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Convincing Other Cultures to Change

Question: How do you change an immoral practice if a culture upholds that practice as honorable?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: So what many of the great moral debates in the world today, a lot of which are around agenda, have to do with the fact that different societies have different notions of what entitles men and women to respect.  I mean, one of the key things about honor is that what the code says depends on who you are.  The code for men is different from the code for women very often.  The code for gentlemen are different from the code for ordinary people, and so on.  

But these codes are often local.  And so if you’re going to change the behavior that you don’t approve of, you’re going to change female genital cutting or veiling or some other gender practice that you think of as a bad one, the first debate you have to have, the first discussion you have to have is about persuading people there is something wrong with the way their code is now.  

And here, this is I think another point about honor.  Here I can draw attention to the fact that honor sometimes lead people to do what morality requires.  But very often it doesn’t.  Morality forbids killing people over small disputes about whether you are lying, but the honor code in 18th Century England required gentlemen to threaten to kill one another or try to kill one another if one accused another of lying.  

Morality is obviously against slavery, but the honor codes of 18th Century colonial America assigned honor and dishonor to people on the basis of race in a way that it made it possible to enslave black people, and that was clearly against morality.  Morality had to be brought to bear against this system.  

So when we’re trying to persuade people in other societies, the first thing we have to do... if we think their honor codes require is wrong, the first thing we have to do is to see if we can have a conversation with them and see if we can get them to see what is wrong about it.  

What’s interesting, I think, and again these historical examples confirm this, is that usually they already know that it’s wrong.  It’s not as if people didn’t realize it was crazy to duel.  If you read the Wills written by gentlemen the night before duals in which they thought they might die, if you read accounts of the time, everybody agrees that there’s something crazy about dueling.  

Boswell asked Dr. Johnson what he thought about dueling and they had a long conversation at the end of which Dr. Johnson told Boswell: “I agree.  I can’t explain the rationality of dueling, though I still think we should do it.” So they realized problems already.  Dueling was illegal in England from the time of Queen Elizabeth.  It was against canon law; the Popes banned dueling in the 9th Century A.D. long before it really developed.  And so it’s illegal, it’s immoral, it’s irrational, but people do it anyway.  

So very often, when you want to begin these conversations; you already got something on your side.  It’s already clear, for example that female genital cutting causes pain to girls and that that, all things being equal, is a bad thing.  Nobody in these societies thinks that causing pain to children is a good thing.  It turns out that certain forms of female genital cutting reduce fertility.  This is a society in which people care about having children.  It turns out that it often produces infections.  It’s not like they think infections are great.  So you have to begin the conversation by getting them—and it has to be a respectful conversation otherwise they won’t listen to you and they won’t learn anything and you won’t learn anything about them. In that respectful conversation, you can get them to see something that often they already know, which is at some level that it is wrong.  Then you have to figure out how to get honor to concede to morality.  And my thought is: don’t abandon honor, reshape it.  

How do you define morality?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: Well I think if, for a purposes usually end up because we care about distinctions using words in slightly offbeat ways.  So I use the words “ethics,” “morality” and “honor,” in ways that I... I don’t say they’re the dictionary ways of using them, but they are ways—I try to use them consistently in these ways to mark an important set of distinctions.  

So “morality” consists of the norms about how we ought to treat one another.  “Ethics” is about the norms about how we ought to live, which of course includes the norms about how we ought to treat one another, but it goes beyond them.  We ought to pursue our own dreams and respect our own individuality, which isn’t about how you treat other people.  And “honor,” as I say, is this system of codes for assigning respect.   

So, both... “honor” can be important both to morality in my sense, about how we should treat one another, and to ethics, a sense of how one should live one’s life.  It can be important to morality because many moral norms are held central to honor codes.  Most honor codes, for example make lying dishonorable and lying is immoral.  You ought not in general to lie to people.  So, there is a case where honor lines up with morality normally.

Recorded September 13, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

Codes of honor are often localized, with differing notions about what entitles a man and a woman to respect. Convincing cultures with immoral practices to change should be done by reshaping their concept of honor rather than abandoning it.

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Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
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  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
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  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."


A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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