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An eminent philosopher shows how honor propelled moral revolutions in the past and could do so in the future. One of the New York Times Book Review’s 100 notable books of 2010. Also a Times Literary Supplement 2010 Book of the Year, and a Best Book for Christmas 2010 in The Independent.
Listen to a discussion with Neal Conan on NPR »
Listen to a discussion with Riz Khan on Al Jazeera TV »
More thoughts on honor at The Big Think »
Watch Katy Chevigny’s 3-minute film “The Honor Code” »
How does moral progress happen? How are societies brought to repudiate immoral customs they have long accepted? In The Honor Code, Kwame Anthony Appiah explores a long-neglected engine of reform. Examining moral revolutions in the past—and campaigns against abhorrent practices today—he shows that appeals to reason, morality, or religion aren’t enough to ring in reform. Practices are eradicated only when they come into conflict with honor.
In gripping detail, Appiah begins his work with a portrait of the often-deadly world of aristocratic Britain, where for centuries gentlemen challenged each other to duels. Recounting one of the last significant duels in that world—between a British prime minister and an eccentric earl—Appiah shows a society at the precipice of abrupt change. Turning to the other side of the world, Appiah investigates the end of footbinding in China. The practice had flourished for a thousand years, despite imperial attempts at prohibition, yet was extinguished in a generation. Appiah brings to life this turbulent era and shows how change finally came not from imposing edicts from above, but from harnessing the ancient power of honor from within.
In even more intricate ways, Appiah demonstrates how ideas of honor helped drive one of history’s most significant moral revolutions—the fast-forming social consensus that led to the abolition of slavery throughout the British empire, and recruited ordinary men and women to the cause. Yet his interest isn’t just historical. Appiah considers the horrifying persistence of “honor killing” in places like Pakistan, despite religious and moral condemnation, and the prospects for bringing it to an end by mobilizing a sense of collective honor—and of shame.
With a storyteller’s flair and a philosopher’s rigor, The Honor Code represents a new approach toward moral inquiry. Ranging from a great mandarin’s abandonment of an ancient Chinese tradition to Frederick Douglass’s meetings with Abolitionist leaders in London, Appiah reveals how moral revolutions really succeed.
See the German edition: “Eine Frage der Ehre” »
See the Italian edition: “Il codice d’honore” »
See the French edition: “Le code d’honneur”
See the Chinese edition: 荣誉法则: 道德革命是如何发生的 »
See the Brazilian edition: “O Código De Honra”»
read an excerpt »
Praise for The Honor Code
“What causes moral progress? In this brilliant book, Anthony Appiah casts light on the role played by honor. This classical concept can be a lodestar in guiding us to a better future. It’s an amazing and fascinating insight. This is an indispensable book for both moral philosophers and honorable citizens.”
— Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein: His Life and Universe
“How stimulating it is to read the remarkable research of a brilliant mind into the concept of honor as the origin of morality as we know it, practiced or not! With fluency of argument and erudition, Appiah charts how history, philosophy, and psychology in action are sustained by patterns of behavior and feeling. This book is essential for us—inescapable in its urgent relevance to the embattled human morality we live within our codes of the present.”
— Nadine Gordimer, author of Telling Times
“Appiah lays out a concept that is not only compelling in its own right but also suggests a connection that may in time help to collate biological and cultural exploration of human morality.”
— Edward O. Wilson, author of Sociobiology
“Anthony Appiah’s recent work has explored a scandalously neglected area of ethical theory, what motivates us to do the right thing? This book offers an important contribution to this area, by looking at honor codes—another neglected zone…A deeply insightful exposition of the dangers, the potential and the (perhaps) ineradicable role of the human sensed of honor.”
— Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age
Excerpts from Reviews
“… represents a refreshingly concrete solution to the question of how to alter deeply objectionable, deeply intractable human practices.”
— Publishers Weekly
“An eminently readable philosophical discussion of morality based on historical examples. … Readers who normally shy away from philosophical subjects will be pleasantly surprised.”
— Kirkus Reviews