The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (Appiah)

Appiah is one of the more interesting thinkers / philosophers writing today. (Do you know others?). I enjoyed his book Cosmopolitanism, though I didn’t think it was especially well-written. It seemed like an amalgam of talks and articles. It didn’t hold together well.

This one is written well. It is quite (too?) organized. Appiah presents three moral revolutions – dueling, foot binding, and Atlantic Slavery – to develop his theory about the stages of a moral revolution. I wish he’d explained why he chose these three in particular. I wonder, also, what would have happened if he’d organized his argument by stage of revolution rather than by revolution. As written, Appiah feels compelled to provide a fair amount of historical background for each revolution and then offer his commentary. He is not, as he makes clear in his Sources and Acknowledgments section, an historian, and it shows in his writing. The background, though clear, is perfunctory.

As I read the preface, I all but said aloud, “What about honor killings?” And he does address them, and this is the section that prompted the most margin notes – but more on this in a moment.

Appiah makes much of Shakespeare’s Henry V having a true understanding of honor, yet he overlooks Hal’s command to “Kill the prisoners” or the possibility that by challenging France he’s only doing what his father suggested – distracting the populace with foreign wars (a move that marks him as more akin to George W. Bush than an honorable man). And if Appiah wants to employ Shakespeare, what about Hamlet’s struggles with his assigned honor killing? Brutus’ speech about Caesar being an honorable man?

My objections to Appiah’s argument started near the end of his section on suppressing Atlantic slavery. He writes (135):

As the British Empire expanded through the nineteenth century, the abolition of forms of slavery indigenous to Africa and Asia came to be one of the aims of imperial policy.

This ends a paragraph. I wanted more here. How can you use a phrase like ‘abolition of forms of slavery’ in the same sentence as ‘Empire’ and ‘imperial policy’ without more explanation? Aren’t the two ideas inherently contradictory?

As I mentioned above, though, my objections started piling up in the 4th chapter, entitled “Wars Against Women.” Here Appiah writes with disconcerting certainty of rape victims (145):

It is not guilt – the thought that they have done something wrong – that haunts them, it is the reminder of their humiliation.

Even if he is right, how would he know? And what about acknowledging what it is to be male and make such an argument? As written, it comes off as privileged.

Appiah, who is aware of the potential problem of one society imposing its own sense of another, shares this, perhaps apocryphal story (160):

” [T]he British official . . . ordered an Indian family not to allow a widow to be burned on her husband’s funeral pyre. ‘But sir,’ the Indians protested, ‘it is our custom.’ ‘And it is our custom,’ the official replied, ‘to execute murderers.’

How does this official feel about colonizers? How does Appiah feel? Why is the British official issuing this order? Appiah offers this story only as a parenthetical comment; it deserves more unpacking.

Shortly thereafter, he calls honor killing “an immoral honor practice” (163). Based on what standards? His? Western standards? Don’t get me wrong; I do not support honor killing in any way. But who are we to impose our morality on others?

Appiah thinks one of the steps he has developed in the first three chapters should apply here – that of international shaming. But haven’t we learned that there are certain segments of the world that don’t care what we think, that don’t need or want us or our money enough to feel pressured by our sense of morality? Tony Kushner makes this quite explicit in his play, Homebody / Kabul. The argument that honor killing does not live up to true Muslim ideals? That hasn’t really made much of a dent in the post-9/11 world. And even if there are some people interested in reform (as there are, for example, in China), though the world is much more connected than it was in the days of collecting signatures to offer a petition against the Atlantic slave trade, we can’t get to these people, or at least not enough of them? China wanted our scientific knowledge, so they travelled to learn it and were shamed by the reaction they faced about the practice of foot binding, so that helped it change. People from all over still want things from us, but either they get it on their own terms, or they get it from elsewhere.

“If an Islamic republic is to recognize the human rights of its citizens, it will have to repudiate this element of Muslim tradition” (166). By ‘this element,’ Appiah means the practice of stoning men and women to death for adultery. Yes, I want this to stop. But who are we to determine human rights? Appiah makes a powerful case for the notion of the right to ‘dignity’ as espoused by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. How much sway does the UN have in Pakistan? In the US?

Appiah thinks (hopes?) other countries are asking themselves, “How can we be respected in the world if we do this terrible thing?” (172). But what does he mean by “respected in the world”? Respected by the US? By the West? By the UN? Does Iran, for example, want any of these kinds of respect? I agree that honor needs to be ‘reshaped,’ and that there are signs of hope. But isn’t this just imposing my will on others or at least trying to? And should a country with, for example, an incarceration rate like ours really be claiming a higher moral ground?

I come back, as I usually do, to literature, namely Beowulf. In a translation I worked with once, Beowulf came off as incredibly arrogant. I asked the students to consider whether this characteristic diminished his heroism. Appiah acknowledges that some kinds of honor demand that modesty accompany it, but that time and place might require a person to celebrate his (pronoun intentional) own accomplishments. I disagree with this consequence of Appiah’s persistent relativism. Arrogance is, in my mind, always inappropriate, immoral even.

Appiah’s discussion of Kant is interesting, but I searched in vain for any comments about altruism.

In his section called “Lessons and Legacies,” Appiah argues (185):

Social status – class, if you like – should grant you no moral rights, people think; nor should your race or gender or sexual orientation.

Absolutely true. But I would argue that it is easier to be both moral and honorable if you have enough. Think Jean Valjean. Remember, as a friend once wrote me as I was exploring the work of Noam Chomsky and libertarianism, “Children shouldn’t be blamed if they were born in East St. Louis.”

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the challenge of this book. As I hope I’ve made evident, I was completely engaged. In fact, I’m going to send this review to Appiah (if I can find a way to reach him). If he responds, I will, with his permission, share what he writes.

I hope he’s right. I hope there’s still a place for honor today. I do hope there’s a moral revolution coming, in Pakistan and everywhere else.


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