By Kwame Anthony Appiah. W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 264 pages, $25.95.
Shakespeare’s Falstaff dismissed honor as nothing more than a word, “a mere scutcheon.” Kwame Anthony Appiah of Princeton University differs. In “The Honor Code” he presents honor as a potent psychological and societal force that can accomplish evil as well as good. It should, he believes, enjoy a more prominent place in contemporary philosophy. He advances arguments that will appeal to and be appreciated by lawyers.
In his preface the author defines honor as worthiness of respect. He later refines his definition by asserting, “[H]onor means caring not just about being esteemed but about being worthy of esteem.”
To illustrate Appiah’s point, the book first takes up three historical case histories. All of them involve what we now recognize as evils, namely, dueling in Great Britain, foot binding in China and slavery in the British Empire. Honor, the author maintains, for a long time supported and prolonged these evils. Then, goes his argument, a revised concept of honor brought an end to each of them.
In the case of dueling, as an example, for centuries it was in British society considered an imperative that a gentleman of a certain rank respond to a grievous insult by challenging the offender to meet him “on the field of honor.” Appiah recounts in detail the background of an encounter in 1829 between the Duke of Wellington, then prime minister, and the Earl of Winchilsea. The latter had provoked a challenge by slandering Wellington in the course of debate over a bill that was to permit Catholics, for the first time since the Reformation, to sit in Parliament.
Both men emerged unharmed from their early-morning confrontation on Battersea Fields, but, as the author tells it, their adventure merits attention as the beginning of the end of dueling. Sociological, economic and political developments publicized what the author calls the “vulgarity” and “wickedness” of the custom. More important, they dimmed its luster by making it available to persons of less than noble standing. “By the middle of the nineteenth century, honor could no longer be protected by the duel in the British Isles.” What had stood out as the ultimate test of the gentleman’s code became the target of the scorn it deserved.
Dissimilar but in some respect parallel processes led, the author argues, to the elimination of the other two historical wrongs that he discusses. Chinese foot binding and British slavery both rested, in separate ways, on concepts of honor. Both disappeared when their harmfulness was recognized as nullifying that basis of approval.
In all three cases, Appiah points out, a recognition of the wrongness of an accepted tradition did not suffice to bring about its abolition. Not even legislation would necessarily accomplish that. In each instance it was a realization that the tradition was reflecting discredit on the nation involved that led to the disappearance of what had once been deemed a distinction. As the author puts it, reform came about when “honor was successfully recruited to the side of morality.”
In a section headed “Wars Against Women” the author changes modes from the historical to that of today’s world. First stressing that cruelty to women in the name of honor is by no means limited to the Muslim world, he takes up the subject of “honor killings” in Pakistan. He tells of incidents, some of which have appeared in the press, where even a victim of rape has been condemned for dishonoring her family. He suggests ways in which these crimes, and the attitudes underlying them, can be eliminated. Consistently with the theme he has previously applied, he writes, “Honor killing will only perish when it is seen as dishonorable.”
The book concludes with a discussion of honor in the military profession. So long as armies remain “a necessary evil,” Appiah concedes, “military honor properly understood is something that all of us—soldiers and civilians—have a reason to respect.” The proper understanding to which he refers means to him that a soldier’s honor should not only govern his own behavior but should compel attention and reaction to dishonorable actions by his comrades-in-arms. Having cited Abu Ghraib and other instances of military misconduct, he concludes, “It takes a sense of honor to feel implicated by the acts of others.”
The lawyer’s education and experience, when coupled with a conscience, create an awareness of the world around him or her and its problems. That awareness can prompt taking action to deal with those problems. “The Honor Code” teaches the profession, as well as others, that injustices and other abuses, too often institutionalized and put up with as unavoidable attributes of human nature, can be got rid of. Praise to Professor Appiah for presenting that lesson so plausibly and so readably.
Walter Barthold has retired from the practice of law in New York City.