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The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen

3.42  ·  Rating details ·  670 ratings  ·  84 reviews
Long neglected as an engine of reform, honor strikingly emerges at the center of our modern world in Kwame Anthony Appiah's The Honor Code. Over the last few centuries, new democratic movements have led to the emancipation of women, slaves, and the oppressed. But what drove these modern changes, Appiah argues, was not imposing legislation from above, but harnessing the anc ...more
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published September 13th 2010 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published August 20th 2010)
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Paul Bryant
Feb 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
I had been waiting for a book on this exact subject to come my way. Short (204 pages) but packed, pungent and profound, this was just what I wanted.

The question is this – we know that great improvements in human behavior have been made over the centuries, just as we know great crimes and follies continue to be committed. How were the moral changes made? Why did some people decide to abandon the evil customs of centuries and become better human beings? Why would they do that? Because it’s always
Dec 19, 2010 rated it it was amazing
How do moral revolutions happen? Dueling, foot-binding, slavery and “honor” killings were once considered honorable practices but today most people find them repellent. In THE HONOR CODE Appiah analyzes these four examples to illustrate how traditional beliefs about honor came to be in sharp contrast with evolving views of morality. In each case, arguments against the practices were well known long before they were given up, but knowledge alone wasn't enough. “Honor” killing has not been complet ...more
Kim Stallwood
Feb 01, 2016 rated it it was ok
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
Feb 20, 2015 rated it liked it
An interesting read. Appiah looks as moral revolutions in two cultures that resulted in societies abandoning practices that had been closely associated with honor: dueling, the slave trade (as in, slaves or peasants were required to do the manual labor that an honorable man would not do), and foot binding. He then asks if lessons learned from these transitions can be applied to current social problems associated with ‘honor’, such as honor killings in Pashtun culture.

I don’t think the attempt to
Jun 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
This was a really interesting book. It's the first time I've read a book that discusses a philosophical idea using historical examples to back it up.

The history itself was so intriguing - duelling, foot-binding, slavery and honor killings - that it's reignited in me the excitement to pick up more non fiction history books on a whole range of topics.

The idea discussed, that honor can spark moral revolutions, was an interesting one. It made me think about how important honor is (or at least, how
Elliot Ratzman
Apr 29, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Philosophers, Ethicists, Social Justice workers
There are two things that I love about this book. First, Appiah brings together excellent case studies of “moral revolutions”—the decline of dueling in England, the anti-footbinding campaigns in China, the abolition of the slave trade in England—historical phenomena when attitudes and practices changed for clear reasons through campaigns of shaming and ridicule. Second, I love that a philosopher focuses on historical examples of past changes in order to speculate about how future changes could o ...more
Jan 18, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Of the many paradoxes that bedevil human nature, one of the most intriguing is our tendency to seek out freedom while simultaneously longing for submission. American philosopher Josiah Royce understood this well:

"We profoundly want both to rule and to be ruled. We must be each of us at the centre of his own active world, and yet each of us longs to be in harmony with the very outermost heavens that encompass, with the lofty orderliness of their movements, all our restless doings. The stars fasci
Oct 25, 2010 rated it did not like it
This book was not good. While the title might indicate that the book would discuss HOW MORAL REVOLUTIONS HAPPEN, I wouldn't consider this topic to have been broached. Instead, the author gives his perspective of a few instances of social change (the end of dueling, the end of footbinding) that seem disconnected. The lack of a main thesis or really even a full exploration of the topic was disappointing. On top of all of that, the book was either poorly written... or poorly edited... or both - whi ...more
Margaret Sankey
Jul 23, 2011 rated it liked it
Using three abbreviated case studies, Appiah argues that societies do not abandon English dueling, Chinese footbinding or Atlantic slavery because they realize it is a moral evil in and of itself, but because they are horrified that people they disrespect are now participating in the practice, or people whose respect they want ridicule it. Depressing, but ultimately practical view, although he conveniently ignores the really ugly period in which the society perpetrates the practice in particular ...more
Mar 14, 2015 rated it it was ok
I am sorely disappointed on this book. Its style is confusing, the author delves way too much into (in my opinion) irrelevant details on the English nobility and other topics. The author could have conveyed the main point of the book in 50 pages or less. At end, his idea on "Moral Revolutions" is nothing more than peer pressure, shame, and changing paradigms. A bit simplistic, I think.

