Rooting his analysis firmly in historical manifestations of honor, Appiah (Cosmopolitanism), a professor of philosophy at Princeton, offers four case studies in what he calls “moral revolutions,” attesting to how altering notions of honor can provoke positive changes in social behavior. Codes of honor surrounding dueling, Chinese foot binding, the Atlantic slave trade, and the ongoing practice of “honor killing” in contemporary Pakistan are all examined to reveal the various dimensions of honor as it relates to notions of respect, shame, and dignity. Appiah argues for a distinction between honor and morality that underpins how and why abhorrent practices so often continue despite their criminalization. While the author devotes too much space to basic historical narrative and not nearly enough to the complex issues of how honor relates to morality and how it can be distinguished from the constellation of notions like respect that he draws on, it is nonetheless a compelling read and represents a refreshingly concrete solution to the question of how to alter deeply objectionable, deeply intractable human practices. (Sept.)
The New York Times Book Review
“Appiah is one of the most relevant philosophers today.... His work reveals the heart and sensitivity of a novelist.. He helps us think holistically before turning analytic... Fascinating, erudite, and beautifully written.”
Appiah's (philosophy, Princeton Univ.; Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers) latest is a thought-provoking, troubling book that asks: How do people come to change their moral outlooks? Appiah thinks they do so by changing their views of what is "honorable." He cites the end of slavery in England, driven in part by the sense that slave trading cast doubt on national honor, and the end of the foot binding that horrified missionaries in China. But he is most interested in "honor killings" in the Islamic world, which he thinks are not inspired by religion but by communal customs. Appiah admits that the African slave trade was becoming unprofitable and that revered Chinese thinkers had objected to foot binding before the Methodist missionaries arrived. And though honor killings by family members are not sanctioned by Islam, Sharia law does propose stoning women for sexual indiscretions. So Appiah's history is shaky. There is a political message here: Appiah thinks it is public pressure, not governments, that will end honor killings and generally improve morality. VERDICT Students of populist ideology (and Tea Party enthusiasts!) will be drawn to this book. But it urgently needs to be read by academics who can assess Appiah's history and logic.—Leslie Armour, Dominican Univ. Coll., Ottawa, Ont.
An eminently readable philosophical discussion of morality based on historical examples.
This is a practical subject, writes PEN American Center president Appiah (Philosophy/Princeton Univ.; Experiments in Ethics, 2008, etc.), because morality involves less what we think than what we do. As illustrations, he describes three moral revolutions—against dueling, slavery and Chinese footbinding. Arguments against all were well known, but changing concepts of honor and respect, not new arguments, fueled their abolition. When aristocrats were the only people who mattered in Britain, dueling enforced their personal moral code. Rising 19th-century democracy meant that others felt equally entitled to respect. Public opinion became increasingly unsympathetic to dueling, but the kiss of death occurred when a few nonaristocrats dueled. Similarly, few Britons denied that slavery was degrading, but abolition succeeded only when the majority agreed that it tarnished national honor. Even workers, many intensely racist, agreed because labor defined them, and nothing expressed the dishonor of labor more than black slavery. Few Chinese doubted that tiny feet on women were beautiful, yet the centuries-old gruesome practice of binding the feet disappeared within decades around 1900 when Chinese leaders concluded that it shamed them in the eyes of the world. Appiah concludes with an outrage still waiting its moral revolution. Mostly in Islamic nations, about 5,000 women per year are murdered for bringing dishonor on their families by committing adultery, engaging in premarital sex or suing for divorce. Drawing on his three examples, the author warns against simply ringing "the bell of morality." Changing this practice will only happen when individuals realize that it dishonors them and their nation.
Readers who normally shy away from philosophical subjects will be pleasantly surprised.
Mr. Appiah is out to reclaim the word honor, in philosophical terms, at least, and to attach it to another contested word: revolution. He's interested in how our best instincts can be churning engines for broad and progressive social change. To this territory he is a calm and learned guide. If The Honor Code occasionally has the whiff of the senior seminar about it…the author also seeks and often achieves a Malcolm Gladwell-like balance between argument and storytelling. He stirs in spoonfuls of narrative honey to help his medicinal tea go down.
The New York Times
Appiah is one of the most relevant philosophers today. He writes about ethics in diverse modern societies, where it is often a challenge to find solid ground, let alone common ground. His work reveals the heart and sensitivity of a novelist…and he develops ideas the way a writer develops characters. He shows them in action, in relationships, in context and in flux. He helps us think holistically before turning analytic…[The Honor Code is a] fascinating, erudite and beautifully written book…
The New York Times
Edward O. Wilson
“Appiah lays out a concept that is not only compelling in its own right but also suggests a connection that may in time help to collate biological and cultural exploration of human morality.”
“This book is essential for us—inescapable in its urgent relevance to the embattled human morality we live within our codes of the present.”
“A deeply insightful exposition of the dangers, the potential and the (perhaps) ineradicable role of the human sense of honor.”
“What causes moral progress? In this brilliant book, Appiah casts light on the role played by honor. Even though it's sometimes distorted, as with honor killings in Pakistan, this classical concept can be a lode star in guiding us to a better future. It's an amazing and fascinating insight. This is an indispensable book for both moral philosophers and honorable citizens.”