Friday, May 30, 2014

Morality Mental Disorders and Intelligence


 The 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on 27 May 2014 challenged the basis for Florida’s decision Hall v. Florida). Matters of life and death are matters of morality. And the moral judgments of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices make it clear that they do not know the right answer—5 ruled one way, 4 another. Moral judgments are not easy.

How do parents decide to punish?
Parents are pretty quick to decide when to let their children off the hook for dropping their Sippy cups, throwing a toy, or pulling another child’s hair. Some parents laugh, some yell, some swat, and some use time out. Some do it all in an unpredictable pattern. Parents seem to have some built in sense of when a child knows better.

Knowing better is the basis for holding people accountable.

Kids will still go to time out for breaking a rule so they’ll learn. But serious penalties are usually reserved for intentional rule breaking that leads to measurable harm.

There’s something about age that makes us think young children
are less responsible for what they do than are older children.

When older children kill, some people want to prosecute them as adults. Somehow we think age matters when it comes to all kinds of rules.

How do cultures decide to grant exemptions from a penalty?
The death penalty is constitutional in the U.S. But based on a 2002 ruling (Atkins v. Virginia), people identified as mentally retarded were exempt because of the U.S. constitutional language barring cruel and unusual punishment. Several countries and some U.S. States have decided the death penalty is immoral. [The older term mentally retarded has been replaced by persons with an intellectual disability.]

Several U.S. States (e.g., Florida) have relied on I.Q. scores. The so called bright line has often been an IQ score of 70. Score above you die now. Score below 70 you live in prison and die there.
“Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number.”
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy

What is the role of science and religion in matters of morality and law?
Courts often consider testimony from psychologists and psychiatrists when deciding moral culpability. Science offers facts and ideas about how well people can think about consequences and control their impulses. In the current case, Nathalie Gilfoyle of the American Psychological Association spokeswoman commented on the misunderstanding of interpretations of IQ scores and the importance of considering adaptive functioning. But Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. was not pleased in what he saw as a decision to rely on professional associations rather than public opinion.

When people base their moral reasoning on beliefs about human nature, scientists can sometimes offer information that supports or refutes those beliefs. Scientists make new discoveries and revise old theories. And even when scientists agree about the facts, they may disagree about how to interpret those facts.

Many people get their moral values from their religious beliefs. For some, these rules are absolutes—not subject to change by earthly judges. Rules are sacred commands that are most certainly not subject to human wisdom as may come from the likes of psychologists and psychiatrists. Murder and adultery are sins punishable by death. Here's an example from The Christian Post.


Age is important to morality. Age is a common sense guideline for permitting people to exercise judgment. For the most part it works well. There are exceptions. Intelligent people understand that being 16, 18, or 21 is not the best guide for certain judgment-based freedoms. Most of us know people in their 30s that are incredibly immature and probably should not be driving, drinking alcohol, or handling a lethal weapon. We also know mature young people who at age 15 or 17 demonstrate better judgment than people legally permitted to a variety of things. We also know that intellectual abilities and concomitant judgment declines with age. But we don't know enough yet.

Intelligence is important to morality

But intelligence is not enough. Of course, scientists and nonscientists disagree on how to define intelligence. But in general, when it is obvious that a person struggles to learn many basic things needed for independent living, few would argue that those who struggle is so many ways should have a guardian to help in matters of judgment. It’s at the margins of low intelligence that we disagree on levels of responsibility.

However we define intelligence, sometimes it is hard to decide on the right course of action. Some use reason to figure out some socially acceptable rationale to excuse wrongdoing. But others do think about discrimination, capital punishment, marriage and divorce, abortion, and surveillance. Thoughtful people are needed to help identify and weigh the factors involved in laws and policies that govern human behavior.

Rigid rules can lead to immorality. Justice Kennedy described Florida’s rule about intelligence as rigid. Rules are important and help people make quick decisions. Tough decisions require thinking and as I mentioned above, it is clear that the highly intelligent justices at the U.S. Supreme Court did not agree. Morality was decided by a 5-4 decision.

Mental age is a bad idea. But people use the concept of mental age on a routine basis to describe the functioning of people with low intelligence test scores. Years ago, intelligence was figured on the basis of how well children solved problems on intelligence tests compared to their age peers. The idea stuck and a number of 100 meant you solved intelligence test problems as well as the average person in your age group. Unfortunately, when you a person is 40 years old it really does not make sense to compare his or her ability to that of children aged 3, 7, or 12. There’s more to life than solving problems on an IQ test. If you read the opinion of the court, you will see people still compare adults with intellectual abilities to the abilities of children.

