Saturday, May 5, 2012

Book Review: The Honor Code

The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen is a book by Kwame Anthony Appiah that I read not-so-very-recently, and were it not for a certain laziness ought to have written about immediately.  The author goes over several moral revolutions that have happened in history, times where behaviors that were previously been socially acceptable or even de rigueur suddenly became socially unacceptable.  The specific examples in the book were dueling and slavery in the UK, and foot binding in China.

The thing I found most interesting was that convincing people that certain behaviors was wrong was apparently not very effective at getting people to stop them.  Even when everybody agreed that dueling was in some sense wrong and not something that civilized people ought to engage in, and even after it had become illegal, people were still afraid of other's considering them cowards if they didn't duel.  Likewise with foot-binding, people might have thought that putting young girls through all that pain was wrong, but they still worried about marrying off daughters with unbound feet and so still continued the status quo anyways.

It wasn't arguments that these were wrong that eventually brought change, but rather arguments that they were shameful.  Dueling ended when people of the lower classes started to duel among themselves, and duelists started to be considered buffoons.  Footbinding ended when Chinese people because concious of the fact that it made them appear to be barbaric in the eyes of the westerners who had been defeating them in various wars.  Slavery ended in Britain when white laborers started to think that it served to make all labor less dignified.

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