|Chinese Foot Binding|
Morality changes over time. Once upon time, racism, sexism, and torture were widely practiced and, in some cases, celebrated. None of these practices has been completely eliminated, but there has been a significant change in our moral attitudes toward them. The vast majority of people now view them as unacceptable. What causes this kind of moral change?
In his book, The Honor Code
, Kwame Anthony Appiah examines three historical moral revolutions (and one ongoing revolution) and comes up with an answer. He argues that changing perceptions of honour, as opposed to changes in moral belief, do most of the work. Indeed, he argues that in each of the three cases he examines, both moral argumentation and legal norms had already condemned the practices in question. They prevailed in spite of this. It was only when the practices were perceived to be dishonourable that the moral revolutions really took effect.
I recently read (well listened to) Appiah’s book. I found it a fascinating exploration of moral change, but I couldn’t figure out whether it the central thesis was interesting or not. I couldn’t shake the sense that there was something trivial about it. In what follows, I want to bring some order to my thoughts and see whether my initial impression is wrong. Is there, in fact, something insightful about Appiah’s argument? I will give an equivocal assessment in what follows.
1. Preliminary Thoughts about the Mechanics of Moral Change
Before I get into Appiah’s argument, I want to make a few general comments about the nature of moral change. Morality can be thought of as a system of propositions and imperatives. It consists of propositions describing the value of certain actions, events and states of affairs, e.g. “pleasure is good”, “pain is bad”, “friendship is good”, “torture is bad” and so forth. It consists of imperatives telling people to do or forbear from doing certain things, e.g. “don’t torture people”, “do give money to charity” and so forth.
The system of propositions and imperatives that constitute morality can be thought of in purely intellectual terms. That is to say, you might think of a moral system as something that is offered to us in order to garner our intellectual assent: we are asked to ‘believe’ in the propositions and ‘accept’ the imperatives, or not. That said, most people agree that a moral system ought to have some practical impact as well. If it is really a system of morality, it ought to present us with reasons for action
and ought to change our actual behaviour. To put it more succinctly, most people think that morality is both an intellectual and practical affair.
What then is moral change? Presumably, moral change involves changes in the collection of propositions and imperatives to which we offer our intellectual assent, i.e. changes to what we believe is good and bad or right and wrong. And also changes in our moral behaviour. Full moral change would require both; partial moral change would involve one or the other.
The critical question then is: what causes changes in the intellectual and practical aspects of morality. Why do people no longer believe that torture is morally acceptable? Why is the practice no longer so prevalent? Broadly speaking, there are two drivers of moral change: intellectual and material. Intellectual drivers of change are ideas or concepts that change how we think about the system of morality. Perhaps someone presents a really good argument for thinking that torture is not morally permissible and this leads us to change our mind about it. That would be an intellectual driver of change at work. Material drivers of change are changes to the material or technological conditions of existence that have implications for moral beliefs and practices. For example, technology that makes it easier to extract information from people without causing tremendous pain might reduce the incentive to use certain kinds of torture, which might in turn affect our moral beliefs and practice about the permissibility of torture. That would be a material driver of change at work.
The distinction between intellectual and material drivers of change is not, of course, sharp. There are probably cases in which it is difficult to decide whether a given driver counts as intellectual or material. This is particularly true if you are a reductive materialist or idealist who thinks there is no ultimate distinction between mind and matter.
If we ignore this philosophical complication, however, my guess would be that most episodes of moral change involve a combination of both intellectual and material drivers of change (operating in a complex feedback loop). For present purposes, I will largely ignore material drivers of change because they do not feature heavily in Appiah’s account (although they do lurk in the background). Instead, I will focus on different kinds of intellectual drivers of moral change. Appiah’s account, it turns out, focuses on a distinction between moral and non-moral intellectual drivers of change.
