Saturday 26 February 2011

More than the enlightened versus the unenlightened

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, Kwame Anthony Appiah, (WW Norton 2010)

When last we heard from Kwame Anthony Appiah he was proposing a cosmopolitan approach to life, encouraging conversations between strangers as a way of overcoming sectional interests and exclusive identities, thereby uniting the world. I reviewed his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers for Culture Wars 2008, and admired its attempts to try to reach a sort of universalism from the bottom up, beginning with the concerns of real individuals and attempting to generalise from there. But I was also dismayed by Appiah’s distrust of universals from the outset, as if the values that might apply to all people will always be somewhat suspect. So in avoiding both the sectional hell and the universal heaven Appiah seemed destined to occupy a moral purgatory.

Well, he’s still there, and seems to be quite happy theorising about it. In his latest work The Honor Code Appiah attempts to map out his purgatory in terms of an old-fashioned value that lingers on. He describes how certain moral revolutions – in the areas of duelling, footbinding, slavery and honour killing in contemporary Pakistan – seem to have been driven not by rational argument over what is good, but by an evolving honour code. Obeying the code not only determines your behaviour; it also means you obtain recognition and respect from ‘your people’ (ie. others who follow the same code), and are thus able to take part in a wider community.

There is definitely something in this. We none of us confront society purely as individuals, and society is not simply the sum total of individual behaviours. There are other forces at work: human forces certainly, but human forces that seem reluctant to yield in response to what we do as individuals. When we watch television programmes such as HBO’s Band of Brothers (a term coined, Appiah reminds us, by Shakespeare during a poignantly honourable scene in Henry V) we feel that such forces might even allow disparate men to become brothers (albeit at the expense of the soldiers amassed at the opposing end of the battlefield). So Appiah is right to try to understand the codes that dictate our daily behaviour, and which are ‘already in … every normal human being, however enlightened and advanced’ (pxix).

People change their behaviour, Appiah argues, not because they have heard a new argument against it, but because they suddenly see that it is the other side that is the more honourable, and that their own honour code appears flimsy by comparison. For instance, the ancient Chinese practice of foot-binding, wherein the noble female foot was bound in bandages from an early age to ‘sculpt’ it into the shape of the lotus flower, making it practically useless, lasted more or less a thousand years until around 1900. It ended quite suddenly, Appiah says, not because of a new argument against it (there had been several unsuccessful anti-footbinding campaigns led by Christian missionaries during the 19th century), but because the sense of honour amongst families which bound the feet of their daughters was replaced by a new sense of honour spreading through China. It seems that family pride was suddenly being replaced with a growing national pride.

Appiah is perhaps right to link the ending of footbinding with the establishment of China as a (small) player in the international community, but in this example he does not say why it was that, when China came face-to-face with the rest of the world in the late 19th century, it was China that capitulated on the foot-binding issue and not the other way round. After all, a number of other Chinese cultural practices (Buddhism, for example) survived the confrontation. Appiah’s assumption here – and this is his book’s central argument – is that as a sectional honour code is replaced by a more universal honour code, it naturally becomes more moral. Once the Chinese nobility began to worry about China’s standing in the world, as opposed to their own standing within Chinese society, and they began to ‘think of outsiders as people whose respect mattered’ (p97), the scales fell from their eyes and they could see how immoral they had been.

Reading The Honor Code I felt the tug of opposing emotions. As with his cosmopolitanism argument Appiah clearly is striving for something bigger than the individual or the narrow culture by which the individual often defines him or herself. And certainly it is a progressive development when one suddenly sees beyond appearances, sees what were strangers now as brothers. But at the same time I felt that Appiah loses something in the movement from local to (if not universal then) less local. This is not so much my pining for the old days and their ‘authentic’ practices – I think we are all better off without duelling, slavery and footbinding – but in the latter two examples, and certainly in the case of honour killing in Pakistan, the drive to overcome the immoral local practice (at least the drive that Appiah celebrates) seems to come from outside, not from within. And this creates an impression in the reader that the world’s moral problems can only be effectively resolved by enlightened outsiders and not by those people who are stuck in the middle of them.

So, for example, we get remarks like ‘Outsiders ...who opposed footbinding played a crucial role here [in dealing with the problem of foot-binding]. In drawing attention to the contrast between China and the advancing industrializing world … they were able to persuade some among the [Chinese] literati that they needed to promote reform’ (p99). And later on, with regard to the extant practice that still results in the deaths of around 5,000 Muslim women each year (as estimated by the UN), he states ‘the aim of anti-honor-killing activism should be to encourage more of the people of Pakistan to realize that their country is disgraced by allowing these wrongs’ (p172). This is hardly taking the fight to the enemy, attempting to win them over. In fact, this kind of argument is one step short of asking the United Nations to intervene in the problem, which could well be more harmful than honour-killing to the people of Pakistan. But more importantly from a philosophical viewpoint, Appiah’s argument does nothing to locate, explore and address the inescapeable reality of the moral dilemma.

In life, the moral dilemma comes about when we feel stuck either way. The situation has, to paraphrase Hegel, the makings of a tragedy: it is a clash not of right against wrong, but of right against right. The solution to the dilemma must therefore attend to both the conflicting values and somehow reconcile them, although not necessarily on equal terms. In the case of honour-killing in Pakistan we can see a confrontation between traditional family values and modern women’s rights. However, rather than set to work on understanding the dilemma, explaining why ‘traditional’ values persist despite their time seemingly having passed, Appiah cuts the Gordian knot by declaring traditional values to be automatically superceded by modern ones. The solution therefore rests in calling for outsiders (or insiders who, in an act of honourable cosmopolitanism, ally themselves with outsiders) to intervene.

Honour killings are a particularly emotional crime, centring on daughters who are somehow deemed to have disgraced (no matter how unwillingly) their families. Without denying the legal aspect to the issue (it is murderous act, and must be tried as such in the courts), there is also a more fundamental moral reality which explains the crime’s persistence. There must be a moment of genuine anguish in the mind of the traditional Pakistani mother, I would wager, when she realises that the family values which led her to always protect her daughter now mean she must sacrifice that same daughter if those values are to retain any meaning for the rest of her family. But Appiah shows no interest in understanding the seemingly immoral. He gives the example of one mother who remained ‘cool and collected’ during the murder of her daughter (p148), as if this demonstrates such mothers to be beyond the pale. But if this is the whole truth, then what we have here is a straightforward case of right against wrong, and there is no dilemma the resolution of which may lead to a great moral leap forwards.

Perhaps if Appiah had made a more concrete study of the Pakistani situation he might have found other forces than honour at work. Are there not economic and political forces, possibly stemming from outside influence, which have weakened the country’s traditional culture and militated against the formulation of formal political and social groupings, thereby strengthening the ties that exist within extended families, and exaggerating the importance of inter-familial relations? Could this not be the source of the misguided morality and sense of honour Appiah is so concerned about? If so, then the situation and potential solution would be very different.

Avoiding such an explanation is The Honor Code‘s great theoretical weakness, and creates in Appiah’s view a social division between the enlightened and unenlightened, which he hopes will be overcome by a lot of honourable international cajoling. But if we are to understand truly how moral revolutions happen, and go beyond the confines of even our own band of brothers, we need a firmer grasp of our two-sided dilemmas than this.

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