The Law of Honour.

From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  THE law of honour consists of a set of maxims, written or understood, by which persons of a certain class agree to regulate, or are expected to regulate their conduct. It is evident that the obligation of the law of honour, as such, results exclusively from the agreement, tacit or expressed, of the parties concerned. It binds them because they have agreed to be bound, and for no other reason. He who does not choose to be ranked among the subjects of the law of honour is under no obligation to obey its rules. These rules are precisely upon the same footing as the laws of free-masonry, or the regulations of a reading-room. He who does not choose to subscribe to the room, or to promise conformity to masonic laws, is under no obligation to regard the rules of either.

  For which reasons, it is very remarkable that at the commencement of his moral philosophy, Dr. Paley says, the rules of life “are, the law of honour, the law of the land, and the Scriptures.” It were strange indeed, if that were a rule of life which every man is at liberty to disregard if he pleases; and which, in point of fact, nine persons out of ten do disregard without blame. Who would think of taxing the writer of these pages with violating a “rule of life,” because he pays no attention to the law of honour? “The Scriptures” communicate the will of God; “the law of the land” is enforced by that will; but where is the sanction of the law of honour?—It is so much the more remarkable that this law should have been thus formally proposed as a rule of life, because in the same work it is described as “unauthorized.” How can a set of unauthorized maxims compose a rule of life? But further: the author says that the law of honour is a “capricious rule, which abhors deceit, yet applauds the address of a successful intrigue.”—And further still: “it allows of fornication, adultery, drunkenness, prodigality, duelling, and of revenge in the extreme.” Surely then it cannot, with any propriety of language, be called a rule of life.

  Placing, then, the obligation of the law of honour, as such, upon that which appears to be its proper basis,—the duty to perform our lawful engagements—it may be concluded, that when a man goes to a gaming-house or a race-course, and loses his money by betting or playing, he is morally bound to pay: not because morality adjusts the rules of the billiard-room or the turf, not because the law of the land sanctions the stake, but because the party previously promised to pay it. Nor would it affect this obligation to allege, that the stake was itself both illegal and immoral. So it was; but the payment is not. The payment of such a debt involves no breach of the moral law. The guilt consists, not in paying the money, but in staking it. Nevertheless, there may be prior claims upon a man’s property which he ought first to pay. Such are those of lawful creditors. The practice of paying debts of honour with promptitude, and of delaying the payment of other debts, argues confusion or depravity of principle. It is not honour, in any virtuous and rational sense of the word, which induces men to pay debts of honour instantly. Real honour would induce them to pay their lawful debts first: and indeed it may be suspected that the motive to the prompt payment of gaming debts is usually no other than the desire to preserve a fair name with the world. Integrity of principle has often so little to do with it, that this principle is sacrificed in order to pay them.

  With respect to those maxims of the law of honour which require conduct that the moral law forbids, it is quite manifest that they are utterly indefensible. “If unauthorized laws of honour be allowed to create exceptions to Divine prohibitions, there is an end of all morality as founded in the will of the Deity, and the obligation of every duty may at one time or other be discharged.”1 These observations apply to those foolish maxims of honour which relate to duelling. These maxims can never justify the individual in disregarding the obligations of morality. He who acts upon them acts wickedly; unless indeed he be so little informed of the requisitions of morality that he does not upon this subject perceive the distinction between right and wrong. The man of honour therefore should pay a gambling debt, but he should not send a challenge, or accept it. The one is permitted by the moral law, the other is forbidden.

  Whatever advantages may result from the law of honour, it is, as a system, both contemptible and bad. Even its advantages are of an ambiguous kind; for although it may prompt to rectitude of conduct, that conduct is not founded upon rectitude of principle. The motive is not so good as the act. And as to many of its particular rules, both positive and negative, they are the proper subject of reprobation and abhorrence. We ought to reprobate and abhor a system which enjoins the ferocious practice of challenges and duels, and which allows many of the most flagitious and degrading vices that infest the world.

  The practical effects of the law of honour are probably greater and worse than we are accustomed to suppose. Men learn, by the power of association, to imagine that that is lawful which their maxims of conduct do not condemn. A set of rules which inculcates some actions that are right, and permits others that are wrong, practically operates as a sanction to the wrong. The code which attaches disgrace to falsehood, but none to drunkenness or adultery, operates as a sanction to drunkenness and adultery. Does not experience verify these conclusions of reason? Is it not true that men and women of honour indulge, with the less hesitation, in some vices, in consequence of the tacit permission of the law of honour? What then is to be done but to reprobate the system as a whole? In this reprobation the man of sense may unite with the man of virtue; for assuredly the system is contemptible in the view of intellect, as well as hateful in the view of purity.


1 Mor. and Pol. Phil b. 3, c. 9.

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