Chosen by the New York Times as one its 100 notable books of 2010, Kwame Appiah’s latest book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, is a philosophical work that puts honor at the centre of moral change.
For a man who was raised in Ghana, educated in England, and who has taught philosophy on three continents, it is, perhaps, not surprising that his latest work is global in every sense.
Arguing that moral revolutions only happen when, hitherto, dominant existing practices start to conflict with honor, Appiah draws from various moral revolutions across time and space to make his case.
He chooses four examples – the practice of duelling among British aristocrats, the ancient tradition of footbinding among the Chinese, the end of the Slave Trade, and the crusade against honor killings in Pakistan.
In all these examples, which he describes with significant historical detail, Appiah explores the processes that brought about a change in perception towards practices that had for years been considered ‘honorable’ and acceptable.
Starting in Britain, he shows how duelling started out as a way for gentlemen to defend their individual honor or that of their families, wives or masters. Only, when duelling ceased to be considered an ‘honorable’ act, did it lose its appeal in society. Similarly, he argues, the end to footbinding in China and the abolition of slavery came as a result of transformations in ideas about the honor of a people.
Using these three examples, he ponders what lessons can be drawn and how they might be applied to the ongoing fight to end honor killings in Pakistan and other parts of Asia.
He identifies three features that all moral revolutions share.
- All the old practices depended on a set of codes of honor, and in all the cases, the honor codes had to shift if the practice was to disappear.
- In all the cases, the honor code faced challenges long before the revolution.
- At the end of the revolution, honor was successfully recruited to the side of morality.
As Kwame himself writes,
“In all the earlier revolutions, the motivating power of honor was channelled not challenged. The right way to proceed, it would seem, is not to argue against honor but to work to change the grounds of honor, to alter the codes by which it is allocated.”
All in all, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen is a commendable piece of work. The strength of this book lies mainly in its detailed analysis. Appiah has clearly done his homework. At times, however, these details can seem overwhelming. Still, the author does a great job of turning a difficult subject into a worthwhile and even interesting read.