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