What is this distinction? In the example I just gave I assumed that the intellectual driver of moral change was itself part of the system of morality. But this need not always be the case. Non-moral ideas and incentives might also affect moral beliefs and practices. Consider the following example. Suppose one day I decide to read Peter Singer’s famous essay on famine and the duty to give more money to charities in the third world. I carefully consider his arguments and come to believe they are correct. The following day I radically change my moral practices and start giving more money to charity. In this case, we have an intellectual driver of change that is clearly moral in nature: I was persuaded by reading Singer’s moral arguments. Contrast that with the following case. One of my close friends is an avowed Singerite who routinely gives half his money to charity. I really like my friend. I like the people he hangs out with and would like to win his respect. Consequently, even though I haven’t read any of Singer’s moral arguments, I decide to give half my money to charity as well. In this case, we have a non-moral intellectual driver of change: I change my behaviour because I care about winning my friend’s respect.
The central thesis of Appiah’s book is that a particular kind of non-moral driver of intellectual change — our conception honour — plays an outsized role in changing moral behaviour.
2. Honour Worlds and Moral Revolutions
What, then, is honour? Appiah has a somewhat intricate theory that underlies his book. It starts by stipulating that honour is a form of respect. You are honourable if you are respected by a relevant cohort of your peers; you are dishonourable if you are not. Following Stephen Darwall
, Appiah goes on to suggest that there are two forms of respect:
Recognition Respect: The kind of respect that comes from being recognised as an equal member of a given social or cultural group. People with recognition respect ‘belong’ to their relevant social groups and hence have equal standing among their peers.
Appraisal Respect: The kind of respect that comes from being recognised as having superior capacities to one’s peers. People with appraisal respect are esteemed in the eyes of other members of their social group for their prowess, virtue, ability and so on.
Honour attaches to both kinds of respect but they are different in nature. Recognition respect is flat and egalitarian: once you have it, you have the same amount as everyone else. Appraisal respect is hierarchical and inegalitarian: you can be more or less esteemed, depending on your capacities. This is important because it means that recognition respect is non-competitive and non zero-sum (everyone can have the same amount) whereas appraisal respect is highly competitive and zero sum.
Appiah goes on to argue that each of us belongs to (or would like to belong to) an ‘honour world’. Honour worlds consist of people who share basic recognition respect and compete for appraisal respect. Honour worlds can come in a variety of shapes and sizes. A family, a tribe, a religion, a profession, or even a social class (e.g. the nobility or the working class) could constitute an honour world. What is crucial about honour worlds is that they are defined by an ‘honour code’, i.e. a set of rules or norms that tells members of the Honour World what they must do to win or maintain the respect of their peers.
Honour worlds are not fixed or immutable. Their boundaries are always being contested. Some people find themselves excluded from an Honour World and fight for inclusion. Some people find themselves being pushed out because they failed to live up to the Honour Code. Honour Worlds can expand and contract, depending on the circumstances.
Honour codes are also not fixed or immutable. What you have to do to win the respect of your peers can change from time to time. Indeed, it is the very fact that honour codes can change — coupled with the fact that honour worlds can expand and contract — that is at the heart of Appiah’s argument. His claim is that changing conceptions of what you must do to win honour, along with changes in the structure of given honour worlds, lie at the heart of several important moral revolutions.
3. Appiah’s Three Moral Revolutions
Appiah focuses on three moral revolutions that took place over the course of the 19th and early 20th century. These revolutions were: the abolition of duelling amongst the British nobility; the end of foot-binding in China, and the end of slavery in the British empire. The detailed discussion of each revolution, its causes and its consequences, are the highlight of Appiah’s book. I learned a lot reading about each revolution. I won’t be able to do justice to the richness of Appiah’s discussion here. All I can do is summarise the key points, highlighting what Appiah sees as the central role that honour played in facilitating all three revolutions.
Let’s start with the example of duelling. Pistol duelling was once a popular way for members of the aristocracy to resolve disputes concerning honour. If a gentleman thought his honour was being impugned by another gentleman, he would challenge him to a duel. Appiah starts his discussion of duelling with the famous case of the Duke of Wellington and the Earl of Winchilsea. The Duke, who was at the time the Prime Minister of the UK, challenged Winchilsea to a duel because the latter wrote an article accusing Wellington of being dishonest when it came to Catholic emancipation. Appiah then documents the fascinating history of duelling among members of the aristocracy in England and France. It was not uncommon at the time for members of this social group to participate in duels. Indeed, there were thousands of documented cases in France and several previous British prime ministers and ministers of state, prior to Wellington, had participated in duels whilst in office. The practice continued despite the fact that (a) the official churches spoke out against it; (b) it was illegal; and (c) many Enlightenment intellectuals argued against it on moral grounds.
