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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.

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