The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen


"[Appiah's] work reveals the heart and sensitivity of a novelist. . . .Fascinating, erudite and beautifully written."—The New York Times Book Review
In this groundbreaking work, Kwame Anthony Appiah, hailed as "one of the most relevant philosophers today" (New York Times Book Review), changes the way we understand human behavior and the way social reform is brought about. In brilliantly arguing that new democratic movements over the last century have not been driven by legislation from above, Appiah explores the ...

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The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen

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"[Appiah's] work reveals the heart and sensitivity of a novelist. . . .Fascinating, erudite and beautifully written."—The New York Times Book Review
In this groundbreaking work, Kwame Anthony Appiah, hailed as "one of the most relevant philosophers today" (New York Times Book Review), changes the way we understand human behavior and the way social reform is brought about. In brilliantly arguing that new democratic movements over the last century have not been driven by legislation from above, Appiah explores the end of the duel in aristocratic England, the tumultuous struggles over footbinding in nineteenth-century China, the uprising of ordinary people against Atlantic slavery, and the horrors of "honor killing" in contemporary Pakistan. Intertwining philosophy and historical narrative, he has created "a fascinating study of moral evolution" (Philadelphia Inquirer) that demonstrates the critical role honor plays a in the struggle against man's inhumanity to man.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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.)
Walter Isaacson
“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.”
Nadine Gordimer
“How stimulating it is to read the remarkable research of a brilliant mind into the concept of honor as the origin of morality as we know it, practiced or not!... This book is essential for us—inescapable in its urgent relevance to the embattled human morality we live within our codes of the present.”
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.”
Library Journal
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.
Kirkus Reviews

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.

Dwight Garner
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
Jonathan Haidt
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.”
Nadine Gordimer
“This book is essential for us—inescapable in its urgent relevance to the embattled human morality we live within our codes of the present.”
Charles Taylor
“A deeply insightful exposition of the dangers, the potential and the (perhaps) ineradicable role of the human sense of honor.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

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

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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393071627
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/13/2010
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at Princeton University. His earlier books include The Ethics of Identity and Thinking It Through: An Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy. He lives in Pennington, New Jersey.
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  • Posted February 26, 2012

    Very intriguing read

    In Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code, Appiah argues that moral revolutions only occur when the established and existing practices begin to conflict with this sense of honor. Four examples or case studies are explored the practice of dueling by British aristocrats, the ancient tradition of footbinding among the Chinese, the Slave Trade, and the honor killings in Pakistan. These examples illustrate the processes that changed perceptions towards practices that had been considered honorable and acceptable for ages. Major themes include ideas surrounding honor and what true honor involves. Honor essentially comes down to the respect one’s peers gives them and that one can demand from one’s friends. Therefore, honor is formed based on the masses of society. This concept leads to another major theme. Society selects, amplifies, distorts and suppresses some of the things morality says. It can do this in direct opposition to morality. Society also has the power to turn to practices of morality. However, in the end, the one thing society will never be is silent, and therefore it will always hold the power. I enjoyed the way the argument is presented. It is a combination of storytelling and arguments based on that storytelling. In this way it is very well organized. The author inserts his own remarks and ideas in the process of the storytelling and it adds to the voice and character of the work and gives insight into the author’s views behind topics and historical events. I liked the way this booked explored the idea of human honor and the dangers that may come with it. At points I would have preferred if the author had included more support of his argument as to why moral revolutions happen and presented such support in direct response to opposing theories. Various theories exist regarding this topic and in some areas the author’s argument seemed to contain gaps or vague explanations that were never addressed. I would highly recommend this book because, above all, it presents a very engaging and well-written argument. Besides the argument, the stories surrounding the dueling, footbinding, slave trade, and honor killings are very interesting. I had been aware of each of these practices, however, while reading, it occurred to me that I did not know the events surrounding the cessation of them. It is not a difficult read and ideas are interesting enough that it is worth reading. Kwane Anthony Appiah has published various articles and essays and books many dealing with ideas of ethics such as, Beware of Race-Pride, The Ethics of Identity, Cosmopolitanism, and Experiments in Ethics.

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