Test scores aren’t a suitable basis for rigid rules. Whether in matters of life and death, getting a job, or getting into a college or university, decisions ought to be based on more than a test score. Test scores vary for many reasons. Psychologists know this. And the opinion of the Supreme Court offers helpful information about errors in measurement. It is clear that the justices were informed by the evidence psychology students learn in courses on tests and measurement.

Over the years some people have wanted to throw out test scores. But that doesn’t make sense either. Test scores provide data. The intelligent use of test scores involves understanding the limitations of any test and assigning weights to different sources of relevant evidence whether deciding on admission to a college, employment position, or special consideration in sentencing.

“Intellectual disability is a condition not a number.” (Anthony Kennedy, p. 21). Really? Kennedy’s text makes it clear that he understands several factors should be weighed when concluding a person has an intellectual disability. The problem with the quote—already appearing in news stories—is the word, condition.

The court often refers to the DSM-5—the diagnostic handbook used by American clinicians to diagnose mental disorders. A medical framework for mental disorders like intellectual disability, schizophrenia, and so forth as found in the DSM-5 assumes that when certain features are present, a person has a condition. Diagnosable conditions can promote clarity of communication by referring to the same set of symptoms or criteria. And if certain treatments help reduce the troubling symptoms, then the labels for the conditions have practical value. We want to know how to treat depression and panic disorder.

Intellectual ability is neither a condition nor a number. There are many human abilities and people vary widely on the amount they have of each ability. Thinking of low or high intelligence as a unitary thing in a category does not make sense. People on the low end of several intellectual abilities have significant difficulties surviving. And people with high levels of several abilities are not just gifted. Some people with an IQ score near 70 can maintain full time employment and others cannot. Some people with an IQ of 130 are unemployed.

Mental disorders are not just conditions. The symptoms found in people with diagnoses of depression, schizophrenia, and other identified disorders vary from person to person. Diagnoses are a starting point not an end point. I am well aware that our system of care demands a diagnosis so insurance companies will pay for treatment or a person can claim a disability. But when it comes to life, it’s important to realize that how well we sleep, pay attention, solve problems, and get along with others is more important. Getting to normal is a good thing for those with severe symptoms. 

Too few clinicians forget about human strengths and talents.

Soaring above normal is the stuff of life goals.

Thinking is a necessary but insufficient process
for reaching a moral decision.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Psychology of Memorials

Soldiers, Heroes, Faith and Identity

Normandy, France 8 March 2012 / Geoff Sutton

1. War Memorials offer the living evidence that another human being lived and died.
And in that war, that person made a significant contribution to us -- the one living and able to observe the memorial. Even when not connected by a family tree, we feel connected to someone who helped preserve our nation.

2. Memorials reveal identities.
But the identities are often limited to a name and a date. Somehow a name is such a vital part of who we are. Some people get pretty upset when their names are mispronounced. What’s in a name? A lot really-- an entire life can be called up by a name. And we care for those unnamed—a place reserved in time and space for the “Unknown.” Sometimes we get a glimpse into another piece of identity. My father-in-law was a World War II American Veteran. There's a symbol representing his military service, wheat identifying his farmer-life, and a fish in memory of a favorite pasttime.

3. Memorials seem eternal
Memorials to fallen leaders or major national events – including wars—are made of hard rock and steel-- materials that outlast many lifetimes. No one wants to be forgotten. And those who helped form or protect a nation remind us of our identity. We human beings are social beings. We connect to our families, neighbors, nations, and faiths. And we fight for both. Memorials represent our values and we want those values to last. People want eternal life. Memorials helps us manage the fear of death and hint that something durable about us may outlast our fragile existence on earth.

4. Memorials fix historical narratives
And memorials shape our memories. Those who create a memorial are those with the power and resources to do so. Leaders ultimately decide the shape of the objects and space that concretize the narrative. Critics of the narrative are relegated to books and academic papers. There are few antimemorials.

5. Memorials define national and religious identities.
A glance across the allied cemeteries near Normandy, France reveals a field of Christian crosses and some Jewish stars. If present, I did not see the symbols of other faiths. There must not have been any atheists in that war. And the names-- women must have been few and far between-- if they were there. Oh, the colors-- the markers are all white. In books and movies we learn a revised narrative. There were people of many ethnics groups with different religious beliefs. They spoke different languages and their skins varied in color. There were women as well as men who forged a nation and nurtured faith.

