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Morality and Honour

How do major transformations in the climate of moral opinion happen? How do practices that have been integral and esteemed aspects of people’s way of life come, sometimes in quite short periods, to be regarded by them with disdain, repugnance, and disbelief that they were ever accepted at all?

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher who has long shown an uncommon interest in the social and psychological dimensions of ethical life, asks a good question. He claims that to answer it, we will need to pay more attention than philosophers have done recently to honour, and to take it much more seriously. But the subtitle of the book notwithstanding, Appiah does not in fact suggest that honour explains all moral revolutions, although he does make fairly far-reaching claims. Honour, he seeks to show, is the key to understanding the demise of aristocratic duelling in Britain early in the nineteenth century, the abolition of footbinding in early twentieth-century China, and the decisions by the United Kingdom Parliament first to outlaw the Atlantic slave trade and then to suppress the practice of slavery throughout the British Empire. And he claims moreover that these are not any old hodge-podge of isolated historical events. Rather they are ‘strands of a single human story’, and the insights they afford into how considerations of honour can motivate campaigns for moral reform and major changes in outlook and practice can be used to help bring about desirable moral revolution in our own time.

The revolution he seeks to advance (and possibly this was the occasion for this whole enquiry) concerns what are called ‘honour-killings’. This is of course a discomforting expression, but the anthropologist Unni Wikan has argued persuasively (in In Honor of Fadime, 2008; a work Appiah does not cite) that it accurately describes what motivates certain families to murder a daughter or daughter-in-law: they believe that because of what she has done (in some cases because of what has been done to her) her continued existence destroys their standing in the eyes of the world, and that the only way to remedy their disgrace is to kill her. Wikan points out that the political and legal climate in many European countries now means that lawyers are advising clients charged with such murders to avoid describing their actions in these terms. But she argues, and Appiah clearly believes, that concern for their honour is indeed what is at issue in these crimes. Appiah reminds his readers that although many of the perpetrators live in or have recently come from Muslim-majority countries, they actually include Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and others, and that almost all Muslim clerics everywhere confirm that such acts are prohibited in Islamic law. It is honour and not Islam that motivates these families. And his suggestion, in brief, is that the way to stop them is not to try to persuade them to care less about their honour (to care more about human or women’s rights, for example), but on the contrary to introduce (by a sort of ‘nudge’ strategy) amendments to what he calls their honour code: to induce them to change, that is, whose good opinion and which criteria their honour is to depend upon. Thus if honour is the problem, it can also be part of the solution.  The grounds for this suggestion lie in Appiah’s three historical examples of changes in moral climate, in each of which, as he puts it, ‘the motivating power of honor was channeled not challenged’ (169).

At the turn of the nineteenth-century in England duelling was not only illegal. It had long been universally condemned in Christian teaching, and by an impressive consensus of philosophers and other intellectuals. Yet it was practised openly by the elite – more frequently, in fact, and by a wider circle of people in recent decades – and criminal convictions were almost unknown. In 1829 the Duke of Wellington, the serving Prime Minister no less, took to ‘the field of honour’ on the south bank of the Thames in London against the Earl of Winchilsea. Neither was injured, but the Duke secured the apology he had been demanding of Winchilsea, and later that day reported the event personally to the King, who congratulated him. So on the face of it duelling was firmly established at the very apex of British society. Yet during the decade that followed, it virtually died out, and Appiah’s lucid discussion of the incident illustrates that some of the factors that led to its demise were already making themselves felt as Wellington took to the field. These factors did not include any new moral arguments against duelling; the moral objections had been well known and well canvassed for a very long time. What undermined the practice, he suggests, was the very fact that more and more people were taking it up: upwardly mobile professionals, merchants, and tradesmen for whom financial success was incomplete without a claim to gentlemanly status. And just because duelling was the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy, the right to be an exception with respect to the law of the land, to take it up became an eloquent claim to that status.

