That grand-sounding subtitle is a stretch; but Appiah's effort
to rehabilitate honor through four vivid historical case studies makes
for an appealing and highly discussible book. The
"revolutions" he looks at are the mental shifts that ended
dueling among English aristocrats, Chinese foot-binding, the Atlantic
slave trade, and with luck will end honor-killing in Pakistan. In all
four instances he sees the (surprisingly quick) triumph of a broader,
deeper kind of honor over a more parochial and outright vicious kind.
Throughout his survey, Appiah, a peripatetic writer and thinker
currently teaching philosophy at Princeton, provides a fine illustration
of his trademark "cosmopolitanism" (=universalism plus
culture) as he treats the ideals and injustices being fought over as
both "timeless" and rooted in specific, complex conflicts.
Honor, he admits, is often seen nowadays as an outdated, if not
testosterone-drenched, notion of self-worth; and anyone could conjure up
examples of this, from the wrath of Achilles to your standard male
murder-suicide story on the nightly news. But Appiah stresses the
distinction between honor as esteem (the hierarchical, performance-based
"rating" we assign to people) and honor as recognition
("a positive regard for the person," grounded in some fact
that we recognize, most crucially their human dignity). The first need
have nothing to do with morality, as the behavior of talented
celebrities keeps reminding us; the second, which plays a crucial role
in traditional "tribal" life, readily lends itself to lofty
Starting with the virtual end of dueling in nineteenth century
Britain, Appiah notes that in all the wretched customs he explores,
there was no novel, earth-shaking idea that turned things around.
Dueling had long been legally forbidden and ethically condemned even as
it flourished among the upper classes. There had been many assaults on
foot-binding and slavery before their abrupt collapse, even as
legislation and feminist protests have targeted honor-killing for
decades. But then something snapped--an alternate sense of honor came to
That, with help from the age-old prohibition of murder, made duels
seem unthinkable. A generation that could accept Newman's
definition of a gentleman as someone who never inflicts pain was bound
to find dueling crude, brutal, and pointless. And when the lower classes
started engaging in it, any luster it might have retained as a martial
rite of the nobility vanished too.
As for foot-binding, mandarins and other prominent Chinese began to
feel shame when confronted by the urgent disapproval of foreigners,
including Christian missionaries. (And the usual humanitarian arguments
against the practice were in place from earlier times.) Their collective
sense of honor was struck to the core, and they changed course almost
overnight. Among the key features of the successful British evangelical
campaign against slavery, apart from the resounding charge that slavery
was un-Christian), was the sympathy of the working class for blacks
(with whom they had no immediate economic connection) as exploited
workers like themselves. As in China, though in a different way,
national honor was at stake. (Too bad their American cousins
weren't quite so sensitive.)
Unlike those three abuses, honor-killing is still widespread,
though nobody knows exactly how many thousands of women fall victim to
it every year. Here Appiah inevitably touches on the ticklish problem
also raised by dueling and slavery: the relation of religion to social
cruelty and crime. Actually, he doesn't have much to say about
this, perhaps because it's so tricky to decide exactly what part
formal belief plays in such matters. It's true that Islam
univocally condemns murder; but the Qur'anic requirement of four
male witnesses for a rape conviction puts victims at a disadvantage; and
there are a number of hadith demanding death by stoning for adultery.
The same penalty applies in the Bible both to adulterers and to
hymen-less brides (Deut. 22.21); but fortunately it seems to have been a
dead letter. Of course, neither the Old nor the New Testament ever bans
slavery; and while Christians eventually lent their concerted energies
to abolition, it took them almost eighteen centuries to do so.
The obvious explanation for all this--though it's one that
Appiah discreetly ducks--is that, despite their noble visions of peace
and justice (and fundamentalist claims to perfect, eternal truth), the
monotheistic religions are lived out in a down-and-dirty world by people
who all have some ugly cultural baggage. In this regard, it's
curious that Appiah never says a word about FGM, an outrage far more
widespread than, if not as lethal as, honor killing. Health experts
often cite the figure of 130 million clitoridectomies, mostly in Africa
(in Ghana, where Appiah was raised, about 40 percent of women have
undergone it). The procedure, which is carried out in the name of honor,
has nothing to do with any Islamic belief, nonetheless enjoys the
support or collusion of some Muslim authorities (e.g., the enormously
popular Egyptian theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi); and the great majority
of its victims are Muslim.
But Appiah is keenly aware of honor's shadow side--and its
repeated use as a tool to subjugate women. He cites the cynical Italian
comedy Seduced and Abandoned (1964) to point up the absurdities of the
classic Mediterranean double standard and (hypersensitive) male
ownership of female sexuality. Still, while respecting the abstract
purity of deontologies (Kant!), he wants to enlist the powerful, if
unreliable, forces of honor and self-respect. "Honor," he
writes, "especially when purged of its prejudices of caste and
gender and the like, is peculiarly well suited to turn private moral
sentiments into public norms ( ... the creation of associations, and the
planning of meetings, petitions, and public campaigns)."
Experiencing evil as a personal and community affront and loss of face
can do wonders for otherwise hesitant moral agents.
All this makes perfect sense. On the other hand, by choosing four
slam dunk issues, where the opposition has nothing to offer but
instinctive clinging to old habit, Appiah has made things easy for
himself. But what of all the moral dilemmas where you can't avoid
the heavy lifting of analysis and debate: on abortion, say, or
affirmative action and ways of achieving equality? Well, maybe most
major moral questions have already been answered (with the one glaring
exception of animal rights). Jews, Christians, and Muslims--among
others--think so; and their conviction can't be lightly dismissed.
In that event, honor might prove to be the invaluable ally Appiah wants
to make it and says that it's been.
The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen
New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. pp.
xix + 264 $24.95
Burls, No. 9 (1988)
Acrylic and Charcoal on paper, 40"x32"
The Artist's statement for this series:
Swollen and twisted, amputated from their trees, red, dark and
radiant, cast down in front of me like corpses, dead burls imprison the
still living spirits of trees.
Those spirits cried out to me and I said to them, "It is time
for you to leave your pain and be released from your struggling. Come
out of the burls and I will grieve with you. Toss yourselves into the
air and I will dance with you."