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Honor Thy Honor

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Dominique Nabokov
Kwame Anthony Appiah, November 2010

When I told four knowledgeable friends that I was writing on Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code, they all agreed that the very idea of “honor” is now virtually obsolete. They were highly skeptical when I mentioned Appiah’s claim that it was a sudden transition from old to new forms of honor that explained the fairly rapid abolition of dueling in Britain, of female footbinding in China, and of the slave trade and slavery in England, as well as his arguments for the need to use honor today in similar ways to get rid of such evils as the “honor killing” of women in places like Pakistan.

Appiah is a distinguished professor of philosophy at Princeton. I have drawn helpful insights from his Experiments in Ethics in my writing on the dehumanization of slavery. In an endnote to The Honor Code, Appiah discusses his strong resistance to an influential forty-year-old article by the sociologist Peter Berger, who argued that in democratic societies “dignity” has replaced “honor.”1 His book is a brilliant and sweeping reappraisal of the concept of honor, which he sees as an integral part of what Aristotle termed eudaimonia, often mistranslated as “happiness,” but meaning a successful life, a flourishing life, the kind of good life that Aristotle saw as the basis of ethics. On the very simplest level, according to Appiah, having honor means both being entitled to respect and having self-respect—surely a universal requirement for living well, though as he stresses, honor and respect are by no means always connected to moral values.

This broadened view of honor means that when Appiah turns to analyze the meaning of “moral revolutions,” drawing on recent studies of “scientific revolutions,” he is not surprised to find the transformation of an honor code as the central motivating factor. The moral revolutions came, he stresses, after a long period in which moral arguments condemned dueling, footbinding, and slavery, but led to no change in actual behavior.

While Appiah does much to illuminate the changing meanings of honor, there are usually problems with any monocausal explanation of major historical events. He combines the novelist’s skill in writing lively narrative with the philosopher’s ability to clearly analyze such concepts as esteem, respect, shame, recognition, dignity, and appraisal. But he never quite succeeds in overcoming the negative connotations of the word “honor,” which mainly arise from its aristocratic tradition.

I think it is highly significant that even in the mid-nineteenth century one of the greatest English novels could portray honor as a purely external and superficial trait, masking a selfish, pedantic, unimaginative, and unsuccessful but wealthy character—the main villain of the narrative. George Eliot’s Middlemarch, published serially in 1871–1872, even takes place in 1830–1832, the peak years of the antislavery “moral revolution,” but the self-preoccupied Reverend Edward Casaubon, though incapable of sympathy,

had many scruples: he was capable of a severe self-restraint; he was resolute in being a man of honor according to the code; he would be unimpeachable by any recognized opinion.2

Though I am not persuaded that honor provides the only formula for a progressive elimination of social ills, The Honor Code could not be more interesting and thought-provoking, and for my own field of slavery and antislavery studies, a few shortcomings are balanced by Appiah’s important contributions regarding British national honor and free-labor ideology.

For dramatizing a striking transformation in honor there could be no better beginning than the death of the duel, which in Britain epitomized ancient notions of aristocratic honor. Appiah first describes a conflict in 1829 between the Duke of Wellington, then the prime minister of England, famous for defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, and the much younger Earl of Winchilsea, who had publicly insulted the duke, accusing him of dishonesty, and who then refused to apologize. Though illegal and increasingly condemned, dueling had actually increased during the Napoleonic War period as a result of the military culture of honor. When they met to resolve their differences with pistols, Wellington fired first and his bullet missed the earl (his intent was unclear); the earl then shot harmlessly into the air.

If the duke had killed Winchilsea, he would have been tried before the House of Lords and at minimum forced to resign from the cabinet, with enormous political consequences. So, as Appiah puts it, since the duel was contrary to English common law, canon law, and Christian moral teaching, as well as to Wellington’s own inclinations, “what on earth was he thinking?” The answer, as any of the eminent bystanders would have told us, was that he “was defending his honor as a gentleman.”

Although Appiah notes that by Wellington’s time the code of honor was no longer working as it was supposed to (there were cartoons that made it look ridiculous), he convincingly shows that for centuries dueling had been attacked by both moral and rational arguments that had virtually no effect. Some of the Enlightenment’s critics of dueling used the language of honor, arguing that it takes greater manly courage to resist a challenge than to accept it. But it was the decisive changes in social class in the early nineteenth century—the changes that led in Britain to the Catholic Relief Act of 1829 and the Great Reform Bill of 1832—that broke through walls that separated the aristocracy’s “honor world” from the rest of the population.

As Appiah convincingly points out, the ruling aristocracy was being superseded by a new class of economically successful men. The popular press, working-class literacy, and democratic sentiment brought all British citizens into a more unified community of shared knowledge and values. Ironically, this meant that in the early nineteenth century dueling became more common among the rising class of “self-made men”—merchants, lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs—who were looked down upon as “base men” by the older aristocracy: “It was the increasing vulgarity of the duel that finally made its wickedness perspicuous.”

