An interesting socio-historical approach, first described by ER Dodds in 1951, identifies two broad types of ideological culture: guilt-culture and shame-culture.
In a guilt-culture, individual responsibility for actions is the dominant value. Success or failure are largely understood as being the result of individual choices, which then produce personal satisfaction or personal guilt. In this way internal feelings take priority over appearance and the interests of the many.
In a shame-culture, the opposite is true: we are all understood to be at the mercy of forces greater than the individual. Success or failure are measured by comparison to values and codes that are agreed by the many; chivalry, for example, or religious piety. What is seen by others, what is outwardly visible, takes priority over internal dynamics.
Honour and duty are key indicators of a shame-culture. We are deemed to act honourably and well if we do our duty.
Pre-21stcentury Japan was predominantly a shame culture. The West has been predominantly a guilt culture, since at least the second-half of the 20thcentury.
Honour and duty are qualities that are largely determined by what other people see. They are about behaviour and have less to do with the internal feelings of the perpetrator. Such qualities are less understood or talked about in the West because they can seem old-fashioned or even dangerous. In fact in the West, to act out of a sense of duty is often presented as a negative: as if the individual is coerced into behaving in a way that is counter to his/her ‘better’ nature.
Honour and duty, because they’re expressed via actions and behaviours that are witnessed by others, are often associated with military culture. And it’s true that shame cultures are often highly militarised; the Roman Empire for example was dramatically shame-based.
However the underlying qualities of honour and duty do not have to solely be expressed militarily or in a coercive environment. They can be freely offered and have the potential to infuse any aspect of experience.
It’s very possible to act honourably and dutifully within domestic, social and work environments of all kinds.
As an example, I witnessed my late father willing himself to outlive my late mother in order that, as he put it, ‘she’s not left on her own’. He persisted through numerous challenging circumstances, physical conditions and illnesses that could easily have been his end – including lung cancer and bladder cancer - mainly to achieve this ambition. At the age of 100, after 69 years of marriage, blind, deaf and unable to walk, he finally gave up and died - 7 days after my mother’s funeral.
At her funeral he said more than once that it felt to him that he was witnessing his own funeral. He seemed to recognise that his grief at her parting carried with it the relief, to him, of his own end.
Truly, grief heals in all sorts of ways.
I see his commitment to her as being an act of great honour; he carried it out - over a period of many years - because he believed it was his duty to do so, because he didn’t want her to suffer unduly in isolation. He did it because he loved her, and the code of love he lived by included self-sacrifice and a sense of duty to his partner.
Acts of honour and duty can be acts of pure love. I believe we do well not to be disdainful of such qualities.
More than that, even as a marriage ends there are opportunities to act honourably. To consider the well-being and needs of others - the ex, children, family, friends etc. - over and above one's own pleasure and needs always brings reward, even if it is less about gratification and more about doing one's duty.