THE HONOR CODE by Kwame Anthony Appiah


How Moral Revolutions Happen
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An eminently readable philosophical discussion of morality based on historical examples.

This is a practical subject, writes PEN American Center president Appiah (Philosophy/Princeton Univ.; Experiments in Ethics, 2008, etc.), because morality involves less what we think than what we do. As illustrations, he describes three moral revolutions—against dueling, slavery and Chinese footbinding. Arguments against all were well known, but changing concepts of honor and respect, not new arguments, fueled their abolition. When aristocrats were the only people who mattered in Britain, dueling enforced their personal moral code. Rising 19th-century democracy meant that others felt equally entitled to respect. Public opinion became increasingly unsympathetic to dueling, but the kiss of death occurred when a few nonaristocrats dueled. Similarly, few Britons denied that slavery was degrading, but abolition succeeded only when the majority agreed that it tarnished national honor. Even workers, many intensely racist, agreed because labor defined them, and nothing expressed the dishonor of labor more than black slavery. Few Chinese doubted that tiny feet on women were beautiful, yet the centuries-old gruesome practice of binding the feet disappeared within decades around 1900 when Chinese leaders concluded that it shamed them in the eyes of the world. Appiah concludes with an outrage still waiting its moral revolution. Mostly in Islamic nations, about 5,000 women per year are murdered for bringing dishonor on their families by committing adultery, engaging in premarital sex or suing for divorce. Drawing on his three examples, the author warns against simply ringing “the bell of morality.” Changing this practice will only happen when individuals realize that it dishonors them and their nation.

Readers who normally shy away from philosophical subjects will be pleasantly surprised.

Pub Date: Sept. 13th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-393-07162-7
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2010


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