The Unappreciated Power of Honor

100917_BOOKS_honorCodeTN Paul Berman reviews Kwame Anthony Appiah's The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, in Slate:

Kwame Anthony Appiah is a philosopher at Princeton, and, in his new book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, he cites two large and indisputable examples of this strangest and most majestic of historical phenomena. A handful of Quakers organized the earliest anti-slavery committees in America and Britain late in the 18th century. The likelihood of doing away with slavery seemed pretty small, given that plantation slavery in the western hemisphere was proving to be, for entire industries in America and Britain both, an economic bonanza. The slave laborers were suffering horribly, but a lot of other people, not just the plantation owners, were benefiting.

Even so, in England during the 1820s and '30s, enormous crowds of earnest and indignant citizens took to attending marathon anti-slavery meetings and affixing their signatures to petitions. Parliament bestirred itself. And, as a matter of law, in 1833 slavery was duly abolished almost everywhere in the worldwide British Empire—one of the hugest, speediest, most peaceful and consequential moral revolutions ever to occur.

Something vaguely similar took place in China in the decades around 1900. For 1,000 years, upper-crust Chinese and not-so-upper-crust Chinese had followed the custom of painfully binding the feet of little girls, and even toddlers, such that when the girls became women, their hobbled feet might turn out to be the size of a man's thumb. A small group of reformers launched a campaign against the horrible practice. And although Chinese tradition was more than weighty, and although some people found an erotic appeal in deformed feet (Appiah supplies details on the exotic erotica of “the golden lotus,” or the broken and bound feminine foot), the millennial custom descended into obloquy with amazing speed. And then, poof!, it was gone.

Appiah recounts these episodes with a cheerful verve, but he also applies himself, in his capacity as philosopher, to seeking out the hidden mechanisms of persuasion that, in his estimation, drove the campaigns forward. His search leads him to inquire into still another remarkable reform movement from the early 19th century, whose history, as he interprets it, sheds a useful light on the question of moral revolutions as a whole. This was the campaign in England to suppress the aristocratic custom of dueling with pistols.