Professor Amy Baehr, from the Philosophy Department, sat down with the First-Year Connections Program to discuss Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.
First-Year Connections: What are some of your first impressions of Appiah’s book? Amy Baehr: It is a wonderful book. Appiah gives an account of how we can continue what he sees as the crucial moral revolutions we’ve witnessed over the past 200 years. He thinks we can harness our innate desire to be respected by others – and our desire to deserve the respect of others – and put it to work on contemporary moral problems, problems that are in need of moral revolutions today. The example Appiah gives of a moral problem in need of a revolution today is honor killings. Appiah’s optimism that a moral revolution is possible to reduce or even eradicate the practice of honor killings makes me wonder about other morally problematic aspects of our contemporary world. Might it be possible for the U.S. electorate to be convinced that it is dishonorable for the United States to allow so many people to live mired in poverty with little hope of upward mobility,1 or that it is dishonorable for the United States to incarcerate such a massive number of young men (the majority from these impoverished and hopeless circumstances), leaving children without fathers and households without a second breadwinner?2 Might it be possible to convince global elites that it is dishonorable for wealthy countries to monopolize global wealth as they do, especially given the unbelievable material abundance produced by the global capitalist system?3 First-Year Connections: Appiah is a philosopher. He teaches at New York University. If you had to explain Appiah’s book to a nonphilosopher, what would you say?
1 In 2010, one in five children in the U.S. lived in poverty. During the same year, 38% of African Americans lived in poverty. http://www.npc.umich.edu/poverty/#2; http://inequality.org/wealthy-parents-inherited-advantage-decliningmobility/ (Sites accessed 5/15/2014.) 2 The U.S. can now boast of 2.3 million incarcerated people. http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet (Accessed 5/15/2014.) 3 The World Bank estimates that 1.22 billion people in the world live on less than $1.25 per day. http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview (Accessed 5/15//2014.)
Amy Baehr: Paraphrasing Jean Jacques Rousseau,4 the 18th century French philosopher, let’s say that the task of moral and political philosophy is to think about the big questions – about what it means to live a good human life, what it means for society to be just – but to do so “taking people as they are”5 and institutions as they really could be. That is, Rousseau is counseling philosophers to not give up thinking about ideals – like the ideal of justice – but to always do it with an eye to what is practically possible. I think Appiah takes up this challenge. He begins with what the fields of cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology are beginning to tell us about who we are – and, by extension, something about what hope we can have for a just social order. Appiah believes that the desire for honor – and the desire to be worthy of honor – is a part of all human beings; it is part of our evolutionary inheritance. My students often think the theory of evolution proves that human beings are fundamentally selfish – focused only on their individual well-being – because evolution says only the fittest survive. But evolutionary theory suggests no such thing! As Appiah explains, having a desire for honor, and a desire to be worthy of honor, probably gave our species a survival advantage. He speculates:6 “in the early history of our species, honor-related emotions helped give structure to groups that could hunt, protect themselves from predators, and share the task of raising children” (187). Evolutionary psychology is teaching us that we are a profoundly social species and we have traits of mind that make social life among humans possible and inevitable. The desire to be esteemed by others – and to be worthy of that esteem – is just one of many ultimately social traits of mind. But as Appiah shows, to say we are hard-wired for honor doesn’t mean context doesn’t matter. What conduct honor requires differs from society to society – and his book is a nice demonstration of that fact. Though we all desire the esteem of others, what earns us that esteem, and thus what behavior that desire will lead us to, will differ from society to society. What matters is what Appiah calls our “honor world” (19-20). This is why getting the honor code right is so important. If the honor code that governs our honor world is aligned with morality, our desire for the esteem for others, and our desire to be worthy of their esteem, will push us to act morally. If our honor code is not aligned with morality, as Appiah says was the case in duel4 http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rousseau/ 5 Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762). 6 Evolutionary explanations for our behavioral traits are always speculative. This is because our evolution was a process drawn out over millennia; and nobody was able to witness it!
