A Sense of Honor: Justice and Our Moral Debt

Dr. Peter Chojnowski

To approach the end of the 20th century, is to inevitably reflect upon the fact that our century, more so than any other, has been one of injustice. This injustice which, in one form or another, characterizes each decade of this century is so constant, so "regularized," and so overwhelming that we have become desensitized to even obvious and gross manifestations of it. That the mortal remains of the slaughtered unborn should be callously put out with the trash and then, not this, but their proper burial should become cause for outrage and for the initiation of civil litigation, is a recent example of this perverse distortion of our moral sense. On a grand scale, a nation switches the channel with an air of boredom as it hears of bombings perpetrated against civilians by its own armed forces. The blood, misery, and dislocation of non-combatants means nothing to us now. That such intentional killing of the innocent was against the most fundamental precepts of the Christian law concerning the conduct of a just war is to us quaint and naïve. How many of our own Catholic people, even those of learning and influence, live comfortably with and even endorse a geo-political system which is anchored by the doctrine of M.A.D., mutually-assured destruction. Massive injustice will be met with massive injustice. In mathematics, two negatives make a positive, no?

A) The Forms of Justice ...and Injustice

It is not such global and systemic forms of injustice which I seek to focus on, however. I do not even want in this article to draw attention to the many contemporary instances in which human positive law contradicts the natural and the divine law. What this article will focus on is an aspect of contemporary injustice which normally evades our attention. This type of injustice is that which violates the "moral due" which is owed to another man which I come into contact with and relate to on the social and community level. This "moral due" is distinct from a strictly "legal due" which can be exactly calculated and determined by a disinterested third party. The latter is the domain of commutative, distributive, and legal justice.1

The reason I believe that unjust actions against the moral due should be philosophically considered is on account of the fact that the legal due which I owe another man is still considered within the purview of the liberal state. In fact, the liberal state officially bases itself upon the position that it is only the legal due which one citizen owes to another, which the citizen owes to the state, or which the state owes to the individual citizen, whether it be public safety, reciprocity in commercial exchange, or payment of interest-bearing debts to banks, which is the proper domain of the state and of legislation. Indeed, the liberal state normally makes it explicit in its constitution that the powers of the state extend no further than to establish the legal and financial "borders" which separate one individual from another. That the state take an interest in re-establishing, facilitating, institutionalizing or legally sanctioning those complex social and cultural relations which are the very subject matter of the moral due is thought to be the very defining characteristic of a "fascist," "reactionary," "dictatorial" system.

It is the moral due, that debt between persons which cannot be strictly quantified, which concerns us on account of its fundamental role in the social and interpersonal structuring of any real community. Its neglect, the fact that we as moral agents and social beings no longer "see" the non-legal "debt" we owe to others, is a sign of the complete dissolution of a structured social order which is not merely based upon the exigencies of capitalistic commercial requirements.

When we hear the traditional virtues which were understood to be "parts" of the virtue of justice, and which allowed a man to fittingly render his moral debt to others, we cannot help but feel that we are unable to completely savor these terms on account of the fact that one need be in a morally coherent, interrelated community of men searching out similar goals in order for these terms to have real significance for us. In our current state of social Atomism, where each man is a free-floating autonomous creator of life-plans and moral values, the inner verve of such ancient virtues and duties as "piety," "observance," "respect," "gratitude," "affability," and "liberality" simply is not experienced. Moreover, what any real social order experiences as grave violations of interpersonal and interfamilial relations, vices like "reviling," "taunting," "upbraiding," "backbiting," "tale-bearing," "double-tonguedness," and "ingratitude," are simply generalized under the category of "gossip" or "absentmindedness." Actually, what does "gossip" mean for us today who have more in common with someone who frequents the same website as we do, than we do with our own neighbor! At least "gossip" implies real community. Those who speak through the grapevine must one day drink the same wine!

B) The Claims of Honor

To consider what St. Thomas Aquinas means when he speaks of a "moral debt" which one man owes to another man, is to consider the fact that most, if not all, of the various virtues and vices relating to this kind of debt concern the giving of or the failure to give honor to another man when honor is his due. It is not an exaggeration to say that the whole question of "moral debt" is a question of the rendering of honor to those who deserve it, either because of their inherent excellence or because of the benefits which they have bestowed upon us. In the great ethical tradition of the Classical and Christian world, it is assumed that those who are capable of bestowing good things upon us are those either possessing a certain sort of greatness of soul or at least a social position from which great benefits can be bestowed. The whole question of the moral debt we owe other men who we have contact with, who we share life with within a community, is necessarily bound up with the question of the nature of honor and its role within a society of men.

