Shame on us

Tracing history of honor and its potential power for social change

The author analyzes how the psychology of honor can play a role in creating and ending cruel practices such as honor killings of Pakistani women. The author analyzes how the psychology of honor can play a role in creating and ending cruel practices such as honor killings of Pakistani women. (Khalid Tanveer/Associated Press/File 2003)
By Michael Washburn
Globe Correspondent / September 26, 2010

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Outside of marriage vows and certain ideas about military sacrifice, honor rarely makes a reputable appearance in the contemporary world. It most frequently manifests itself in the vile euphemism for gender-based murder: honor killing, where honor furnishes the anachronistic mask worn by an oppressor to dignify his oppression. The scarcity of honor in public discourse is, however, a relatively recent development. Honor has long structured social hierarchies, providing individuals with a mooring for their self-understanding

Despite the premodern connotations attached to honor, the concept persists, and not merely as the basis for Monty Python sketches. As philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues in his erudite and compelling study, “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen,’’ “It is a central fact about human beings that our societies create codes that are sustained by such patterns of behavior and of feeling; the heart of the psychology of honor — the giving and receiving of respect — is already in you as it is in every normal human being, however, enlightened and advanced.” Appiah presents a broad history of the concept alongside a highly readable yet nuanced analysis of the psychological dynamics of honor to illustrate the role it has played as both cause and solution to a series of disparate, cruel, and infamous historical practices.

The duel is, perhaps, the most obvious manifestation of honor, but Appiah also discusses the role of honor in Britain’s Atlantic slave trade and Chinese footbinding — the painful, crippling process whereby women’s feet were horribly deformed in pursuit of a stunted idea of beauty.

Appiah expertly limns the history of honor as manifested in each phenomenon. The duel — two gentlemen facing each other over a field of battle in order to address some slight of honor — is the most pure and puerile practice motivated by honor. That said, the practice of Chinese footbinding owes its existence to equally perverse notions of honor.

The luxury of being crippled was only available to the upper classes and, hence, the honor of a family depended on its ability to cripple its women. Likewise, Atlantic slavery, at least the way that Appiah frames it, was about the lack of dignity that inhered in manual labor and the fact that no honorable race would lower itself to such menial tasks.

Appiah notes that the demise of each of these phenomena was not brought on by the creation or the unearthing of new moral arguments. Each of these moments of misguided honor faced the same set of moral condemnations for decades, if not centuries. What changed was the “honor group’s” self-understanding. The legitimacy of a behavior deteriorated and thus the legitimacy of the group’s self-understanding fell into doubt. As Appiah writes with regard to footbinding, “Simply put, since footbinding is embedded in a system of status, its abandonment by the elite deprives it of its appeal; a mechanism that echoes in reverse the case of the duel in England, where it was its uptake by people who were not gentlemen that reduced its ability to secure gentlemanly honor.”

Appiah relies on an archive drawn primarily from Britain or former British imperial projects — the history of Pakistan and China are heavily imbricated in the development and demise of the British imperial project. And though such focused observance allows Appiah to prove his theoretical — but by no means interpretively extravagant — claims, the dissolution of similar problems in places such as the American South poses some problem to his scheme. Appiah finds national honor and national shame at the heart of the demise of the footbinding and the slave trade, but the dual track of American nationalism in the years surrounding the Civil War casts doubt on Appiah’s broader historical claims. The Confederate South, beholden to many of the same honor-bound ignorances, dealt with similar issues in a radically different way.

This said, Appiah’s project is by no means historical, and these small concerns don’t dissolve the potency of his philosophical argument. Given that we are all honor-bound, Appiah argues that we should harness honor as a way of moving private moral sentiments into the public. Honor is the lever whereby we can shame ourselves into better behavior. In particular, Appiah focuses on the vicious oppression of Pakistani women. At its heart, “The Honor Code’’ illustrates how morality in action can affect massive social change in a short time — the book’s definition of revolution — and Appiah concludes “The Honor Code’ with a discussion of contemporary honor killings.

To say that “The Honor Code’’ is humane is no faint praise. Appiah wraps the fierceness of a polemic in the coolness and rationality of philosophy. “The Honor Code’’ understands cultural failure as human failure, and these failures are as often as not the result of frailty, not evil. As such, Appiah adopts the refreshing view that further human action can be a successful remedy to oppression. “Dignity,” Appiah writes, “in its modern sense, has become a right to recognition respect, where we simply give appropriate weight to these crucial facts about people.” And it is through the appreciation and revitalization — a reclamation — of honor that we can move the world out of our lingering dark ages.

Michael Washburn is a research associate at the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He can be reached at

THE HONOR CODE: How Moral Revolutions Happen By Kwame Anthony Appiah

Norton, 264 pp., $25.95