6. Memorials without faces and figures capture our loss
The people are gone. Reflecting Absence is the name of the U.S. 9/11 Memorial. We are left to reflect on those who no longer live. And we are left with sadness. Hilker observed that Americans have conveyed a visual representation marking the absence of those who have left us—especially under horrific conditions—Gettysburg, the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

As Hilker wrote (p. 30),
“Mourning is the human response to the absence of those lost.”

7. Memorials help us live. 
Death is always abstract for the living—especially the young who have been protected from the face of death. As Hilker observes, memorials can evoke melancholy and invite us to grieve. Throughout the year we see people weep in response to news stories. If we have lost a loved one, we know their sadness. We feel their pain. And perhaps in that process of honoring those past we gain a new sense of the importance of life- our own life, our neighbors’ lives, and the lives of all those with whom we identify—our country, our faith, our fellow human beings.

Each day we contribute to the narrative we leave 
to help shape those who remember us.


Ben-Amos, A. (2003). War commemoration and the formation of Israeli national identity. Journal of Political & Military Sociology, 31(2), 171-195.

Hilker, A. (2014). The comfort of melancholy: Understanding the experience of absence at American memorials. Journal of American Culture, 37, 29-36. doi:10.1111/jacc.12104

Johnston, R., & Ripmeester, M. (2009). Awake anon the tales of valour: the career of a war memorial in St. Catharines, Ontario. Canadian Geographer, 53, 404-426. doi:10.1111/j.1541-0064.2009.00261.x


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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Quiz- Marriage and Relationships

Marriage & Relationship Quiz

(Answers Below)

1. According to the Rand Corporation, about what percentage of white females entered a cohabiting relationship in the U.S. by age 23?
2. On average, what is the age when women first marry in the U.S.?
3. In the U.S., at what young age can people commonly marry with parental approval?
4. In the U.S., divorce rates remained stable at about what percent of marriages?
5. In a split decision, the U. S. Supreme Court found the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional in June. How many judges decided against DOMA?
6. In the U.S., remarriage has declined by what percent in the past 20 years?
7. Same-sex marriage is legal in how many U. S. States?
8. According to the Pew Forum, how many countries permit same-sex marriage?
9. According to the Independent, at least how many countries recognize polygamous marriages?
10. In the U.S. Muslims and fundamentalist Mormons practice polygamy. What is the limit of the number of wives permitted to a Muslim husband?


1. According to the Rand Corporation, about what percentage of white females entered a cohabiting relationship in the U.S. by age 23?
1: About half or 50%.

2. On average, what is the age when women first marry in the U.S.?
2: Close to age 27.

3. In the U.S., at what young age can people commonly marry with parental approval?
3: Many states allow 16 year olds to marry with parental approval.

4. In the U.S., divorce rates remained stable at about what percent of marriages?
4: About half of marriages survive and half end in divorce.

5. In a split decision, the U. S. Supreme Court found the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional in June. How many judges decided against DOMA?
5:  The ruling was a 5 to 4 split decision.

6. In the U.S., remarriage has declined by what percent in the past 20 years?
6. 40 % decline in remarriage

7. Same-sex marriage is legal in how many U. S. States?
7: The answer has become complicated. Here's a map showing the state of same-sex marriage in the U.S. Map Link

8. According to the Pew Forum, how many countries permit same-sex marriage?
8: 16 countries

9. According to the Independent, at least how many countries recognize polygamous marriages?
9: More than 40 countries recognize polygamous marriages.

10. In the U.S. Muslims and fundamentalist Mormons practice polygamy. What is the limit of the number of wives permitted to a Muslim husband?
10 : Four wives

See Marriage in Review for more
details and sources.

Follow on twitter @GeoffWSutton 
FaceBook Geoff. W. Sutton

See the post from December 27 for a review of marriage and relationship changes in 2013 along with links to news and research sources.

If you find an error or additional sources, please provide the information in a comment.

Friday, May 16, 2014

What predicts infidelity in a marriage?


Photographers offer us stunning images of beautiful brides and handsome grooms smiling throughout pages of wedding photos. Indeed, weddings are a time of celebration for couples of all ages and for their families and friends who wish them well. Despite the high divorce rate, many couples find their marriage to be a source of satisfaction for a lifetime. The natural coupling of billions of adults and the common joy of having and raising children together reminds us of the vital role marriage plays in society.

