Honor Societies

A year or two ago I read just a little about honor cultures and came away quite dissatisfied. The dissatisfaction has been stewing in my head.  Most of the literature about honor cultures is extremely dismissive or romantic, and mostly none of it talks about what problem the culture is solving.

So here’s a little model.  I think honor societies arise to solve a problem the elite have when the wealth distribution becomes extreme.   As this happens their position becomes increasingly risky.  The number of slots at the top keep shrinking.  The chance they will get back a slot if they lose it becomes vanishingly small.

Honor societies put a lot of calories into reputation management.  Stains on your reputation create substantial risk that you might fall out of the elite.  So the elite seek ways to formalize the reputation management.  That creates demand and the market will fulfill that demand with products, rituals, certification, etc. etc.   And, of course, the elite provide models for how to behave that are followed by everybody else.

Which sums up my guess about honor societies.

Much of what I read about honor societies confuses two things which we might describe as supply and demand. The problem outlined above is the demand – members of the elite desire things which will help to reduce the risk that they lose their status/reputation.   The rituals that arise; e.g. dueling, killing your daughters, fastidious adherence to this seasons fashion in manners, test prep services, etc. etc. are the supply.  Middlemen arise to fill this demand; and it seems to me that the literature about honor societies takes far too seriously the marketing brochures of these vendors.

There are plenty consequences of this model.  It predicts that the honor societies ebb and flow with the distribution of wealth.

The effect should be stronger in societies with large families; because only some of your offspring are going to survive into the next round.   If the family unit becomes the atomic economic unit rather than the individual; then honor killings (and the old French syndrome where a family can have their members thron in prison to protect the family’s honor) make more sense.

Note that increasing social mobility only makes things worse.  As long as the option space is shrinking and the wealth distribution is extreme mobility only makes the chance of a long hard permanent fall greater.

Note the perverse way that as the rich strive to capture a larger share of the total economic pie the risks to their positions only increase.

A society undergoing a transition, as the US has been for the last 35 years, toward a more severe wealth distribution should see some members of the elite figure out the new rules before others. I.e. some members of the elite will lobby the government to get tools that protect their social standing sooner than other.

0 thoughts on “Honor Societies

  1. John Kemp

    Hi Ben,

    Your seem to imply that in the US we are trending towards an environment where an honor-based society may result. It seems to me, however, that in a law-based society (which we have established over many years to eliminate previous honor-based societies in the US) that is open to change by the elite that there is little chance of this. In other words, why risk dying when I can get the law changed to protect my class position?

  2. Ben HYde

    Hi John,

    Let’s say we have behaviors A, B, C, D; and we suspect that these arise when the wealth distribution becomes extremely skewed. I have no idea how to go about proving that they arise. Even if you collected lots of examples of A or B occuring in tandem with a high wealth distibution I don’t see how you could get a large enough sample. You could certainly spin plausable technical accounts of whe A or C would arise. That’s all the above is, and attempt to lightly sketch a plausible account of why honor societies might appear in tandem with a highly skew’d wealth distribution.

    I absolutely agree that the elite have lots of tools available to manage the risk of falling out of their niche.

    But even if you get the law on your side the population in the top 1% is still at risk if there is any mobility in and out of the their class. It’s hard to write the laws in such a way that you can keep the mobility close to zero. You start having to write laws that prevent class mixing, demand premogenitor, etc. Once you head down that road the story you tell about why this is an ethically coherent system design start to look more and more like those you see in honor societies.

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