In Defence of Honour: Kwame Anthony Appiah Interviewed

In issue 53 of TPM, Kwame Anthony Appiah told Julian Baggini why honour cannot be dismissed as an outdated virtue.

If virtues rise and fall with fashion, then honour is currently about as modish as breeches and ruffs. Even the word has something of an old-fashioned sound to it. Where it persists, it often does so as a linguistic relic, drained of its evaluative content, such as when British parliamentarians address each other as ‘honourable members’.

As a live ideal, it is most visibly manifest in a practice most find abhorrent: honour killings, where women (usually) are killed to remove the shame they are supposed to have brought on their families, even sometimes when they are victims of rape.

So it may come as surprise to many that one of the leading moral philosophers of our time has not only dedicated an entire book to the subject, but has also come out as something of a defender of honour.

When I met him in his home near Princeton, Kwame Anthony Appiah told me that his interest in honour was first piqued while he was writing his book Cosmopolitanism. “I read some of the literature on the ending of foot-binding in which it was said, first, that both missionary and secular foreigners played a big role in shaping Chinese attitudes, but second, a significant part of what happened was that the Chinese came to see foot-binding as a source of national shame and that the people who advocated for the ending of it did so in part because they wanted to recover Chinese honour.

“What I thought was, I can think of many, many good reasons to stop causing intense pain to three year old girls and national honour is very low on the list, so this is puzzling to me.

The Chinese are perfectly normal people, they’re not in favour of causing pain to their daughters, they understand that that is not a good thing. So some time you need to think about this.”

The opportunity to do so arose when the history faculty at Cambridge invited him to give some lectures. “I thought, well this is the moment to look into this because in the course of exploring this historical question one can come to think about what role honour might play. This is a case where honour, which we think of as a dead and not to be resurrected thing, did good work. If it led to stopping this suffering for these girls, it was on the right side.”

In “the random way that happens when you’re trying to decide how to get into a project,” Appiah stumbled across a second interesting historical example of honour and moral change: duelling. “That’s obviously about honour and it came to an end at some point.” What was odd about it was that “it’s just a historical fact that the law and the church and morality all saw that duelling was wrong, and then in the Enlightenment added to that was the fact that it was evidently irrational, since the outcome of the duel doesn’t depend on who’s right. All of that was absolutely clear, articulated by defenders of honour.”

Why then did the practice persist for so long? In part because “honour is its own thing”. It’s a normative system – that is, one which places demands on what people ought to do. But it is not simply a part of our ethical or moral systems.

“All the usual things we think of as normatively compelling are understood by these people to be pulling in the opposite direction and yet they still recognise that there’s a demand that they somehow can’t resist.”

In the abstract that sounds baffling, perhaps even crazy. That is why an important part, indeed the largest part, of Appiah’s The Honor Code involves detailed descriptions and discussion of three particular historical honour codes which came to be seen as wrong and which were abandoned: foot-binding, duelling and slavery. These do not just provide illustration and colour; rather, his key claims “are made plausible by the historical examples”.

“Without that story, if I said to you that there’s this normative system that can be compelling to people, even though it runs against morality and religion, law and reason, you would say that doesn’t sound like a very sensible arrangement. And there is a sense in which it isn’t a very sensible arrangement. But to be persuaded that it’s a fact about people that they respond normatively to things like that is just to see something in the lives of actual people.” You need the rich real-life examples to understand how it can be that a practice can be “wrong in some sense and yet, nevertheless, required, in another sense.”

Appiah believes that the “normal methods of philosophy”, namely “sitting around in your study thinking” are not up to the job of making that case. “It would if you were the Duke of Wellington, reflective and compelled by honour. But if we’re trying to think about a culture that has this particular honour code that led to the duels, the only way to understand what was going on, I think, is to listen to people talking at the time.”

The crucial insight, however, came as a surprise to Appiah. “It turned out that over and over again, what led to the change, what led to people stopping doing these terrible things like slavery and foot-binding, to a significant degree wasn’t new arguments about the wrongness of it. All the arguments were sitting there. People didn’t know how to respond to them, given that they were doing the bad thing, except to say, ‘Well it’s what we do, we can’t give it up,’ that sort of thing.”

