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“The Constant Companion of Virtue”: On the Dilemma and Political Implications of Kantian Honor

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 September 2020


This article provides a reinterpretation of Kantian honor to resolve an ongoing debate concerning Kant's mixed attitude toward honor and to clarify the political implications of honor. Kant develops two distinct types of honor in his practical philosophy: natural honor as a human desire and ethical honor as a transcendental virtue. The conflict between these two types of honor can be resolved not in Kant's ethics but in his political theory, which tolerates nonmoral motivations owing to their positive impact on politics and which presumes an imperfect world where political authority has difficulties in properly punishing disrespect. As a viable motivation for citizens to fight disrespect in a principled way, a reformed Kantian honor that combines the normative content of ethical honor and the motivating power of natural honor into a single whole can be conducive to the politics of mutual respect.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of University of Notre Dame.

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In addition to Ruth Abbey and the anonymous reviewers, I thank Samuel Bagg, Eric Cheng, Jiwei Ci, Elisabeth Ellis, Michael Gillespie, Peter Giraudo, Ruth Grant, Nora Hanagan, Michael Hawley, Peter Josephson, Alexander Kirshner, Sharon Krause, Alexandra Oprea, Emma Planinc, Geneviève Rousselière, Brian Spisiak, and Isak Tranvik for comments on earlier drafts.


1 The following English translations of Kant's works are cited: To Perpetual Peace (PP) and Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent (UH), in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, trans. Ted Humphrey (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1983); The Conflict of the Faculties (CF), trans. Mary Gregor (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992); Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (Groundwork), in Ethical Philosophy, trans. James W. Ellington (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1994); The Metaphysics of Morals (MM), trans. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Anthropology, History, and Education (Anthropology), trans. Günter Zöller and Robert B. Louden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Herder's Notes from Kant's Lecture on Ethics (Herder), in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime and Other Writings (Observations and Remarks), trans. Patrick Frierson and Paul Guyer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). Parenthetical citations to these editions are followed by volume and page number in the Academy edition of Kant's works.

2 Cassier, Ernst, Rousseau, Kant, Goethe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 12Google Scholar; Shell, Susan Meld, The Embodiment of Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 8187Google Scholar.

3 Knippenberg, Joseph, “Moving beyond Fear: Rousseau and Kant on Cosmopolitan Education,” Journal of Politics 51, no. 4 (1989): 809–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Anderson, Elizabeth, “Emotions in Kant's Later Moral Philosophy: Honor and the Phenomenology of Moral Value,” in Kant's Ethics of Virtue, ed. Betz, Monika (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008), 123–45Google Scholar; Welsh, Alexander, What Is Honor? (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 138–67Google Scholar; Shell, Susan Meld, Kant and the Limits of Autonomy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 277305Google Scholar; Makkreel, Rudolf, “Relating Aesthetic and Sociable Feelings to Moral and Participatory Feelings: Reassessing Kant on Sympathy and Honor,” in Kant's “Observations and Remarks”: A Critical Guide, ed. Meld, Susan Shell and Richard Velkley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 101–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Pangle, Thomas, “Classical and Modern Liberal Understandings of Honor,” in The Noblest Minds: Fame, Honor, and the American Founding, ed. McNamara, Peter (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 213–16Google Scholar; Krause, Sharon, Liberalism with Honor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 34CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Faulkner, Robert, The Case for Greatness (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 227–35Google Scholar.

5 Taylor, Charles, Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 26–27, 41Google Scholar; Hill, Thomas, Respect, Pluralism, and Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 64CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kuehn, Manfred, Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 280–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Darwall, Stephen, Honor, History, and Relationship (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 11–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Wood, Allen, Kant's Ethical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 290CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Uleman, Jennifer, “On Kant, Infanticide, and Finding Oneself in a State of Nature,” Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung 54, no. 2 (2000): 173–95Google Scholar for similar criticisms.

7 See Maliks, Reidar, Kant's Politics in Context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar for an account of how Kant's political theory was developed in the context of the current affairs and public debates of the eighteenth century.

8 Shell, Susan Meld, “Kant on Democratic Honor,” in Gladly to Learn and Gladly to Teach: Essays on Religion and Political Philosophy in Honor of Ernest L. Fortin, A.A., ed. Foley, Michael P. and Kries, Douglas (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002), 239–55Google Scholar; LaVaque-Manty, Mika, “Dueling for Equality: Masculine Honor and the Modern Politics of Dignity,” Political Theory 34, no. 6 (2006): 715–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bayefsky, Rachel, “Dignity, Honour, and Human Rights: Kant's Perspective,” Political Theory 41, no. 6 (2013): 809–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 One exception is Roulier, Scott, Kantian Virtue at the Intersection of Politics and Nature (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2014)Google Scholar.

