The Role Of Honor In Moral Revolutions

Kwame Anthony Appiah explores a thesis I’ve never heard before in his new book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen summarized by Matthew Pianalto:

Judged by contemporary Western standards, honour has a mixed moral record. On the one hand, a sense of gentlemanly honour underwrote the practice of duelling, long after it had been outlawed and denounced as an immoral and reckless affair. The desire to protect a woman’s honour was implicated in the millennium-long practice of foot binding in China, despite the fact that everyone involved knew that foot binding is excruciating. Even now, family honour motivates the murder of women who deviate from conventional norms about marriage and sex. As Kwame Anthony Appiah is well aware in his new book none of these are honour practices we could wish to preserve.

On the other hand, Appiah argues that because the sense of honour is connected to a deep desire for recognition and respect, honour can also play a significant role in positive moral and social change. Appiah works toward this thesis through a combination of historical narrative and philosophical analysis. Offering a vivid and detailed study of three “moral revolutions”, where practices we now would regard as unthinkable were abandoned in a short period of time, Appiah draws attention to the positive role honour has played. Foot binding came to an end because influential intellectuals within China recognized that the practice brought dishonour upon the nation. Similarly, the Atlantic slave trade came under pressure from social movements which insisted that slavery was a stain on Great Britain’s honour and on the honour of the working class who shared with slaves the “dishonourable” work of manual labour. Here, as in the other moral revolutions Appiah explores, moral arguments alone, which often abounded while the immoral practices continued, were not enough to bring about change. Honour, rather than moral argument, seemed to excite people to action.

More here.

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