Previously, I wrote about factors leading to divorce as well as elements of a strong relationship. A major cause of ruin and pain in a marriage is infidelity. According to Pew Research, the U.S. has one of the highest rates (84%) of all nations (median 79%) for people saying that having an affair while married is morally unacceptable.

The estimates vary but close to 25% of men and 20% of women have sex with another person while they are married (Russell and others, 2013). The damage of infidelity to the relationship makes sense and it is no wonder extramarital sex is a powerful predictor of divorce.

Unfaithfulness also hurts the one who committed adultery. Research shows that unfaithful partners suffer from lowered self-esteem and higher rates of mental health problems. Unfaithful partners struggle with guilt and depression.

It is easy to see the strong bonds of affection that launch a happy couple on their wedding day. That bond-- that attachment to each other --may be a key in understanding a part of what happens when people become insecure in their relationships.

Attachment is usually thought of in terms of two characteristics (Anxiety and Avoidance), which develop based on the relationship between parents and their children. People in secure relationships have low anxiety. They feel secure and trusting and do not worry much. People who report an anxious attachment feel insecure in the relationship and are likely to worry a lot and be described as “clingy.” People who feel close to a parent or partner are low in avoidance. They want to be together. When the attachment between married partners is secure, each person develops a mindset that the other spouse is available to meet their needs.

V. Michelle Russell, Levi Baker, and James K. McNulty (2013) of Florida State reviewed some of the background on attachment and unfaithfulness that I wrote about above. Then they reported on the results of two studies that followed 207 couples in two U.S. states. The researchers recruited newlyweds that did not have a prior marriage or children. Most were Caucasian (their term) but there were a few ethnic minorities. The age of most husbands and wives was mid-20s. Their average income was between $30,000 and $40,000. The couples completed questionnaires over a few years (3.5 years in one study, 4.5 years in the other).
Some general findings describe the couples. They were husbands and wives who reported relatively high levels of marital satisfaction and sexual frequency. Wives and husbands scored similarly on a measure of anxious attachment. But husbands scored higher than wives on a measure of avoidant attachment.

What was the relationship between attachment and other factors?
  Attachment anxiety was positively linked to avoidance and neuroticism.
  Attachment anxiety was inversely linked to marital satisfaction. And those higher in attachment anxiety were lower in the personality traits of openness, conscientiousness, extroversion and agreeableness.

So what about infidelity?
1. Those who were high in anxious attachment were more likely to be unfaithful in their marriage. And this is different from previous research on dating couples where anxious attachment was not related to infidelity.

2. Avoidant attachment was not related to infidelity, which is also different from previous research on dating couples. For dating couples, those high in avoidant attachment were more likely to be unfaithful.

3. There is an important interaction. The researchers looked at the level of anxious attachment for both husbands and wives. It’s not just one’s own level of anxious attachment that is linked to infidelity. The risk of infidelity is high if either partner is high in infidelity.

Commitment is one of the important distinctions the authors mention as a likely candidate for why their findings about anxious and avoidant attachment are different for married couples compared to dating couples.

Relationships are complex. Several factors are in the mix for a happy and long-lasting relationship. Faith, commitment, personality traits, communication styles, values, sexual satisfaction, and a secure and loving relationship are factors contributing to a happy and long-lasting marriage.

Sharing the same religious faith is important. Christians highly value marriage but many of those relationships include infidelity. And many Christian marriages end in divorce. But faith can be a factor reducing divorce risk (Wright, Zozula, & Wilcox, 2012). I wonder if Christians are too complacent?

Understanding our own relationship-based insecurities is not enough. We must also be mindful of our partner’s sense of security.

Predicting the quality of marital relationships from dating relationships or cohabiting relationships has risks. Married couples are more highly committed to their relationship. Commitment is vital.

Counselors and psychotherapists would do well to carefully assess commitment and attachment along with other factors when relationship issues are the focus. And the differences between dating couples and married couples deserves attention.



Gottman, J. M. & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Russell, V.M., Baker, L.R., & McNulty, J.K. (2013). Attachment insecurity and infidelity in marriage: Do studies of dating relationships really inform us about marriage? Journal of Family Psychology, 27, 242-251.  doi: 10.1037/a0032118
Wright, Bradley R. E., Christina Zozula, and W. Bradford Wilcox. (2012). Bad News about the Good News: The Construction of the Christian-Failure Narrative. Journal of Religion & Society 14, 1-19.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Honoring mother: 8 questions- some you should not ask

How do you frame your mother?

