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.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • The Vicar

    I can’t claim to know enough about the various examples here, but two things occur to me:

    1. Assuming that this argument is true, then we ought to abhor the concept of honor, because it is unconnected from any coherent moral standard (dueling, for example, is explicitly founded on the idea that might makes right — if you say something about me, and I beat you, you were wrong, but if you beat me, you were right!) and it is far easier to come up with examples of cases where honor caused damage than where it was beneficial.

    2. The British outlawing of slavery was both incomplete for a very long time (it didn’t cover colonies or territories at first, just Britain itself) and terribly hypocritical. Even after the point where the British navy was attacking slave ships in the Atlantic and freeing the captives — a practice which didn’t start for a very long time after the initial legal victory by Granville Sharp — Britain’s economy was heavily dependent on slaves held elsewhere. (Just for example, the industrial revolution — which made the British rich and had a huge transformative effect on nearly the entire population — was largely founded on imported slave-grown cotton from America. At the time of the American civil war, although the British stayed out, the side they favored was the Confederacy!) (Draw your own parallel with American support of torture as long as it happens to Someone Else.)

    • Daniel Fincke

      Yes, the problems with honor-ethics are notorious, but I guess the issue is whether, as long it exists, shame language might be as effective a tool for relating to people wired or enculturated to think in its terms. Or should we attack it itself and hope that some other ethos, such as an egalitarian one, can successfully supplant it and have results both faster than results appealing to honor would.

  • George W.

    I’ll have to read the book. I’m sure a 1500 word summation can’t give the thesis justice. I’d like to see how honor as a counter-acting force to moral latency enters the zeitgeist, I don’t see how that is entirely evident. If, as in the examples, it comes from an outside cultural influence- is it the dominant culture that always impresses the honor or is it the “morally better” culture? If so, are we really just talking in circles?
    I don’t really know, as I said, I have to read it.
    I could argue that this idea, if it pans out the way I think it does, goes a long way toward furthering a Universal human moral standard. Interesting.