But this influx of newly aspirant duellers delivered what turned out to be a fatal challenge to one of the central premises of the system: the equality of all those entitled to participate in it. In his general analysis, Appiah distinguishes two forms of respect, which respectively underlie two fundamentally different kinds of honour. ‘Appraisal respect’ involves judging individuals in relation to a specific field of endeavour. It is essentially competitive, and the outcome of what different people have differentially done. Appiah refers to this also as esteem. By contrast  ‘recognition respect’ involves behaving towards people in ways that recognise some fact about who or what they are (as distinct from what they have done). This might be recognising and deferring to their power, status, or holiness, or making appropriate allowance for the fact that they are poor, sick, or disabled. It refers not so much then to individual achievement, as to collective identities. Duelling presupposed the equality, in terms of recognition respect, of all and only those entitled to the designation of ‘gentleman’. Any gentleman could issue a challenge, and a gentleman was obliged to recognise a challenge from any – but only from a – gentleman. This presumption of status equality defined what Appiah calls ‘an honour world’, a community of mutual recognition whose members participated in each other’s honour. A slight from outside to any was a slight to all. This is precisely why the upwardly mobile embraced the practice so enthusiastically; they sought admission to that community. But their doing so in such large numbers shattered the premise of equality that had obtained hitherto among the titled. It meant that the mere fact of participation in duelling could no longer sustain a claim to gentlemanly honour, which in turn undermined the point of anyone’s participating in the first place. This process was already well in train when Wellington met Winchilsea in the vicinity of Battersea Bridge, as Appiah illustrates when he quotes friends and colleagues of the Duke, in the controversy that surrounded the encounter, deploring his decision to challenge the latter on the grounds that he demeaned himself by appearing to recognise him as an equal. When this started to happen, when duelling no longer embodied the collective honour of a distinct elite, its advantages no longer outweighed the practical and moral objections that had been voiced about it for so long. Its erstwhile exponents abandoned it, from the top down.

At the end of the nineteenth century the practice of binding young girls’ feet must have seemed as securely entrenched in China as duelling had in Britain a century before, but its demise was equally swift. And as with duelling, the explanation for the disappearance of footbinding in the course of a single generation does not lie in any new moral objections being discovered or voiced. The suffering it caused had of course been well known all along, and the practice had spread in the face of repeated Imperial decrees against it. And again, as with duelling, the general collapse followed directly from defection by those at the top of the social hierarchy. Once higher-status families pledged that they would not accept girls with bound feet as wives or concubines, those who aspired to social connection with them followed suit. The effect cascaded down from the highest urban elites and out to backwater villages.

But the details of the social dynamics of status aspiration, imitation, and distinction that propelled these transformations are not really what interests Appiah. He observes that the process by which people followed their social superiors in opting out of footbinding was a kind of inversion of that which diluted and dissolved the honour community of duelling when the British middle classes were drawn into it. But he doesn’t stop to consider why the spread of footbinding – much farther down the social scale than duelling ever went in Britain – never had a similar effect of driving the Chinese elite to abandon it. Probably the hypergamous tendency in marriage meant there was never any implication of equality among those who bound their daughters’ feet, which casts doubt in turn on the idea that there was ever an ‘honour community’ in any very strong sense among them. And of course social hierarchy was enforced in China by strict sumptuary regulations of a kind that were unknown in Britain. What really interests Appiah about the chain reaction that caused the demise of footbinding is the role played in setting it off by a new argument: not, crucially, a new moral argument, but one addressed to the Chinese elite on the subject of their own honour.

As an exemplar of this new argument, and a portent – comparable to the controversy around the Wellington-Winchilsea duel – of the change that was to come, Appiah quotes from a memorandum urging abolition from a minor official, Kang Youwei, written in 1898. Kang rehearses many age-old moral objections to footbinding, but he begins and ends with the point that foreigners find the practice a subject for ridicule, and hold China as a whole in contempt on account of it. Kang’s memorandum failed to persuade the Imperial court in the short term, but this invocation of specifically national honour as an objection to footbinding was soon being widely echoed, and Appiah argues that it is the one that made the difference. He reviews some of the well-documented factors that contributed to the development of a recognisably national collective identity in China, from the Taiping rebellion through the humiliations of the Opium Wars, and he highlights the campaigning by Western missionaries and others who engaged directly with Chinese literati, especially those who showed respect for Confucian traditions, adopted Chinese dress, and in other ways invited their Chinese interlocutors to consider that they might be, in Appiah’s terms, honour peers. Kang’s memorandum registers, then, a change of perception whereby members of the Chinese elite identified themselves with something they thought of as the Chinese people or nation, and saw this ‘China’ as one among a wider community of other similar nations. And what Appiah emphasizes is that this new collective identity involved a change to their honour code: ‘foreigners’ were for the first time regarded by members of the Chinese elite as people whose criteria of evaluation they expected to share, and whose good opinion they therefore desired; and the ‘recognition respect’ accorded or denied to China as a collective entity began to affect the personal sense of honour of the elite who identified with it. This is why the change began with the elite; it was they who cared about and felt personally implicated in the standing of China, and it was for the good of China that that they therefore opposed footbinding. That the change was also good for women was secondary from their point of view, as was the fact that their inferiors followed their example from different motives.

