The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s new book The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen chronicles how the concept of honor has been crucial in the fight against immoral practices like dueling, foot-binding, and slavery. In his press junket to promote the book, he’s discussed honor, moral revolutions, and the condemnation of future generations.

Let me start with some earned praise: Appiah writes the kind of books I aspire to write myself. He seamlessly melds literature, history, experimental data, classic texts, and rigorous conceptual analysis to produce books of contemporary relevance that are accessible to an educated lay audience without being “dumbed down” or simply journalistic. The Honor Code is smart, engaging, and thought-provoking, and you should buy and read it!

Now for the criticism: though rigorous and humanistic, Appiah’s thesis is misleading. Part of this is stylistic: he introduces the vagaries and tensions within honor through a set of historical and contemporary examples, but it’s not until the end that he spells out his own commitments and the conceptual distinctions that motivated his project. That means it’s not until the end that we are able to see the role he wants honor to play in normative appraisals of injustice. At that point, many readers will already be won over, in part because of the vividness of his examples renders them compelling: dueling, foot binding, and slavery are horrific practices and yet they were deeply embedded in the culture. “Honor killings” seem to have the same status in some parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and yet we managed to overcome similar circumstances in the West. In each case, Appiah demonstrates that the codes of honor that produced injustice gave way to honor codes that eliminated the injustice. In a very short span of time, dueling transformed from something a gentleman must do to preserve his honor into a ridiculous and dishonorable act. Foot binding went from the mark of esteem and the requirement of an honorable family to something no respectable family will allow. Slavery progressed from a source of honor for whites and dishonor for blacks to a blight on our nation’s honor. And Appiah proposes that the same transition could happen in Pakistan to prevent the murder of women who fail to uphold sexual mores, including refusing arranged marriages.

Perhaps a better title for Appiah’s book would be The Shame Code, because his account of the role of honor in policing behavior. For Appiah, an honor code is a set of principles for justifying respect, and his examples show that the drive to pursue of honor and avoid of dishonor can be extremely influential. Many people will do anything to preserve their reputations, and if their society requires them to fight duels, keep slaves, bind their feet, murder their daughters, or mutilate their childrens’ genitals, they will. While folks like me see this as a reason to decry honor, Appiah sees an opportunity: all we need to do is change the code, and the duelers, slavers, binders, murders, and mutilators will change their tune. There’s an analogy here between the honor code and the programmer’s code, and indeed I suspect Appiah’s project will appeal to the tinkerer in every philosopher: change their moral operating system, and within a generation that band of easily manipulated simpletons will decry violence, declare themselves colorblind, celebrate feminine perambulation, and allow their daughters to choose their own husbands or their children to enjoy sex.

Moral Revolutions

Each transition in honor codes Appiah describes has a set of features that he claims mark a likely moral revolution:

First, people have already heard the arguments against the practice. The case against slavery didn’t emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity, for instance; it had been around for centuries.

Second, defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, “We’ve always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?”)

And third, supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths that might force them to face the evils in which they’re complicit. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn’t think about what made those goods possible. That’s why abolitionists sought to direct attention toward the conditions of the Middle Passage, through detailed illustrations of slave ships and horrifying stories of the suffering below decks.

Appiah uses this as a springboard to describe future moral revolutions in the US prison system, our factory farming and industrialized meat production, our warehousing of senior citizens, and our pollution of the environment. He makes persuasive cases for the claim that future generations will judge us for eating horribly abused cows or allowing our fellow citizens to be incarcerated and raped.

Of course, I mostly share Appiah’s politics, so it’s comforting to think that we will someday improve the things he and I now see as problems. But granting that honor and shame are powerful motivators is not enough. Unfortunately, honor codes tend to resist easy reprogramming, especially from meddlesome moral hackers like me and my liberal friends. In a series of responses to that Washington Post article, conservatives and libertarians tried to push back against the liberal slant to Appiah’s moral priorities. Will Wilkinson reminded us that there is a tendency in such predictions

to mount our personal hobby-horses and congratulate ourselves for getting on the right side of history before the right side of history was cool.

In that spirit, Ross Douthat responds:

In the spirit of such self-congratulation, I would (predictably) nominate abortion as a presently-tolerated evil that will one day be generally deplored. After all, it fits Appiah’s rubrics pretty neatly: The moral arguments against the practice are well known, its defenders are increasingly likely to defend the social necessity of abortion rights (often along “women’s equality depends on legal abortion” lines) and the impracticality of an outright ban than they are to defend the justice of abortion itself, and the pro-life movement spends a great deal of time trying to confront Americans with the physical realities of abortion, whether via ultrasound images or grisly photos of fetuses held up at protest marches.

