The Dignity/Honor Paradox
A Dialog between Nathaniel Hellerstein and Jerry Pournelle
Anthropologists distinguish between ‘honor culture’ and ‘dignity culture’. In honor culture, there are superior persons with honor, and inferior persons without; one must earn the privilege of being treated with respect. In dignity culture, respect is a right, had equally by all; it denies that there are superior or inferior persons. Honor cultures tend to exist in places without prosperity or reliable rule of law; dignity cultures tend to exist in places with those blessings.
Therefore dignity culture denies that there are superior and inferior persons; yet considered as a culture, it is manifestly superior to honor culture! And conversely, honor culture demands that all under it must earn the privilege of being treated with respect, but when compared to dignity culture, and if you go by results, then it has clearly not earned that respect!
There is a chicken-and-egg problem here; are honor cultures that way because they’re too poor to afford a working rule of law, or do they lack effective rule of law because they’re that way? Does dignity come from prosperity, or does prosperity come from dignity? I suspect that the flow of causation is to some extent circular.
This also involves a fallacy of composition. Characteristics of the individual are not necessarily characteristics of the society.
I will publish this with comments, but I do not concede your “therefore” that the second paragraph is proven by the first.
Query: is an army company an honor or a dignity community?
I’m not sure. Ask an anthropologist. Within the company, it’s all for one and one for all; that’s dignity. But rank does have its privileges; and the company’s purpose is to rudely defend the honor of the nation. So equality and inequality intertwine; the altruism of individuals supports the egotism of the collective.
Maybe I was too judgemental about entire ways of life. But where would you rather live: Sweden or Pakistan?
I grant that the ‘therefore’ between paragraphs 1 and 2 is incomplete; the causation probably also flows in the reverse direction. Folk in lands without law or wealth must defend their honor; and honor culture in turn ensures that the land acquires neither law nor wealth. (This is a memetic/cultural variant of the Iron Law of Bureaucracy: cultural memes have a vested interest in the evils that make them necessary.)
And conversely: does innovation and prosperity support a culture of inherent worth, or does a culture of inherent worth support innovation and prosperity?
Like many paradoxes, the Dignity/Honor Paradox can be darkly comic. Consider the spectacle of the Limousine Liberal, who preaches equality and thus attains superiority. Now consider his dark shadow, the Deplorable, who preaches the existence of inferior persons, and proves it by his example.
I will do this as a dialog, but I do not accept that dignity and honor are mutually exclusive or collectively exhaustive. Of course I would rather live in Sweden, and would have even in the gays of Gustav Adolphus. Of course my ancestors left to go defend Normandy for the French.
Perhaps ‘dignity’ is not the exact term. “Principle” may be closer, or “self-worth”. “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me”; not an honor-culture concept. And just as honor culture sins by pride, self-worth culture sins by vanity.
I agree that opposite concepts can coexist in societies and even individuals. Honor is emotional, dignity is intellectual; and emotion and intellect often coexist at cross-purposes in individuals - and even societies.