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 …

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    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.