Tyler Cowen reflects:

I would suggest an alternate query, namely which practices currently considered to be outrageous will make a moral comeback in the court of public opinion.

Of all of Cowen suggestions (just think of the resurgence in popularity for torture. Torture!) the one I found most troubling and likely was the following: What if we backslide on homosexuality? Current demographic trends suggest that young people are much more tolerant of homosexuality than their elders. As such, it’s popular to think that we will soon have universal same-sex marriage in the US, and that gays and lesbians will be able to serve openly in the US military. But what guarantees that this trend will continue? Here’s Cowen again:

Tolerance of gay individuals and alternative lifestyles is at a historic high.  I would not endorse a crude “regression toward the mean” hypothesis, but we should at least try it on for size.  That tolerance is as likely to fall back as to progress.

And that’s just it. Appiah tells powerful stories. But the point of view he adopts includes a particular kind of theory of cultural change, a theory of causation. What’s missing are counter-examples: theories of causation require theories of counter-factuals. Appiah avoids this. Because each example has the same basic structure, we’re encouraged to to generalize inductively. But of course, Appiah has cherry-picked his examples to serve that induction. Yet his theory of moral revolution frequently requires that a culture internalize a critique from an external source, as when the colonial US forces the British to recognize that their own participation in the slave trade was undermining their moral high ground. In recent times, we’ve seen resistance to colonial norms and mores that created moral counter-revolutions, and the resurgence of honor codes that then require immoral acts.

Resistance to Change

This immune system seems often to be mobilized by exactly the kinds of external critiques that Appiah seems to favor. Consider the practice of female genital mutilation and cutting in Kenya. In the 1920s, missionaries for the Scottish Presbyterian Church in Kenya tried to mobilize their moral authority to elminate the practice. (There’s a good summary of the incident in Karanja’s Female Genital Mutilation in Africa, available on Google Books here.) But because the Presbyterian missionaries were seen as condemning a local practice without also condemning violent colonial rule, local political activists took up a defense of female genital cutting as a means of producing solidarity.

Gayatri Spivak’s account of the role of widow burning in India supplies another counterexample: where the British tried to tinker with local honor codes, they only managed to exacerbate the problem. From Appiah, we need a better account of how exactly one should mobilize external pressure in order to tinker with a local honor code without energizing a culture’s antivirus protections. Pakistan fits the anticolonial model for conservative honor codes, but we’re asked to suppose that the right kind of external pressure can avoid a backlash.

Much of the theoretical apparatus in Appiah’s account of honor codes can be credited to the excellent research-agenda-setting book by Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit, The Economy of Esteem. In fact, I suspect that it is Appiah’s departures from the Brennan and Pettit model that most damage his case. For one thing, Brennan and Pettit avoid the charged term “honor” in favor of a relatively neutral term, “esteem.” But this is not simply a matter of labeling: Brennan and Pettit also start with an analysis of some of the problems that plague attempts to think systematically about esteem, including what they call (following Jon Elster) the “teleological paradox:”

Making the achievement of esteem an active, targeted goal is counterproductive… in much the same way that the parallel pursuit of pleasure or spontaneity is counterproductive. If one makes the achievement of esteem one’s principle goal, then that very fact will tend to undermine the provision of esteem by others.

Esteem, like pleasure and spontaneity, can only be achieved as the byproduct of other actions. It tends to recede when faced with direct pursuit. (This is also one reason that researchers tend to fumble when describing the pursuit of esteem: it’s too easy to see that their accounts are driven by their own goals of achieving esteem within a research community.)

The Virtual Demand for Esteem

This has been a real problem with the methodology behind esteem and fame research, but Brennan and Pettit come up with a novel solution. Rather than relegating esteem to a merely passive demand, one that we cannot actively pursue and so must chance upon in our everday efforts, they suggest a third course, which they call “the virtual demand for esteem.” We ought, they suggest, think of people as having a controlling desire for esteem that will tend to produce estimable behavior, while simultaneously disguising that control both from onlookers and from the agent him or herself.  The model here comes from evolutionary biology and the concept of honest signaling and non-intentional motivations. Yet it gives us such a representative model that we ought to at least consider that this is one of the major but understudied sources of motivation, rather than decrying another attempt to stealthily introduce unproven evolutionary psychological models into our behavioral sciences.

