Appiah argues that far from deserving a bad name, honour provides a motivating force for morality; it compels people to be honourable out of a desire to avoid shame.
There are two kinds he suggests. Competitive honour is about being better than others; winning a race or gaining victory in war. Peer honour governs relations among equals: being born a lord in medieval England would give you peer honour, to be beheaded instead of hanged if you were found guilty of a crime, for example, even if you were a completely incompetent lord. The modern conception of human rights is perhaps similar to a universal extension of peer honour.
Appiah examines three case studies, dueling, footbinding, and slavery, and discusses the role honour had in ending each of them. Each activity had critics long before it actually ended, he points out, but what actually ended them was a shift in the perception of what was honourable, from the activity itself being honourable to the activity being shameful.
To my mind, there is some question of correlation versus causation in his case studies, but they are interesting nonetheless. Some of examples feel a bit incomplete, though, or like they were oversimplifications of what is admittedly a very complicated issue. I would tend to prefer Steven Pinker's Better Angels, on a related topic, for that reason. Still, an interesting topic.
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Dueling, foot-binding, slavery and "honor" killings were once considered honorable practices but today most people find them repellent. In THE HONOR CODE Appiah analyzes these four examples to illustrate how traditional beliefs about honor came to be in sharp contrast with evolving views of morality. In each case, arguments against the practices were well known long before they were given up, but knowledge alone wasn't enough. "Honor" killing has not been completely eliminated, but for each of the other practices Appiah details how the development of an expanded, less insular world view or "honor world" changed cultural beliefs and overthrew these long held customs. With this book Appiah is hoping to help spark modern moral revolutions.
Appiah talks about what these modern revolutions might be in an excellent September 2010 article in the Washington Post. Just as we look back with horror at slavery and foot binding, people in the future may condemn one or more of our current practices. To determine what might cause our descendants to wonder "What were they thinking?!" Appiah provides three guidelines: first, arguments against the practice have long been in place, second, defenders of the practice cite tradition, human nature or necessity as reasons to continue (How could we grow cotton without slaves?), and third, supporters of the practice engage in strategic ignorance, for instance wearing slave-grown cotton without considering where it comes from. Appiah's contemporary candidates for moral revolutions include industrial meat production, the current prison system, the institutionalization and isolation of the elderly, and the devastation of the environment.
Appiah is a philosophy professor at Princeton and his writing is sometimes a little choppy in a logician's proof solving style, but the material is well thought out, timely and fascinating.
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