Appiah then wonders: Why did duelling come to an end if (a), (b) and (c) weren't enough? His claim is that changing conceptions of honour played a key role. For starters, the practice itself was faintly ridiculous. There were lots of odd rules and habits in duelling that allowed you to get out of actually killing someone (neither Winchilsea nor Wellington were injured in their duel). This ridiculousness became much more apparent in the age of mass media when reports of duels were widely circulated among the nobility and beyond. This also drew attention the scandalous and hypocritical fact that the aristocracy were not abiding by the law. Whilst duelling was primarily a game played by the aristocracy and not known to the masses, it could be sustained as a system for maintaining honour. But when it was exposed and discussed in the era of emerging mass media, this was more difficult to sustain. This impacted on the conception of what was honourable. The duel was no longer a way of sustaining and protecting honour; it was a way of looking ridiculous and hypocritical. In short, it became dishonourable.
The next example is that of foot-binding in China. This was the horrendously painful practice of tightly binding and, essentially, breaking women’s feet in order to change their shape (specifically so that they appeared to be smaller and pointier). Appiah explores some fascinating socio-cultural explanations of why this practice took root. It seems that foot-binding began as a class/status thing. It was upper class women (consorts and members of the imperial harem) who bound their feet. This may have been because foot-binding was a way to control the sexual fidelity of these women. It is difficult for women whose feet are bound to walk without assistance. Thus, one way for the emperor to ensure the sexual fidelity of his harem was to literally prevent them from walking around. Whatever the explanation, once it became established in the upper classes, the practice of foot-binding spread ‘downwards’. Appiah argues that this was because it was a way of signalling one’s membership in an honour world.
As with duelling, foot-binding was frequently criticised by intellectuals in China and was widely recognised as being painful. Nevertheless, it persisted for hundreds of years before quickly dropping out of style in the late-19th and early 20th century. Why? Appiah argues that it was due to the impact of globalisation and the changing perception of national honour. As industrialisation sped up, and the ships and armies of other countries arrived at their door, it became apparent to the Chinese elite that China was losing global influence to other countries — Britain, America and Japan being the obvious examples. These were all cultures that did not practice foot-binding. There was also, at the same time, an influx of Western religious missionaries to China, who were keen on changing the practice. They focused their efforts on the upper classes and tried to persuade them that there was something dishonourable about the practice. They argued it brought shame to the Chinese nation. These missionaries embedded themselves in Chinese culture, and succeeded in getting members of the Chinese nobility to accept that it would be dishonourable to bind the feet of their daughters and to marry their sons to a woman whose feet were bound. This led to a rapid decline in the practice and its eventual abolition. It was, consequently, changing perceptions of honour, particularly national honour, that did for foot-binding in China.
The final historical case study is the abolition of slavery in the British empire. This took place in the early part of the 19th century. I’ll be briefer with this example. Appiah argues that the moral revolution around slavery came in two distinct phases. The first took place largely among the nobility and upper middle class, where abolitionists argued that the practice brought shame on the British Empire. The second phase, which was possibly more interesting, took place among members of the working class. One of the distinctive features of slavery as a practice was that it signalled that certain people did not belong to an honour world: that they were not owed basic recognition respect. These people were slaves and one of the reasons they were denied recognition respect was because they were manual workers. There was, consequently, the tendency to assume that there was something dishonourable about manual work. This changed in the early 19th century because of the rise of the working class. As working class identity became a thing, and as members of the working class wanted to be recognised as honour-bearing citizens, they pushed for the abolition of slavery because it brought dishonour to the kind of work they did.
In addition to these three historical revolutions, Appiah also discusses one ongoing moral revolution: the revolution in relation to honour killing in Pakistan. In Pakistan, honour killing is illegal and is often condemned by religious authorities as being contrary to Islamic teachings. Despite this, the practice persists and politicians and authorities often turn a blind eye to it. Appiah argues that this is because of the honour code that exists in certain communities. In order for this to change there will need to be a revolution in how honour is understood in those communities. Appiah documents some of the efforts to do that in the book.