To analyze the concept of honor is to first acknowledge its basic structure. In the act of honoring, the two parties involved, the one honoring and the one being honored are distinct in their respective persons, along with having a different relation to the act of honoring itself. Honor is not in the one who is honored but, rather, in the one honoring, who shows deference to him.2 Honor is then a rational, voluntary, evaluative response on the part of a person to a certain type of excellence which he finds in another. The act of honoring, normally some external sign or testimony, does not make the excellent person excellent, rather it is simply a testimony to the honored person's excellence. Since honor is, then, a fitting response which one gives to another for some inherent superiority which the honored man possesses as compared to the one honoring, a precondition for such an act is the intellectual recognition on the part of the one honoring that the cosmos of beings is ordered according to different degrees of intrinsic worth. This natural, shall we say "connatural," recognition that there exists a hierarchy of persons, professions, actions, and values can only be short-circuited by artificial and "learned" egalitarian notions. Since such a recognition of hierarchy is at the foundation of all cultural, social, and political life can it not be said that the egalitarian notions, which erupted violently onto the world scene during the French Revolution, are the essential cause of the cultural and social wreckage which we find all about us today. Can we not attribute the many "bent" personalities which we see about us or hear about to precisely this failure to recognize the divinely ordained structure of the whole. A man who does not know the whole surely does not understand his own place within it.

Honor has disappeared from out society because this connatural recognition of hierarchy has disappeared. Since I would hold that this recognition is truly "connatural" (i.e., because of the operations and inclinations of our nature we cannot help but recognize and "feel" it--even the Indians recognized that the "Great White Chief" was to be honored); we can wonder if the Liberalism stemming from the Revolution has produced a situation truly unprecedented and, hence, weird. It is so.

If each "pole" of the act of honoring is considered, we can see that each must conform to certain essential norms. The man who is being honored must display an excellence which can be admired within the context of the social whole. Since part of honor is the hope for future emulation, we can recognize that we only "instinctively" honor those who possess an excellence generally recognized as such. To honor another man, even though this act is voluntary, is in some way a "forced" transcendence of our own egocentric satisfaction with ourselves. How much we begrudge the act that we perform, depends upon the degree of our honest recognition of reality and of our virtuous affirmation of it.

The man we honor is one whom we recognize as one having achieved mastery in a specific area, he has shown himself to be eminently proficient in the task which society has made his. He reveals the prowess which our ancestors have identified as the essence of manliness. These accomplishments and the social acclaim which normally follows from them, provide the honorable man with the benefits which he can then bestow liberally and for which we render him honor. The honorable man is always the benefactor who recognizes that the good things which he possesses do not ultimately belong to him. The delicate shame which characterizes the honored man when he is honored is the deepest sign that the perfections we possess are more ideal than we ourselves are. We but share in that which is more than can be shared.

This half-grudging recognition of the ideal present "within" that man which we honor, is the preliminary to the deference which requires that we "make way for" him, allowing attention to focus on the one we recognize as deserving of respect on account of a certain superiority. This "standing aside," which is the mark of deference, is an implicit or explicit recognition that the one whom we honor has a task more beneficial to others than our own and one which we ourselves benefit from. It is, also, the insight into the awe which takes hold of the soul which has glimpsed the sublime periphery which surrounds the honorable man. The deference which we give, this silent "making way for," is our acknowledgment of the inadequacy of all of the signs by which virtue, excellence, and nobility are recognized. In deference, the communal aspect of honor is also attested to. For surely, silence, which is the most fitting response to the sublime, testifies that the sublime is truth which no one man has seen. The loss of an appreciation of the sublime, and the consequent social vulgarization, in our own day is a certain indication that we do not see other men seeing. We have forgotten what all have known.

C) Observance as Virtue

When we consider the distinction between a moral debt and a strictly legal debt, we find that more is entailed in this distinction than our ability to "quantify" one and our inability to quantify the other. Such is the case. What makes the legal debt capable of being "quantified" and, hence, exactly repaid, however, is the fact that only so much is owed the debtor and no more. The equality between what was given and what is given back can be strictly assessed and reasonably brought about. When it comes to the moral debt which we owe to God and our parents, and which justice demands we repay, no such relation of equality can ever be achieved. What can we give to repay our Creator who has provided us with the act of existence (esse)? Upon this act of all acts, all our other qualities and attributes, along with all of our actions depend. Can we return actuality to the being who is Pure Act? We cannot return it, because we do not possess the power to bestow the act of existence. Only He who is Ipsum Esse Subsistens (i.e., Self-Subsistent Being) has the power to bestow and to take away existence. Not just an attribute, or even the attribute of life, but existence itself. The virtue of religion attempts to redress the imbalance and to "pay" the debt owed by the finite to the Infinite.3

