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.


Private Collection/Bridgeman Art Library

A cartoon ridiculing the duel between the Duke of Wellington and the Earl of Winchilsea at Battersea, 1829

Appiah also observes that the sudden change in behavior of high-status families made the practice less attractive to those of lower status, resulting in a “cascade downwards of unbinding that reversed the cascade of binding that had spread the practice in the first place.” He also reflects on the “odd” nature of national or collective honor, as distinct from individual honor, and holds that a sense of national honor is worth preserving, in order, for example, for Americans to act together in confronting their government’s use of human torture. When Kang Youwei responded to the suffering of Chinese girls and young women, he felt he was doing so as part of an obligation of honor that included the entire human world—like the world implied when the Declaration of Independence refers to “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

Few examples of moral revolution can rival in rapidity Britain’s abolition of its slave trade and slavery. A profitable and economically beneficial institution that had been sanctioned by the government for centuries was repudiated within several decades. Having dabbled in the African slave trade in the sixteenth century and having established flourishing slave-based American colonies in the seventeenth century, Britain became the major purchaser of slaves in the eighteenth century, transporting a significant percentage of the estimated total of 12.5 million slaves who were taken from Africa and sent to the New World. Yet in the late 1780s, following the American Revolution, reformers led by William Wilberforce called upon Parliament to abolish the slave trade as the first step toward redeeming the nation from a sinful system.

In 1792 the House of Lords blocked such a measure passed by the House of Commons, and in 1807 the abolitionists finally achieved their goal, an event widely celebrated as a triumph of virtue. When the ending of the British slave trade failed to bring the expected amelioration of colonial slavery, abolitionists succeeded in a large-scale mobilization of public opinion and petitioning that led in 1833 to the emancipation of some 800,000 colonial slaves (most of whom were required to work for another four years as unpaid “apprentices”).

As Appiah observes, most historians, as well as most British citizens, long saw these events as the triumph of philanthropy over self-interest. But in 1944 Eric Williams, a brilliant black Trinidadian who had received a doctoral degree at Oxford and who became a long-serving prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, published a highly influential book, Capitalism and Slavery, that took a different view. Williams maintained that the American War of Independence initiated a period of irreversible economic decline in the British Caribbean that also coincided with Britain’s decisive shift from mercantilism toward laissez-faire capitalism, which was wholly incompatible with slavery. This development meant that the once lucrative British slave colonies were increasingly sustained only by mercantilist duties or subsidies that led first to chronic overproduction and then to escalating prices for sugar and coffee in Britain. Thus Williams, as an economic determinist, persuaded a generation of historians that Britain abolished the slave trade and slavery for purely economic reasons.

But beginning in the 1970s, the deeply researched works of Roger Anstey, Seymour Drescher, and David Eltis completely undermined Williams’s basic assumptions. They showed that the British slave system was expanding, not declining, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and that slave labor on New World plantations attained maximum economic importance after Britain had outlawed its slave trade. Drescher’s book, Econocide (1979), demonstrated that abolishing the slave trade was comparable to committing economic suicide for an important part of Britain’s economy.

But while most historians have come to agree that Williams was wrong, they have been reluctant to return to the self-congratulatory view that British abolition was quite simply a triumph of morality over self-interest. After all, how could hardheaded politicians and statesmen who seemed insensitive to the starving Irish, to slavery in British India, to lower-class women and children who worked long hours in mills or mine shafts, and to the thousands of orphan children who were transported northward to work in the factories of Lancashire be persuaded to forget self- interest and enact laws based solely on moral benevolence? In short, the repudiation of Eric Williams has left a kind of void regarding the motives for ending slavery that no one has yet really filled. Appiah succeeds in filling it partly, but by no means fully, with the concept of honor.3

With respect to slavery itself, Appiah makes the crucial point that the white people’s sense of honor and superiority depended on the total dishonoring of black slaves, a form of dishonor that carried over in racist ways even to freed slaves and their “Negro” descendants. Appiah never mentions the distinctive culture of honor in the US South, which has attracted much attention from historians. I wish he had said more about how, once the enslavement of whites became unthinkable (except for whites with a trace of Negro ancestry), racial slavery led to the dehumanization and even animalization of a class of human beings who, in the eyes of whites, were wholly deprived of esteem, dignity, and honor. Thus a successful attack on racial slavery necessitated a new form of honor, a form of empathetic identification that “rehumanized” blacks and portrayed slavery as the epitome of dishonor.