4. Is Appiah’s theory an interesting one?
That’s a quick overview of Appiah’s theory. Let’s now take stock. What is Appiah really saying? As I see it, his theory boils down to two main claims:
Claim 1: Changes to moral beliefs and practices (at least in the cases Appiah reviews) are primarily driven by changing perceptions and understandings of honour.
Claim 2: Honour is not necessarily moral in nature. That is to say, what people think is honourable is not necessarily the same thing as what they think is morally right.
Are these claims interesting? Do they tell us something significant about the nature of moral revolution? Let’s take each in turn.
Claim 1 strikes me as being relatively plausible but not exactly groundbreaking. All it really says is that one of things we care most about is how we are perceived by our peer groups. We want them to like us and think well of us and so we tend to behave in ways that will raise us in their eyes. This is what honour and the honour code boils down to (particularly since Appiah defines honour in terms of recognition respect and appraisal respect).
I’m sure this is true. Humans are a social species and we care about our social position. One of the more provocative books of recent years is Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain
. In this book, Simler and Hanson argue that the majority of our behaviour can be understood as a form of social signalling. We do things not for their intrinsic merits nor for the reasons we often state but, rather, to send signals to our peers. Although Simler and Hanson push an extreme form of this social signalling model of human behaviour, I’m confident that signalling of this sort is a major driver of human moral behaviour. But does that make it an interesting idea? Not necessarily. For one thing, it may be the case that there are many other critical drivers of moral change that are not adequately covered by Appiah’s case studies. Honour may be the catalyst in his selected cases but other factors may be more important in other cases. For another thing, even if honour is the critical variable in some cases, we can’t do anything with this information unless we can say something useful about the kinds of things that honour tends to latch onto. Are there some universal or highly stable laws of what counts as honourable or is it all arbitrary?
This is where Claim 2 becomes important. This is, in many ways, the distinctive part of Appiah’s thesis: that honour is not necessarily moral in nature. Sometimes people have moralised honour codes — i.e. codes in which that which is perceived to be honourable is also understood to be moral — but sometimes they don’t. Indeed, each of the three historical case studies illustrate this. In all three cases, moral arguments were already marshalled against the practices of duelling, foot-binding and slavery. It was the recalcitrant honour code that was the impediment to moral change.
But let’s pause for a moment and think about this in more detail. When Appiah says that honour is not necessarily moralised is he saying that from his own perspective — i.e. that of a 21st century outsider to the honour codes he is analysing — or is he saying it from some other, universally objective stance where there is a single moral code that is open to both the insiders and outsides to a given honour world? The answer could make a big difference. For claim 2 to be true (and interesting) it would be have to be the case that insiders to a given honour code know that their duties to their honour code are in conflict with their moral duties and I’m just not sure that this is the case. I suspect many insiders to a given honour world think that their honour code is already moralised, i.e. that following the honour code means doing the morally right thing. I suspect there are also others that think they have conflicting moral duties: those specified by the honour code and those specified by some external source (e.g the law). But that in itself doesn’t mean that the honour code is perceived by them to be amoral or immoral. Such conflicts of duty are a standard part of everyday morality anyway. Beyond that, I would guess that it is relatively rare for people to think that their honour code is completely immoral but that they are bound to follow it regardless.
All that said, Appiah’s theory might be interesting insofar as it gives us some guidance as to how we can change moral practices. Appiah suggests that moral criticism and argumentation by itself is going to be relatively ineffective; as is top-down legal and regulatory reform, particularly when it is pushed on an honour world from the outside. So if we find a set of beliefs and practices that are morally objectionable, but honourable, we should approach its reform in a different way. Specifically, we should try doing any of the following three things (alone or in combination): (a) make moral conduct honourable (i.e. moralise the honour code), or (b) become an insider to an existing honour code and show how, within the terms of that code, some given conduct is, in fact, dishonourable (e.g. Muslim critics of honour killing can show how the practice conflicts with the superior duty to the rules of Islam) or (c) expand the honour world (i.e. the group identity-circle of respect) to include those with a moralised honour code and then try to reform the honour code to match the moralised ideal (e.g. what happened in China with foot-binding).
This might, indeed, be sound advice. Arguing from an ivory tower is unlikely to start a moral revolution.