Liberty Matters

From courtesy to the global town square?

The strict Observance of the point of Honour, is a necessary Evil, and a large Nation can no more be call'd Polite without it, than it can be Rich and Flourishing without Pride or Luxury. B. Mandeville (The Female Tatler 52, November 4, 1709) 
In the twentieth century honour has been generally reckoned as an obsolete system of values, characteristic of pre-modern, highly hierarchical, patriarchal, and violent societies, whose decline saw the rise of an historically unprecedented concern for the dignity and rights of the individual divested of all socially imposed roles or norms. Recent decades have witnessed a renewed scholarly interest in the concept of honour in moral philosophy, sociology, evolutionary psychology, and political theory. Scholars are now reassessing the potential functions of honour.[1] I agree with Mikko Tolonen that intellectual historians must avoid antiquarianism and, concerning Mandeville (and the Scots) offer to the economists 'a more sensible theoretical setting about human nature'. One way to do this might possibly involve looking at what Mikko refers to in his second essay as the 'moral institution of politeness, established in one form or another by all large societies'. Many captivating questions were raised in this engaging discussion, and within this brief reply I limit myself to sketching a few tiles of a much broader mosaic.
In the 'public goods game' subjects receive start-up capital and can anonymously choose to donate some or none of it to a 'public goods' project. Donations are increased by a given factor and redistributed evenly among all players, regardless of whether they contributed or not. The greatest benefit is achieved if all donate, but individual players earn most if they keep their capital and profit from the generosity of the others. Typically, players exercise this 'rational' self-interest, and cooperation rapidly declines. In a particular performance of the test two further experimental conditions were added: the players were instructed that the two least generous individuals after a series of rounds would be exposed to the group, as well as the two players who were the most generous. [2] As a result, the reputational effects stimulated by shame and honour led to approximately 50 per cent higher donations to the public good compared with a control group. In what forms could honour be a resource to motivate cooperation and encourage groups to maintain shared resources? Relying on Dario Castiglione's valuable suggestion about the significance of the vocabularies we are dealing with, in order to build an answer to Mikko's question, 'what became of Mandeville's honour and politeness in the contemporary world?' we may look back to the tradition of courtesy and civility from the Renaissance Italian treatises to Enlightenment's politeness. This form of honour and politeness was characterized by a compulsive focus on pride and vanity, and continually marked by an internal tension between being and appearing, complaisance and sincerity, internal and external honour, at the roots of the 'reflective turn' exposed by Dario. By arguing that contemporary moral discourse promoted self-deception and by stressing the hypocritical nature of all social intercourse Mandeville was indeed applying a central feature of the entire tradition of courtesy and civility to the new-born commercial society. And of course we can look forward to the vocabulary of respect, loyalty, integrity, dignity, and humiliation, and to the contemporary world of frequent, fast, and inclusive communication; of gossip & reputation, online shaming, calls-out, and cancellations.[3]
All this, without ever forgetting Hobbes' fifth law of nature: complaisance, "that every man strive to account himself with the rest" and Locke's remark that politeness lies in two things: "first, a disposition of the mind not to offend others; and, secondly, the most acceptable and agreeable way of expressing that disposition."[4]
[1.] K.Appiah, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, New York, 2010; S. Krause, Liberalism With Honor Cambridge, Mass, 2002); M.Ignatieff, The Warrior's Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, New York, 1997; P. Olsthoorn, Honor in Political and Moral Philosophy, New York, 2015; W. Kaufman, Understanding Honor: Beyond the Shame/Guilt Dichotomy, Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 37, No. 4, October 2011.
[2.] J. Jacquet et al., Shame, honour and cooperation, Biology Letters (2011) 7, 899–901. See also D. Sznycer, et al (2017). Cross-cultural regularities in the cognitive architecture of pride, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114(8), 1874–1879.
[3.] F.Giardini and R.Wittek, Gossip, Reputation, and Sustainable Cooperation: Sociological Foundations, in The Oxford Handbook of Gossip and Reputation, F.Giardini and R.Wittek eds. (2019), pp.24-47
[4.] T. Hobbes Leviathan Ch. XXI, J. Locke. Some thoughts concerning education§ 143.