The Honor Code

Once a staple of moral thinking, honor has fallen on hard times. Like “chivalry” or “virtue,” the very word tends to strike people as anachronistic, and to deploy it without irony is to run the risk of being labeled an old-fashioned crank. Honor, as the sociologist Peter Berger observes, “occupies about the same place in contemporary usage as chastity. An individual asserting it hardly invites admiration, and one who claims to have lost it is an object of amusement rather than sympathy.”

And yet if Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah is right, honor is a very important moral concept, and one that should be rejuvenated for modern times. Honor, Appiah argues in his interesting new book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, “is another crucial topic modern moral philosophy has neglected. . . . It is time, I suggest, to restore honor to philosophy.”

Indeed honor, in Appiah’s view, is a crucial stimulator of moral progress. His book began, he tells us, as an attempt to explain the existence of moral revolutions: periods of transition in which societies move from one widely held set of moral practices to another. Thus he set out to examine changing attitudes to previously tolerated but currently unacceptable practices including dueling, footbinding, and the slave trade. What he found was, while the details of the change differed from case to case, there were two common elements.

First, the explanation of the change in each case was not that someone came along and proposed a moral argument against the practice in question that had not been considered before. “[A]rguments against each of these practices were well known and clearly made a good deal before they came to an end,” he writes. “Whatever happened when these immoral practices ceased, it wasn’t, so it seemed to me, that people were bowled over by new moral arguments.”

The second common element, which Appiah was not expecting, was the decisive importance, in each case, of an appeal to honor. It is people’s concern for honor—their own, and that of the communities to which they belong—that gets us past a merely intellectual grasp or appreciation of a moral argument to the point where an ethical issue becomes a practical concern. In other words, it is when we see bad conduct not just as wrong but as shameful or otherwise dishonorable that the need to do something about it becomes genuinely compelling.

This is particularly true, he argues, in cases where the bad conduct is not one’s own, but is rather being perpetrated by other members of one’s community. This point is illustrated by the example of Captain Ian Fishback, an American officer who blew the whistle regarding the military’s toleration of abusive treatment of prisoners of war. “A grasp of morality will keep soldiers from abusing the human dignity of their prisoners,” Appiah writes. “But it takes a sense of honor to drive a soldier beyond doing what is right and condemning what is wrong to insisting that something is done when others on his side do wicked things. It takes a sense of honor to feel implicated by the acts of others.”

Appiah’s historical examples are convincing and well chosen. Dueling, of course, was always conceived as intrinsically a matter of honor—one challenged someone to a duel, or accepted such a challenge, precisely to maintain one’s honor. But it was also highly specific to a certain social class, the British aristocracy, whose members “could establish their status by getting away with a practice contrary to law that others could not.” Once the status of that class began to diminish, and as dueling became increasingly popular among members of lower classes, its allure as a vehicle of honor faded drastically; indeed the institution was mocked in the popular press and became the object of ridicule and scorn. As Appiah writes, “it was the increasing vulgarity of the duel that finally made its wickedness perspicuous.”

The end of footbinding, too, is linked with scorn and ridicule: it fell out of favor once a group of Chinese literati succeeded in convincing enough of their fellows that it was not only a repulsive but indeed ridiculous practice that brought dishonor on their nation. (National honor and national shame, it should be said, are of great importance to Appiah’s account.) As for slavery, it ended largely because the British working classes came to feel that attitudes embodied in the institution of slavery dishonored labor in general, and hence expressed disrespect toward them as much as toward slaves.

The Honor Code also considers one moral revolution that is contemporary, and indeed still in progress: changing attitudes toward so-called “honor killings” in Pakistan. These are killings of women who are accused, often falsely, of infidelity or other perceived sexual offenses. (This includes, it should be noted, women who are unwilling victims of sexual assault.) As the very term suggests, this practice is intrinsically conceived in terms of honor, and Appiah’s contention is that the most effective means of combating it is to use “collective shaming” to get people to come to see it as dishonorable. “The lesson I draw is that we may have more success with the emancipation of women from honor murder in Pakistan if we work to reshape honor than we will if we simply ring the bell of morality. Shame, and sometimes even carefully calibrated ridicule, may be the tools we need.”

Appiah makes a careful and fairly strong case, though ultimately one cannot help but wonder whether the notion of honor is capable of retaining as much force as he desires it to in the modern world. Most of his examples, after all, are historical; the one contemporary case he considers, that of honor killings, is one in which the effectiveness of appeals to honor and collective shaming have yet to be demonstrated. And even if such appeals prove successful in Pakistan, it isn’t clear how much power they can exert in the West. To take just one telling statistic, a 2001 survey at the University of Virginia, a school that takes its venerable honor code as a point of considerable pride, found that over 95% of students who were aware of cheating or other honor code violations chose not to report them. Did these students not see their complicity as itself dishonorable, or did they simply not care? Either way, if honor really is the main motivating force behind moral progress, as Appiah contends, the moral forecast for the next few decades may appear bleak indeed.

Troy Jollimore is Associate Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Chico. His book, Love’s Vision, will be published next year.