Kwame Anthony Appiah is a professor of philosophy at Princeton University and the author of the books The Ethics of Identity (2004), Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006), and Experiments in Ethics (2008). His latest work, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, was recently published by Norton. Bookforum interviewed Mr. Appiah over the phone on September 15th.

What led you to write this book, specifically about honor? And do you see this book as a continuation of Cosmopolitanism and The Ethics of Identity?

That’s a good question. Well, I think I do remember what led me to it. It was something that happened when I was working on the Cosmopolitanism book. I was looking for examples of global discussion about a moral issue across societies, and I knew that there had been such a discussion about foot-binding in China in the late nineteenth century, so I looked into that a bit. One of the things that it says in the historical literature on foot-binding is that one of the main reasons why the Chinese literati gave it up was because it was a stain on China’s honor. And I thought that was very surprising, because I could think of many reasons not to cause pain to little girls, and honor isn’t high on my list. So I put it to one side and thought, “Well, I must think about this sometime.” You know, I couldn’t figure out how to work it into that book. Then I was invited to give some historical lectures at my alma mater, at Cambridge, and I thought, well, this is a moment to think about this question that you’ve put aside. So that was really it.

Having decided to do that, I thought, well, we’ve got this example in philosophy of having learned a good deal about epistemology by looking at scientific revolutions in the work of someone like Thomas Kuhn. So maybe we can learn something about how ethics works by looking at moral revolutions. And so the combination of those two things, the interest in honor arising out of looking at this cross-cultural conversation and asking what we can learn about ethics by doing a bit of history, led me to this general area.

Then I thought, what’s a really central example of an honor practice that I can begin to study in order to think about honor in a general way? That’s what led me to dueling, which is the topic of the first chapter of the book. So that was roughly how it came about.

I soon found myself realizing that honor, especially once I started looking at the duel, is really separate from morality. It’s not part of morality, but it interacts with moral demands. You know, when you then think about honor, one thought you might have—once you see that it can be independent of morality and can lead people to do things that are actively immoral—one thought you might have is, Why don’t you just give it up? Why don’t you just say that people should not care about honor, they should just care about morality?

That was really the point at which another of the things that I’d worked on, which was the stuff in Experiments in Ethics, persuaded me that there wasn’t much point in trying to get rid of it, since it seems to be a pretty pervasive feature of people’s normative lives across time and space. And Experiments in Ethics was all about making sure that we don’t ignore what people are like psychologically and sociologically in thinking about normative questions. And so this fitted between the concerns of my last two books—between the concern for conversation across societies and looking for what’s universal in Cosmopolitanism and the concern for a realistic view of human nature that comes from Experiments in Ethics.

And then finally, it turns out that once you start thinking about it, honor is profoundly connected with identity. First of all, the code, what honor requires of you, depends on your identity. Honor requires different things of men and women in many societies. It requires one thing of princes and another thing of ordinary people. Also—and this is a second and separate way in which identity matters to honor—we share in the honor and shame of groups through our identity. Through our national identity, we share in the honor and shame of our nation. Through my identity as a Methodist, I share in the honor and shame of the Methodist Church, and so on.

So The Honor Code is connected with all those three earlier books in that way. Though if you’d asked me when I was doing any of them—“Will you ever write a book about honor?”—I’d have told you that was crazy!

The book emphasizes the role honor played in several historical contexts, including dueling in Britain, foot binding in China, and the Atlantic slave trade. But you write that honor is an idea that a lot of people today might find old-fashioned. So why not use the concept of self-respect, a notion that is more familiar in contemporary society?

Because once you understand what honor is, you see that, though respect and self-respect are extremely important, they’re not the same thing as honor. If you have a conception of honor—and my view is that almost everybody does—then what you are interested in is being entitled to respect—not just having it, but being entitled to it—and if there’s an honor code, you are interested in being entitled to respect for the reasons that the code mentions.

So respect is absolutely crucial, and everybody understands that respect is an important moral idea and important normative idea. But honor is a more elaborate structure, and it’s built out of respect and self-respect: Notice that if I’m entitled to be respected because I’ve done something or because I am something, then I’m entitled to my own respect, and therefore I’m entitled to self-respect. Part of the point about an honorable person—and I think everybody, everybody except sociopaths, has some degree of this—is that they care not just to be respected, but to be respected for what they really are, for something they’ve really done.

