Honor once was a potent force in Western culture, as strong here as it is in other regions of the world. Men had no qualms or hesitations about risking their reputations, and on some occasions their lives, for the sake of honor. Today, most people in the West laugh it off, or try to deconstruct it as an expression of patriarchy and misogyny, or look for it in the wrong places, or simply don’t lend it much thought.
History professors often can’t see an honor system as anything but an artifact of the time and place that produced it, mindful of its effects on the course of history but absentminded about its sheer power in directing human nature. Others think that their line of work is “honorable” because they’ve been working at it for a long time, or because they have a lot to lose if they fail. Still others confuse honor with legality – not breaking a law (or not getting caught at it) is somehow enough to make someone “a good man” or “a wonderful woman.”
And apparently the men who did not report the raping of a child at Penn State University did not consider their own honor, never mind the well-being of a child and the need to punish the one who brought that child to harm. There is some honor in following the minimum requirements of the law, but there is even more in doing everything you can to prevent evildoers from getting away with their crimes.
Deep down we know that it is not enough to regard honor as simply a practice, an option, or a trend in human conduct. Rather than a tool we use because of how it can benefit us, honor is something that asks us to pursue it for its own sake, like love or beauty or justice. And like love, beauty, and justice, it is difficult to define specifically, but easily recognized when we see it. Honor is something that summons us above and beyond our personal benefit or the requirements of laws and statutes.
The question is, How much are we willing to risk and sacrifice if we are to pursue whatever is honorable?