The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen

By Stainova, Yana | Anthropological Quarterly, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen


Stainova, Yana, Anthropological Quarterly


Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. 264 pp.

In The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, Kwame Anthony Appiah traces the role honor has played in three social transformations that he terms "moral revolutions" in human history: the elimination of the duel in Britain, the abandonment of footbinding in 19th century China, and the end of Atlantic slavery. Appiah explores these moral revolutions with the self-reflexive purpose to question, challenge, and reform our own contemporary societies. He also seeks to use the historical cases to shed light on "honor killing" in today's Pakistan. The book can be viewed as a defense of the notion of "honor," which is presented as a doubleedged sword: it can turn against human life as in the case of killings committed in the name of honor or it can contribute to flourishing humanism when used in the service of human dignity.

Appiah contends that these moral revolutions were essentially about changing not only attitudes but also behaviors, since "what transpired was not so much a change in moral beliefs as a revolution-in which honor was central-in practices" (161). All three of the practices explored- the duel, footbinding, and slavery-were considered morally wrong for some time before a critical mass of public opinion tipped the scales in favor of discontinuing them. As Appiah notes, "dueling was always murderous and irrational; footbinding was always painfully crippling; slavery was always an assault on the humanity of the slave" (xii). However, it was the desire to defend individual or national honor which supplied the motive behind these moral revolutions, bringing the troubling practices to an end with great speed. Hence, in Appiah's model, honor serves as the motor of moral transformation.

While examining honor in a particularist, culturally specific manner, Appiah simultaneously champions a universalistic vision of morality. Hence, Appiah works along a vein of great sensitivity for anthropologists: how to champion universalistic norms of rejecting violence and protecting the sacredness of the person while at the same time appreciating human beings' varied visions of "good" and "right" ways of living. One wishes that Appiah had acknowledged this challenge more explicitly, but his explorations are nonetheless pedagogically rich and provocative for anthropologists.

Appiah constructs an "ideal of honor" which consists in "the giving and receiving of respect" (xvii, xix). It is precisely this "respect" which, in Appiah's opinion, is the binding link between honor and morality. The ability of honor to ensure an entitlement to respect is what makes it into a powerful force for moral and social change. In formulations that will raise some anthropological eyebrows, Appiah argues that honor is an essential element of human nature and that "it is surely better to understand our nature and manage it than to announce that we would rather we were different... or, worse, pretend we don't have a nature at all" (xix).

Appiah presents a neat and cross-culturally applicable theoretical framework for thinking about honor. He does not engage with the numerous anthropological critiques of the concept, such as Michael Herzfeld's (1980) challenge to the possibility and usefulness of translating conceptions of honor and shame across cultures and languages. Herzfeld champions "ethnographic particularism" and warns us against "the reductionist generalisation of glossing" (1980:349). Thinking through Appiah with Herzfeld's analysis in mind question whether Appiah's interpretation of honor-oriented behavior overlaps with indigenous categories and understandings.

While anthropological scrutiny raises doubts about the treatment of honor as a trans-cultural, instinctual, and a priori category, it is important to recognize the analytic value of Appiah's identifying honor as the protagonist in three cultural transformations. …

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