Although some campaigners against footbinding drew parallels between their own efforts and earlier campaigns against slavery, the two practices are importantly different, from the point of view of considerations of honour. Footbinding harmed women in many ways but it did not exactly dishonour them, whereas slavery involved the complete denial of respect and recognition to the enslaved. But the campaigns did have in common that they portrayed the practices they opposed as stains on the honour of the nation. This is the thread that makes these campaigns, for Appiah, part of the same story. Where the abolitionists in Britain differed from those against footbinding in China is that the calls they issued to act in the name of national honour mobilized not just an elite, but an extraordinarily widespread and popular mass campaign. Appiah decisively rejects the old quasi-Marxist notion that the abolitionist cause was really a hypocritical capitalist elite abandoning a practice that was anyway becoming unprofitable; it is important he thinks to recognise that people do not always act from self-interest, and to face the challenge of explaining what can motivate them when they choose to act morally against their own interests. Honour by no means invariably does this; but on occasions it can, and this was one of them.

What Appiah thinks needs explaining especially in this case is not so much a change of opinion. It had long been the conviction of the overwhelming majority that slavery is wrong; but that had not been enough to motivate concerted action to bring about change. Several factors came together to make active opposition to slavery a matter of national honour. There was what one might call evangelical internationalism. British Quakers found that keeping international Quakerism together required that they meet their American co-religionists in making opposition to slavery not just a community ethos but an active campaign. For Anglican evangelicals, led by Clarkson, Sharp, and Wilberforce, Britain’s claim to be a Christian nation was at stake. This sharpened the political rhetoric that had already developed through the American War of Independence around claims to be on the side of liberty. The revolutionaries had said they were claiming the liberties of free-born Englishmen; British opponents had countered that from slave-owners, this was hypocrisy; this had brought the predictable riposte that slave traders were in no position to hold themselves superior; and so on. Thus although slavery was not of course the issue between the British Crown and the thirteen colonies, the conflict elevated it into a matter of national honour. And on this construal of national honour, the ‘humbler classes’ in Britain, including the fast-expanding urban working class, turned out to have remarkably clear and lively sentiments. It was their participation that made the campaign the astonishing mass movement that it was, with the petitions of 1833 being signed by a full 20% of the entire adult male population.

The campaign transformed British working-class politics. Appiah highlights the case of the radical journalist William Cobbett, who began by sneering at the ‘canting’ liberal elite who led the abolitionists, comparing the condition of British workers unfavourably with those of Caribbean slaves, and using racist language to belittle the latter’s sufferings. But comparisons intended here to drive a wedge between slaves and the working class were much more commonly and effectively deployed to highlight their common humanity, and working people in particular reacted against the way the institution of slavery embodied the idea of labour as intrinsically dishonourable. So Appiah traces in the abolitionist campaigns the effective democratization of the idea of dignity, as respect due to everyone in recognition of their humanity. Like other forms of recognition respect, this democratized dignity does not have to be earned (unlike appraisal-esteem) but it does impose requirements in terms of how one acts. It can be lost if one fails in one’s conduct to live up to those requirements. So working people in large numbers actively claimed the dignity they thought themselves entitled to, of embodying and speaking up for the honour of the nation. Cobbett himself ended by campaigning for parliament, successfully, as an abolitionist.

So in each of Appiah’s three historical cases, he argues, what decisively brought about a moral revolution was a change in people’s honour code: duelling ceased to be a way of sustaining a claim to the honour of a gentleman; footbinding became an embarrassment to the Chinese elite, and therefore ceased to be a way for others to facilitate marriageability with them; slavery became an affront to values of basic human dignity on which democratic citizens of a free country prided themselves. Appiah’s discussion of honour killing is designed to suggest that in this case too honour might be ‘recruited to the side of morality’ (162).

At the very beginning of this book, Appiah makes the point that honour is just one of many aspects of what it is to lead a good life generally neglected by modern moral philosophy. He refers to his own earlier writings on race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and nationality and religion, and distinguishes between the wider field of ethics – of what it is to lead a good life – and the narrower matter of what we owe to others, morality. It is little strange, given Appiah’s general emphasis on the study of ethics as an empirical and descriptive enterprise (see also his Experiments in Ethics, 2008), that the formulation he uses for his morality-ethics distinction is taken from the resolutely prescriptive Ronald Dworkin (Sovereign Virtue, 2002), rather than the influential formulation by the much more ethnographically inclined Bernard Williams (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, 1985). And in the course of the book, and especially when we get to the discussion of contemporary honour killings, the general distinction between inclusive ethics and morality gets lost, and replaced by questions of the ‘relationship’ between honour and morality: under what circumstances and in what ways does the former contribute to the latter? The result is that while a subtle and sophisticated account of honour is developed through the course of the book, morality quietly slides from being an area of problematization – how do we decide what we owe to others? – to being an authoritative and encompassing viewpoint, in terms of which honour’s value may be judged, to which practices may be said to be recruited or not, and on behalf of which Kant becomes virtually the sole spokesman.

