FiveBooks: Kwame Anthony Appiah

A leading thinker recommends five books about their field of interest. This month the topic is honour, chosen by Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy at Princeton and president of the PEN American Centre. His most recent book is “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen” (WW Norton). Interview by Anna Blundy for the website
November 17, 2010
In the Name of Honor: A Memoir (2007) By Mukhtar Mai My first choice is by an amazing woman, though it’s an “as told to” book written by a journalist. Mukhtar Mai became known around the world because she was raped essentially at the order of a village council in Pakistan. A prominent local family alleged that her brother had assaulted one of their daughters. Because that was an assault on their honour, they insisted on getting their own back.

What normally happens in these circumstances is that the woman just retreats in shame. But the village mullah said the rape was a wrong so it snowballed and the people who did it were prosecuted. Then it was appealed, and it still hasn’t been decided by the supreme court of Pakistan.

Mukhtar Mai shows how someone who grasps dignity, which is a form of honour based in our humanity, can resist the negative side of honour, where women are pawns in a game between men.

Honour (1994)By Frank Henderson Stewart

In this book, Stewart tries to understand how honour developed. He led me to see that honour is an entitlement to respect, and that honour codes say how you become entitled to it. He wants to give up on honour because it has such negative connotations; I think it needs reform.

In terms of honour killing, the obvious reform is to attach honour to protecting women rather than harming them. I think this can happen because it has happened over and over again. Honour killings occurred in Italy well into the 20th century and they don’t any more.

Nobody would have predicted in 1839 when the Duke of Wellington fought a duel that by 1850 that kind of thing would seem totally ridiculous. Within just a generation in England, if you challenged someone to a duel, then people mocked you. We have reformed these things and so the honour-killing codes need reform as fast as we can do it.

Moral Capital (2006)By Christopher Leslie Brown

This is a beautiful piece of scholarship by an eminent historian. It’s about the abolitionist movement in England and it tries to explain why Englishmen got involved in anti-slavery even though there were no slaves in the country.

Brown argues that part of the reason was that in the debates about American independence, Britons kept pointing to the great tension in the American case, which was that they were talking about freedom but they kept slaves. The reply from the Americans was: “Well, we do have slaves, but you are the ones who do the nastiest part of the work.”

The question of British honour then got tied up with the slave trade and people like William Wilberforce could appeal to national honour. Britain gave up the slave trade when it was the most profitable. People knew it would cost them but it was more important to do the right thing—because honour demanded it.

The Duel and Other Stories (1891)By Anton Chekhov

Like much of Chekhov, “The Duel” is powerful in part because, although there is a moral undertone, no moral arguments are made. It’s about this guy who gets drawn into a duel so ridiculous that it’s impossible, even if you’ve just read the story, to remember what they were duelling about. It’s often true of duels that people are prickly and think their honour is being abused and they end up fighting.

If you think about what’s unattractive about historical honour codes there are three things: one is that they are hierarchical, including subordinating ordinary people to the upper-class; two, they tend to involve an awful lot of violence; three, they often lead people to do the opposite of what morality suggests you should do.

I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to stop testosterone-fuelled fights, but we can, I think, make them seem ridiculous and shameful rather than being a source of respect.

The Economy of Esteem (2005)By Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit

Written by a philosopher and an economist, this book is on a topic long neglected in social analysis. It’s about how esteem—the respect given to people who have achieved things against a certain standard—can be used to motivate people to do good. If you set the rules right, you can use the system of assigning esteem to people to do things much more efficiently than money. It’s also better than using fear of punishment.

If you have an up-and-running economy of esteem, then when people do the right thing they get the respect of friends and neighbours and if they do the wrong thing, they get contempt and disrespect. The great virtue is that no one has to run the system because people spontaneously respond in these ways.