When we come to the moral debt due to our parents, we find that the debt is not as great as the one which we owe to God, they have not bestowed upon us the act of existence, nor, even, have they provided us with our intellectual soul; however, we owe them a debt for our physical existence, without which there would be no human existence. Such a debt, again due to the nature of the gift received, cannot be completely repaid. The life-giving, fruitful intentions of father and mother cannot be simulated. It is precisely for these intentions that we owe to both the comfort, concern, and tribute which are the acts of the virtue of pietas.4

It is when considering the honor which the virtue of "piety" demands we pay to our fathers, that St. Thomas unfolds the inner intelligibility at the core of all acts of honor. Why do we call some acts of acknowledgment "honor," and some not. Why is the cook thanked and the host honored? St. Thomas answers this question by first pointing out that the father of a family himself participates in God's own providential care of His creatures. A father is the principle of generation, of education and learning, along with being the provider of whatever pertains to the perfection of human life.5 So too, a man participates in the activity and beneficence of a natural father by exercising providential acts similar to the ones' exercised by the father of a family. This "extended paternity" can even be exercised by a host who, like a father, creates a social "space" in which is found companionship and sustenance.

It is, therefore, in the question after his discussion of the virtue of "piety," that we find St. Thomas discussing the virtue which repays the moral debt we owe to those who exercise, for our benefit, an aspect of the paternal office. Such a virtue St. Thomas labels observantia or "observance."6 To participate in the providential power of a father is to participate in his power of governance. Just as the father governs his own family in the multifaceted aspects of its life, so too men share in this power by exercising government in a specific sphere of life. The man who is honored is both governor and benefactor. The examples St. Thomas gives of such men who exercise the patriarchal power in a specific area of life are the governor of a state in civil matters, the commander of an army in matters of warfare, and a professor in matters of learning.7 Here we find the debt of honor emerging from a "father" and "son" relationship in which the "father" employs all of the skill, practical wisdom, foresight, courage, responsibility which he has gained from a life-time of struggle in order to facilitate the "son's" accession to the goods which the "father" himself already possesses. Here we uncover a reason for the act of honoring. The father gives that which he already possesses. How can he receive from the son that which he does not already have? How can even honor, which does not add to excellence but is simply an acknowledgment of it, bridge the gap between him who owes "everything" and him who has given everything? The Thomistic answer to this question is simply that honor cannot bridge this gap. Honor is given when nothing else suitable can be offered. It is an acknowledgment made by the man indebted to the debtor that the good which he has bestowed will be remembered; it will be reserved close to the innermost core of one's being, where the corroding power of temporality has no access.

D) The Good and the Useful

Just as a father would take it as a grave slight, almost unconscionable, if a grown son should thank him for the cloths which he provided for him or the food which he always had put on his plate, so too, it would be unthinkable that a man should be offered honor if he were to provide us with merely useful goods, goods which have no intrinsic worth. Such useful goods are only the means by which we attain those intrinsic goods which constitute an essential part of the good and excellent human life. A man should be offered honor for the truth, the wisdom, the guidance, the peace and safety, the victory for the cause of justice and the right which he has conveyed to us or has enabled us to attain ourselves through his active mediation. Those who have offered us jobs, monetary benefits, a "helping hand" are thanked, and to them we are grateful, but we do not offer honor. Honor is offered to those who have conveyed to us goods which are not mere means, but rather, in some way "ends." To convey an "end," not the Ultimate End but a good which foreshadows the comprehensiveness of the Ultimate End, is to imitate the Divine Power in its sovereign act of "making men" by both conveying being and well-being. To those who have conveyed to us the fruit of their efforts, we can only offer service, obedience, and veneration.8

E) Dulia and the Outward Signs of Honor

It is interesting to note, that even when St. Thomas is explicating his teaching on the act of honoring as a fulfillment of a moral debt owed in justice, he remains faithful to his fundamental appraisal of human life as the unified existence of a body and a soul. Just as man cannot express intellectual concepts without using the material medium of audible words, so too is he unable to express the interior attitude of veneration and regard save by means of signs, "either by words, or when one proclaims another's excellence by word of mouth, or by deeds for instance bowing, saluting, and so forth."9 Whereas we can express the honor which we offer to God and the things of God by a inner act of will or an internal movement of the heart and mind, the reverence and honor which we show men who have benefited us in an exceeding way must conform itself to the normal conditions of relations between men.10 To prescind from giving manifest, that means external and corporal signs of honor and respect, is to fail to render to another man what is his due. We commit an injustice.

