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Book Review: The Honor Code by Kwame Anthony Appiah

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s most recent work. The Professor of Philosophy takes on Honor and it’s role in history and more specifically, moral revolutions.

Appiah takes great care in explaining that honor is a key to living well and a fundamental human need with its close ties to respect, having honor means being entitled to respect. We desire and crave it from others and ourselves. Honor is then parsed into two different types: appraisal respect/esteem and recognition respect. Esteem is the honor you gain by being judged by a standard, Appiah uses Rafael Nadal as an example. Nadal earns respect by being excellent according to tennis standards. Recognition respect is honor you haven’t earned but are entitled to by being part of a group. An example could be a policeman on duty, you respect him as part of part of the police force not because of his actions. It’s important to note that Honor and Morality are neither synonymous nor always in agreement. In fact, the thrust of the book is to show how they are often in opposition and that by changing the Honor standards Moral Revolutions can occur with relatively stunning quickness.

Rather than keeping the whole book on a theoretical philosophical plane, Appiah uses three case studies to show the role honor played in an immoral tradition and the role it played in revolting against it. He uses the example of duels, the practice of footbinding in China, and the example of Britain’s Atlantic slave trade. In each case, honor was applied differently and each case provides an opportunity for Appiah to expand on his thoughts about Honor.

In the case of the dueling, there were already moral arguments against it and it was against the law. So neither law nor calls to morality were effective in ending dueling, this is an important point to note. What brought down the practice of dueling was the fact that it became contemptous. Dueling used to be between “gentlemen”, the aristocratic class who had created their own honor code which had set them apart. The fact that they could get away with murder because of their status propelled the practice. However, along with the Industrial revolution a baser class rose up and started dueling as well. When it no longer was just in the realm of gentlemen, it became a mocked, laughable act. The practice could no longer hide in a small aristocratic group, it became exposed in public as stupid. This was the least interesting case study and the one that seemed to be a bit of a stretch.

The practice of footbinding in China was totally foreign to me. It’s quite amazing that for the last 1000 years or so, the Chinese used to break the bones of the feet of young girls and scrunch their foot with bindings. This was looked upon as sexy to Chinese men and a sign of a well born woman. Perhaps some day we will be mocked for breast implants. In any case, in the late 19th century China was in turmoil. After centuries of relative global isolation, they were being forced to interact with other nations. The literate magistrates of China recognized this and also recognized that the practice of footbinding appeared immoral and barbarous to the Europeans, Japanese, and Americans. In order to counter the supposed honor that one gained by binding the feet of a girl, they instead appealed to a different honor. The collective honor of the nation. China wanted to be respected amongst their global peers, not mocked. When the upper, literate class saw the shame that the practice brought upon their country they ceased and when the upper class stopped footbinding it cascaded down throughout all classes.

The Atlantic Slave Trade example brings up another important point of honor and respect. The respect we all are entitled to as a human being. The slaves were not being treated with “dignity”, or the right to recognition respect. When the working class of England realized that they shared, with the slaves, a lack of respect for their labor they sought to elevate the slaves and themselves. It was a symbiotic achievement.

Appiah then addresses the “Honor Killings” going on in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This chapter should be read regardless of if you read the whole book. It’s really amazing that this goes on today, in this day and age. The barbarous acts and attitudes towards women is without a doubt immoral but protected behind these archaic notions of honor. It will only change when the idea of honor changes in those societies. No amount of laws, moral arguments, religious arguments (these practices are in direct conflict with Islam, yet they still exist), or outside pressure will cease the honor killings.

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen gives the reader a lot to chew on and it’s easy to start applying these ideas to how you approach not only the broad world, but also your daily life and your own views on Honor. I think it’s a great example of a book that brings Philosophy out of the realms of strictly academics and applies it to history and current issues. Obviously I left out a lot of the more intricate philosophical arguments and details but Appiah does a good job at parsing his ideas out. My only complaint might be his style of writing which seems very meandering at times, like a slowly rocking boat with his lulling qualifying phrases. This is not a knock on the merit of his word but instead just a desire for more conciseness, at least at the end of the chapters.