Analysing honour

Issue: 129

Mark Harvey

Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Honour Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (Norton, 2010), £19.99

Kwame Anthony Appiah has had an idea: “appeals to reason, morality, or religion aren’t enough to ring in reform. Practices are eradicated only when they come into conflict with honour.” He explores three past “moral revolutions”—the eradication of duelling, footbinding and slavery—to draw lessons on how to end continuing insanities such as honour killing.

The Duke of Wellington, in challenging Winchilsea to an illegal duel in 1829, was asserting his right to settle matters according to the code of “gentlemen”, the privilege of being above laws that only applied to inferiors. Appiah tries to link honour and slights against it to Hegel’s “struggle for recognition”, but that drama takes place between master and slave, not between two equally vain members of the ruling class. The first moves made against duelling came from more political than moral momentum: attempts in the 17th century to stamp out duelling formed part of efforts to subordinate the nobility to absolutism. By the time Wellington himself joined an anti-duelling society, duelling in Britain had already become largely a charade.

Footbinding, practised for a thousand years in China mainly by the elite, inflicted horrific deformities on the women subjected to it, often causing infection and putrefaction. Men displayed their wives’ freedom from work by removing their capacity to perform any, and housebound immobility helped guarantee the chastity of marriageable daughters.

In 1883 Kang Youwei began to build an anti-footbinding movement. Impressed by British efficiency after visiting Hong Kong and Shanghai, he studied Western philosophy, and advocated a Fourier-style
utopian socialism, including equality for women and replacing marriage with renewable contracts.

The young Guangxu Emperor implemented some of Kang’s reforms in 1898, resulting in a coup by the Empress Dowager Cixi, during which Kang fled to Japan. Weakened after the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, Cixi reluctantly continued to implement reforms until her and Guangxu’s deaths in 1908, including the Anti-Footbinding Edict of 1902.

What is clear is that the late Qing reforms were not acts of a benevolent dynasty convinced by argument or motivated by shame, but attempts by an embattled, laggard autocracy to cling to power by implementing reform from above.

Disappointingly, Appiah nowhere mentions by name any of the Chinese women who also campaigned against footbinding. His explanation of the end of footbinding is patronising: “once enough men among the literati required unbound wives, there was inevitably a cascade downwards of unbinding”. So, bound women were no longer the objects of demand. It had nothing to do with the increased education of women themselves.

The chapter on slavery favours the position that ending slavery constituted a form of “economic suicide” forced upon Britain by mass mobilisations, which began with Quaker-organised petitions and boycotts. Reintroducing Hegel, Appiah argues that working class people rallied to abolitionism because the dignity of the labour of slaves was necessarily connected with their own fight for recognition. I have no problem with this.

When Appiah argues that we should convince those involved in honour killings to redefine their actions as dishonourable, he is focusing on the conscience of the oppressors. Similarly Wilberforce’s moralism concentrated on the parliamentarians who allowed slavery to continue; the role revolts in the Caribbean played in making slavery unworkable receives no mention from Appiah. In 1791 Haitian slaves killed their masters and burned down their mansions: the role played by fear in ending slavery is not explored. And their leader Toussaint Louverture appealed primarily to the French Revolution’s values of liberty and equality, not to the plantation owners’ sense of shame.

Appiah’s argument relies on the examples he has chosen: duelling and footbinding were eradicated because the aristocracy that had instituted them was being replaced by a rising capitalist class whose power was dictated by the marketplace. Such activities were both obsolete and an affront to their newly acquired dominance. Similarly, slavery has uses in an economy based on low-skilled agriculture, but eventually becomes an obstacle to accumulation with the risk of revolt and uneducated workforce it implies.

As Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology, each new ruling class tends to present its own values as universal, and has to promote values more capable of being universal than those of its predecessor. Thus “during the time that the aristocracy was dominant, the concepts honour, loyalty, etc were dominant, during the dominance of the bourgeoisie the concepts freedom, equality, etc”. Why should the more backward-looking notion of “honour” succeed where the concepts of freedom and equality have failed? Honour cannot be recruited for the fight for a better world for the simple reason that honour is today only used to attempt to justify practices that cannot be justified otherwise.

Put simply, these “moral revolutions” happened because, at the same time, social revolutions happened. This is how we can explain how Kang could start a movement that resulted in footbinding being outlawed whereas the Manchus and the Taiping Rebellion failed. As an engaging meander through the history of ideas of honour, shame and respect, this book has some merit. The section on footbinding, with its history of the fall of the Qing dynasty, is particularly fascinating, despite Appiah’s pop-philosophical musings. All four sections cover interesting debates but Appiah’s own contribution in attempting to weave a thread between them through the theme of honour comes across as a rather forced conceit, and as a guide to how to improve the world, it is palpably a non-starter.