Civic Immortality: The Problem of Civic Honor in Africa and the West

The Journal of Ethics 19 (3-4):257-276 (2015)
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From Thomas Hobbes to Steven Pinker, it is often remarked that cultures of honor are destabilizing and especially dangerous to liberal institutions. This essay sharpens that criticism into two objections: one saying honor cultures encourage tyranny, and another accusing them of undermining rule of law. Since these concerns manifest differently in established as opposed to fledgling liberal democracies, I appeal to Western and African examples both to motivate and allay these worries. I contend that a culture of civic honor is perfectly capable of offering those with soaring ambitions all the civic distinction they could hope for—including civic immortality—without tempting them to seize undemocratic levels of power. And as for rule of law and public order, an “irrationally” defiant response to the indignity of state-sanctioned oppression has often animated citizens to resist illiberal regimes despite great peril. Thus, cultures of civic honor are not only compatible with, but sometimes necessary to, founding and maintaining liberal institutions.
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