Appiah’s historical episodes all involve cases where the value of honour was used against precisely the practices it had formerly served to uphold. Behind this may well lie a point about ethics that applies more generally than just to honour. The same kind of trans-valuation can be done with other values, such as purity, courage, beauty, friendship, or compassion. It can always be discovered that courage really requires – or ‘real courage’ requires – something quite different from existing conventional understandings, and where this discovery is made by people who are anyway influential, it is likely to be a consequential one. Because Appiah forgets his initial point about ethics including much more than morality, and honour being just one of those things, he does not really address the questions of whether there is anything distinctive about when and how honour, as distinct from other values, gets re-valued; nor, except for the point that honour connects to social identities, does he ask whether, when it does so, it is really uniquely transformative.

It would be easy, from an anthropological point of view, to pick holes in Appiah’s discussion of honour killing. He breezily describes the social organization of Pakistani Pushtuns as ‘what anthropologists call a “segmentary lineage system”’ (151), and he neglects some brilliant and important work by anthropologists on how honour works as an ethical value: one thinks especially of Lila Abu-Lughod’s subtle demonstration (Veiled Sentiments, 1986), following Riesman, of how free expressions of submission enable the subordinate to make their claims to honour. Appiah’s discussion could undoubtedly be enriched by closer acquaintance with relevant anthropological literature. But it would be a great pity to be distracted by minor flaws, because the points he makes are important and effective. Campaigners who think that the way to stop honour killings is to aim at either Islam or some supposedly backward local or Middle-Eastern ‘culture’ are probably missing the point. Honour is not a ‘decaying vestige of premodern order’, but part of the genetic make-up of modern ideas of human dignity, and people’s desire to be worthy of respect can motivate both their own attempts to live a good life, and a commitment to do well by others. Honour connects personal ethics to collective identities and social relations. As Appiah puts it, honour ‘takes integrity public’ (179).

On several levels indeed this is an impressive and successful book. It asks important questions combining philosophical depth with practical urgency, provides original and persuasive accounts of Appiah’s chosen historical episodes, which both throw new light on those well known stories and extract from them cumulatively a set of insights into some general features of ethical life. For a slim volume, it packs a considerable intellectual punch. It is also manifestly well intentioned and morally serious.

Its principal weakness, I think, is a markedly Whiggish approach to history. All of Appiah’s ‘moral revolutions’ are changes he unhesitatingly and unequivocally approves, from the viewpoint of ‘morality’, and of course he rightly assumes that his readership will do likewise. He does not seem to feel the need to consider that moral revolutions might not all tend in the same direction, and that elucidating the place that considerations of honour might have in them might require investigating a less comforting range of examples. There creeps into his account in several places an assumption that moral ‘progress’ is normal and natural. At times this is strikingly unhistorical and occasionally unintentionally amusing. He refers for instance to the fact that the honour code of duelling involved equal recognition among gentlemen as ‘this one progressive feature of the dying code’ (42), as if it were an imperfect first draft of a student union constitution. And he is surprised that a Pakistani Senator who vociferously defended an honour killing should have ‘once had a reputation as a progressive figure, having supported leftist revolutionaries like Castro and Che Guevara’ (150), as if murder in service of high purpose and personal glory were unknown among such ‘progressives’.

Appiah offers no comment on the fact that although he says they are ‘strands of a single human story’, he takes his historical examples out of chronological order: first duelling, then footbinding, and finally the abolition of slavery, although the last of course began earliest of the three. I think the reason he does this is that the campaign against slavery most resembles the revolution he envisages bringing an end to honour killing. So he presents the anti-slavery campaign as the most complete realization of the role of honour in a movement of moral reform, and as if it were the culmination so far of a story of moral progress. But there is no reason why that story should necessarily be a cumulative one, because history does not always or in all respects go in one direction, whether we care to call that direction ‘progress’ or not. Remember Lord Salisbury’s immortal line, ‘Reform? Surely things are bad enough already.’

Justly, Appiah gives proper weight to the role of the evangelical revival of the time in the abolitionist movement, and to the international nature of that movement, with American Quakers for example threatening to break with their British counterparts if the latter failed to take an active stance in opposing the evils of slavery. It is easy to think of contemporary counterparts to dynamics of that kind, but they do not all fit easily in Appiah’s reassuring ‘progressive’ narrative. One of the most dramatic ‘moral revolutions’ of our own time, which Appiah turns his gaze away from, has been the global growth in evangelical and charismatic Christianity. Christians of a certain stripe in the UK are revising where they look to for leadership and example, and the honour community against which they measure their standing. They are responding to demands from church leaders in Africa and elsewhere that they take active responsibility for the moral turpitude of the nation they inhabit, and have elevated opposition to homosexuality into a wholly unprecedented doctrinal prominence and an identity-defining mission. If, as seems plausible, this moral revolution also involves a change of honour code, then Appiah’s hugely impressive and thought-provoking book leaves one with the question: to the side of what kind of morality, and what kind of ethics, is honour here being recruited?

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