Here, then, is the problem that Appiah’s project must suppress in order to succeed: honor codes work best when they are unacknowledged, and they are best changed when they are not the object of direct study or overt deliberate manipulation by outsiders. Moral revolutions that are predicated on honor code changes are most likely to succeed when the transition does appear to be the work of self-conscious elites, even if it probably is. This would probably help explain some other details suppressed in Appiah’s account, like why the slavery and racism debate did not end with the Civil War.

Dishonoring Honor

Of course, my own parallel interest in privilege, deference, and status claims brings me more sharply into conflict with Appiah than many people. Because he roots his history in the concept of “honor” rather than esteem, he ends up making several claims that are just wrong. In part, this has to do with his preference for Hume over Kant. Where Hume’s theory of moral sentiments requires us to acknowledge all the kinds of moral motivation, Kant’s contractarianism suggests that some kinds of motivation are simply inadequate to the task of moral reasoning. The standard case against some moral intuitions is that they aren’t really morality-tracking: if honor leads us sometimes to free our slaves, it must be admitted that this is not a respect for humanity that necessarily leads to that conclusion. The same thing goes with out moral intuitions to prefer in-group solidarity over out-group cosmopolitanism. As has been amply demonstrated, our mores surrounding homosexuality are clearly linked to our tendency to think that disgust and the ideal of purity is somehow a moral rather than a health issue rooted in long irrelevant needs from our evolutionary past.

In particular, Appiah claims that the concept of honor is the basis for equality of dignity claims, and roots this claim in a refusal to distinguish between dignity, honor as status, and the economy of reputation or esteem. This allows him to discuss the honor of a nobleman born into his status as if it were equivalent to the honor of Nobel laureate whose esteem comes from her achievements. But one thing our moral reflection has continued to report is that there is an important distinction between societal privilege, claims to basic dignity, and the reputation due to merit, and that we confuse them at our peril.

Moral equality is not derivative of birthright status: it’s  not something we deserve by dint of having been born human, as evidenced by the fact that we can and should extend our moral community to include future unborn generations and animals. The honor concept of dignity can’t make this leap, even if these extensions will ultimately be mobilized through the selective application of shame.

Now, these reflections still leave room for some very reasonable questions, like: if there’s no place for disdain or contempt, is there a place for esteem in our moral lives? Can this be distinguished from deference? Can there be reputation without epistemic implications for non-testimonial epistemic privilege? But at some point, a philosopher has to admit his priors, and in moral matters Kant will always trump Hume, for me, because we can use reflective equilibrium to distinguish between the reasons that motivate us and the reasons that we would prefer to motivate us. The strong tendency toward moral non-realism in experimental philosophy and moral psychology is a welcome correction to overly ideal accounts. There is such a thing as overcorrection, however, and I believe Appiah has absorbed it through his exposure to the X-Phi crowd. (A lot of the trouble here can be laid at the feet of Bernard Williams’ internalism about moral justification, which I will take up elsewhere.)

Honoring Esteeming Appiah

Back to praise: in general, Appiah’s emphasis on honor discounts our capacity to arrive at moral judgments independently of the codes of honor and esteem that motivate us. He puts the cart before the horse, but he does it so entertainingly and with such erudition that it’s difficult to fault him for it. If you read my blog, you should read all of Appiah’s books. Appiah’s style is a kind of rigorous popular historicism. Though they’re motivated by disputes within philosophy, his books aren’t designed for a specialist audience, and are rich with narrative detail, historical examples, and the sense of plot that you find in the best fiction. What’s more, I think this is the kind writing that most philosophers should strive to emulate. One’s career shouldn’t be capped with a handful of articles that make minor technical and exegetical arguments. We should all be hoping to write at least one book that grabs the public’s attention and makes a meaningful contribution. Appiah richly deserves his growing reputation as a public philosopher, and I hope that his success will generate a demand for such success within my colleagues and contemporaries (though it will, perforce, be a virtual one.) :-)

Perhaps something about the structure of the academy has distracted us from that goal. I think Appiah would probably have some interesting things to say about that if he weren’t too busy with more important matters to be distracted by diagnosing the distraction…. Yet another lesson worth learning from a philosopher to whom I have trouble not deferring.