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Sense of honor

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By: Dr. Mary Ellen Wurzbach, RN, BSN, MSN, FNP, PhD, ANEF

Honor encompasses an array of individual characteristics. Some call it character. Words such as dignity and basic decency arise. Honor frequently means simply being kind or generous. It means caring for one’s friends and family. In the service, it means following a code of ethics, having courage and stamina, and following a set of standards few could meet.

For me, all of these constitute honor, but above all, the urge to basic decency seems most relevant. What is basic decency? It is following one’s conscience in the ways in which others are treated. It is treating others with the same dignity and respect one expects from them. Basic decency means treating all others as though they were valued human beings.

In the dictionary, two forms of honor are defined. One as mentioned above, and the other as an honorific. Those who receive honorifics tend to be honorable persons. The honorific is given for the basic dignity and decency that these individuals display.

Why is honor so difficult to attain? For some reason, it is based on values and characteristics and a sense of character that many times are not valued. It is an old-fashioned word and an old-fashioned idea.

Yet for many, living up to the ideal of honor is worth suffering and dying for. For some to abridge honor is akin to the destruction of one’s character. To be or to live without honor is repugnant.

To some, honor is an old-fashioned word inexplicably bound to a certain type of person who may not always be understood, appreciated, or valued.

The big question is why is honor not more valued? Do we not teach our children to be honorable? Is it an old-fashioned concept? When expressed as dignity or a sense of basic decency, all may understand. When expressed as honor, it takes some explaining.

Honor and being honorable require courage. The courage to be decent, the courage to be dignified, the courage to treat others decently and with dignity.

Many times as nurses we are treated with a lack of respect by those who may not respect nurses or who may not respect anyone. What do we do and how do we respond? Does our honor require us to respond with dignity and a sense of basic decency? Are we required to treat all others with Kant’s “respect for persons”?

I don’t know. My first instinct is to still treat others with respect, dignity, and basic decency. My sense of honor requires this of me.

In some way, courage requires a response that dissuades these people from ever doing this again while still respecting their basic rights and existence as human beings. How does one do this when one knows this response will not be respected?

Basic decency, dignity, and courage are all exemplary virtues. How does one extend them to others who do not display them?

At this moment, in a practical sense, I do not know how. In a philosophical sense, I understand honor, dignity, courage, and a sense of basic decency.

Years ago, I took a course entitled “Morals by Agreement.” One of the premises was that there are tacit ethical processes for dealing with circumstances like this. That we all agree on some level to respect each other and that in some sense we all need to cooperate in a moral agreement.

What happens when the moral agreement is not simply broken but totally shattered? When one experiences a soul-shattering moment at the hands of another who would disagree that anything is immoral?

I have to return to the original premise. Honor means acting with basic decency and dignity. When others are not honorable one may, if not too grievous a fault, be tolerant or sensitive to the other’s plight. But when one’s honor, which also means standing up for oneself, is abrogated willfully and egregiously one must respond. Treating the other with respect and dignity and basic decency but not abrogating one’s own responsibility to be courageous in the face of devastating duress.

Honor means being basically decent, dignified, and courageous. I aspire to it but have never had to defend it. I don’t know that I am able, but part of honor is a commitment to an ideal. I am committed to my ideal of honor.

Mary Ellen Wurzbach, PhD, BSN, MSN, RN, FNP, PhD, ANEF, is an emerita professor at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

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