If I get respect for winning the marathon the way Rosie Ruiz did, by getting on the subway and catching the subway to the end, I’m cheating, right? And I’m not entitled to the respect that I get. And an honorable person wants respect, but wants it because they’ve done something that deserves it. And consequently, if you care about that, then if you do something that doesn’t deserve respect or that deserves disrespect, you will feel shame whether or not anybody else knows what you’ve done.

So respect is absolutely right—with self-respect it’s a crucial concept. These are very, very important and normative ideas. But honor brings it together with codes and with entitlement and sociability in a more substantial way, I think, and so it’s not the same thing.

You also have a chapter on honor killings in the modern-day Middle East and in South Asia. While you were carrying out your research, did you discover how long this has been going on and where it began? Did you find that honor killings happened in, say, in the Americas in pre-Columbian times or, in modern Europe, or, for example, in ancient societies in sub-Saharan Africa or more recently? Or is this something that is located in a specific time and place?

I don’t know about the pre-Columbian Americas, I’m afraid. But it certainly happened in the ancient world, in the Mediterranean world. In fact, it went on—there were things like honor killings, as I mentioned, in Italy well into the 20th century. They’re probably still going on in parts of the Balkans. They’re relatively common in Turkey, and they may occur in sub-Saharan Africa, though I’m not sure about that.

Women are subject to appalling treatment in many places in the world, and often subjected to a harsh double standard regarding their sexual behavior. But honor killings seem to be something else entirely.

The reason why I don’t know what to say about sub-Saharan Africa is that I grew up in sub-Saharan Africa, and in the place that I grew up in, there’s really not a big preoccupation with sexual fidelity in women—especially in elite women, actually. So where I grew up, it wouldn’t make any sense. But that’s just because we were a matrilineal culture. So I just don’t know what the deal is in other places. But women certainly get punished for breaches of codes of propriety, sexual propriety in many societies.

The striking thing about honor killings is that you get killed for things that aren’t even under your control. I mean, it’s one thing to punish someone for something that they do intentionally. So if a woman is intentionally unfaithful, in many societies she’ll be punished. Even in the United States, if a man kills his wife because he finds her engaged in an adulterous affair, then the penalty is likely to be less serious.

Crimes of passion, right.

It’s a crime of passion, and we have some sympathy, at least some people do, for that. So there’s a case where we understand a man killing his wife. That’s a case where she did it, right? She chose to do it.

The striking thing about honor killing is it occurs with women who have been raped. Something was done to them. So it’s not a moral offense at all. Normally when we speak of moral offense, we’re talking about things where you are the agent, where you chose to do something or where you negligently failed to do something. We don’t normally hold people morally responsible for things that are done to them. But in the honor killing, you’re held responsible, you lose honor if you have sex, whether you chose it or not.

You suggest in your book that rape may lead to feelings of shame, which may rise from being considered weak.

Yes. The shame is associated with humiliation. Men are shamed when they’re beaten in fights. Again, that’s not a moral offense, right?

Right. There would seem to be another double standard here, of course. If it’s shameful for a man to be beaten, then this type of honor code would call for killing the man who was beaten.

Well, I mean, we presumably shouldn’t, as a moral matter.

Right, but then with women, the idea is that...

But I think that in some honor societies, certainly, there are very severe penalties for men who lose honor in that kind of way, by being beaten. I mean, they may, for example, be ostracized. I’m not aware of them actually being killed. I mean, there’s a huge double standard built into the current practices of honor killing in the places where it’s common, like Turkey and Pakistan, which is that in principle, the man is dishonored, too. So you would have thought that there should be at least as many honor killings of men as women, since you can’t have sex between a man and woman unless there’s a man and a woman present, and therefore on any occasion where a woman has offended, there should be a man.

There are honor killings of men in Pakistan, but they’re very much rarer than for women. In the case of a rape, it’s sort of understandable why somebody would want to kill the man who had raped his sister. You know, we can all make sense of that.

You also write that a lot of times the man is pardoned by the woman’s family.

Yes. The Koran encourages you to forgive offenses, and that got built into Islamic law in the idea that if you commit a personal offense—not an offense against the state, but an offense against a person—that person can pardon you, and then the state won’t punish you. And that’s actually built into the sharia law of Pakistan. Not just for these offenses, but for all offenses you can be pardoned by the person you offended if it’s a crime of the right sort.

But in these cases, very generally, the person who pardons you can be related to you. So it’s a way for the family, as it were, to conspire to kill somebody. One part of the family does the killing and the other part does the forgiving.