accepting England and foot-binding-happy China, then honor may hinder our ability to act morally. Think of another probably inherited trait: our tendency to be disgusted. It was probably helpful for humans to be disgusted by substances that, if ingested, would make them ill. Somehow human beings came to be able to be disgusted by others’ conduct in addition to substances they shouldn’t eat. Extending Appiah’s ideas about honor to disgust, we could say that a moral revolution has recently taken place through which Americans ceased to be disgusted by homosexuality7 and began to be disgusted by homophobia. This has been an incredibly fast change – just in my lifetime (and I’m not that old!). This means that social change agents should encourage people to be disgusted by polluting, by violence against women, and by racism – among other offenses. They should harness the power of our moral emotions to the cause of justice. First-Year Connections: Do you have criticisms of Appiah’s book? Amy Baehr: Well – I don’t know if this is a criticism – but Appiah doesn’t spend much time on the moral arguments against the practices he discusses. He assumes the arguments. I think we could benefit from thinking about the moral arguments Appiah is presupposing. I think pretty straightforward and convincing, arguments can be made against slavery, honor killings, and footbinding. But the moral argument against dueling is a different story. Think about slavery. Slavery violates the right to be in control of one’s own life – to choose one’s work, one’s place of residence, one’s associates, and so on. If you are a slave, another person plays a role in your life that you should play. You are sovereign over your self – not someone else. Slavery denies that fundamental moral fact about you. (An aside about slavery: It’s a bit odd that Appiah doesn’t discuss the fact that while England may have banned
7 20th century conservative English jurist Patrick Devlin is famous for having said – in the 1960’s – that the common man’s disgust at the thought of homosexuality is evidence of the immorality of homosexuality. Appiah would disagree. He’d say that disgust can be put to use promoting a variety of different moralities. The task of the moral revolutionary is to get people to be disgusted by homophobia, not by homosexuality! See http://faculty.berea.edu/butlerj/Devlin.pdf See also http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/law-limits/ (section 3).
the slave trade in the 19th century, slavery remains alive and well today.8 In fact, there may be more people enslaved today than at the height of American slavery.9) Appiah does make a moral argument against honor killings, but not in great detail. I think that argument is grounded in the idea that women are not mere parts of their communities; women are separate individuals with a right to live as they choose. We all have preferences for how others act; but our preferences do not justify our interfering with others’ autonomy. So someone’s preference that I abstain from sex with certain people, or that I dress a certain way – or some other preference about how I should act – does not make it right for them to enforce their preference! That I would prefer you not wear that tie doesn’t mean I get to force you to stop wearing that tie! Part of the right to live a life of one’s own choosing is the right to have sexual relations with other consenting adults. In our culture, I think that there are remnants of the way of thinking that leads to honor killings. When someone says a woman who is assaulted was ‘asking for it,’ they are suggesting that they get to decide what she gets to do; they decide she gets to enjoy bodily integrity only if she dresses in a certain way, or doesn’t go out at night, or doesn’t get drunk, and so on… A society that thinks someone’s preference for how women should conduct themselves justifies imposing that preference on women, or punishing them for failure to comply, fails to fully acknowledge the individuality and dignity of women. The moral argument against foot-binding is similar. That someone’s preference for women having small feet, or their being physically inferior their husbands, justifies maiming women for life – that is the idea foot-binding expresses. The argument against it is simply that someone’s preference for how someone else conducts herself doesn’t justify imposing that preference. Women deserve to be in charge of their own lives, including their bodies; and this means not maiming them before they are old enough to decide what they value or who they want to be. The foot-binding case is especially interesting, I think, because it underscores how people’s erotic interests – their sexual desire – can lead them to think it is alright to treat people like things, disregarding their autonomy. Moral philosopher Immanuel Kant10 thought, over 200 years ago, that sexuality inevitably makes us treat the objects of our desire as just that, objects. I hope he was wrong and that we can be sexually attracted to others while affirming their 8 http://www.antislavery.org/english/slavery_today/what_is_modern_slavery.aspx (Accessed 5/16/2014.) 9 http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/slaverya21stcenturyevil/2011/10/2011109135233564570.html (Accessed 5/16/2014.) 10 http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant/
humanity and autonomy! Our society still struggles with this. Sexual assault and rape of women and girls is an ongoing moral emergency in our society11 – and it is supported by a culture that connects sexual desire for women to violence against them. Of course, Appiah would recommend a moral revolution making sexual assault against women and girls a source of dishonor! But the moral argument against dueling is, I think, much less straightforward. What is the argument? Well, Appiah doesn’t really tell us. Here’s what it might be. Notice that dueling involves consenting to one’s own (possible) death; and it involves (possibly) bringing about another’s death consensually. Perhaps there are two moral arguments against dueling then. The first is that no one has a right to bring about one’s own death. The second is that consent of the victim does not release someone from the duty to not kill (or harm) him. (Maybe there is a third argument, a combination of the two: No one has a right to bring about one’s death by consenting to be killed by another.) Let’s look at the first two arguments. (I’m not sure what to do with the third right now.) Only one of them has to be a good argument for us to object to dueling. Think about the first argument. It’s not super clear that no one has a right to bring about her own death. My students frequently express the view that individuals do have this right, even while acknowledging that acting on it harms others. What about the second argument? Some people do have the intuition that my consenting to being harmed by you makes it not wrong if you harm me. Is it obvious that this is incorrect? I lack the space necessary to do justice to this complicated issue. But think of a contemporary version of this question: physician-assisted suicide. Those who are in favor of allowing physician-assisted suicide believe that individuals do have a right to bring about their own death; and they believe that the consent of the patient releases the physical from the obligation to not kill the patient. Those in favor of allowing this practice usually cite the autonomy of the patient – her right to be in control of her own life – as the main reason. Notice that this is the same reason why slavery and foot-binding and honor killing are wrong! Maybe there are important differences between dueling and physicianassisted suicide that explain why the former is morally wrong but the latter is not. Or maybe they are both wrong. But I lack space to explore these possibilities. So I would like to hear more about what Appiah thinks the moral argument against dueling is!