What drove change was a shift in “the honour dimension of the situation”. Foot binding came to be seen as a source of national dishonour, duelling lost its exclusively aristocratic character, and slaves came to be seen as being as worthy of respect as everyone else. Morality is relevant, for sure, because “it’s the fact that I’m doing something morally wrong that’s shameful.” What changes is that “morality gains social traction.”

This matters because it suggests a way in which honour “might be made to gain social traction in cases where it hasn’t yet been born to bear.” The clearest possibility for this kind of harnessing of honour today is honour killing, particularly common in Pakistan. Put simply, if we want to end present day honour killings, we might do better if we try to make people see the killings as sources of shame rather than if we simply insist that honour is an outmoded or irrelevant concern in the first place.

“From the point of view of morality there’s much to be said for honour when it can be aligned properly, and there are people in the world today who are trying to do that. People in Pakistan in particular are trying, somewhat successfully I think, to get people to grasp that the proper way of allocating respect to people in a society won’t allocate respect to people who kill their own daughters and sisters and wives. You can say that’s what they’re trying to do, but does it have any chance of working? It seems to be working. People seem to be coming around in some places, and young men can be seen holding posters saying ‘honour is protecting my sister’.”

Reading The Honor Code, I couldn’t quite work out if Appiah really thought honour was a value system all societies have, that we are stuck with, and so we should harness for good; or whether he really thought it had some intrinsic value of its own. In some sense he clearly believes both statements are true.

Take the idea that we can and should co-opt honour for good ends. “From the moral point of view, if you recognise that people are gripped by these concerns, you can see that there is work that from the moral point of view is worth doing that honour can help you do. If you can align honour with moral concerns you can get this other normative system to give energy to the morally endorsable projects.”

Appiah uses a military example. On the battlefield, honour is a very powerful force: if you’ve got someone who is bound by that sense of honour to behave well on the battlefield, then that could perhaps be a better motivator for them to do so than if they just had a theoretical commitment that one shouldn’t behave badly. He uses the example of Captain Ian Fishback, who blew the whistle on Abu Ghraib in part because he thought the actions were dishonourable to the US Army.

However, as Appiah also points out, others wanted to keep the whole sordid business under wraps precisely to defend the honour of the army. He rightly points out that there’s a difference between the honour of the regiment and the reputation of the regiment. But the confusion of the two is very natural, because the whole point about honour is that it’s tied up with the way you are seen. So isn’t there a danger that trying to use honour for good ends involves a kind of playing with fire, because whenever you put honour to the fore you risk placing too much emphasis on perception, on appearances?

“There is a structural problem about honour which you’re pointing to. The structural problem is that to have a sense of honour is to be concerned to be entitled to the respect of the honour system. That means that it’s an especially bad kind of cheating to gain the respect while failing to do what entitles you to it. But we care about respect as well as the entitlement to respect, and these are cases where your concern for respect, as it were, overrules your concern for making sure you’re entitled to it.”

But although he allows that “the system of honour is rife with opportunities for corruption and abuse,” he doesn’t think this is a fatal flaw. “It’s a problem about respect that, roughly speaking, it’s almost never worthy of respect to do something in order to gain respect. What’s worthy of respect is to do something which will gain you respect but not because you sought it. And this is why it’s a feature of many honour systems that they have a problem with boasting.”

That means that “if you have a sense of honour you’ll be concerned to lose an entitlement to respect, whether anybody has noticed or not.” That’s the point of some remarks by Descartes he quotes in the book’s introduction. “When he’s blushing privately in his study, it’s not because anybody’s noticed; he’s the one who knows. In fact he’s drawing it to our attention precisely because he doesn’t want to be respected for something that he isn’t entitled to respect for. Someone with a real sense of honour will blow the whistle on herself, will say I’m not owed that respect.”

