Kwame Anthony Appiah: How to Make a Moral Revolution

Kwame Anthony Appiah in The Honor Code is inviting all of us to pick the “moral revolution” of our dreams and let him show us how to get big results fast. His exemplary case histories start with the end of dueling in England, which came swiftly on the news in 1829 of pistol shots between the Duke of Wellington (victor at Waterloo and by then Prime Minister of England) and the Earl of Winchelsea. In the same quarter century, England got out of the English slave trade and abolished slavery in the English colonies. And from the East, Appiah recounts the sudden, shamefaced end of female footbinding in China — the collapse of a thousand-year tradition within a generation after 1900. In each instance, a persistent, noxious openly immoral practice died of ridicule, as much as anything else. Appiah makes it a three-step process. First, “strategic ignorance” gets overwhelmed by a very public confrontation with an evil tinged with absurdity. Then the stakes of “honor” get redefined; no longer a prop of support, the idea of honor (as earned respect) becomes a battering ram of opposition. And finally group lobbying and popular politics seal a shift in values and practice.

Professor Appiah, the Ghanaian-English-American philosopher now at Princeton, the author of Cosmopolitanism, is talking about some of his dream crusades, and mine, maybe yours: how’s to kick the props of “honor” out from under mega-wealth and permanent war? How’s to end the routine torture of feedlot animals, the soulless warehousing of good parents and grandparents? Who is to take the “honor” out of “honor killings” today of Pakistani women and girls who’ve been raped or sexually compromised?

In our own recent American experience, torture is one window Appiah’s process, still in motion:

In both the officially, centrally sanctioned torture and the things that it led to, like Abu Ghraib… I think it’s terrible that we focused so much on the poeple at the bottom of the heap who were doing it, at the sharp end, so to speak; and didn’t focus enough on how we had created an atmosphere that made it possible… When Americans know that these things are being done in their name, or face up to the fact, unless they don’t care about our country they can’t feel anything but shame. And that’s because they understand that you’re not entitled to respect if you do things like that.

So that’s an example of the mechanism in operation. That’s why a government that wants to do these things has to do them in the dark… You refer to the values of philosophical Pragmatism. One of the values of Pragmatism which we completely lose when we behave like this is that we take our eye off what we’re actually doing. This is so counter-productive. Nothing that we’re trying to do in the world is advanced by being seen as the country that does this thing. We used to be seen as a country that wouldn’t do these things. It was understood that Syria would do these things, or that old Iraq would do these things. We understand that the Saudis, you know, stone people and beat people up. But we used to be able to claim that we were trying not to do these things; that if we found them done we would punish them; that we would go to the U.N. and the Human Rights Commmission and complain when other countries did them. We can’t do that anymore. We look ridiculous when we when we do…

So I think: an element of “soft power” is honor. And if you lose your honor (…you don’t lose all your honor; you only lose a certain dimension of it each time), then you have to regenerate it. You have to earn it back in order to be able to use that sort of soft power, which is the most powerful political resource we have in the world as Americans, I think. It’s the respect that we have sometimes earned and sometimes not earned that makes all kinds of people who disagree with us about all kinds of things nevertheless have a kind of sneaking admiration for the United States.

Kwame Anthony Appiah with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 3, 2010

Related Content


  • Karl

    Chris, Noam Chomsky would compromise his position in U.S. life as the American Socrates if he had signed that ad.

  • EDA (a guy)

    Moved my laptop upstairs and this time had all my stream sites together (laid up with flu), so, amazingly, it’s stayed up here for days; listening is convenient up here but messaging isn’t as machine is perched on top of a pile of stuff. Where would I have been without WWKB and short wave…but…Open Source is a lot better…even if not “live.” Appiah’s like…philosophical alternatives based on the real options of citizens mainly…he corrals a lot of’em in a short interval…items usually avoided to the pt where most students today are probably lucky to hear three such problems in the same lecture (I mean with the same insight on ea). Too bad I didn’t have more profs into the way Appiah deals with “philosophical” questions. This stream and the Chomsky stream and a reacquaintance with ROS have really been hope building.

  • One thing I have found effective for the prison question is to come to Americans talking about the countries with the fifth, fourth, third, and second highest incarceration rates, to get them to feel that this is wrong (certainly Russia is unjust to its people!) before asking them to guess number one. The more confidently they declare “China!” the more impact the real answer has.

    It’s strangely exciting to hear the senior center phenomena being explained as a problem. It’s becoming more and more striking to me how far apart people in different stages of life are kept from each other in the United States, and I struggle to understand why this would be. Certainly, the American education system is set up in such a way that children are unlikely to know any children in a different grade unless they are siblings. Certainly we are a country of immigrants, which mean we are a people who either have divorced ourselves from a big portion of our families, or are descendent of those who have in at least one generation.

    Something to watch out for: In Japan, robots are being developed to care for and interact with children and retired people. Unless we choose to value intergeneratonal interaction, or at the very least, human interaction, more people are going to be kept even further apart.

  • Potter

    We don’t duel but I think most of us defend our own honor, dignity, crave respect and aim to be moral beings.

    Appiah’s philosophy is brilliant in it’s way of disconnecting honor and morality, focusing on historical and foreign examples to make strong points before getting to applications, present, foreign and local. He says change has suddenly happened in the past, after a tipping point was reached. But some ideas about defending honor, an honor hooked up to a morality tailored to it, can be very stubborn and last too long, longer than I fear we have. This accelerated world with catastrophe looming can’t wait for normal movement, for the time when people and nations will evolve eventually to suddenly act responsibility about what should be everyone’s moral issues: global warming, nuclear proliferation, conservation of our planet – population growth.

    About warring, might still makes right. The power that has the most force rules right or wrong, selfish, benevolent. The US has so much might at the disposal of a leadership that is flawed in one way or another. After Iraq, the rest of the world sees this clearly. The Iraq’s were not the only shock and awed. It’s just too tempting for us to go to war because we can and for reasons that have to do with the psychological or having to do with power and politics at home. Our warring in turn keeps the business of seeking nuclear arms going because others have to protect themselves ( their honor) from us. At home, here, no pain or consequences are felt by most, no sacrifice made at least that is upfront and apparent. We destroy by remote control while rationalizing it as regrettable but necessary. The morality is save our soldiers, fight those terrorists, fight for our “freedom”. As Appiah says or suggests it is not evident that this is necessary or achieving anything good. But that does not seem to matter-it’s what the generals want -to prove they can “win” or at least get to a place where ( the president can claim) we can leave with some honor.

    I remember that word “honor: falling from Nixon’s lips about Viet Nam. It’s always been about our freedom hasn’t it? We believe we are fighting for our freedom and it’s is a very powerful emotion in the common person to break with mere reason.

    There is no consensus about what is moral to stop us these days either. It is not coming from the self-appointed Glenn Beck who rallied to “restore honor” to the nation ( what exactly did he mean?), and not from the momentary counter-revolution of Jon Stewart who wants us all to simply change the tone. Both step into the void that Obama has vacated.

    So when I see “support our troops” stickers on cars I think they cover over larger questions of our moral behavior covering over a guilt that they fight for an honor not worthy of their sacrifice.

  • Potter

    from Fox news : Beck long argued that the focus of the rally — to pay tribute to America’s military personnel and others “who embody our nation’s founding principles of integrity, truth and honor” — was never at odds with King’s message.

    Is this (and Stewart’s) an expression of guilt ( latent) about how far we have fallen from ideals?

    Students Warned Not To Link To Or Even Read WikiLeaks If They Want A Federal Job. Is This Still America?