Anyway, I doubt I will be reading anything on this author again.
Mar 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
What it is about: Appiah is an excellent philosopher. This work, in addition to examining honor as a philosophical concept, also examines a great deal of history about three historical instances: English duel, Chinese footbinding, and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. He argues that various changes in honor codes helped bring about those moral revolutions where the moral arguments themselves were unable to do so. He then tries to apply the insights to contemporary honor killing in parts of Pakista ...more
A philosophical examination of the concept of honor and its role in social change. The examples chosen are widely spaced in time and locations: duelling amongst the British aristocracy, foot-binding in Manchu-ruled China, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and honor killing in Pakistan. Appiah's notion is that a shift in what is considered honorable behavior can start what he calls a "moral revolution" when a practice that was once considered necessary to uphold honor is transformed in public perce ...more
Erin Siu
I just completed an assignment for class upon reading and finishing the book The Honor Code by Kwame Anthony Appiah. The Honor Code discusses the definition of honor and how moral revolutions work in the past and present and foreshadows moral revolutions to come in the future. It was an interesting read...a bit repetitive at some parts, but generally eye-opening to many of the issues still happening around the world, such as honor killings. Here is my assignment, relating to the questions of hon ...more
Jan 23, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2011
This thought-provoking book looks at how the concept of honor inspires people to act, sometimes in ways we find laudable, and other times in ways we abhor. Specifically, the author looks at episodes in history where honor was integral to making radical changes in society in a short period of time, and asks whether we can apply lessons from those moments to contemporary problems like honor killing in Pakistan.

His three historical examples are the decline of dueling in nineteenth-century England,
Vincent Li
Oct 01, 2014 rated it really liked it
Morality is not enough, honor is important in our understanding of ethics and social change. The brilliance of Appiah is his readability, the simplicity of his ideas, and the thought he provokes. I would recommend this book for anyone interested in learning about the importance of honor in society. In this book, I feel like Appiah takes ethics back from the realm of philosophers back into the everyman's hands. History buffs can learn a thing or two from this book as well. My only complaint is th ...more
Apr 07, 2017 rated it liked it
Overall, this book was okay but there wasn't really any idea that was completely out of this world to me. Also, the evidence that he used to supply his arguments was largely anecdotal so I even disagreed with some of the arguments he was making. The book was written in sections, the first being an introduction to honor codes in general, followed by how dueling and its decline were related to honor, then footbinding and its decline, then the end of Atlantic slavery, the wars on women that continu ...more
Vadim Polikov
Dec 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Short book by a philosophy professor at Princeton looking into the concept of honor through the lens of 3 historical and one modern episode. The three historical episodes are dueling in aristocratic England (and its subsequent disappearance), foot binding in premodern China (and its disappearance) and the slave trade (and its disappearance). In each historical case he traces how these practices were part of what made up honor, but as the conception of honor changed, the practices were discarded ...more
I was between 2 and 3 stars for this one but opted for 3 because though i did not love it, it made me think. The book suffers from mediocre writing and a bad presentation of its concept. The first three chapters presenting 3 moral revolutions that have already taken place, the end of the custom of duelling among gentlemen, the end of footbinding for the women In China and the abolition of slavery are full of useless information and do not presents the circumstances and the argument clearly enoug ...more
Miranda Starmz
Jun 20, 2019 rated it liked it
3.5 stars out of 5

An interesting argument on the importance of honor in catalysing moral change - since, as Appiah rightly notes, the belief that something is immoral is not necessarily sufficient in changing behaviour. This is reflected even now with (arguably) amoral issues such as pro-environmental behaviour, wherein conservatives are more likely to change their behaviour if presented with arguments that suggest it is honourable to them and their nation if they became more pro-environmental.