10 Most notably, Ehrliebe (love of honor), which is usually equivalent to ethical honor, and Ehrbegierde (desire for honor), which is always equivalent to natural honor, but also Ehrsucht (mania for honor), Gefühl für Ehre (feeling for honor), Trieb der Ehre (drive for honor), and Neigung der Ehre (inclination of honor). Kant's attitudes toward the latter three are ambiguous and have to be understood in their context.

11 Ellis, Elisabeth, Kant's Politics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005)Google Scholar; Flikschuh, Katrin, “Justice without Virtue,” in Kant's “Metaphysics of Morals”: A Critical Guide, ed. Denis, Lara (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 5170CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Ripstein, Arthur, Force and Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 300324CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Ibid., 3. See also Otfried Höffe's criticisms of Rawls and Nozick for their failure to account for coercion in “Kant's Innate Right as a Rational Criterion for Human Rights,” in Denis, Kant's “Metaphysics of Morals, 81.

14 See Ellis's argument (Kant's Politics, 112–54) that Kant is aware of the gap between the norms for an ideal state, which is independent of empirical facts, and the norms for a real state, which must take into account facts pertinent to the particularities of a state.

15 See also MM, 104 [6:331] and Allen W. Wood, “Punishment, Retribution, and the Coercive Enforcement of Right,” in Denis, Kant's “Metaphysics of Morals, 116–17.

16 According to Ellis (Kant's Politics, 12–14), since civil society provides the public sphere as the mechanism of moral progress, public order must be protected.

17 Denis's similar reconstruction based mainly on students’ notes supplements my analysis. See Denis, Lara, “Love of Honor as a Kantian Virtue,” in Kant on Emotion and Value, ed. Cohen, Alix (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 195202Google Scholar. I disagree with her view that Kant never truly admits honor into his ethics (202–3). According to her, calling the ethical duty to oneself love of honor is merely an analogy of Kant's. Though plausible, this interpretation not only is unable to explain why this analogy is necessary at all but also downplays the ambiguity intrinsic to the phenomenon of honor.

18 Scholars observe Kant's claim that “rightful honor” is one division of the duties of right (MM, 29 [6:236]). See Shell, “Kant on Democratic Honor,” 243; Ripstein, Arthur, “Private Order and Public Justice: Kant and Rawls,” Virginia Law Review 92, no. 7 (2006): 1399Google Scholar; Höffe, “Kant's Innate Right,” 85–87. Höffe even argues that claiming one's “rightful honor” is crucial to Kant's account of rights, as it is the premise for any individual to “be considered as a legal entity in relation to other human beings” (“Kant's Innate Right,” 87). Given the strict distinction that Kant maintains between virtue and right, it is difficult to harmonize honor as a duty of virtue and honor as a duty of right. The fact that Kant never again in MM discusses honor as a duty of right despite his promise to do so inclines me to dismiss the idea of “rightful honor” as insignificant. After all, it is unreasonable to punish someone just for failing to respect oneself. See Denis, Lara, Moral Self-Regard: Duties to Oneself in Kant's Moral Theory (London: Routledge, 2015), 2225Google Scholar for a fuller exposition. Moreover, if, as Höffe claims, an individual has to claim his rightful honor to be considered a legal entity, then the state is not justified in punishing him when he fails to observe the duty of rightful honor because this failure disqualifies him from being a legal entity and thus from being a proper object of meaningful punishment. If one is not punishable, then the failure to uphold one's rightful honor cannot be a failure to observe a duty of right, which is supposed to incur punishment.

19 Makkreel distinguishes three types of honor in Observations and argues that the “feeling for honor” and the “love of honor” are not as morally condemnable as the “desire for honor” (“Relating Aesthetic and Sociable Feelings,” 101–6). Since Kant sometimes uses these terms interchangeably (e.g., Observations, 25 [2:218], 34 [2:227]), the distinction among these terms may not be as rigorous as Makkreel concludes. Nevertheless, Makkreel is correct in concluding that honor as a natural desire is not necessarily evil.

