Doing the right thing for more than one reason.
Article Type:
Book review
Books (Book reviews)
Heinegg, Peter
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Name: Cross Currents Publisher: Association for Religion and Intellectual Life Audience: Professional Format: Newsletter Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Association for Religion and Intellectual Life ISSN: 0011-1953
Date: June, 2011 Source Volume: 61 Source Issue: 2
NamedWork: The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (Nonfiction work)
Reviewee: Appiah, Kwame Anthony

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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Honor, he admits, is often seen nowadays as an outdated, if not testosterone-drenched, notion of self-worth; and anyone could conjure up examples of this, from the wrath of Achilles to your standard male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 causes.

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 the fore.

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."
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