Boston Book Blitz Pt. 21: Kwame Appiah Talks About Honor In Moral Revolutions

Professor Kwame Appiah - Via Princeton University, Office of Communications

In his latest book, “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen,” Princeton University professor Kwame Appiah examines the role honor played in the ending of three different customs. The book, easily readable in two or three sittings, comes across as lively as the best college lecture, combining history, philosophy, and international relations.

At the outset, Appiah lays out a roadmap for where the book, and his argument, is going. At the center of Appiah’s claim is that we must talk about honor, since it is a fundamental part of the human experience. Appiah’s three case studies from the pages of history are the last days of the duel in Britain, the end of foot binding in China, and the banning of the transatlantic slave trade in Britain. These historical moral revolutions are the building blocks towards the issue of honor killings in Pakistan and the way we can use the different forms of honor to better the  communities we live in.

In the first study, Appiah focuses on the 1829 duel between the Duke of Wellington, then the Prime Minister, and the Earl of Winchilsea, both members of the House of Lords. Winchilsea claimed that Wellington was supporting Protestant causes as a cover for his efforts to give Catholics in the country more rights. When Wellington asked for a public apology, Winchilsea rebuffed him. Since both were gentlemen, and hence equals, Wellington challenged his foe to a duel.

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen - Via

Appiah goes in-depth into the particulars of the duel, how it got to that point, and the public’s response to the event. Inasmuch as honor factors into the duel, Appiah points out that moral arguments against the duel had existed for centuries. For a long time it was considered the gentlemanly thing to do to defend one’s honor in a duel.

The practice started to fade as society got more democratized, newspapers became more prominent, and these publications began to expose the practice. At the same time, duels started to spread to what was perceived as less gentlemanly classes. As Appiah tells it, the duel died out because its popularity made it less honorable for gentleman and the laws against were applied to commoners. The moral arguments long lobbed against it did little to end the practice.

The second example Professor Appiah highlights is the practice of footbinding in China. Starting in the opening years of the 20th Century, which also happens to be the last days of the Qing Monarchy, it was the increasing globalized world that helped seal the demise of footbinding. In those days, there was a brief window of reform, where a younger generation of the literati in the empire pushed through changes in society, including the end of foot binding.

Wellington vs. Winchilsea - Via

The earliest documentation of footbinding in China goes back to 975 CE. Appiah explains the intense pain suffered by women and the rationale for the spreading of the practice, despite the fact that it has no ties to Confucian practices. The efforts of religious evangelicals and foreigners living in China helped start the movement. It took off when members of the literati and upper class realized that the outside world could not be kept away, and that footbinding would bring dishonor to the nation. Once the literati and upper classes stopped engaging the practice, it disappeared within a generation.

The final historical example is the British ending their participation in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In an example about national honor, Appiah retells how the country abolished the slave trade in 1807, slavery in their colonies in 1833, and ended the Negro apprenticeship program that took the place of slavery in the West Indies in 1838.

Much like the dual, moral arguments had been around for years. Instead, Appiah argues that the development of a middle class and a growing pride in labor by the working classes were powerful forces in the British abolitionist movement. In this case, it was a new investment in their own dignity and the dignity of their hard labor that powered the moral revolution.

Foot binding image - Via

After showing three different historical examples of how honor was pivotal in moral revolutions, Appiah turns to a contemporary problem: honor killings. Acknowledging that this practice is in countries across the globe, he focuses specifically in Pakistan, in the Pashtun tribe. He tells the story of Samia Shawar, the daughter of respected businessman who marries a doctor. Unhappy in her marriage, she decides to get a divorce. Her family kills her because in their society, a divorce would bring dishonor to the family. But killing her didn’t and politicians ignored or minimized the murder. Appiah explains how the fight to stop honor killings, at least in Pakistan, should be tackled. In explaining how Pakistan’s legal system has handled the practice and how honor killings are anti-Islamic, Appiah concludes with point that the practice is “immoral, illegal, irrational, [and] irreligious.”

In the closing chapter, Professor Kwame Appiah wraps up his ‘lecture’ on honor with two stories illustrating the power of honor in the individual lives of a US soldier in Iraq whose actions brought to light violations of the Geneva Convention and Muhktaran Bibi, a victim of a gang rape who has worked tirelessly to protect women who have suffered a similar fate.

A few weeks ago, I attended a talk given by Canadian Lt. General Romeo Dallaire. He was discussing his new book about children soldiers. During the question and answer session, he retold an anecdote from his days in the Canadian government where a younger official complained about how it takes 20 years for a project to come to fruition. Dallaire’s response was that without the young worker, it would take even more time. With a better appreciation for honor and dignity and the role it plays in our world, it may take 20 years for the next moral revolution to unfold. Without it though, it will definitely take longer.


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