Daniel B-G
Feb 28, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: philosophy
An interesting book that looks at the way in which profound social changes happen in societies. It's refreshing to look at morality from once using a practical lens rather than an idealised conceptual model, i.e. how does morality work in the real world, and not an attempt to create a rational model. Ultimately I found the book didn't quite go into enough detail for my liking, however it has made me far more interested in obtaining the author's other book ethics of identity.
Gabriella Mastrelli
Feb 28, 2020 rated it liked it
Appiah has selected some fascinating case studies from around the world and he writes about them in a very informative way and links everything very smoothly and I really enjoyed reading such parts in the book. However, when he writes on more “abstract” matters, these parts tend to be far too lengthy and start to become very dull. It would have made for a much better read had he focused more on the case studies and less on abstract matters.
Oct 11, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
This book covers a good topic - it really gets you to think about all the different forms there are of "honor" and how it has influenced a lot of changes in history. Unfortunately, the writing is also pretty dry - pretty hard to slog through, despite the great points that it makes.
May 17, 2017 rated it liked it
Enjoyable, agreeable, enlightening. Changes how I think about how we make decisions.

Uneven, at times belabored. Would have been more persuasive if trimmed down.

Marinda Gerber
Jun 26, 2017 rated it liked it
Did not like this book. It felt more like an academic research paper.
Brian M.  Ross
Aug 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Jan 24, 2016 rated it it was ok

So I wanted to read more nonfiction this year, and this was… fine. Nothing spectacular, and I think that it worked best when it was telling the narrative and not arguing about honor (which, like, I get was actually the whole point of the book, but, for me, ended up being repetitious and kind of boring.) Personally, the amount that I enjoyed the book kind of vacillated. Some chapters were significantly more interesting than others, for me. The writing was fine, some parts were super boring, s
Aug 03, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
What do honor killing, dueling, chastity, foot-binding & slavery all have in common?

Needless to say, I was less than thrilled about reading this book. I received quite an unpleasant surprise, when The Honor Code , arrived in the mail (with a letter explaining that it was a required summer reading book). Having charged into The Honor Code with a wholly negative outlook, I found the first few pages taxing, and in fact used them as fuel for sleep. I found the book surprisingly elementary an
Oct 26, 2013 rated it liked it
Brief Summary: Throughout history honor has remained a strong incentive for human action, yet it is rarely ever researched how this honor has affected change in history. Exploring honor through moral revolutions, Appiah defines what honor really means to us as members of the human world.

Tsundoku Reviews

The Tsundoku Scale: Middle of the Pile, 5 out of 10.

The Good: The philosophy was a strong, clear, and welcome segment in this book. It’s not on par with ‘if a tree falls and no one is around, doe
Jan 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
I read this book on the strong recommendation of someone who is working very hard to create a moral revolution and a new code of honor; the message was compelling enough to seek out this book and see for myself the philosophical underpinnings of this movement.

Appiah writes of three historical examples where something was done a certain way, questioned, and eventually overturned as immoral. The custom of dueling collapsed under public scrutiny, Chinese female footbinding became looked on as grote
Nov 12, 2013 rated it it was ok
I enjoyed reading this elegantly written series of connected essays on the theme of honor but don't feel I learnt a great deal from it. His task is to account for the sudden disappearance of extremely enduring customs (the duel in England, foot-binding in China, the salve trade and, hopefully in the near future, in Muslim countries, the killing of women perceived as defiled by sexual acts often imposed on them rather than freely perpetrated). Why, when there had long been a consensus that these ...more
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Kwame Anthony Appiah, the president of the PEN American Center, is the author of The Ethics of Identity, Thinking It Through: An Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy, The Honor Code and the prize-winning Cosmopolitanism. Raised in Ghana and educated in England, he has taught philosophy on three continents and is a former professor at Princeton University and currently has a position at NYU.


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“It's important to understand that while honor is an entitlement to respect--and shame comes when you lose that title--a person of honor cares first of all not about being respected but about being worthy of respect.” 6 likes
“Morality, on the other hand, as Immanuel Kant insisted, is ultimately practical: though it matters morally what we think and feel, morality is, at its heart, about what we do.” 3 likes
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