If it seems hard to pin down the precise role that honour plays in Appiah’s normative scheme, that’s because it is. The way he sees it, different things make different claims on us, and there is no algorithm for determining which should take precedence. “I think that one of the conclusions I draw from some of Bernard Williams’s work is that it’s not clear to me that there’s an all things considered perspective. We can say that certain things are bad or good from the moral or the ethical perspective, and certain things are ok or not ok from the honour perspective. And then in real human life you have to make judgements about how to handle those demands.”

In that way, he also echoes the approach of Amartya Sen, who argued that a desire to get a perfect conception of justice can get in the way of removing the evident injustice all around us. In a similar kind of way, if we try to put the role of honour in its ideal place, we might have a very tough job, given how deep-rooted honour seems to be in human societies. We can make progress much more quickly if we accept honour as a given and try to channel it as best we can.

“I think that’s right. This is one of the many cases where the best is the enemy of the good. And again what you’re saying is a reminder of the fact that the concerns here are ultimately practical: the object of the exercise is to understand what we can do to stop something bad. It’s not to get precisely right the badness of it, nor is it to make sure that the way in which we stop it is the purest of motives. It would be better if people stopped for the purest of motives, but it’s best if they stop. And if the choice is between their stopping for the wrong reasons and their not stopping I favour their stopping for the wrong reasons. Kant may be right that people ought to stop killing because they see that it’s wrong. That ought to be enough, but it may not be, and if it isn’t, if there’s something else that can actually get them to stop, then I favour using it.”

Appiah does admit, however, that he may be somewhat overstating the value of honour and underemphasising its downsides. “But remember I’m coming into a situation where the default view is that honour has no role at all, so it may look as if I’m claiming too large a role for it, and maybe I am slightly overstating the case, but it seems to me that the case in the other direction has been too likely to be assumed.”

He is certainly aware of how honour is frequently tainted by hangovers from an older age. “Often we give these honours to people when we shouldn’t be honouring the thing they are doing, because it’s a legacy of old ways moral thinking to think that what they’ve done is worthwhile.” There is also “a tendency to go from respecting someone for one dimension to thinking they’re entitled to special treatment all the time and in every context. We over honour lots of people. I think we over honour many movie stars. In my view, it’s not a greatmoral achievement to be a great actor, but it is a great achievement and I value it. That means that I respect the people who are good at it. I respect Meryl Streep. I think it’s astonishing to do be able to do what she can do and I respect her for that. But that doesn’t mean that she’s entitled to get in the restaurant in front of me, in my view, or to be excused from normal obligations of civility.”

In case those remarks are seen as disrespectful, he quickly adds, “I’m not picking on Meryl Streep – as far as I know she’s a very civil person. But lots of actors in fact behave as though they think they’re excused from the normal demands of civility and they’re not.”

Appiah’s willingness to harness wrong reasons for right ends and overstate to compensate may strike some as that most dirty of things: pragmatic. But the charge is unlikely to sting, because practicality is central to Appiah’s conception of ethics. “I think that because ethics generally, and moral thought more specifically, is practical, it’s very odd to say about a question in relation to ethics or morality, ‘oh well that’s only practically interesting’. So noticing how moral ideas actually gain traction is really a very important dimension of moral thought. There are many important questions of morality which are not like that. Still, it’s important in thinking about moral life to think about what actually turns those recognitions of moral facts into changes in social life to conform to the moral facts, because morality is practical.

“But I think there’s also an internal moral thing here, which is that if you don’t understand how normative concerns other than moral and ethical ones work, then you might be persuaded by pure moral reflection that honour ought to be given up.” This returns us to the point he makes that “contra to what someone like Aristotle thought, honour really isn’t part of the moral system, it’s a competing normative system. So from the point of view of morality, there’s nothing much to be said for it. But then that isn’t the only point of view. This is a point that I think Bernard Williams would be good on. After Kant we came to think in western philosophy that it was the mark of the moral that it was the decisive, ultimate set of considerations, that a person who was behaving properly would always allow moral considerations to trump all the others. Bernard argues that that was wrong. If you took morality to be about how we treat one another then there were considerations about one’s own life and projects that legitimately could trump moral concerns, not from the moral point of view but because there are points of view other than the moral point of view. So with honour too, if you just look at it from inside morality, unlike Aristotle, I think it doesn’t have a legitimate claim on us.”

