The Honor Code by Kwame Anthony Appiah

| December 2011
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The Honor Code, Kwame Anthony Appiah, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 264 pp., $25.95 cloth, $15.95 paper.

The language of honor is apt to strike the modern reader as quaint, even obsolete, if not downright pernicious. It calls to mind the hierarchies of the ancien régime and the absurdities of the duel, not to mention the horrible “honor killings” that perpetuate the domination of women in some traditionalist societies today. If honor is out of favor, one might think so much the better.

It has often been said that with the rise of modern, universalist morality and more democratic political forms, the concept of honor was supplanted by the notion of dignity. Whereas honor distributes social recognition as a function of one’s position within a hierarchical social order, dignity (as in the intrinsic dignity of the person) derives from humanity itself, thus allocating equal recognition to all. A moral world structured by the principle of dignity is more egalitarian, more rational, and more peaceful than the world of honor ever could be. By this reasoning, therefore, the obsolescence of honor is something to be welcomed, a hallmark of moral progress.

Kwame Anthony Appiah challenges this common view in The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. Far from being obsolete, he argues, honor is alive and well today—and that is a very good thing. Honor persists because it reflects timeless truths of moral and social psychology. It answers to our common need for recognition, a feature of the human condition that cuts across cultural differences even as it interacts with them. Yet honor involves more than mere recognition. It is tied to principled codes of conduct and includes the desire for self-respect. The person of honor seeks the self-respect as well as the recognition from others that comes from living up to her code. The principles that guide one’s conduct, condition one’s self-respect, and sustain one’s reputation vary in different times and places. But the moral-psychological structure of honor—combining principled codes of conduct, the drive for self-respect, and the need for public esteem—is constant across different contexts. Moreover, honor is not necessarily hierarchical; it can serve egalitarian codes and is in principle compatible with the modern ideal of equal dignity (p. 130). And while Appiah acknowledges that honor has a dark side, he argues that it can be a potent force for the promotion of the good and the right. Indeed, as Appiah tells it, the sense of honor has driven some of the world’s most important moral revolutions, including the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom and the end of female foot binding in China.

There is much to recommend in this book. It draws attention to a neglected resource for philosophical ethics. As Appiah points out, honor has been largely overlooked by modern moral philosophy (p. xv), but it plays an important role both in guiding action and in constituting a successful human life (p. xiv). His case studies are wide-ranging, covering territory that crosses several centuries and many continents, and they illustrate the international salience of honor as a spur to moral action. Yet even as Appiah presses the value of honor for moral life, he rightly insists that the relationship between honor and morality is not a simple one. Honor is not reducible to morality, in part because the content of its codes may be incompatible with moral principles, such as justice (p. 108).

Then, too, the sense of honor as a disposition differs from moral duty, at least the familiar Kantian conception of duty. In contrast to duty, which is driven exclusively by the desire to do what is right, honor is a mixed motive. It aims in two different directions at once: on the one hand, the person of honor means to do the right thing (defined as living up to her code of honor), but on the other hand, she also seeks recognition from others. The sense of honor combines an internal orientation to integrity with a wish for external reputation (p. 179). More generally, honor is distinctive in occupying a middle ground between narrow self-interest and self-sacrificing altruism. But if honor’s mixed motives undercut its moral purity, they also help make it a powerful engine of reform (p. 172). The desire for respect is an effective spur to action; and when it is tied to principled codes of conduct that are compatible with what morality requires, it can motivate more reliably than altruism the risky and difficult actions that moral revolutions often require (pp. 193–94).

Appiah’s case for honor would be even stronger if his account of the concept were more precise and applied more consistently. Although he seems committed to the idea that honor combines an attachment to self-respect and a principled code of conduct with a concern for public recognition (pp. 16, 19), his depictions of honor too often collapse into the mere quest for reputation. On his telling, for instance, the end of foot binding in China happened because of what came to be a widespread worry about its effects on China’s reputation abroad. Appiah highlights Kang Youwei, a Chinese intellectual who initiated the campaign against foot binding at the turn of the twentieth century. Although Kang made mention of the suffering that foot binding induced, his primary focus—and, importantly, the place Appiah locates his sense of honor—was the threat to China’s reputation. “There is nothing,” Kang wrote to the emperor, “which makes us objects of ridicule so much as footbinding” (p. 60). Virtually nothing is said here about a principled code of conduct or the self-respect that comes from living up to it.

In a similar way, the honor that Appiah thinks helped end the British slave trade is largely portrayed as a one-dimensional concern with public recognition or the respect of others. “Sometimes,” Appiah allows at one point, “in talk of honor, it is the self-respect of those seeking honor as much as the respect of others that matters” (p. 134). Yet what distinguishes honor from mere concern for reputation is precisely that self-respect (tied to principled codes) always matters as much as the respect of others. If the former is missing, the motive in play is not honor but the mere concern for reputation. Ultimately, Appiah’s cases tell us more about the moral value of this concern than they tell us about honor, which includes but is not reducible to the concern for reputation.

Still, this book is valuable for provoking sustained reflection on honor as a source of moral action and reform. In particular, the motives of people who take an honorable stand on difficult issues at great risk to themselves are insufficiently understood today. At the end of The Honor Code Appiah describes two such individuals— to powerful effect. The first is Captain Ian Fishback, who first sounded the alarm about human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib. The second is Mukhtaran Bibi, who stood up to resist honor killings and related abuse of women in Pakistan. Neither self-interest nor simple altruism can capture what moves such men and women. Our moral vocabulary has grown too thin to cover the complexity of our moral experience, and Appiah’s work on honor helps to fill in the gaps. If The Honor Code inspires future work on this important topic, it will have generated a valuable moral revolution of its own.


Sharon Krause teaches political theory at Brown. She is the author of Liberalism with Honor (2002) and Civil Passions: Moral Sentiment and Democratic Deliberation (2008), as well as numerous articles on liberal and democratic theory, both historical and contemporary. She is currently at work on a book about freedom.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 25.4

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