Last Friday, Kwame Anthony Appiah – philosopher, novelist and Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University – delivered a convocation presentation titled “The Honor Code: Making Moral Revolutions.” Appiah focused on the process of turning moral understanding into moral action.
Arguing that honor greatly influences personal as well as international choices, Appiah used three historical case studies to highlight why honor was important to “moral revolutions.”
In quoting anthropologist Frank Stewart, who said that “honor gives someone the right to respect,” Appiah claimed that honor depends on social identity. This means that one’s code of honor determines how one behaves, but it is also directed at a very specific group, rather than the world or society at large. He called this group the “honor world.”
Appiah’s first cited example was dueling. He outlined how the judicial duel – in which princes were called upon to witness the fight – in the Middle Ages gave way to the modern duel thanks to changing public perceptions.
Criticism came in particular from religious groups, who viewed the behavior as “un-Christian and illegal.” As such, the initial honor in resolving conflicts via force retracted under public pressure, and in the mid-19th century the practice disappeared.
Appiah used this to illustrate that honor “can run against the reason of the state and religion;” in the case of dueling it was the bureaucrats and businessmen who disliked the “messiness” of the aristocracy.
Soon the very act of inflicting pain upon another man was considered very un-gentlemanlike, and a new, revised form of honor challenged the act of dueling.
Appiah’s second example was Chinese foot-binding, which Appiah says was seen as “problematic long before the act was abandoned.”
“Like dueling, the end of foot-binding was not brought about by objections, because these objections began circulating as it begun,” Appiah said.
Instead, he said, it was only in the 1890s that the act was subjected to shame, as Chinese officials and intellectuals became more aware of the way foreigners saw the country. Foot-binding was therefore a “barbarous custom that makes China laughable in the face of foreign nations,” making it less honorable.
The third example was working-class abolitionism in Britain, where workers had a large impact on their parliament by opposing slavery.
“They were defending their honor as the working class, rather than the dignity of the slave,” Appiah said.
Appiah cautioned that honor can be used in the service of both right and wrong.
“Honor is still doing great harm in the world today,” he said, referring to “honor killings” that take place in Islamic communities in Pakistan and the Iran.
Still, he said, honor systems can – and need to – be changed.
That honor killings exist, he said, “is not the reason to abandon honor entirely, for honor needs a place and needs to be managed.”