Framing mother- creating a special day-- began 100 years ago when in 1914 Anna Jarvis began her quest to have Congress designate the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day in the U.S.

Mothers are real people. But that’s not what happens on mother’s day in the U.S. Mothers morph into an ideal concept. American mothers become queen for a day. Mothers become goddesses. Mothers have been framed. And not all mothers fit the American cultural frame.

Mothers young and old alike get to enjoy this special day. Our cultural framing is guided by a powerful commercial engine that sells flowers and food in the temple court. Children must bring the sacrifices our goddesses expect if they want to win their mother's favor for another year. Oh, I nearly forgot the expensive fold-out flowery card in pink or lavender-- with or without a Christian cross.


1. What’s a mother worth? On average, mothers are valued at $163.00 in 2014, which is a $6.00 cut from 2013. Americans will spend nearly $20 billion on mothers. Most will buy flowers (60%), which is why I get constant adds from flower companies-even though my mother died two years ago. The more convenience minded (or procrastinators) will buy gift cards (43%; see more at Of course I know this is just symbolic. You can’t put a price on motherhood can you? What mother would frame her self-esteem based on how much a child spent on her?

2. How long have people honored a Great Mother? 
The religion of the Magna Mater (Great Mother) has been dubbed as possibly the oldest religion of all by scholar Anders Sandberg. One idol depicts her with two cats (leopards). (I’m thinking how catty. Cats and women have always gone together. We know cats are female and dogs are male.) Sadly, in one of the old stories goddess Cybele falls in love with prince Attis who decompensates, engages in serious self-injury (castration), and dies. Cybele struggles with grief, which becomes a serious mental illness as she wanders about with pipes and drums accompanying her (I’m wondering about music therapy). Sandberg thinks the cult shows up in the Bible- Ezekiel 8:14. There’s a lot to the story. But this time of year festivals commemorated Magna Mater and Attis. Mothers and children went to temples to obtain her help.

3. How long have women wanted men to serve them a meal? 

Check out the palace of Thera on Santorini. There you will see women watching and waiting for ceremonies to begin. And on nearby Crete most priests were women during the Minoan civilization. Perhaps women are making a comeback in modern democracies-- at least for a day. Fine dining is high on the list for most mothers. But some still enjoy BBQ.)

4. Who was the greatest mother?
Perhaps Mary, Mother of God would qualify – at least for Christians. Catholic Christians honor Mary, the mother of Jesus- not that she was equal to God – but she had a special role. Here’s what Cyril (the one from Alexandria) wrote: “Mary, Mother of God, we salute you. Precious vessel, worthy of the whole world’s reverence, you are an ever-shining light, the crown of virginity, the symbol of orthodoxy, an indestructible temple, the place that held him whom no place can contain, mother and virgin. Because of you the holy gospels could say: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Some tried to take Mary down a peg or two. Rumor had it Nestorians said Mary just contributed to Jesus human nature. But perhaps the Nestorian church got a bad rap.

5.  Why aren’t you a mother? 
Perhaps you know that when couples can’t have kids it’s the woman’s fault? She’s cursed. Ancient men and women prayed for children. They pleaded with God to heal the woman’s womb. No one blames women anymore (false). Medical scientists look for biological explanations and cures. There’s many ways to mother a child that contains a mother’s biological contribution. But a lot of women who want children will cry on mother’s day. When religious cultures frame mothers as queens for a day, those without children are obviously less valued. Now I hear some democratically minded churches hand out a flower or some other female symbol to every woman. And I hear some mothers don’t like that compromise. For some women without children, it is a major effort to reframe one's role in life when living in a Christian culture that places a high value on being a mother. For Christian women, the problem of no children might be as bad as being single. There simply aren't enough Christian men to marry.

6.  Are multichild mothers superspecial?
Mother Sarah had many daughters. (I reframed the old lyrics for mother’s day. You can sing the sexist song on father’s day.) Mothers with lots of children were blessed-- that was in the old days. Nowadays they are cursed or blessed—it’s complicated. If multichild moms are nice and have pretty girls and handsome sons and appear on TV they might be blessed. But if they are poor and need financial support for 3-4 children then they are cursed – at least by many in society. Sometimes churches help poor mothers if they are willing to hear a sermon first.