This is perhaps the most difficult idea in the book to get a grip on: that there are normative systems like honour, which have a claim on us, yet they are separate from, and in some ways even in conflict with, ethics and morality.

“What can be said for honour isn’t just what can be said for it from the moral point of view. It’s like a desire. Either you have it or you don’t. When you have a desire it strikes you that you have reason to go after and seek certain things. If honour is in you, it generates desires of a certain structure, concerns of a certain sort, interests of a certain kind. I think it’s in everybody more or less.”

What about those who don’t feel any claims of honour? “It’s like trying to get a blind person to see colour. There’s nothing you can do. What they lack isn’t a piece of information. What they lack is a capacity to respond to a certain kind of thing. So I’m sure there are people who don’t have this capacity, but most people do, it turns out, and most societies have a way of organising this capacity, and if you’re inside that system, you’ll just experience the demands it makes as reasons to do things and want things.

“Now, you can say about some kinds of desires, that’s how they are but we have reasons to ignore them or trump them. Some desires morality can come to terms with and some it can’t. Some people are sexually drawn to children. This is, upon moral reflection – not very much moral reflection – something we can see is a demand you can’t accede to, so if you have such desires you have to organise your way into resisting them and not acting on them, you have to not put yourself in the way of temptation.

If from the point of view of morality it turned out honour was always impermissible, then we’d have moral reasons to try to put ourselves out of the way of that temptation. But we don’t, I argue. But the fact that it can be coopted by morality isn’t the only thing that gives it its call on us. It has a call on us because that’s how we are. You can try to run against human nature, or trump it in some way, and sometimes we can, but you have to have a reason to do so and what I’m arguing is that we don’t have a reason to do so.

“I’m of the party that thinks that it’s much harder to go against some features of our nature than some people have thought and that therefore we have to organise our normative life around those facts about what we’re like.”

Appiah is aware that there are those who find his blending of history, facts about human nature, and ethics just isn’t philosophy, but he isn’t bothered by the accusation. “If somebody says to me, this doesn’t belong to philosophy, I’m inclined to say, so much the worse for your conception of philosophy. This is something that ought to be thought about. It seems to me that someone with a philosophical training is well placed to contribute to the thinking about it.

“I have a substantive view about how we should use the word ‘philosophy’ which is that we should use it for the discourses that grow out of what has been called philosophy in the past. It’s a historical object, its shape changes over time, but there are continuities. In that sense philosophy is like families and various other things. It grows through time, it changes over time.” As if tired with this somewhat defensive approach, Appiah suddenly issues a rhetorical challenge to his critics. “Look, who has written about this before? A man called Aristotle. A man called Hume. A man called Adam Smith. A man called Montesquieu. A man called Nietzsche.”

Perhaps he should be more bullish. After all, it seems to me a recurring theme in Appiah’s work is that too much ethics pays no attention at all, or insufficient attention, to the rich ways in which we are individuals with particular relations to particular people in particular cultures. And if you do ethics without this attention to contingent historical and social facts, you’re going to go badly wrong, aren’t you?

“I agree. What I was just doing was making the weakest possible argument because it’s strong enough, and that’s a kind of philosophical strategy. What I actually think is that it would be irresponsible of the profession not to have people thinking about these things.”

Appiah takes his responsibility in this respect very seriously. Over many years now, he has been “writing about topics that I think are of importance for everybody, whether they’re philosophically engaged or not, to write about in a way that anybody suitably educated to read complicated English can understand while giving them a genuine feel for what the considerations are, rather than just asking them to rely on my judgement about the technical matters.” This is not accidental. “I think it’s important that it should be done. I’m not in the business of criticising the kind of philosophy that people in general can’t make sense of. It’s absolutely crucial. I couldn’t do what I do if they weren’t doing that, and I have myself occasionally, more in the past, done that kind of stuff. I believe in intellectual division of labour. I think you should try and do what you’re good at.” For following his own advice, Appiah deserves all due honour and respect.

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (W. W. Norton)
Experiments in Ethics (Harvard University Press)
Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (UK: Allen Lane; US: W. W. Norton)