“A man’s word is his honor.” “Better to die ten thousand deaths than wound my honor.” “A hundred years cannot repair a moment’s loss of honor.” If you have heard these wise sayings as a child multiple times, then there is a high chance that you are familiar with the message the phrases are striving to convey. Honorable conduct is described as the behavior which exhibits respectability, worthiness and nobility. Although the definition of honor is familiar to all of us, we barely use it in our day-to-day lives. With some exceptions for military, police, fire departments and criminal gangs, honor as a concept has ceased to exist in our modern society. A person living in Frankfurt, Moscow or New York is more likely to engage in the behavior that is characterized by self-interest and self-concern rather than the one that complies with honor and other ethical considerations. Is this kind of behavior typical for all societies irregardless of their cultural makeup? The answer is no. Is there a link between the concept of honor and economic growth? The answer might surprise you.
Across cultures and time, honor has been associated with power and superiority. In order to achieve or preserve this type of reputation, people would often abandon their private self interests or even place in jeopardy their well-being. The history of mankind is full with examples that support this statement. Consider, for example, the practice of Seppuku (also known as “Harakiri”), a form of a ritual suicide that was reserved for Japanese samurai as a punishment for bringing shame to themselves or committing other serious offences. This practice was done on a voluntary basis and, apparently, was held in equally high regard by both warriors and other members of Japanese society at that period of time. Or yet picture a different scenario that gained widespread acceptance among military officials and intelligentsia in the nineteenth-century Russia. The institute of dueling was established in Imperial Russia (Tsarist Russia) as a mode for settling interpersonal hostilities between two feuding parties. Although the practice was considered to be illegitimate and punishable by law, it was, nonetheless, heavily employed by members of higher social classes. As a result of dueling, a large number of people have lost their lives or sustained substantial injuries. These two examples demonstrate the significance of honor for some cultures in the past. If we were to jump into a time-traveling machine and move forward to present times, we would also see a great number of instances where honor is valued more than self-interest. Take, for example, the case of Southern United States. People living in the States that comprise this region are known to have the culture of honor.
Is there a link between the culture of honor and economic growth? A lot of economists of both theoretical and experimental domains have tried to answer this question either by proposing theoretical explanations or by conducting experiment-like studies. Let’s take a look at the findings of both literature branches. One of the theories that tries to explain the link between culture of honor and economic growth has been the theoretical approach of Hoff (2011). In her analysis, Hoff states that individuals living in cultures of honor often fail to cooperate for mutual benefits. Honor-based societies (cultures) tend to inhibit the evolution of mutually beneficial cooperations. This failure to cooperate impacts adversely economic growth.
In the experimental branch of literature, the focus is made on studying the behavior of individuals in trial settings. One of the most profound studies in this field has been the research conducted by Brooks et al (2015). In their experiment, the researchers studied the culture of honor and what impact it has on economic development. Under trial settings, experiment participants of high and low castes played a coordination game with a common goal. The study reports that high-caste men were less likely to reach an efficient equilibrium in their coordination activities. This limited ability to strive for efficiency can be explained by the fact the culture of honor among high-caste men prevented them from accepting low payoff offers. Instead the experiment participants of this social group retaliated on their partners by completely rejecting their offers. Thus the experimental literature supports the findings of theoretical approaches in regards to the relationship between economic growth and culture of honor.
The results of theoretical and experimental investigations seem to confirm the idea that honor-based societies experience a decline or stagnation in their economic development. I find the seminal outcome of the above-mentioned studies to be both fascinating and alarming at the same time. The extraordinary part of this scientific finding comes from the fact that traditional models of growth lose their relevance for honor-based societies and are no longer able to predict the economic development in those cultures. Current growth models base their predictions on the assumption that economic agents are utility-maximizing rational individuals with fixed preferences. The findings of the above-cited studies cast doubt on the validity of this assumption by emphasizing various discrepancies between the existing theoretical model and real-life experience. In addition to rejecting the traditional model of economic growth, the findings of the research accentuate the complex nature of the phenomenon of honor. According to the viewpoint of above-cited authors, policy-makers must recognize the significance and particular qualities of honor for economics in order to develop effective policy approaches geared towards the elimination of economic stagnation in such societies. Although the results of the studies prove to be influential in changing our understanding of economic development, they are also not free of criticism. Both theoretical and experimental approaches consider honor cultures as undesirable since they discourage cooperation and hinder economic development. I find this view to be overly biased. In my opinion, economists try to justify their own social standing and cultural prejudices by providing comparisons of societies based on their predisposition towards honor. According to the viewpoint of above-cited researchers, honor is an atavism of the past that needs to be eradicated in order to secure further economic growth.
Fehr, E., Hoff, K., 2011. Introduction: tastes, castes and culture: the influence of of society on preferences. The Economic Journal 121 (556), F396-F412
Brooks, B., Hoff, K., Pandey, P., 2016. Can the Culture of Honor Lead to Inefficient Conventions?: Experimental Evidence from India. Policy Research Working Paper; No. 7829, DC © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/25145 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.