“You’re a liar!”
“No, I ain’t!”
“Just lied again in denying it!”
“Insult me once more, and I’ll plant you in boot hill!”
We all know how this ends. On the surface, it seems to be a couple of cantankerous cowboys who are just spoiling for a fight. They seize on any little thing and turn it into something big.
But the more astute reader knows that to challenge a man’s word in the Old West was akin to denying his manhood. At this deeper level of understanding, we recognize that the fight is more about personal credibility than about the actual insult.
Yet even deeper than this is the lurking presence of the honor code. To be considered socially acceptable, or honorable, in those times, a man or woman had to possess certain qualities. When those qualities were challenged, it was a man’s duty to avenge his honor (or his wife’s/sister’s/etc. honor) at the point of the sword. If he won the duel, it would serve that rascal right for his libelous words. If not, well, he died honorably because he died trying to avenge a slur. The very fact that he showed up to the duel, knowing that he might die, showed that (in his mind anyway) he was guilty of no wrong.
This line of thinking has continued to live on in a lot of western movies and books, though some characters in those books have admitted that their fights were not ones of honor, but of necessity or perhaps malice. But that still recognizes the honor code.
However, the whole conversation gets very interesting when we start investigating what gives a man or woman real honor. Many people claimed it, but on what grounds can a man or woman be said to be truly honorable?
When it comes down to it, that honor is based on unreproachable conduct based on an objective moral standard. If that standard is subjective (i.e. I do what feels right to me, or any other relative standard), then no one can be held to, or lay claim to, an honorable character. The only consistent moral standard is the one found in the Bible, which necessitates that all honor is based on consistently (humanly speaking) keeping the ten commandments.
Now, when someone challenges my honor, in calling me a liar or a coward or a thief, if I kill him, I have just broken the sixth commandment, Thou shalt not kill. In other words, by defending my honor with violent force, I have just lost any honor that I had in the first place! In other words, dueling over honor is extremely counterproductive!
The true way of defending our honor, or someone else’s, is by spreading the truth. The truth vindicates in a way that a sword or gun never can. The sword or gun proves me to be superior in the technical use of weapons. It doesn’t prove my word over someone else’s.
Only spreading the truth can do that.
I am indebted to Dr. R. L. Dabney’s Practical Philosophy for insights into the honor code.