Posted: December 4, 2002
n September 12, 2002, President Bush delivered an address to the United Nations General Assembly that laid out the reasons for taking action against Iraq. It was expertly argued, amounting to a legal indictment of Iraq's numerous crimes and misdemeanors. Bush detailed Iraq's many violations of U.N. resolutions and its unlawful military aggressions against its neighbors; and he excoriated the regime for its use and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. He also mentioned, almost as an aside, that "in 1993, Iraq attempted to assassinate...a former American president."
The speech was immediately lauded as a masterful and dispassionate analysis. Even foreign diplomats who were previously skeptical of America's intentions admitted that Bush had made the case against Iraq. But then a funny thing happened. Several weeks later in off-the-cuff remarks, Bush referred to the Iraqi strongman as "a guy that tried to kill my dad." These raw, unadulterated comments were, to say the least, not well received by the American media. Many Democrats complained that the president had lost the principled high ground by personalizing the conflict, turning it into a grudge match between the Bush family and the Hussein clan. What these critics were really objecting to was Bush's sense of honor, a sense of honor that was in his case both personal and patriotic. The man Hussein attempted to assassinate was not only his father but also, as George W. had said earlier, "a former American president."
That such honorable sentiments are ruled out of polite public discourse in America tells us a great deal about the decline of honor in America. How many American politicians after September 11 got up and demanded that America's honor be restored after the barbaric attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? As James Bowman has argued in a recent issue of The Public Interest, the language of honor, if not the thing itself, has all but vanished from American public life. Good, decent liberals reject honor as sexist, uncompassionate, and judgmental, while conservatives distrust its amorality. Thus Sharon R. Krause's new book Liberalism With Honor has arrived on the scene not a moment too soon. In this important work, the former student of Harvey C. Mansfield and currently an assistant professor of government of Harvard makes the case that honor is essential for a defense of the liberal principles of equality and liberty.
A serious work in political philosophy, Krause's book is also quite readable. Her ambitions are high: She wants to convince liberals (she clearly counts herself as one) that liberal regimes like the United States cannot do without honor. And perhaps even more ambitiously, she wants to restore to political theory a concern with, and study of, "individual agency" and "moral psychology"—that is, the motives that enable human beings to act in complex and frequently dangerous political situations.
Nowadays, as Krause notes, political theorists are largely divided between rational choice enthusiasts, who reduce all human psychology to self-interest, and a bevy of Rawlsians, civic republicans, and communitarians, who believe that humans are motivated out of a sense of obligation to others. But, argues Krause, these theories are inadequate in that they cannot explain the simplest of political actions. They cannot, for example, make any sense of why one day in 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, thus in a single courageous act sparking the modern civil rights movement. What kept Parks planted in her seat was neither self-interest nor a sense of compassion but that complex phenomenon of honor. She would not give up her seat because of what she believed she owed to herself, and what was owed to her. She was a woman of honor.
Krause begins her study by describing Montesquieu's and Tocqueville's accounts of the place of honor in liberal regimes. She then proceeds in what is certainly the most innovative part of her study to investigate how the sense of honor has manifested itself in America's political life through the words and deeds of the American Founders, the South's Slave-ocrats, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Her goal is to show how honor can thwart liberal democracy's greatest threat: majority tyranny.
Some readers may find Krause's examples puzzling. Where are America's great military generals, and why does Stanton earn her attention but not Theodore or Franklin Roosevelt? Also, as she is well aware, the example of the Southern slaveholder points towards just how problematic honor can be when divorced from political principle.
Other readers might object to her treatment of religion. She correctly notes that of late there has been a rise in religiosity and faith-based movements in America, and comments that this is in part a result of "a lost faith in individual agency and an effort to recover it through spiritual resources." She does not look kindly on this effort:
We ought not rely only on religious inspiration, which, particularly when it is fundamentalist in origin, may threaten the toleration, diversity, and individual liberty that are the cornerstones of liberal democracy. To restore faith in the strong capacity for agency that supports liberal democracy in America, Americans need liberal inspirations.
Yet as Krause should have learned from her own research, religion in America is frequently a handmaiden to honor. As she herself notes in her chapter on Tocqueville, "Insofar as religious belief endows the individual with higher aspirations it can support honor, and Tocqueville approves of it, especially in democracy." She then quotes Tocqueville's well-known observation that "it is particularly in times of democracy that it is important to make spiritual opinions reign."
She might have also learned of religion's importance from her character study of Martin Luther King, Jr., but in an unfortunate oversight she makes only passing reference to the Reverend King's religious faith. King's ability to act politically, however, from his willingness to risk his own life to his articulation of America's liberal principles—that is, his "individual agency"—is almost unfathomable without reference to his religious faith. King's belief, in particular, that suffering is redemptive was the linchpin to much of his political activity and advocacy. This religious belief gave him the wherewithal in life-imperiling situations to act honorably and in service of his country's highest ideals.
However, if Sharon Krause has overlooked the important role religion plays in bolstering individual agency in liberal democratic orders, she has restored honor to its honorable place in our understanding of liberal theory and practice. And in the world disorder following September 11, when Americans will have to dig deep within themselves to defend their way of life, this is no small contribution.