivistic way. In being elected or hired, the electorate or the hiring committee are saying you’re good. And your new responsibilities give you an additional reason to be good, because it matters more now if you mess up. Now, suppose the hiring committee said you were one of two equally good candidates and they hired the other one. They’re saying both of you are good, but since the other person gets the responsibility it’s an honour for them and not for you. Or at least it’s less of an honour for you, even though the level of praise is the same. So honours aren’t just about praise.

And yet accolades can be honours. Why’s that? Well, I think that insofar as accolades are honours, they do give you additional reasons to be good. If a Nobel Prizewinner isn’t much good at the thing they won the Nobel Prize for, they’re more open to criticism for it than one of their colleagues who didn’t win one. This is a strange situation, but I think there’s a real phenomenon here. When Obama does something unpeaceful this reflects worse on him than it would if he hadn’t won the Nobel Peace Prize. Robert De Niro is more open to criticism for his bad movies than he would be if he hadn’t been praised for his good ones. Now, perhaps this isn’t true. Perhaps Obama’s unpeaceful actions would reflect just as badly on him if he didn’t have his prize, and the prize only makes them reflect badly on the Nobel committee. And perhaps it’s De Niro’s talents and not his Oscars which make critics so angry about Dirty Grandpa. But I’m suggesting it’s more complicated than that. If you accept an Oscar or a Nobel, you owe it to us to deserve it, or to have deserved it.

Unearned honours are a difficult case. Being the Queen is an unearned honour. It gives you reasons to be better, because being the Queen is a job and it matters if she messes it up. (Yes, it does.) But she was selected on birthright, not merit, so the praise component seems to be missing. And with the Honourable Toby Young, his status doesn’t give him any responsibility and also doesn’t say anything about him beyond that his father was a Lord.

But let’s think about this. Suppose at her coronation the Queen made a speech saying that it was a great honour, she hoped she could live up to it, and so on. None of that would be out of place, just as it wouldn’t be coming from an elected president. But if you’re a dictator who seizes power in a military coup, it would seem out of place. It’d seem like a sham, trying to give the new regime a veneer of legitimacy, as if the people or God or some kind of authoritative person or process had selected them. And it’d be similarly ridiculous if I styled myself the Honourable Michael Bench-Capon. (“Why 'the Honourable'?” “Because I am so honourable.” Ridiculous.) The difference, insofar as there is a difference, is that we (well not me, but lots of people) really do think the royal family are better than us and should be treated accordingly. Acquiescing in the continued existence of the monarchy expresses this, and that’s why being the Queen is an honour. Kim Jong-un is arguably a king, but his role is still in no sense an honour because there’s no sense in which he rules by the consent of the North Korean people.

The puzzle this solves is that it explains why people say they are humbled by honours, when you might expect them to be quite the opposite. If honours were just about praise, they wouldn’t be humbling. But they’re not just about praise: they also raise the standard you ought to be meeting. If the standard for you is raised, without you getting correspondingly better, then it makes sense for you to be humbled. It is no longer clear that you’re as good as you should be. And while it’s clear that my analysis is pretty tendentious, the fact it solves this puzzle makes me think I might on to something.

With most unearned honours, it seems they cause problems for the praise component because the recipient of the honour so clearly doesn’t deserve any praise. My response was to say that while this is indeed clear, it’s not at all clear that we’re not praising them anyway. But a different case of unearned honours causes trouble. Suppose an honour is assigned by a genuine lottery. Not a birth lottery, or even one where you pick someone at random to allow to God make the decision. Just names from a hat with no theological trappings. A job assigned in this way could be something we’d pre-theoretically call an honour, I’d say. But it’s basically impossible to say that assigning the job in this way counts as praise. I don’t think we can just ditch the praise component though, because of the dictator case. So I don’t know. I think as an analysis it’s not a bad first pass, and we could always just accept that we’d be wrong to call the lottery job an honour, but if you’ve got any suggested refinements, please put them in the comments.


  1. Hi Bench - I think you're on to something important here. Have you read Bernard Williams' Shame and Necessity? In the fourth chapter he discusses the connection between shame and identity, through the (Ancient/Homeric Greek) idea that we live in each others' eyes. This seems complementary to how you're seeing the role of humility.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I haven't read Shame and Necessity, but I have read Sartre saying something at least superficially similar, and hadn't thought about the connection. I'm always on the lookout for a reason to read some Bernard Williams though, so I could give it a look.