Apart from this general sense, Appiah finds honor appearing in three distinct ways in British abolitionism. First, a sense of collective national honor had an important part in debates over slavery, going back to the American Revolution when both sides used slavery and the slave trade to accuse the other of hypocrisy. Americans, who claimed to be fighting for liberty and inalienable rights, kept hundreds of thousands of blacks in slavery. The British, who pointed out this contradiction and who freed many American slaves, were the world’s greatest slave traders. Appiah should have added that while the French Revolution embarrassed British abolitionists by linking slave emancipation to the radical Jacobins, Napoleon’s reinstitution of slavery and the slave trade helped Britain obtain moral capital and national honor by abolishing the slave trade in the midst of a major war with France. Even Wilberforce could appeal to British national honor, though he also argued that there was great moral and religious need for national humility.

The second instance of abolitionist honor appears, Appiah writes, when “the honor of the newly industrializing cities of the Midlands and the north of England led its citizens—both high and middling—to compete in the race to send the earliest or the largest [antislavery] petitions to Parliament.” While some readers may harbor doubts about the centrality of honor in such urban competition, the astonishing success of widespread petitioning, reaching eventually to the new and rising English working class, leads to the central importance of free-labor ideology and to Appiah’s decisive third example regarding the dignity and self-respect of the laboring classes.

For ages, most manual labor had been looked upon with disrespect or even disdain. But with the modernization of the economy, workers became more valued as consumers. And by the eighteenth century British workers began purchasing significant quantities of “luxury” goods, such as sugar, coffee, tobacco, rice, and eventually cotton—most of which were produced by slaves. Meanwhile, both skilled workers and their employers felt a growing need to dignify and even ennoble wage labor, a sentiment that was seen in part as improving productivity.

Understandably, then, by the later stages of the abolitionist campaign increasing numbers of workers came to feel that the persistence and success of British colonial slavery made any labor depending on the “sweat of your brow” dishonorable. Despite some minor conflicts between abolitionists and labor radicals, Appiah points to signs of their growing unity and especially to antislavery petitions endorsed by all social classes. When 1.5 million British citizens signed petitions calling for emancipation in the final months of the movement, this signified a new sense of honor among the working classes. Although they still had little political power at the time of the American Civil War, the pro-Union stance of such antislavery workers helped to prevent England from recognizing the Confederacy.

While Appiah makes a very valuable contribution to our understanding of moral revolutions, his determination to prove the monocausal centrality of honor as the agent of change leads him, in the case of British abolition, to underestimate the continuing and changing importance of moral arguments and to ignore alternative explanations. From his account, one would never know that for millennia slavery, while always a source of tension, had been universally accepted around the world, with hardly any protest, and that it was seen by Aristotle, Aquinas, Augustine, and the major philosophers of the Renaissance as a necessary part of the imperfect world, even after it died out in Western Europe. Even John Locke, the great philosopher of liberty, defended New World slavery. Appiah presents a misleading view of the Quakers, who despite a few lonely protests against slavery in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, remained deeply involved in slaveholding and slave trading until 1758–1761, when they resolved to purge the Society of Friends of this evil.

Despite strong attacks on slavery by Francis Hutcheson, Montesquieu, and other Enlightenment figures, it was not until the late eighteenth century that large numbers of Britons, French, and Americans became exposed to antislavery arguments and literature—a time, beginning in 1775, when moral arguments led to the first antislavery societies. Appiah also overlooks the strong transatlantic ties between American and British abolitionists, pioneered by such Quakers as John Woolman and Anthony Benezet.

Although Appiah recognizes the importance of Wilberforce and the evangelicals within the Church of England, his sense that there was a static tradition of moral arguments causes him to miss the enormous religious and theological changes that led to a virtual revolution in moral perception. That revolution was impelled by Quaker and then Methodist abolitionism, by a new culture of compassion attuned to cruelty and suffering, and by the convictions that brought Wilberforce to conclude that England’s growing materialism and immorality had induced God to present slavery as a target for a crusade to revive and uplift Christianity.

In trying to explain the shift from passive moral disapproval to organized action, Appiah also overlooks the precedents provided by the British charitable societies that organized efforts to reform prisons and lunatic asylums, to care for the thousands of poor infants abandoned on the streets of London, to found hospitals, and to reform public morals and provide education or “Christian Knowledge.” Many of these organized efforts had made important progress just before the movement to abolish the slave trade. Moreover, the movement to expand suffrage, linked with the radical reformer John Wilkes, set the precedent of inundating Parliament with petitions from all over the country.

While the origins of British abolitionism were clearly multicausal, and we have no way of obtaining empirical evidence on the actual motives of the principal actors, Anthony Appiah succeeds in underscoring the importance of honor, in the sense of respect and dignity, for the movement as a whole. Britain gained enormous moral capital from the nation’s abolition of the slave trade and colonial slavery, followed by a long campaign to suppress the slave trading of other nations. Despite some hostility and skepticism, this meant considerable respect from the rest of the world as well as a crucial step toward establishing the dignity of all labor.