Book Review: The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, Kwame Anthony Appiah

Appiah cover

In his introduction, Ghanaian-American philosopher Appiah compares his book to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and the knowledgeable reader mutters to him (or her) self, “he certainly set himself a high bar”. By the time I finished this 200-page gem, I was nodding in agreement. This book might not be quite as important as Kuhn’s, but it is still pretty important to help understand human behavior and some perplexing problems of our times.

Honor is a funny concept, sort of old-fashioned and stale. In the science-fiction epic Star Trek, the only character who talks about honor is Lieutenant, later Commander, Worf.


Worf, played by the talented Michael Dorn, is a Klingon, a member of a warrior race who were fighting the Human-led Federation in the old series (the Kirk and Spock one) but in the Next Generation and its sequels, the Klingons are our pals. But still very alien. And a mark of their alienness is their obsession with honor, both their own personal honor, for which they are ready to fight duels at the drop of a hat, and larger concepts of honor, which, for Worf, include the honor of the Federation that he serves. The broad-minded Captain Picard, Worf’s commander on the Enterprise, understands and sympathizes with Worf’s need to preserve his honor without actually sharing it. Picard is motivated by a desire to be recognized for his excellence as a leader, and he is motivated by a moral sense, and by the good of the Federation, which he identifies with the cause of good in most cases. But the idea of honor, at least expressed as such, never seems to enter his mind. Perhaps in the 23rd century, humans have evolved beyond this.

Or not. Appiah mentions in his introduction that he got a lot of perplexed looks from people, perhaps channeling the good captain, who wondered why he was bothering to spend a year writing a book on such an outmoded concept. But Appiah argues that honor has deep roots in the human psyche, for all sorts of good evolutionary reasons, and that honor has been at the core of progressive, morally correct steps that humans have taken throughout history. Nonetheless, honor can also lead to some morally improper outcomes. The key, for people who want to impel humans forward on the moral arc that leads towards justice, is to use honor correctly to motivate people to do things that mere moral argument (with or without religious backing) and/or reasoned cost-benefit analysis won’t get them to do.

He presents four examples from relatively recent human history: the end of dueling in Britain, the end of foot-binding in China, the end of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the abolition of slavery, and the (as-yet unresolved) problem of “honor killings” in South Asia. He shows how each of these bad behaviors was motivated by the honor of the perpetrators (even slavery, though the argument is a little tougher there), and then a “moral revolution” took place (maybe is taking place in Pakistan) and the behavior became dishonorable, shameful. “You are of no honor”, Worf would say. And when people felt that way, they stopped doing the behavior, even though the practical and moral arguments against it had been known and even grudgingly acknowledged for many long years before. But suddenly, those arguments could have force once the behavior was no longer demanded by honor.

Actually, I cheated earlier. According to Appiah, one form of honor is the desire to be recognized for one’s superior talent or success. He calls this esteem honor. So Captain Picard has honor after all, no doubt that is why Worf is willing to serve him so loyally. There is also recognition honor, that people give others within their “honor world”. This can be hierarchical, as for example the British aristocrats who dueled expected recognition for their status from the “lower orders” without admitting them to the equality of the dueling ground (if some tradesman or rude mechanical insulted you, you sent your servants to give him a horsewhipping). Crucially, both of these forms of honor can be collective as well as personal. So you have esteem honor for your country if your country wins the World Cup or conquers some neighbor or otherwise distinguishes itself. Even if you, yourself, have had nothing to do with that success. And, you can give recognition honor, where you respect other people for themselves and grant them dignity. Crucially, this happens when you share an “honor world” with others, both the larger group you consider yourself a part of and the others to whom you are going to grant dignity.

And then, you’re stuck, because those people’s respect for you is something that you crave, as Appiah argues, almost automatically. If you are doing something that is contrary to the honor code as others see it, you will feel shame. If the honor code once demanded that you torture your daughters by breaking their feet in order to prevent them from running too fast, and then suddenly the larger honor code, from the globalizing world, says that it is dishonorable to inflict such tortures, in fact, it is laughable that anyone would find tiny feet so attractive, then you stop doing it. And if this alchemy can be worked on the people of South Asia, as it was on the people of Sicily in the last century (where honor killings were also a problem, though in a slightly different way than in Pakistan), then perhaps women will no longer be beaten, raped, and murdered in order to restore a family’s honor – instead, a family’s honor will reside in the respect paid to its wives, daughters, and sisters.

Appiah points out that all Muslim scholars, even those working in tribal areas where honor killings are an absolute rule, are quite clear that Islam does not permit this sort of behavior. During its rule, the Taliban prohibited the practice and reduced incidence (anyway) in the areas where they were in control. The practical difficulties are obvious – to protect women’s honor, they have to be kept under strict supervision, reducing their economic utility. Strict purdah makes it harder to make proper marriages, even if you think of marriage as principally a contract between two families. And yet, with all parties fully aware of the immoral nature of the act, and of its impracticality, they still have to do it because, honor.

And thus, the need for an honor revolution. They go fast, honor revolutions. A famous duel between the Duke of Wellington, the victor at Waterloo and serving Prime Minister of Britain, and a minor nobleman who had insulted him took place in 1829. There was some comment about Wellington’s foolishness in risking his life, so important to the country, in this way (the practical disadvantages were clear to everybody). The Church of England condemned duels (the moral arguments were clear). But everybody agreed that Wellington had had little choice, given the insult he had received. Within a decade, the practice had all but disappeared. The last recorded duel in England was less than 25 years after Wellington’s encounter, involving a textile merchant and a banker and provoking national ridicule. Foot-binding in China was almost universal, at least among the upper classes, in the 1880s when modernizing elites began campaigning against it. By 1913, when the new Republic of China government outlawed the practice, there were only a few cases, and older ladies who had had their feet bound in earlier years were trying to reverse the process (almost as painful as doing it in the first place, they say). Slavery was universally accepted, at least as a necessary evil, and the slave trade was Britain’s biggest international commercial venture in the 1770s when the agitation against the slave trade began among Quakers and upper-class Anglican evangelicals. By 1807, Parliament was reluctantly dragged by public opinion to the point of outlawing the trade, and the Prime Minister, Pitt, was a major supporter. Then, there was a short pause, and in the 1820s the anti-slavery forces again gathered their powers and by 1833, Britain had abolished slavery in its colonies.

Enlarging the moral universe was the key – in each of these cases, the group that saw the behavior as required by honor became involved in a larger moral universe: British aristocrats began to accept lower-class Brits as fellow citizens, Chinese nobles began to care about the opinions of a larger world, European slave merchants and planters began to accept working-class people as their fellow citizens (and workers in turn saw oppressed slaves as either competitors or fellow human beings – Appiah is unclear here). To the extent that South Asians now see themselves as part of a larger world and have to judge themselves by the standards of that larger world, a moral revolution can also sweep away honor killings. Let’s hope.


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