Defining Honor: The Changing Nature of Ethics in Society

AHA Session 164
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom West (Marriott Wardman Park)
Caroline Cox, University of the Pacific
The Audience

Session Abstract

Honor is one of the few concepts that transcends boundaries of time and space. It unifies diverse nations and individuals in a shared ideological and ethical framework. But because honor has been defined in so many different ways, misunderstandings and disagreements are a common occurrence for both historical actors and historians alike. Thus through continued past, present, and future debate and discourse, honor has become more understandable and has directly influenced the culture and ethics of society. This panel will show how honor has been at the center of constant ideological interaction and has been used to define morality and ethics from the classical era through modern day. It will examine how honor has evolved over time by examining four different societies and eras and showing how honor has permeated all of them.

     The panel will be chaired by award-winning author and historian Dr. Caroline Cox (the University of the Pacific), whose book, A Proper Sense of Honor: Service and Sacrifice in George Washington’s Army, serves as one of the defining works on American honor culture.  

     The panel will proceed chronologically based on each paper’s subject, beginning with Carlin Barton’s (University of Massachusetts-Amherst) discussion of classical honor in ancient Rome. In her paper “Negotiating Honor,” Barton, the author of Roman Honor, will investigate how honor and shame became a means of legal enforcement, and how inflexibility and negotiation influenced a Roman’s sense of honor.

     In his eighteenth-century-focused paper, “The Formation of American Honor and the Path to Revolution,” Craig Bruce Smith (Brandeis University) will show how inter-colonial discourse over personal slights caused by British legislation became collectivized through conceptions of honor and dishonor. By employing joint biographical analysis, he will analyze how an American idea of honor developed and influenced the coming of the American Revolution. 

     Martha S. Santos (University of Akron), author of Cleansing Honor with Blood: Masculinity, Violence, and Power in the Backlands of Northeast Brazil, 1845-1889, will examine honor in Brazil during the late nineteenth century. In her paper, “Of Clubs and Whiskers: Young Men, Honor, and Violence in the Backlands of Northeast Brazil, 1865-1889,” she will show that rural masculine honor became a means to establish social and economic authority. She also explains the roots of this phenomena and how it impacted Brazilian gender relations.

     In a twentieth-century comparative study of honor, entitled “Like Falling Cherry Blossoms: Suicide and Self-Sacrifice in the German Reception of Japanese Honor,” Sarah Panzer (the University of Chicago) will demonstrate the ties between ancient, medieval, and modern notions of honor, as understood in Germany and Japan from 1905 to 1945, and how these ties were used as a means for bringing Eastern and Western ideology together on common ground.

     Overall, this panel seeks to present the continued importance of honor throughout history and its continued relevance as a matter of ethical conduct, status, and standard of diplomacy in the modern world.

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