Culture of Honour


I’ll get to the above graph in a moment, but first I want to tell a little story.

A man sits in a bar with a bunch of his friends one evening. The group is having a pleasant night out until a stranger walks up to the table and speaks insultingly to the man. He sneeringly claims to have been having sex with the man’s fiancée on an ongoing basis, and states that he and the man’s fiancée have had many jokes about the man’s diminished sexual attributes and abilities. Hey lays it on pretty thick for another minute and then says, “I’m heading out to the parking lot now, and if you’re any man at all — which we all know you’re not already — you’ll follow me out and prove it.” What should the man do? When asked about cases like this, men and women from the southern US were much more likely to think that the man should go and punch it out, however bad the fight may be. While northerners, on reflection, tended to think that the moral course of action would be to ignore the provocation and laugh off the stranger’s insults, southerners tended to think that one wouldn’t be ‘much of a man’ if he didn’t respond with violence.

This and many similar cases are discussed by Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen in Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. To further explore the different ways northerners and southerners think of fighting to defend one’s honour, they sent off job applications to businesses in Michigan and Tennessee with bogus resumes and cover letters. These letters were all the same except for one crucial difference. Half the letters sent to employers in each state ended by admitting that the writer had served time for a felony — beating another man to death outside of a bar in a fight that got out of hand after the other man had insulted the first man’s wife. The other half also confessed to a felony, but this time it was stealing expensive cars from a car lot when the writer had no other way to support his family. The results were curious. The applications that confessed to stealing the cars were rejected by all employers, and the northern employers similarly wanted nothing to do with the man who had beaten someone to death outside the bar. But the southern employers tended to feel quite differently about the man who stood up for his wife’s honour. One wrote to applaud him for his honesty in admitting his criminal history up front, and said that it sounded like one of those understandable but unfortunate things “that could happen to anyone”. Another southern employer expressed regret that he didn’t have a job opening at present. And so on.

Nisbett and Cohen wanted to investigate these differences in aggression in a laboratory setting, so they invited male students from northern and southern backgrounds to come in for testing. First, the subjects gave a saliva sample that was analyzed for cortisol and testosterone levels. Then they were told they needed to give a second saliva sample in a different room down the hall. The hallway was narrow and Nisbett and Cohen had stuck a filing cabinet against one of its walls. As the subjects walked past the cabinet, a rather muscular-looking confederate (chosen for the confederate’s protection) suddenly opened a drawer, making the subject bump into him. Then the muscular confederate muttered ‘Asshole’ under his breath. A control group of northern and southern subjects walked past the same person and cabinet, but with no insult. Right after this, the test subjects gave their second saliva sample. The results are depicted in the graph above.

In these and many other fascinating studies described in their book, Nisbett and Cohen reveal quite sharply different attitudes toward violence in northerners and southerners. But importantly, the southerners are not tolerant of all violence, and many types of violence turn out to be at least as hateful to them as they are to northerners. Southerners tend to take a very dim view of random violence, violence against women, or violence used or threatened in robberies. The violent acts that elicited startlingly different moral assessments all had to do with the preservation or restoration of honour in the face of an insult: an insult to oneself, to one’s mate, to one’s sister, or to one’s parents (particularly one’s mother).

Why would southerners tend to support a violent culture of honor? Objectively speaking, such a culture seems to be a losing proposition. A culture in which everyone can laugh off insults or resolve them non-violently is a culture where everyone’s chance of living a long and injury-free life is increased. How could the southerners not see this? Perhaps the southern tolerance of violence in honour cases is a function of the relative poverty of the south, or the relative lack of education, or of the influence of religion. Nisbett and Cohen explore these options, but none hold up under scrutiny. Southerners who are well-off, highly educated and non-religious tend nonetheless to hold to a culture of honour mentality. However, the authors did discover a distinction along a double factor that traces the culture of honour line very accurately. Moreover, after investigating the influence of this factor in the southern US, they applied it to all other regions worldwide that have cultures of honour. Sure enough, this double factor turns out to reliably predict which cultures will tolerate violence in defense of honour and which will not.

Here’s the distinguishing factor: cultures that trace their roots back to animal herders tend to maintain a culture of honour unless their ancestors always lived in areas with particularly strong law enforcement, while cultures that trace their roots back to farmers reject the culture of honour.

The reason for this appears to be as follows. It’s comparatively easy to steal from an animal herder: animals are loose and mobile things and can quite easily be taken, even in large numbers. In the absence of a particularly strong and vigilant law enforcement system, the incentive for theft is very high, with opportunities abounding. But there are some people from whom animals would rarely be stolen: those who are believed to get violently angry if they even suspect you have ripped them off, and who would be likely to exact a terrible vengeance. And the most obvious way to indicate that you’re the type of person that no sane person messes with is to have a zero tolerance policy for insults against yourself or anything connected with you, and to publicly respond to transgressors with violence. While violence is generally a losing proposition, animal herders who let themselves be seen as men to be trifled with are at serious risk of losing all they have.