In thinking about how to go about ending honor killings from the outside, you write that, from a strategic point of view, urging a community to change the practice could be counterproductive, because the community could actually become even more attached to that part of its identity. Robert Fisk mentions this in his recent series of articles on honor killings in The Independent. He refers to a women’s shelter in Jordan that was getting some funding from Great Britain and other countries, but that when the Iraq War began, the shelter had to stop accepting the money from Britain. Fisk concludes: “But the grim truth is that Westerners can no more change this—can no more persuade village elders in Afghanistan of the benefits of gender equality and an end to ‘honor’ killings—than we could have persuaded Henry VIII of the benefits of parliamentary democracy or Cromwell of the laws of war.” Is he just being pessimistic?

Well, I think he’s missing part of the picture. So you and I standing up here and cursing Afghan elders isn’t going to do anybody any good, even if we send them telegrams telling them what they’re doing is wrong. That isn’t going to do any good. They will just say, “Well, you would think that. We know you don’t respect us.”

There are people in Afghanistan and in Pakistan who are organizing against it, and the first thing we can do is support them. There’s a risk that if we support them, they will then come to be identified as people who are conspiring with outsiders.

So this is a very important problem about using the strategy that I call collective shaming, which is that it only works if there’s a coalition, if there’s somebody inside that you’re working with. You can’t just come in from outside. Fortunately, there are plenty of organizations in Pakistan which are organized against honor killing.

The outsider only has influence—this is what we learn from the history of foot-binding—to the extent that there’s a background dialogue that’s respectful going on. The trouble with our situation with respect to many of these traditional practices in Islamic societies is that right now we are perceived as being anti-Muslim. We are not perceived as being engaged in a respectful conversation of equals. We’re perceived as being in a hostile and condescending conversation. In that context, just as in private life, you are not going to take much notice of the opinion of somebody who’s a condescending and hostile person, even if what they’re pointing out really is some moral failing of yours.

So in these more global contexts, this does connect with the theme of Cosmopolitanism, which is that we need to have an ongoing background conversation that’s respectful if we are to have any influence at all in these matters.

Let me refer to Tariq Ramadan, who, in a debate on French TV, was asked by Nicholas Sarkozy, then the Interior Minister, if he would condemn the stoning of women who committed adultery. Ramadan said he supported a moratorium on the practice. Is this kind of strategy worth following?

In my view, any strategy is worth following that will reduce the probability that people will be stoned. And Tariq Ramadan probably knows more about what’s a good strategy. We know what he wants. He wants them to stop doing it, and he wants them to stop doing it as a good Muslim. So he’s the ideal person to be saying these things, and I think we should support him when he says them. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything he says, but he’s our ally in this struggle. Fisk is sort of right that in the end, when these changes happen, they happen from the inside. I think he’s wrong to think that the Pashtuns don’t care. I mean, they do care what we think of them. It’s not true that they don’t care what we think of them. But they don’t care about it in the right way right now, and that’s because we have a terrible relationship with them, and they think of us as people who drop bombs on their cousins and so on. And we do. I mean, we have dropped bombs on their cousins.

I would have said six months ago that we’d done a relatively good job recently of trying to persuade people that our fight was with our political enemies and not with Islam. But then in the last few months this country’s gone through a bout of public Islamophobia of a disgusting kind. I don’t know what to say except that I’m against it, and I know many people, many devout Christians and devout Jews in this country, as well as devout atheists, who are against this. But at the moment, when Newt Gingrich, who is said to be someone who might run for the presidency of the United States, can compare Islam with Nazism—and it’s true that he was repudiated, I’m glad to say, by many conservatives, but he’s still in the game—we have a problem of being heard. I don’t know what Newt Gingrich really thinks. I can’t believe that he really thinks what he said—or so I hope. The best explanation is that he’s a cynical manipulator of bad feelings. But I hope he doesn’t believe it because it’s a crazy view.

But the point is that this country is full of people who don’t have that view, even if we seem to be in a minority, and we need to persuade our fellow citizens in this country that this kind of talk is exactly what makes it impossible for us to have any influence. And the kind of conversation which will have influence is going to be one in which we listen as well as talk. And that means that it’ll be a conversation in which at least some of us are going to admit that we have done bad things.

Continuing the discussion in terms of strategy, what do we say if the people we’re trying to convince of the immorality of honor killings respond by pointing out that the West did it, too, 200-300 years ago?

Well, that’s why I began the book by discussing a ridiculous Western practice, dueling. The problem here is not a Muslim problem, it’s not a poor people’s problem, it’s not a Third World problem, it’s a human problem. And it isn’t just over there.

