The Honor Code came to my attention as a book that was highly recommended by a friend and colleague whose opinion I respect. I looked forward to reading it. It sounded intriguing. And I carefully read it. The premise is this: We can understand, as its subtitle states, ‘how moral revolutions happen’ by looking at four chapters in human history, and conclude, as the back cover blurb fizzes, ‘have not been driven by legislation from above, but by a long-neglected engine of reform: honor.’
What’s not to like? As someone who lives and breathes animal rights, and strives to understand how social movements succeed, there was much that I looked forward to learning. But I discovered, instead, that there was not much to inform and enlighten here. Well, I should say, there was not much to inform and enlighten me here.
Frankly, it was disappointing. At times, it shone, but mostly it was dim.
Let’s start with honor, which, as you would expect, is discussed extensively in the book. But I came away thinking that there was no there there when it came to honor. Yes, of course, honor, is an important and legitimate emotion and status that manifests itself in various ways. But all the while I read The Honor Code, I could not but help think that this book was really about respect. But The Respect Code just does not have the same ring to it.
At one point, the author writes in a section that annoyingly I can not now locate, and so I will have to paraphrase, ‘So, honor, what’s it all about? Why all the fuss?’
My disliking this book should not suggest that I have anything against the author, Kwame Anthony Appiah, a distinguished and accomplished professor of philosophy, who I have not met and not read anything else that he has written.
Appiah relates well the story of four social issues and the place of honor in them. They are duels that gentlemen in power in English and other societies fought to prove something or another. The patriarchal practice of literally confining Chinese women by cruelly binding their feet so that they could not escape. The campaign by the British working class and others against the slave trade. And the ‘honor killing’ in Pakistan today and elsewhere.
Honor most definitely is an ingredient in them all. But was it the yeast that made bread rise? Or the flour that give the yeast the place to grow?
It is just too simplistic to say that honor was the common and active ingredient in them all. Did honor really do all the heavy lifting? Methinks not.
So what did?
Well, it has to be a combination of forces and, depending upon which one of the four examples under consideration, it has to be a different mix of such things as class struggle, women challenging patriarchy, the power of the ruling class and their control of the less powerful, the stupidity, selfishness and arrogance of men, and the tenacity and stubbornness of some people who ‘No!’ These are all aspects discussed in the book. Nonetheless, to say that honor was the common, active and primary agent of change in each one seemed naive, apolitical, inadequate, and quite simply wrong.
And, so, what of my friend who made the book’s recommendation?
His opinions I will continue to respect. I still consider it an honor to know him. But as for any future reading recommendations, well, let us just say that the code among friends will prevail.
NB: Revised on Saturday, February 20, 2016 at 7am EST.