Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Role of Honor in Moral Revolutions

In her 1974 West Point Military Academy address, Ayn Rand said, “Honor is self-esteem made visible in action.” It is a sense of worthiness and competence that others can see in one’s deportment. It is not pseudo-self esteem that requires praise or respect from others lest an affront occur that demands satisfaction. It is not psychological dependence.

Yet that is precisely what Kwame Appiah in his book The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen means by honor. The book is interesting because it chronicles the role of honor, or at least what certain cultures have understood to be honor, in supporting and eventually eliminating the practices of dueling, footbinding, and slavery.

Appiah also suggests a desperately needed role for honor in bringing about an end to the modern, horrific practice of honor killing.


Unfortunately, Appiah’s analysis of the concept of honor makes it into something separate from morality. Usage, both historical and current, seems to concur. Honor reflects a code of values that demands respect and praise from others because of one’s position in society or family rank.

Thus, an English gentleman is verbally insulted—his honor has been disrespected. The gentleman demands satisfaction through a duel because that is the honorable thing to do. And the Pashtun father orders his daughter killed, because the daughter disobeyed him by seeking to divorce her abusive husband. Honor to the Pashtuns means loyalty to kin; it is strictly and brutally enforced.

Conventional morality in the cultures discussed, points out Appiah, and often even the law, disapprove of the honor practices. Dueling in eighteenth century England was disparaged by many writers as barbaric and was illegal. Similar sentiments and laws are present against honor killings in today’s Pakistan.

What ultimately led to the elimination of the historical honor-code practices was a changed conception of honor that incorporates modern notions of a civilized morality. A gentleman in the middle of the nineteenth century demands a duel. His opponent responds, “Seriously? No honorable man engages in a duel today!” And then laughter and ridicule may follow. What was once honorable became dishonorable.

This, in essence, is Appiah’s conclusion about how moral revolutions occur. And it is what he says must occur if honor killings are to be eliminated.

For a thousand years it was a badge of honor for Chinese aristocrats to marry young women whose feet as little girls had been broken and bound until permanently deformed. In the early twentieth century, the practice was laughed at and disappeared within a generation.*

The one example of Appiah’s that does not quite fit those above is the abolition of the slave trade throughout the United Kingdom in 1807. Appiah’s narrative projects a strong theme of dignity and respect for manual labor and the working classes. Black African slaves performed manual labor and were a working class. Hence, national honor in England came to mean dignity and respect for the African slave. The slave trade in the name of honor had to be abolished.

It is this last example that best depicts the correct meaning of honor, especially as defined by Ayn Rand. Self-esteem is the result of a process, as psychologist Stanton Samenow describes it: an outcome or accomplishment that does not depend on what others think of you. Productive work, whether manual or intellectual labor, is a key source of that sense of worthiness and competence.

The emotional product of self-esteem is pride, and pride helps generate the desire to do the right thing, that is, to act, as did the English abolitionists. Honor becomes the outward manifestation of one’s self-esteem. It is individualistic, not social. It is not a contest for status as it was thought of in much of the past.

The conventional conceptions of honor that Appiah outlines confuse genuine self-esteem with pseudo-self-esteem and perhaps should be called pseudo-honor. In pseudo-honor there is a pretense of accomplishment, but the sense of accomplishment derives from one’s station in society, tribe, or other social group. It does not derive from earned effort.

At root pseudo-honor is a tribal concept and is derived from rank within the tribe.

Genuine honor is what the abolitionists felt and expressed.


*One can only hope for one more moral revolution to eliminate the likes of altruism and socialism. A conversation might go something like this: “Seriously? You think we should sacrifice ourselves to others and expect the government to control our lives and economy? No honorable person would believe such ideas or act on them!”


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