I didn’t discuss this in the book, but perhaps I should have. The main reason why imprisonment for non-theft related murder are higher in the American South than in other parts of the country is because there’s a stronger honor culture in the South, and people kill each other when they get dissed in the South. Not only do they do that, but people understand it when they do it.

Somebody did a wonderful survey where they sent out CVs for jobs to a sample of businesses in the South and businesses in the North where the CV included a prison term for an honor-type killing. So this man had gone to prison because he’d beaten somebody up because they’d been rude to his girlfriend. Right? That’s an honor crime. In the South, those people got jobs, or more of them did. In the North, they just said, “Okay, this guy’s gone to prison. I don’t want to hire him.” In the South they distinguished between people who had been to prison for burglary and people who had been to prison for honor crimes, and they thought, “Oh, well, he just did what anybody would do.”

So it’s not gone. I mean, we don’t pardon people who beat people up in those circumstances. We still lock them up. But we don’t give them the longer sentence. We think it’s an excuse. So this kind of thing is pretty pervasive in the world. It’s widely dispersed in the United States. I’m not saying that it doesn’t occur in the American North. For one thing, one of the places it occurs in the American North is obviously in the inner city. Where do we hear the word dis all the time? What does dis mean? Disrespect. And what is that about? That’s about denying people their honor. Gang warfare is about honor, mostly. Drugs and all kinds of things get involved. But at the heart of gang violence are hierarchies of honor.

And these cases remind one, as I said at the start, that honor isn’t guaranteed to be anything like on the side of morality. There’s a famous proverb, right? There’s honor among thieves. The point is, the honor among thieves helps them with their thieving. Right? It’s part of why they can do the bad things they do—because they stick together.

I think it’s only in that context of the recognition that this is a general human problem, that then one can say to our cousins in other places who are doing things that we can see are wrong, “Look, this brings shame on you.” So we can use honor against it. We can say, in doing these killings in Pakistan, which is a Muslim country, a country created to be a country in which people can be good Muslims—that’s what it says in the Pakistani constitution—to do that in such a country is to bring shame on your country and is to bring shame on Islam, so you shouldn’t do it.

But, as I say, that will be best heard coming from people within, like Tariq Ramadan. People who are within Islam, or people within Pakistan, like Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani. But we can help them, and they can say, as the Chinese literati said to their peers, “Look, we should want to be respected because we should want to do what’s worthy of respect, and we’re not respected because we’re doing something that isn’t worthy of respect.” And then we’re useful, we outsiders, because they can point to us and say, “Think how we look to them.”

One last question. Do you see any other potential moral revolutions happening? It’s pretty safe to say that many can imagine how future generations are going to look back at us and find our treatment of animals incomprehensible. In fact, this feeling goes all the way back to Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century.

Obviously, if nobody could see that there was anything wrong, I wouldn’t be able to see it, either, so we’d be too early in the process. But I’m writing a piece about this right now. Yes, I think there are lots. You mentioned one. It’s not so much that we eat animals, it’s that we treat them appallingly before we eat them—feed lots and that kind of thing. And I think that will seem very strange to our heirs, because it seems obvious. I mean, we know that it’s wrong.

Another one that I am writing about is the conditions in our prisons. I just think anyone who looks at what’s going on in our prisons has to draw the conclusion that it’s quite inexcusable, what we’re allowing or making happen. First of all, it ought to be a source of shame and embarrassment to Americans that we have 4 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. That’s just ridiculous. How can we call ourselves the land of the free if we have a higher rate of incarceration than China and Russia, Rwanda, Jamaica—I mean, everybody? I can pick any country I like, because we’ve got the highest incarceration rate in the world. How can that be? And Americans are not worse than everybody else on average. So it’s something that the society is doing wrong. It’s not that we have especially wicked people.

You can think of your own examples. Another thing that I think will probably seem strange to people is our tolerance for great wealth when there are great needs and distributive injustice. But you’re right to mention Bentham, because that’s just a reminder of what I said about the other cases, which is that we already know there’s a problem, as people already knew there was a problem with dueling long before it came to an end, as Chinese literati knew that the daughters were suffering greatly to have their feet bound.

You know, there are stories in China long ago of men leaving home while their daughter’s feet are being bound because they can’t bear the sounds of their daughter crying. I mean, they knew it was bad, right? It’s just that there was this other thing, honor, that was demanding it of them, as well. And honor won. So, yeah, I think we will. The question that I ask in the preface—“what were they thinking?”—I think that question will be asked about us.