In his effort to discredit the effectiveness of moral argument, Appiah also maintains that “ridicule at last did more than morality to kill dueling.” He cites examples of laughter and ridicule in response to Wellington’s duel, though this did not prevent one English gentleman from killing another on the field of honor as late as 1852. But while it is clear that major changes in social class were a prerequisite for dissolving the honor code that maintained British dueling—leading the way both to the “vulgarity” of lower-class dueling and to the “ridicule” of an irrational act—I fail to see either the irrelevance of moral argument or the centrality and persistence of a new code of honor.

It was doubtless a new view of honor for aristocrats that led some critics to argue that dueling was beneath Wellington’s dignity and that he should have treated Winchilsea and his insult with “the contempt they merited.” But Appiah says nothing about the origins or persistence of this new kind of honor, or about the past and future ways that ordinary people dealt with insult. Above all, it would appear that the traditional moral and legal arguments against dueling acquired new pragmatic force as a result of changes in social class and public opinion. And as we shall see, while Chinese footbinding also became subject to ridicule, that outcome is almost unthinkable with respect to slavery and the slave trade, the abolition of which, unlike dueling and footbinding, has been widely praised and celebrated on anniversary dates.

The China of 1898, to which Appiah next turns, was still effectively governed by a class of educated literati who were selected in highly competitive exams and who worked in local regions as magistrates and in the government in Beijing as advisers to the emperor. Increasingly aware of China’s isolation and humiliation in 1895 by a Japanese naval defeat, many of the literati became convinced that the country needed modernizing and could learn from the West. In 1898 the emperor began issuing decrees that called for various reforms, including the study of Western science, engineering, and commerce. Memorandums on the kinds of changes China needed by an official named Kang Youwei were so influential that he met with the emperor, and in one he proclaimed:

I look at Europeans and Americans, so strong and vigorous because their mothers do not bind feet and therefore have strong offspring. Now that we must compete with other nations, to transmit weak offspring is perilous…. There is nothing which makes us objects of ridicule so much as footbinding.

For Kang nothing was more central to China’s reformation than changing the status of women, a reform that the emperor should begin by “banning the binding of women’s feet.”

Kang’s memorandum had no role in prompting an edict by the government four years later urging an end to footbinding, but his arguments about competition and especially national honor became central to the moral revolution that, following the collapse of the Qing dynasty, led in 1911 to Sun Yatsen’s order banning footbinding as a cruel and destructive custom. By the late nineteenth century Chinese women of the upper classes had been binding their young daughters’ feet for nearly a millennium. The procedure was exceptionally painful, since the goal was to crush the growth of bone so that an adult foot would be about “three inches long and no wider than a thumb,” to quote the sixteenth-century novel The Golden Lotus. This of course made walking very difficult, but aristocratic women did not work in the fields and the parents’ main objective was to guarantee their daughters’ chastity, and thus family honor, before arranging a marriage. Ironically, tiny cramped feet came to be seen not only as beautiful but highly erotic. As one result, the custom spread, although unevenly, to lower classes in a very hierarchical society.

Appiah emphasizes that footbinding, like dueling, was not ended by the discovery of new arguments against it—though it would appear that Kang’s arguments about “weak offspring” and the need to compete with other nations were both new and important. But the moral arguments had long been known and footbinding had even been unsuccessfully banned at times in the past, as early as the Ming dynasty in the seventeenth century. Appiah takes note of major cultural and political changes from the Opium Wars and Taiping Rebellion of the mid-nineteenth century to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, and underscores the importance of Christian missionaries from Europe and America, who attacked footbinding and appealed to the Chinese literati in newspapers and magazines. While Chinese reformers founded anti-footbinding societies, some were also careful to stress, in a nationalistic way, that footbinding was unknown at the time of the much-honored Confucius.

Though some footbinding persisted at least into the 1930s, I share Appiah’s surprise over the speed of its disappearance, particularly in the larger cities. According to one study, the population of one conservative rural area 125 miles south of Beijing “went from 99 percent bound in 1889 to 94 percent bound in 1899 to zero bound in 1919.” Appiah concludes that “this millennial practice essentially disappeared in most places in a generation.” Since tradition had required parents to keep sons from marrying unbound women, this meant the acceptance of a new “double compact” regarding the rearing and eligibility of both sons and daughters.

  1. 1

    The Obsolescence of Honor,” European Journal of Sociology, Vol. 11 (1970).In The New York Times Book Review, Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, has one important criticism of Appiah’s “fascinating, erudite and beautifully written book.” Haidt argues that while competitive honor, “earning the highest grade or largest bonus,” still thrives in Western democratic societies, what Appiah terms “peer honor,” which “governs relationships among members of an ‘honor world’ who acknowledge a shared code,” and which Appiah sees as the engine behind moral revolutions, has been asphyxiated by “Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic societies.” See Jonathan Haidt, “In the Eyes of Others,” The New York Times Book Review, October 22, 2010. 

  2. 2

    George Eliot, Middlemarch, edited by David Carroll (Oxford World Classics/Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 262. 

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