7. Did you know everyone has a mother (well, almost everyone)? Those who believe in a literal reading of Genesis, will find that Eve and Adam had no mother. Framed as "everyone has a mother" means everyone gets to celebrate mother’s day! Everyone has a mother is a great idea-- unless your mother recently died. Everyone has a mother is a great way to frame mother’s day unless you would rather not be reminded of her. And a very sad fact- a new mother dies giving birth every two minutes. Not everyone has a living biological mother. Many have been mothered by relatives and friends. That's a positive re-framing.

8. What is the Best Mother’s Day Gift of All?
In many U.S. cities, mothers reported quality time with their families as the top gift (Ebates Harris Poll). (Before spending quality time instead of money, check out where you live.) I think it best to play it safe. Why not spend some quality time, offer words of appreciation, and proffer a thoughtful gift? Make a memory that will last a lifetime.


 P.S. If you mess up on mother’s day, read up on apologies and forgiveness.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Honoring graduates- a culture of honor

A Culture of Honor

Graduation ceremonies ripple across the landscape as waves of rented robes trimmed in colored cords declare that a mark of honor has been achieved.

On Sunday 27 April, 2014, two men were declared saints by the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. They weren’t just any two men. They were former popes. They met the criteria for sainthood and are now known as Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II.

On 2 May, 2014, Evangel University newly retired president, Robert H. Spence, was honored with applause as he spoke at the school’s commencement following 40 years of service—the second longest tenure of an American University President. The celebrations began at Homecoming in the Fall and culminated in several events a week ago.

People of many religious groups honor their leaders for consistently living according to character traits such as faithfulness, humility, loyalty, kindness, and so forth. Protestants don’t recognize saints as Catholics do. But Protestants do honor people for saintly behavior. 

In this post, I look at honor from the perspective of moral psychology. Religious people often feel blessed when attending an event honoring a person they agree deserves to be honored. It’s being a part of history. It’s being a part of a movement bigger than us. It’s not rational. But it is part of being human. And honor is important to upholding the values of our culture. For Christians, it is part of honoring scriptural values.

As in former posts (for example, Whose side are you on?) I will use the six dimensions of moral foundations articulated by Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues. Haidt and others have found that conservatives draw on six dimensions when forming a multivalent base for morality.


Care/ harm- honoring those who care
Caring for others is a value shared by the world’s religions. Christians are often admonished to love others by reference to Jesus’ teaching and examples. To be honored, leaders must show that they care about all persons their decisions affect. And the honoring process shows that the community cares about the leaders and their families.

Criticisms will come from those who were abused or harmed by the action or lack of action by a candidate for honor. Several Christian leaders are vocal about those who are sinful. They make it clear those who are not welcome in a Christian community. And leaders will be criticized when their actions result in harm. For the most part, if leaders care about their own people, their people will care about them. There is a reciprocity norm.

Liberty/ oppression- honoring heroes
Like Jews, Christians often refer to biblical heroes who acted to liberate God’s people from oppression. Moses liberated his people from enslavement. David slayed a giant who threatened the Israelites. And Jesus liberated people from illness and spiritual destruction—although the people preferred a leader that would have liberated them from Roman oppression. As an antihero Jesus liberated the poor and social outcasts- people not in much of a position to elevate his position amongst religious or political leaders.

Contemporary Christian leaders offer freedom from many ills. Those who are successful are honored in television appearances and via book sales. Others get plaques and certificates. Some garner newspaper headlines with page placement indicating their level of worthiness. What liberty can today’s leaders offer? Some focus on the stuff of life—food, sickness, poverty. Some rescue organizations from financial ruin. Some offer a return to respect and a restoration of honor following church scandals. Others offer a version of personal liberation from addictions and destructive lifestyles. Criticisms will arise toward those who offer religious and spiritual oppression in exchange for liberation from a common catalog of sins. Some religious leaders seem to offer the bondage of religious rules in place of the bondage of a perceived harmful lifestyle.

Fairness/ cheating- honoring just leaders
Honorable leaders are people known for treating people in a fair and trustworthy manner. They are concerned about social justice—at least in their community. They did not draw unjust salaries or privileges. Honorable leaders don't take advantage of the poor who support their leadership position. In the honoring events, the community symbolically returns honor in exchange for years of service. It’s hard to decide what constitutes a fair amount of applause, awards, meals, ceremonies, parties, and gifts that should be given to show appreciation for honorable service. Surely they have been paid for their work. But honor goes beyond pay. Each community decides how to show their appreciation. And each person decides on how many events they will attend.

