Richard Beck also read The Honor Code recently, and is also applying it outside of Appiah’s subject matter: “(I wonder if) something like this is happening today in America regarding same sex marriage. Attitudes, particularly among younger Americans, have been liberalizing on this subject, signaling a shift in the honor/shame dynamics.”
I had the same thought. In some ways, the gay-marriage movement — and certainly its rhetoric — stems from the expansion of the honor peerage that Appiah called “dignity.” And it does relate to the idea of equality from birth, since most gay people believe they were born gay. On the other hand, it’s different from Appiah’s examples in some significant ways. There’s no reason to think that people kind of knew all along that denying marriage to gay couples was wrong. As I recall from Andrew Sullivan’s exploration of the history, at least, gay marriage seemed to never occur to anyone before the 20th century. Also, the current movement isn’t really about birth, it’s about attaining something: marriage. In fact, the most obvious way you can tell the gay-marriage movement is about honor is the insistence on using the word marriage to describe the union, even when a civil union has exactly the same benefits. The same word evidently denotes the same respect.
This suggests that the honor accorded to marriage is what Appiah calls competitive honor, which you have to earn. Certainly persuading someone to marry you has always been an honor; that’s why a man traditionally asked “for the honor of your hand,” and a lady thanked him for the honor of being asked, whether or not she actually accepted the offer. (Even in arranged marriages, families persuade and honor each other in a similar way.) Today, we tend not to use such language but getting married, or having any kind of successful relationship, is definitely seen as an achievement. After all, almost everybody tries it, and most of them fail a number of times before getting it right, if they ever get it right.
At the same time, the standard by which a relationship is judged is different from what it used to be. Back in the 19th century, when someone was said to have “made a good marriage,” it meant a marriage to someone of good wealth and social standing. Personal happiness was nice but largely a matter of luck. Since then, however, marrying for that reason has become shameful, and for that matter so has marrying for practically any reason other than romantic love. I expect that here, as with dueling, part of what happened is that a once-aristocratic practice became low-class. Social-climbing marriages are for the Anna Nicole Smiths and Heather Millses of the world, who can’t make their money with more respectable talents. Admitting that you need someone else in such basic material ways, whether to care for yourself or for your children, is admitting weakness, and weakness never sits well with honor.
The relationship between honor and romantic love could probably fill a whole book on its own, but it certainly seems to be ambivalent. Honor, as I said, is very concerned with control, so in many times and places being overwhelmed by a passion was embarrassing. It still can be, if the object of your passion is inappropriate or indifferent. But in our age it is, in a sense, a way of needing someone without exactly admitting you lack anything. A person can be rich, healthy, and endowed with friends and family, yet still fall in love. It’s how the successful people in our society pair up. And that, by itself, lends it honor.