The Magazine

The Right Thing

A philosopher misunderstands humanity’s code.

Jan 17, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 17 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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The Honor Code

The Right Thing

‘Petticoat Duellists’ (1792)

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

How Moral Revolutions Happen

by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Norton, 264 pp., $25.95

When President Obama excused his failure to help the abortive Iranian revolution in 2009 by saying that the protestors were “on the right side of history,” or when Harry Reid (himself “always on the right side of history,” according to the president) attempted to stigmatize Republicans as being like slaveowners for opposing the president’s health care bill because they were not (like the Democrats) “on the right side of history,” or when the late Edward Kennedy used to fulminate about “reactionary” Republicans​—​all were implicitly appealing to historicist assumptions inherited by the progressive left from Marxism.

So far, at least, if no farther, those on the right who identify Obamaism with socialism are right: “History” to Marx was a god-substitute whose will not only should be done but would be done, since we were all helpless to resist its predetermined course. As the name they have chosen for themselves suggests, American progressives, even when they have not been seduced into actual Marxism as many were in the 1920s and ’30s and then again in the 1960s, have always had something of a fascination with such historically determinist thinking. That’s why, I take it, they continue to use the language which presupposes it. They may not look forward anymore to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, but they still find it easy to assume that history has a “side”​—​and that they themselves must be on it.

Though he is Ghanaian by birth, Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy at Princeton, has presumably been part of American academe long enough to have picked up the habit, and in his new book, it has led him seriously astray. For “honor” to Professor Appiah remains a vague concept and, though taxonomized, it is never properly defined. As he uses the term, it almost always refers simply to the sum of the things that, in different times and places, honor required of people who, for some reason he doesn’t feel it necessary to go into, considered themselves to be bound by its requirements​—​until they didn’t anymore. Most of the time, that is, “honor” is a near-synonym for public opinion, and public opinion, as we all know, changes. As with morality, moreover, everybody nowadays assumes he has a right to make up his own honor.

It should not be necessary to point out that this has not always been the case. I think that what Appiah is really writing about is decency. Honor and decency have this in common: that they are not, primarily, absolute values but socially contingent ones. This makes it particularly important to study them in their social and historical context and not in the abstract. But where almost anything can be decent, depending on the society, honor also has an absolute dimension. Historically, in every actually existing honor system we know of, honor is inseparable from shame, is fundamentally and inevitably different for men and women (for men it involves strength and fighting prowess, for women it involves sexual continence), and it routinely inspires acts of violence.

Yet these elements, so Appiah assumes, can be silently subtracted from the honor formula without changing anything important about it. Honor, he writes, “especially when purged of its prejudices of caste and gender and the like, is peculiarly well suited to turn private moral sentiments into public norms” and so “can help us make a better world.” But what if honor, “purged of its prejudices of caste and gender and the like,” isn’t honor anymore? What if the utopian effort to “make a better world” requires that we first get rid of honor​—​always assuming this is possible? For honor and utopianism are antithetical. Honor, when it was important to us, was important not because it was a way to make a better world but because it guided us in our interactions with the world as it is, and especially in regard to its two most salient and dangerous features of sex and violence.

Honor, Appiah notices, used to uphold the custom of dueling in Britain, female footbinding in China, and the slave trade pretty much everywhere. Then it didn’t anymore. These changes in public opinion took place mostly in the 19th century, and Appiah has lots of ideas about why they happened, most of them to do with social snobbery in highly class-based societies. But when he attempts to lump these all together under the concept of “honor” he is handicapped by having little or no historical understanding of what the term honor meant to the people who believed in it and why they considered themselves bound by it​—​and no sense, even, that it would matter if he did. It’s enough for him to describe what honor once demanded of these benighted souls​—​in, for example, the duel fought between the Duke of Wellington and the Earl of Winchelsea in 1829​—​and then to show how those demands continued to weaken until duels became as unfashionable as they had once been fashionable.

Likewise with slavery and footbinding. His view turns out to be that the special form of public opinion he chooses to call “honor” eventually put a stop to dueling, foot-binding, and slavery because public opinion turned against these things. To call this process honor is to add no explanatory element but simply to put a label on it, and an inaccurate label at that.

Honor was the thing that was changing (and degrading), not the agent of change. That was something else: namely, a widening of the moral sense as a result of Enlightenment thinking, and of the individual’s obligation to abstract principle instead of to his family, tribe, nation, or other honor group. The triumph of morality over honor may or may not be something to celebrate​—​most people today would probably say that it is, whether they believed it or not​—​but to suppose that morality became honor, or honorable, is to be guilty of a basic confusion of thought.

If so, however, it has become a common one. As someone who has himself written a book about honor, I don’t mind saying that what puzzles me about Appiah, as about so many others who are eager to pronounce on the subject, is his assumption that what honor ought to be (in his view) is of more interest to the reader than what it actually is​—​or, for the most part, was, since in all but a lingering reflexive sense it has gone badly out of fashion. It is as if he were writing a book about insects or sailing ships or gardening that described these things in ideal and even fantastical terms with only incidental reference to existing insects, sailing ships, or gardening practices.

Like most people who use the term at all these days, Appiah uses “honor” to mean nothing more than some mode of behavior of which he (and others of the progressive persuasion) approves. As a result, the philosopher’s attempt to dabble in history is essentially an extended tautology: To say that changes in “honor” resulted in changes in certain common social practices is, in the absence of any very clear idea of what honor is apart from those changes, simply to say that change produced change.

What, then, is the point of making this argument? Why drag “honor” into it at all? The answer is that it amounts to an apologia for our old friend history, busily converting darkness into light, ignorance into knowledge, bad into good, without our having to do anything but keep the reactionaries from standing in its way. After his chapters on the duel, foot-binding, and slavery, Appiah’s fourth chapter on “Wars Against Women”​—​a politically tendentious title that betrays his lack of understanding of the concept​—​is an account of the (mainly South Asian) phenomenon of honor killing, and his fifth, “Lessons and Legacies,” sketches in what he thinks honor ought to be. Not surprisingly, you couldn’t slide the sharp end of the blade of a dueling sword between that and the most advanced
progressive opinion.

What I take to be the impulse behind this curious sort of scholarship is, in some ways, a laudable one. It is an attempt to rescue what is supposed to be something useful and desirable in itself, namely the concept of honor, from its own shocking political incorrectness. Real honor, its new advocates want desperately to believe, is not violent or misogynistic​—​even though every kind of actually existing honor known to history is (in contemporary terms) both violent and misogynistic. They devoutly believe in an ideal of reformed honor that lives up to contemporary ideas of proper politics and morals and then, reading backwards, find that existing codes of honor must be merely corrupted and unpurified versions of this ideal.

The idea is absurd and absurdly unhistorical, but it does suggest how much of contemporary scholarship is devoted to advocacy of one sort or another of utopian fantasy under the color of social science. If honor really does have its uses​—​and many would argue that it doesn’t​—​we shall remain blind to them so long as we study it not as it was, and is, but as we wish it to be.

James Bowman, the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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