The visible, corporal tokens of honor, which have almost completely disappeared from our radically unjust society, are interesting in their variety and import. Genuflection, kissing of a ring, the kissing of hands, bowing, saluting, "making way," reverent silence when the honored one is speaking or wishes to speak, forms of speech used to distinguish rank, formal titles of address, polite inquiries meant to demonstrate benevolence, not doing or saying anything revolting or even off-color in the presence of the honorable one, are all "objectionable" to the contemporary liberal and egalitarian mentality on account of the obvious fact that there is a type of servitude implied in these gestures of interpersonal acts of honoring. Such is the case, and it is meet and right! Indeed, dulia, as it is in classical philosophical and theological thought, is both the honor which is rendered to men of great worth and to the saints, along with being a species of the virtue of observance. As a species of observance, it relates to the rendering of honor which a servant offers to his master. How can this resemble the typical relationship between benefactor and one who is benefited? Isn't it the case, that actually, the master benefits his servant much more than the servant benefits his master? The master has a life. The servant merely services one part of the master's life. The servant gains a "life" by serving his master. The servant bestows a part, the master a whole. We honor those who have bestowed upon us the goods which truly make us the men that we are.

F) Gratitude and the Modern Hubris

Even though St. Thomas Aquinas identifies the virtue of "gratitude" as that habit which enables us to respond in a fitting way to the generosity of a benefactor (i.e., one from whom we have received particular and private favors),11 thereby distinguishing it from observance, dulia, and pietas, nevertheless, when we consider this virtue we see how closely related it is to the paying of our moral debt to another by rendering him the honor which is his due. Indeed, we can speak of gratitude as the psychological and moral precondition, disposing the soul to respond in a fitting way to a person who is truly honorable and who has been our benefactor. When considering the state of gratitude on the part of the one who is grateful to his benefactor, we must recognize that there are several essential aspects of this psychological and spiritual state. First, there must be a clear and objective intellectual insight into the value of the benefit conveyed. Without this intellectual objectivity, one of the many fruits of the chaste soul, there cannot be an honest assessment of the benefit given, the debt owed, the obligation imposed upon one by the debt, or of the fitting response which is owed. The egocentric soul, which sees all of reality only insofar as it relates to the plans and desires of the self, is blind to the reality of a debt. It is the soul dominated by its own concupiscence which will, necessarily, be the ungrateful soul.

Second, there must be a moral promptitude on the part of the will, which seeks to repay, by an immediate expression of joy and happiness, part of the debt incurred. The spontaneity of gratitude for a gift bestowed is a sure sign of a just soul, one which implicitly desires to give to all men their due. Third, there must be a recognition that the one who has bestowed a gift, something of intrinsic worth, an "end" and not merely a means, has done so out of a liberality of soul which endows others with good things even though he is under no obligation to do so.12 The selfless nature of the honorable man's act in our favor must be appreciated and, indeed, is the very thing which transforms the "is" of the gift, to the "ought" of our moral debt. He has not needed to, but he has done good to me or mine. Only those who have the innocence and objectivity to be selfless themselves can recognize what is selfless in others.

Finally, the ability to recognize the liberality of the bestower of good things and, consequently, to render him due honor, is contingent upon our ability to recognize the good bestowed as gift. This, no doubt, is a prime reason for the near complete disappearance of the rendering of honor in our own society. To recognize a good, a service as a gift, we must implicitly or explicitly recognize our own insufficiency, our own lack, our inability to provide ourselves with the goods which we need for well-being and happiness. To recognize this dependency on another for that which is essential, would open the autonomous man of the liberal age to feelings of lack and of true need. The ungrateful autonomous man is intentionally blind to the intelligible depths of the goods which the honorable man can bestow. He does not bow because to bow to one man, even one, would be to acknowledge that there is a kingdom of which one is not king. If there is a kingdom, there is a king. To the true King of the everlasting kingdom, and to those who share in the radiance of his majesty, be honor.


1 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 106, Art. 5. [Back]

2 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I, 5 (1095b 25). [Back]

3 ST, II-II, Q. 81. [Back]

4 ST, II-II, Q. 101. [Back]

5 ST, II-II, Q. 102, Art. 1. [Back]

6 ST, II-II, Q. 102. [Back]

7 ST, II-II, Q. 102, Art. 1. [Back]

8 ST, II-II, Q. 102, Art. 2. [Back]

9 ST, II-II, Q. 103, Art. 1. [Back]

10 ST, II-II, Q. 103, Art. 1. [Back]

11 ST, II-II, Q. 106, Art. 1. [Back]

12 Ibid. [Back]