Things are quite different with farmers. Stealing a square meter of arable farmland or 200 pounds of harvested wheat from the middle of a farmer’s property — and then getting it home somehow — is considerably more difficult than slipping away with a herder’s sheep. Masked bandits can steal away all one’s cattle at once and never be seen again; but without taking over the entire town, it would be very difficult for a mob to make off with all the assets a farmer owns. A policy of violence comes with a cost that farmers, unlike herders, would be unreasonable to pay. But for herders, whether in Tennessee or Sicily, an aversion to violence is more expensive.

Nisbett and Cohen focused in on the areas in the southern US where they found the culture of honour to be most deeply entrenched. Not only were these the most herding-intensive regions in the south, but the ethnicity of the inhabitants was revealing. The settlers there were Scotch Irish, having chosen that part of the US to immigrate to because of its geological similarity to their homeland — where for countless generations, their ancestors had herded animals. The cultural incubation period for the culture of honour had lasted for generations.

Perhaps the moral of this story is that yet another difference in moral views is best explained not by good or bad moral perception, but rather by morally irrelevant factors. But another interesting lesson to take from this is that, if you’re worried that you’re on the verge of getting punched out at the bar, the best question to ask is “Hang on — do you happen to be descended from animal herders?”

16 thoughts on “Culture of Honour

    • Agreed, Frank. All the evidence I’ve presented in these semi-weekly posts are meant to support the view that socialization (training) plays a huge role in whether we think it’s right to bind women’s feet, send gladiators to their deaths, torture animals, kill people who insult our sexuality, own slaves, or kill and eat people. And that socialization, in turn, seems to be based on environmental factors that have nothing to do with the objective rightness or wrongness of these actions.

      These morally irrelevant environmental influences tell a part of the story of how we come to have the moral views we do, and why moral beliefs are so different across cultures and times.

      In future posts on morality, I’ll discuss another big part of the story: the moral commonalities that are shared across cultures and times. As I’ll show, many of these commonalities make little sense on the view that our common moral sense tracks objective moral facts. But they make perfect sense on the view that our common moral sense evolved to help us get along with one another in the small stone age tribes we lived in for most of human existence. That part of the story, in other words, has to do with evolution rather than training.


  1. Interesting, but your fictional story requires verisimilitude to work more effectively, jfc!
    E.g., you can be positive that the characters in the bar, if it is in the USA, are armed with automatic weapons. Going to the parking lot to duke it out is so yesterday!
    Now with the failure to regulate firearms and with the advances in weaponry you can be pretty sure of the outcome: “3 killed in bar shoot out”! “Police have not determined the motive.”


    • Are guns the explanatory difference between north and south? Nisbett and Cohen combed through the police records to determine that. They found that southerners were much more likely than northerners to kill people who insulted them in a bar, but not more likely than northerners to kill the cashier in the convenience store or liquor store during a hold-up. For those and other reasons, they rule out guns as the deciding factor.

      The story I told about the barroom dispute, while _strictly_ fictional, was based on several accounts of actual fights that started in bars and ended up with a fatality outside (often with a pipe, rock, or fists used as the lethal weapon). Nisbett and Cohen compiled an amalgam story of this type (more or less what I presented here) in order to ask men and women what they thought the right course of action would be. Interestingly, southern women also tended to embrace the mentality: many of them said they felt a man who wouldn’t fight for her honour “wasn’t much of a man,” while northern women tended to say they’d be more impressed by a man who didn’t feel the need to stoop to violence without a physical provocation.


  2. Love your comments Bob! 🙂
    I need a reminder, jfc, of what you are up to.
    I keep thinking of the IS/ OUGHT distinction and then I see that you are simply adding more IS stuff.
    Just because a practice IS what a Culture does it does not follow that that practice OUGHT be done. I don’t believe that the following argument is sound:
    Culture (or sub-culture) C consistently does X.
    So, X is moral.


    • Thanks for the bid for clarification, ucsbalum.

      I’m certainly not saying that what a culture _does_ is what it _ought_ to do!

      What am I up to? I’m raising difficulties for the view that we can reliably determine what’s objectively right or wrong.

      It’s tempting for us all to accept the following triad of views:
      1) Some things are objectively morally right, while others are objectively wrong.
      2) In clear-cut cases like slavery, cannibalism, violent responses to insults, torturing animals, etc., we have a reliable ability to know which things are morally right and which are wrong.
      3) This reliable ability to know moral right from wrong is held by members of all cultures; so when cultures disagree with us on these morally clear-cut cases, they must either be ignoring the facts or have false non-moral beliefs.

      The evidence I’ve been presenting these past few weeks is meant to cast doubt on that triad of views: it seems to suggest that _at least one_ of the three views needs to be abandoned.

