- - Tuesday, June 12, 2018



By Tamler Sommers

Basic Books, $27, 262 pages

Tamler Sommers, the author of two previous well-received books, is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, charged, one suspects, with infusing a once honorable but now fading academic discipline with sufficient interest to keep it on offer. To do that, he has to be aware of and able to address the various trends and concerns shaping campus thought today, while mixing in those less fashionable thoughts and subjects that will survive the trends.

As for Professor Sommers himself, he tells us he “has no political ax to grind,” and “Honor Matters” “has no political agenda, though I’m sure some will take it that way. For what it’s worth, I tend to be a liberal on most issues — though not as far to the left as some of my academic colleagues. I’ve made no effort to hide my political opinions, but for the most part my defense of honor is entirely independent of them.” And in fact, he writes, many of the basic tenets of what he calls “honor cultures” are more in line with “traditional conservatism.”

Having issued that apologia, and skirting the edges of a few inscrutable academic subjects such as “the rejection of abstract theorizing and the emphasis on personal connections and feelings [which] are in line with some aspects of feminist philosophy,” Mr. Sommers sets out, in highly readable, and interesting prose (an academic rarity), to explain why he believes that our “collective rejection of honor has come as a great cost to modern life,” and how “reclaiming honor can help us lead better and more fulfilling lives as individuals and as a society.”

His examples of what constitutes honor, how it is widely perceived and how various groups exemplify it are grounded in concrete examples — baseball, football, hockey; movies like “The Godfather,” “The Unforgiven,” “Shane”; the armed services, especially Navy Seals and the Marine Corps, defined by honor, a concept pounded into every Marine from the first day of boot camp. We accepted it, and did our best to live up to it. (“First to fight for right and freedom, and to keep our honor clean/We are proud to claim the title of United States Marine.”)

The problems come from his discussion of restorative rather than retributive justice — presuming the ability to think rationally on both sides, victim and criminal, and assuming that criminals, apparently even the most vicious and feral, are open to reason and will see the error of their ways if everyone will just sit down and reason together. To be fair, Mr. Sommers doesn’t spin examples out of how honor cultures might work out of thin air, instead citing programs, especially in inner cities, where there have been positive results, albeit on a controlled and limited basis.

To an extent, however, that means that he treats the concept of honor more as a social and organizing principle rather than a transcendent human value, a virtue underlying Western civilization, as it is seen, say, by James Bowman in “Honor: A History” (2006). By so doing, by suggesting that values can be open to essentially sociological reinterpretation, it follows that certain kinds of crime and criminals could eventually just be defined out of existence, a process that is already well under way.

Does that mean Mr. Sommers risks being seen as just another squishy liberal peddling the same old snake oil in pretty new bottles?

Perhaps. But consider his treatment of the famous Michael Dukakis political blunder, essentially a test of honor, which Gov. Dukakis flunked. Mr. Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate, was leading in the polls until the second debate, when CNN moderator Bernard Shaw posed this question: “‘Governor, if Kitty Dukakis [his wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?’”

Mr. Dukakis’ answer, in part: “‘No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know I’ve opposed the death sentence all my life. I don’t see evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.’”

Here’s Mr. Sommers‘ suggested revision: “I’ve been against the death penalty all my life. I don’t think it’s the state’s business to end the lives of its citizens [but] if Kitty had been raped and murdered, I wouldn’t want the man executed by lethal injection fifteen years later, after dozens of appeals and legal challenges. I’d want to track down the son of a bitch before the law could get ahold of him and kill him myself with my bare hands.”

Well said, and nothing squishy there.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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