Kwame Anthony Appiah's The Honor Code shows how honor drives moral progress.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 19 2010 6:38 AM

The Unappreciated Power of Honor

How it has driven moral progress in the past, and still can.

The Honor Code.

Vast moral revolutions do take place once in a while, but it is hard to figure out exactly what sets them into motion or brings them to success. A high-minded prophet in some part of the world denounces an old and dreadful social custom. A smattering of do-gooders plead for reform. The reform in question appears, at a glance, to be impractical, unpopular, and unlikely. And yet enormous masses of people somehow—but how?—end up suddenly embracing the revolutionary idea, and they bend to the task of digging a new foundation for the whole of society. The improbable reform, upon completion, turns out to be irreversible. And in retrospect, absolutely everyone, or nearly so, solemnly agrees that good has, in fact, been done, and moral progress on the grandest of scales is more than a figment of the wistful and naive imagination.

Kwame Anthony Appiah is a philosopher at Princeton, and, in his new book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, he cites two large and indisputable examples of this strangest and most majestic of historical phenomena. A handful of Quakers organized the earliest anti-slavery committees in America and Britain late in the 18th century. The likelihood of doing away with slavery seemed pretty small, given that plantation slavery in the western hemisphere was proving to be, for entire industries in America and Britain both, an economic bonanza. The slave laborers were suffering horribly, but a lot of other people, not just the plantation owners, were benefiting.

Even so, in England during the 1820s and '30s, enormous crowds of earnest and indignant citizens took to attending marathon anti-slavery meetings and affixing their signatures to petitions. Parliament bestirred itself. And, as a matter of law, in 1833 slavery was duly abolished almost everywhere in the worldwide British Empire—one of the hugest, speediest, most peaceful and consequential moral revolutions ever to occur.

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Something vaguely similar took place in China in the decades around 1900. For 1,000 years, upper-crust Chinese and not-so-upper-crust Chinese had followed the custom of painfully binding the feet of little girls, and even toddlers, such that when the girls became women, their hobbled feet might turn out to be the size of a man's thumb. A small group of reformers launched a campaign against the horrible practice. And although Chinese tradition was more than weighty, and although some people found an erotic appeal in deformed feet (Appiah supplies details on the exotic erotica of "the golden lotus," or the broken and bound feminine foot), the millennial custom descended into obloquy with amazing speed. And then, poof!, it was gone.

Appiah recounts these episodes with a cheerful verve, but he also applies himself, in his capacity as philosopher, to seeking out the hidden mechanisms of persuasion that, in his estimation, drove the campaigns forward. His search leads him to inquire into still another remarkable reform movement from the early 19th century, whose history, as he interprets it, sheds a useful light on the question of moral revolutions as a whole. This was the campaign in England to suppress the aristocratic custom of dueling with pistols.

Appiah reminds us that, as late as 1829, the Duke of Wellington, who was prime minister of Britain, put his life at risk by engaging in an idiotic and illegal duel with a high-born nonentity known as the Earl of Winchelsea. As it happened, the duke's bullet went awry, and the earl, having survived, chose to aim his own pistol harmlessly in the air. But what would have happened to Britain and its political stability if the prime minister had successfully murdered his man or had ended up murdered himself? In Wellington's upper ether of the aristocratic world, gentlemen did not worry about such petty things.

Still, dueling came under criticism, and, within a quarter-century, it disappeared altogether, at least in Britain—felled, as Appiah judges it, by a single well-aimed argument. This was not an appeal for rational behavior, or for morality, or law, or Christianity. The fateful argument appealed, instead, to a revised and improved interpretation of aristocratic honor. The very definition of a gentleman, in Cardinal Newman's formulation, came to be "one of who never inflicts pain"—which could only mean someone who regards dueling as ungentlemanly and even shameful.

Appiah notices a similar formulation cropping up in the anti-slavery campaign. Tradesmen and workers in England began to invoke "the honor of workingmen" as an argument against tolerating slave labor. He notices that still another kind of honor—the "national honor" of China, as seen in the eyes of other countries—played a role in the rhetoric of the anti-foot-binding campaign. Appiah figures that he is on to something. And in his enthusiasm over his discovery, he points to still another such revolution, or potential revolution, that is going on right now.

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