How Honor Can Remake Society

History has proven that the best way to end immoral practices like slavery, dueling, and foot-binding has been to appeal to one’s sense of honor.
  • Transcript


Question: How do you define honor?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: Okay, well I think the sort of 10 second version of what honor is, is:  honor is an entitlement to respect that’s governed by some code or other.  That’s my short answer to the question, what’s honor.  And to have a sense of honor is to care about whether you are entitled to respect under the code.

How can honor influence moral revolution?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: The main way in which honor I think matters for what I’m calling “moral revolutions,” which are kind of big changes in moral life over a relatively short period, is by mobilizing people through a concern for how they look, how they appear, whether they’re living up to some standard.  So in the book I discuss in some detail a couple of moral revolutions, three or four.  One is the change that brought an end to dueling in Britain.  And there, one of the things that brought dueling to an end was a shift in honor which took honor from being something that men had to defend through dueling to something that it was ridiculous to challenge someone to a duel for.  

So at the end of the process, honor required not to challenge people for duels, and at the beginning of the process it required you to challenge them, so there was a big shift there.  And in that shift what happened was that people who were concerned that they were entitled to respect and be treated with respect realized that, from a time when it was a case that you had to duel in order to maintain your honor in certain circumstance, you moved to a time when you had not to.  

When the Chinese gave up foot binding it was because the Literati, the ruling class that was created by a system of national exams that ran the empire for a millennia, because they realized it was wrong, but they also realized that because it was wrong, it was leading to a dishonor to China.  It was leading to a contempt for the Chinese.  

That case allows me to make what I think is a very important point here, which is a concern for honor isn’t just a concern that you will be respected; it’s a concern that you be entitled to respect.  And that the difference is, you can get respect by cheating, right.  That’s Bernie Madoff’s life.  Bernie Madoff’s life consisted of getting to be on the boards of lots of charities by giving money which he didn’t have.  So he got lots of respect, but he wasn’t entitled to it.  

The Chinese literati didn’t just want the world to think well of them, they wanted to world to think well of them because they had done the right thing.  And so in those cases and in the case of slavery, which I discuss in more detail, anti slavery, in all of these cases, what you have is a concern to be entitled to respect, mobilizing communities of people whose honor is at stake because they belong to some collectivity that has an honor stake.

Recorded September 13, 2010

Interviewed by Max Miller