      We can accommodate the evidence by abandoning the third view, so long as we don’t mind saying that those belonging to our culture or race or time are just morally gifted, while those in other cultures or races or time are fundamentally incapable of apprehending the truth. Of course, _they_ would disagree, and we would just have to dogmatically insist that we have the vision and they do not. I don’t find that very appetizing!

      Or we could abandon the second view, so long as we don’t mind saying that some things are objectively right and others are objectively wrong but that we can’t reliably tell which is which.

      Or we could abandon the first view and say that nobody is ever mistaken about morality because it varies from culture to culture.

      None of these options seems palatable to me. But what’s the alternative to them?


  3. I am starting to think that these cases and all this research besides showing that our moral beliefs are determined by moraly unrelated factors also might be showing that in order to find moral facts we need to get rid of the “veil of ignorance” constituted by all those factors.


    • I’m actually fairly sympathetic to that response, Laura. Maybe, as you suggest, figuring out what really is moral is a matter of recognizing the biases that get in the way of our perceiving the moral truth, and then doing our best to eliminate them. This would be like cleaning the grime off our windows so that we can perceive the moral reality.

      Still: how would we know when we have achieved this? From where I’m standing, I’m right on all my moral views and those who disagree with me are the ones who can’t see clearly. But they think it’s the other way around. How can I be justified in saying they’re the ones who have more window washing to do?


      • I try to make an analogy with scientifc realism. There is no way to determine whether a theory is actually depicting reality. However, we can say with confidence that it is if it has predicitive power (I think that is how one argument goes). As for morality, perhaps we could say that we have found a moral fact if society is “better” when the moral fact is applied. How do we determined that society is better? I imagine that we could measure things like education, opportunities for development, peace, respect for life etc.

        I understand that this argument might be circular: We have found a moral fact when society is better (moral fact applies). A society is better when there is respect for life and education among other factors. Why do we take things like education or respect for life as indicators of a better society? Beacuse they are morally right.


        • I think you’re right, Laura, in thinking that the argument is circular. _If_ ‘a society is better when there is respect for life and education among other factors’, _then_ there’s little moral difficulty in determining what we ought to do in many cases. It’s in getting to that view of what makes a society better that’s the tricky part.

          Bob, you say that “it’s not impossible to make the judgment required for what counts as a better society.” I certainly agree that _I_ make that judgment pretty quickly in the cases you mention, and I’m almost positive that my judgment is the same as yours.

          But my point is that other people make radically different judgments than we do, and it seems we’re only justified in saying that we’re right and they’re wrong if we can provide them with non-circular, non-dogmatic reasons for taking our view rather than theirs. Yes, we can say ‘our view is correct because it leads to greater freedom and opportunities for everyone’, and so on. But that gets us nowhere, because what’s at issue in our disagreement with them is precisely whether that’s the kind of feature that makes a society good.

          And we could also just stamp our feet and say, “Look, your view is just wrong, and if you don’t see that, you’re an idiot.” And they can say the same to us. We could just decide we don’t care if they say it: we just _know_ we’re right. And so could they. And we could decide not to let any of that bother us — we could adopt the rule ‘Whenever we just _really feel_ we’re right about something, when we can just _see_ it, we can rightly not be bothered by anyone who seems to feel it’s equally obvious that we’re wrong.”

          But is _that_ a good rule for us to follow? Wouldn’t it mean the end of rational discourse just where it matters?


  4. I like (or am “fairly sympathetic”) to Bob’s notion of institutional facts. First, we don’t have to look far away in time or space for differing practices – they are all around us in a multi-cultural society! But not all or many of them are moral problems or concerns.
    Second, we do live within a set of institutional facts: the law of the land, the rules of our family, the rules of our gang, etc. What we need is a way to assess those rules and practices when they are in conflict. That’s when what we call morality comes in. And that requires thought and the careful application of a theory with the best outcomes. And for me that means giving up the “finger wagging” and concentrating on consequences.


    • sob1989, ‘liking’ something and ‘being fairly sympathetic’ to it are very different things! By ‘fairly sympathetic’, I meant that I had some feelings in that direction but also some important reservations about it. In the end, I think it’s far from clear that Laura’s position works (for the reasons she admits in her comment), despite its initial attractions.

      I agree with you that we live within a set of institutional facts, as you say. You imply(?) that morality must stand outside of those institutional facts if it is to help us adjudicate between actual or possible cultures’ views on moral issues, and I agree with that, too. I also think that giving up finger wagging and concentrating on consequences is part of the way forward.

      But is it _possible_ for us to find a moral common ground, given the difficulties I’ve been raising in other threads? There, I’m somewhere between agreeing with you and being… fairly sympathetic.


  5. Pingback: Where do we get our morality? | Episyllogism

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