20 See also LaVaque-Manty, “Dueling for Equality,” 724–31 and Sommers, Tamler, Why Honor Matters (New York: Basic Books, 2018), 9296Google Scholar for discussions of the relationship between honor and equality.

21 See also Louden, Robert, Kant's Impure Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 150Google Scholar.

22 Critics may argue that the moral strength of natural honor is inferior to the moral strength of ethical honor because only the latter originates from moral causes. Richard McCarthy's distinction in Kant's Theory of Action (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 188–91 between the moral worth of an action and the virtue of an action is helpful in refuting this argument. On the one hand, it is true that the moral strength of ethical honor has the moral worth that the moral strength of natural honor lacks. Therefore, moral maxims should be based on the former rather than the latter. On the other hand, both types of moral strength can equally motivate praiseworthy actions. This understanding echoes Kant's claim that “although the desire for honor is a foolish delusion if it becomes the rule to which one subordinates the other inclinations, yet as an accompanying drive it is most excellent” (Observations, 34 [2:227]). See also Frazer, Michael, The Enlightenment of Sympathy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 115–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 In his critique of Wood's claim that honor is the root of evil, Makkreel draws evidence from Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and concludes that “the mere intent to act honorably is not evil” (“Relating Aesthetic and Sociable Feelings,” 108).

24 See also Bayefsky's analysis of Kant's Lectures on Ethics in “Dignity, Honour, and Human Rights,” 825.

25 Anderson, “Emotions in Kant's Later Moral Philosophy”; Makkreel, “Relating Aesthetic and Sociable Feelings.”

26 Bayesky, “Dignity, Honour, and Human Rights”; Darwall, Honor, History, and Relationship; Welsh, What Is Honor?

27 Uleman, “On Kant, Infanticide, and Finding Oneself in a State of Nature”; Wood, Kant's Ethical Thought.

28 Faulkner, The Case for Greatness; Pangle, “Classical and Modern Liberal Understandings of Honor.”

29 Sherman, Nancy, “Kantian Virtue: Priggish or Passional?,” in Reclaiming the History of Ethics: Essays for John Rawls, ed. Reath, Andrews, Herman, Barbara, and Korsgaard, Christine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 271–78Google Scholar, correctly argues that emotions as presented in MM help us identify and respond to morally relevant circumstances and thus support our moral feeling. See Anderson, “Emotions in Kant's Later Moral Philosophy,” for a focused discussion of honor as one such emotion.

30 Sussman, David, “Shame and Punishment in Kant's Doctrine of Right,” Philosophical Quarterly 58, no. 231 (2008): 313–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 Ibid, 315.

32 Thomason, Krista, “Shame and Contempt in Kant's Moral Theory,” Kantian Review 18, no. 22 (2013): 30–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Bayefsky, “Dignity, Honour, and Human Rights,” 830.

34 Ibid., 824, 830.

35 Ibid., 825.

36 Ibid., 828.

37 See also Wood, Kant's Ethical Thought, 136–39.

38 Welsh, What Is Honor?, 160.

39 Kant is clear about the distinctions among morally worthy, morally wrong, and morally indifferent actions (MM, 14–16 [6:221–23]).

40 Appiah, Kwame, The Honor Code (New York: Norton, 2010), 151Google Scholar.

41 See Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo, Racism without Racists (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017)Google Scholar for a comprehensive account of contemporary color-blind racism.

42 See, for example, Waldron, Jeremy, The Harm in Hate Speech (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014)Google Scholar and Bejan, Teresa, Mere Civility (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 See Krause, Liberalism with Honor; Appiah, The Honor Code; Sommers, Why Honor Matters; Brooke, Christopher, “Arsehole Aristocracy (Or: Montesquieu on Honour, Revisited),” European Journal of Political Theory 17, no. 4 (2018): 391–410CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Haig Patapan, “The Politics of Modern Honor,” Contemporary Political Theory 17, no. 4 (2018): 459–77.

44 See Krause, Sharon, Civil Passions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fraser, The Enlightenment of Sympathy; Kingston, Rebecca, Public Passion (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2011)Google Scholar; Nussbaum, Martha, Political Emotions (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013)Google Scholar.

45 Krause, Liberalism with Honor, 159–68 argues that honor motivates women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to fight gender inequality and paternalism. Cf. LaVaque-Manty, “Dueling for Equality,” 731–33.

46 See Shell, Kant and the Limits of Autonomy, 277–305 for a rare study of the relationship between Kantian honor and the development of history.

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