11 http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/sv-datasheet-a.pdf (Accessed 5/16/2014.)
First-Year Connections: Does Appiah’s book make you optimistic about the future? Amy Baehr: Well. I don’t know. Appiah shows that moral argument isn’t the most important force behind social change. In fact, the story he tells makes the moral argument a minor player. In each of the cases Appiah discusses, an historical accident played the most important role in causing the moral revolution. Dueling and the slave trade came to an end in England because the rise of the middle class in England changed English notions of honor. Foot-binding came to an end in China because of the historical accident that the Chinese suffered a military defeat at the hands of the British and were compelled to open up to the rest of the world. (What historical circumstance might make honor killings seem dishonorable in countries where it is practiced?) Appiah teaches us that those who want to bring about social change need to be aware of when historical circumstances make the time ripe for moral revolution, so they can seize the opportunity history is producing. But we can’t control historical accidents! We can only take advantage of them. This makes it seem like history has a mind of its own and people who want to bring about social change are just incidental. Of course, we’ll take progressive social change whether caused by moral argument or historical accident! But I’d be more optimistic about the future if Appiah had given us reason to believe that moral argument plays a leading role in moral revolutions. First-Year Connections: This makes me think about what Appiah writes about Kant. What did you think about what Appiah writes about Kant? Amy Baehr: Appiah wants Kant on his side. And David Hume12 too, Kant’s famous antagonist! I appreciate wanting to claim the patrimony of these two great philosophers. But I find Appiah’s discussion of Kant dissatisfying (pages 179-183). Appiah writes: “One reason Kant thought it was best if we acted out of the goodness of our wills was that if we tried to do so and succeeded, it would usually not be accidental that we did what was right. Someone who acts only out of the external concerns [like the fear of punishment] … on the other hand, will have no reason to do the right thing unless she thinks she might be discovered. Notice, though, that in the case I imagined – the case where the code honors those who do what is morally right – the concern for 12 http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume/
honor is, in this respect, like a good will. If I can get honor by doing what is morally right, then the motive of honor will be active whatever the contingencies of the external situation. So, if you valued the good will for Kant’s reason, you could value honor – provided its codes associated honor with doing what was right – for exactly the same reason. Its connection with right action would not be contingent” (Appiah, 181). Appiah is claiming here that being motivated by the desire to be worthy of esteem can be a reliable moral guide. My response is: Of course it can be a reliable moral guide if one’s honor code says people who do what’s right deserve esteem! But this just means that the reliability of the guidance depends on the content of the honor code in one’s honor world. An honor code that says you are worthy of esteem when you control “your” women’s sexuality will make you motivated to oppress women. An honor code that says having gays and lesbians in your club is dishonorable will make you motivated to exclude gays and lesbians. Kant was looking for a more reliable guide than whether one’s society happens to have an honor code that aligns with morality. So I don’t think Kant would be on Appiah’s side on this. But Appiah’s larger point is important! We don’t live our moral lives as separate individuals. We are social beings, always embedded in social contexts that tell us what conduct is honorable and what is not. And thus the moral quality of our own conduct depends to a significant degree on what Appiah calls our “honor world.” So, he would surely say, we should all get to work on our honor code to make sure we are esteemed – and esteem others – for doing what is right.
Published on May 21, 2014