Criticism will come from those who feel the honoring events were too little or too excessive. Event planners will do well if they please the honored leaders and their families and the majority of those who wish to show their honor. It is easier to spend lavishly in good times. It seems unfair—unjust—to spend lavishly in bad times. A fair and just leader receives a fair and just response contextualized not just based on a career but on the current economic and social context.

Loyalty / betrayal- honoring loyalty
The dimension of loyalty and betrayal is relative. Jesus upended some old traditions—
“You heard it was said of old time… but I say…” (Matthew 5)
Don’t put new drinks in old cans- or something like that. (Matthew 9: 17)

Change can seem like betrayal. New leaders must be wary—old traditions become tests of loyalty.

Years matter. In general, we seem to honor people who have served their country or organization for a long time. We also consider the quality of that service. How did they advance the cause? How did they contribute to the well-being of the country or organization? We want to know how much they invested in the mission.

People aren't perfect. Long-term leaders and their teams can be honored as a way of getting them out of the way. Offer a suitable reward for loyal service. Let followers feel good about the transition. Then the new team can move forward—full steam ahead. But a new team could be viewed as disloyal if they betrayed the people’s trust in the former leader. Loyalty is tricky. And people hurl criticisms when new leaders want to do things differently than former leaders did. Legacies live on beyond the lives of former leaders. An honorable leader with an honorable legacy constrains a new leader.

Authority/ subversion- honoring those who respect authority
Anyone familiar with the Christian gospels knows Jesus challenged the authority of the religious leaders. And the trumped up charges of the week leading to his crucifixion tried to frame him as a subversive-- one who would challenge the authority of Rome. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he said.

Christians are big on obedience to authority. Even in America – a country begun by insurrection and built on principles of democracy (think, “We the people”) – respect for authority is required of any leader. The self-righteous version for Christian leaders who want to disobey a law is to declare obedience to God’s authority rather than man’s authority. This is pretty convenient when one wants to ignore a law in favor of one’s view of some choice verses from scripture. Sometimes I think Christians don’t like Romans Chapter 13 except when they agree with the government.

Nevertheless, to avoid criticism and garner honor, Christian leaders must obey the authority of the guiding principles set forth by the founders of their religious group or the directors of their board. And the honor granted to secondary leaders will depend on how well they submitted to the authority of those above them in the hierarchy. It’s called being a servant-leader in the language of evangelical Christianity. This is not an easy task. To be honorable a leader must be both strong and humble—commanding authority yet submitting to a higher authority.

Sanctity / degradation- honoring sanctified lives
In the biblical era, people followed purity rituals and thereby honored God and the temple—a holy place. Jesus saw the falseness of the religious leaders of his day. Those who focused on washing rituals but were spiritually unclean. He attacked those who sought to make a profit off the poor in the temple and were thereby degrading the holy place. What is a sacred place? What is degradation?

It’s pretty hard to get away from following religious-cultural rules when it comes to meeting the sanctity requirements of honor. There’s all the little stuff like the clothes you wear, closing your eyes during prayer, bowing your head, and maintaining a high attendance rate at religious services. Do these things regularly for years and you will meet the sanctity requirements for honor as judged by observing humans.

But there’s another aspect too. Christians are very concerned about sexual purity. Any violations of the expectations will result in dishonor. There is an inverted hierarchy of sexual sin. Some sexual sins are worse than others. You may be forgiven but you will lose any honor credits you may have earned. And you will likely lose your job—unless you have special connections.

Culture of Honor: Reflections

Honoring people in any culture has moral overtones. And honor is a big part of religious and spiritual practice. I wanted to see if the six dimensions of morality put forward by Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues would provide a useful framework for looking at honor. I think it does.

And I hope this year's graduates enjoy an honorable life.

I would be interested in your comments—especially since this is a new application of moral thinking. I will accept most comments except those obviously dishonorable.


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Reference Note

I took the phrase, culture of honor, from the title of a research article that examined the influence of a culture of honor on aggression. Here's the reference:

Cohen, D., Nisbett, R.E., Bowdle, B.F., & Schwarz, N. (1996). Insult, aggression, and the southern culture of honor: An “experimental ethnography”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 945-960.

Haidt summarizes his work on moral psychology in the following book:

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon.