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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Intercultural Lexicon
Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The Honor Code

Kwame Anthony Appiah

Appeals to personal honor often seem to belong to the past, conjuring images of gentlemen in wigs dueling at dawn; or worse, of blood-soaked Achaeans storming the walls of Troy. And yet Italian criminal law still recognizes crimes of honor (defamation and insult) whose core seems to be a private harm to the honor of the victim. Indeed, until relatively recently—August 5 1981, to be precise—the Italian criminal code treated the murder of a spouse caught in flagrante delicto as punishable with a lighter sentence of three to seven years’ imprisonment (when the sentence for other murders is a minimum of 21 years), provided the act was committed in a state of anger due to the offense to his honor or that of his family.[1] Until the same time, under Article 544 of the Italian criminal code, the rape of an unmarried woman by an unmarried man was not punishable if the woman consented to marry her rapist; the marriage in question being a matrimonio riparatore, because it restored the “lost” honor of the woman.

Even where honor is not imbedded in law, it remains powerfully present in social life. The shame of cuckolds, men whose spouses have betrayed them with another, is hard to understand as a simple breach of contract, a promise broken. And nowadays, women too, whose husbands betray them, are regarded not just with pity but also with a kind of contempt. And many of us feel shame at the behavior of our countrymen when they tarnish the national honor and pride when they burnish it.

In trying to explain these attitudes, it is natural to speak of reputation. That is relevant, to be sure, but it is far from being the whole point. To see why, let me propose a way of thinking about honor. This is an old topic in Western philosophy, of course: what Aristotle called “τιμή,”[2] was one of the major foci of discussion in his Nicomachean Ethics; honestas, honor’s Latin counterpart, is discussed extensively by Cicero nearly half a millennium later, and again by Augustine, in the fifth century, and St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth; honor is there in Montaigne in the sixteenth century, not least in the essay “Des Récompenses d’Honneur,”[3] and later still it appears regularly in Montesquieu and Hume and Smith and Kant in the European Enlightenment. But by the time we come to the nineteenth century, such major figures as John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick say little of substance about it: the word “honor” occurs only three times in the index to the standard thirty-three volume edition of Mill’s collected works,[4] and Sidgwick’s discussions of “honor” in The Methods of Ethics have largely to do with contrasting the Code of Honor of the upper classes with systems of morality and etiquette, somewhat to honor’s disadvantage.[5] Honor has a long history in philosophy but not a large place in its recent past.

It’s worth observing that there is a related tradition of reflection on something very like honor in the traditions of East Asia: 面 子(miànzi) in Chinese, which is usually translated as “face,” is a concept that connects closely to the issues of respect and self-respect that are central to Western thought about honor.[6] So in East and West there are traditions of honor or something very similar and traditions of philosophical reflection upon it.[7]

Reviewing some of the theory and the practice of honor, I have been led to a philosophical account of honor, one that explains what it is and how it works across space and time.[8] The account begins with an insight that I learned from the anthropologist Frank Henderson Stewart: Honor is fundamentally about rights to respect.[9] To honor a person is to treat her as worthy of respect, as entitled to it. And, if you recognize yourself as honorable, you will have self-respect, paying yourself the respect that is your due. The character of the respect due, how one displays that respect, and what gains and loses you these rights to respect: all these are culturally variable. But the structure of honor — rights to respect assigned by social norms or conventions, an honor code — is, I think, a human universal. That is why we can talk about honor pretty much everywhere.

Sometimes you have honor in virtue of who you are: an emperor, a father, an English gentleman. On other occasions you get it because of something you have done: a heroic act, getting a high score on the exams. Often there is a little bit of both, as with the Confucian 君子 (jūnzi), who is, etymologically, the son of an aristocrat — which is something you are — but is worthy of respect in part because of his wisdom, loyalty and self-control — which are all achievements, things done. And, as I said, honor is something you can lose, if you breach the codes that govern it. Losing honor leads, in those who care about their honor, to the feeling of shame, because shame is the appropriate response to your own dishonorable behavior. The appropriate response from others is, first, to cease to respect you and, then, actively to treat you with disrespect.

Respect and contempt for one person can both be the result of things done by others, because your honor is always your honor as a person of some social identity. You can gain honor for and from your family, your country, your profession; and what that means is that others who share your identity — fellow members of your family, fellow citizens, professional colleagues — can be entitled to respect because of what you have done.

Identity actually matters to honor in two quite distinct ways. First, as I say, you may share in the honor of those whose identity you share. But it’s important to see that identity matters in a second, quite distinct, way because it determines what the codes of honor require of you. Gender identity plays a crucial role, for example, in fixing what many codes of honor demand, what behavior on your part commands (or loses) respect. In eighteenth century England, those codes required men, but not women, of the upper classes to answer challenges to a duel from other gentlemen, but not from ladies; they prohibited dueling among what were called “the lower orders,” and if a gentleman was challenged by a man who was not a gentleman, the right response was not to accept the challenge, but to beat the challenger with a horsewhip. (Why a horsewhip? Well, because the distinction between gentlemen and the lower orders was a legacy of the feudal distinction between knights and esquires, on the one hand, who rode into battle, and the rest, who went on foot. Riding on horseback was symbolic of gentlemanly status and so the horsewhip was too.) The penalty for breaches of this code was the loss of honor: the loss of the entitlement to respect. Codes of honor, in sum, govern people of particular social identities and determine how they should behave, and, more particularly, how they should respond to people both of their own identity and of others.

Now to be respected is to be respected by somebody; and usually, honor does not seek the respect of people in general. What matters is the respect of some particular social group, what you can call an honor world, a group of people who acknowledge the same codes.

But while honor is, indeed, an entitlement to respect, a person of honor cares not (or, at least, not only) about being respected, but about being worthy of respect. For the honorable person, honor itself is the thing that matters, not honor’s rewards. It is something you care about for its own sake. You want respect, but only the respect you are entitled to. Confucius, in Analects 4:14, expressed exactly this basic contrast long ago: “I am not concerned that I am not known, I seek to be worthy to be known.”[10] A final element of the picture, then: an honorable person wants to do what is worthy of respect according to the honor code, and doesn’t conform to the code of honor merely in order to get respect from the honor world (let alone, any other social rewards). When someone is concerned to be worthy of respect, we can say she has a “sense of honor.” Notice that, since what matter is whether you are worthy of respect, this is much more than a mere concern for your reputation.

Suppose we share a social world in which many people have such a sense of honor. It is important to see that even if they are all convinced that they are morally required to do something, their senses of honor gives them further support in actually doing it. Suppose (as is actually quite common) that the codes of an honor world grant a right to respect to those who deal honestly with other people, something that morality, of course, also commends. If a person is tempted to lie or cheat or steal, she will have a variety of reasons for resisting the temptation. The most basic reason is just that to do so would be wrong. If she abstains for this reason, she displays what Immanuel Kant called a good will: she does what is right because it is right. And he thought, as he says in the first sentence of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, that a good will was the only unqualifiedly good thing in the world.[11]

But because she has a sense of honor, she also wants to maintain her right to be respected. So she has a further reason for abstaining, namely, to maintain her honor. She wants to be worthy of respect, whether or not anyone does in fact respect her. Both duty and honor, then, provide her with reasons that have nothing to do with anyone else’s actual responses to her — reasons that are, in that sense, internal. But there are also external reasons for doing what is right, reasons, like fear of punishment imposed by the courts, that will operate only if people find out that she has done something wrong.

As an honorable person, you care not just to be worthy of respect but also about actually being respected. You want to be respected because warranted respect is a human good; and also because, if people cease to respect you, they will treat you less well. So when others know that you have done what is honorable, you will gain external support for your honesty from the positive regard you get from others. A sense of honor prohibits you from seeking respect without deserving it: but it permits (even encourages) you to hope for (indeed, to expect and take pleasure in) the respect that is due from others when you are, in fact, behaving honorably.

These considerations show that honor gives you additional reasons to do what is right. But honor can also give you reasons to do things that are not right: either because they are wrong or because they are morally indifferent.[12] Nobody, I hope, pursues scholarly excellence (which is surely morally indifferent) merely in order to get honorary degrees. But those degrees are one of the rewards of great academic success: as is the respect of colleagues who think your work makes it right to respect you. Similar thoughts apply to the honors gained by success in sports, vocations and other professions. But in honor killings honor encourages people to do what is wrong. So we have to be careful with honor, making sure that what it supports is good and not evil; and recognizing that some of the good things it sustains have nothing much to do with morality.

Honor can be both individual and collective, as I said. And civic honor takes both forms. The individual form is a kind of honor due from citizens of a state to one another. It is governed by social codes associated with the political life of a nation: that is what makes it civic. And it plays a crucial role in moving citizens to do many of the things that are necessary if a society, and particularly a democratic society, is to function.

The core of this individual civic honor is quite simple: we think of people who make special contributions to civic life as worthy of the respect of their fellow citizens. We display that respect by treating them in ways that show our positive regard for them. When I see people from my district at the voting booth, we look at each other with the respect of people who know they are voluntarily doing something important together. Here is another, perhaps equally American, example: quite often, as I pass through an American airport, I will hear someone say to a member of the US armed forces travelling in uniform, “Thank you for your service.” We are grateful, in a country with a volunteer military, for those who offer to serve. This expression of gratitude honors that service; treats it, that is, as making the soldier or sailor or marine or airman worthy of our respect. Such routine moments of recognition are part of the everyday experience of civic honor in a modern democracy, as are the corresponding moments of civic shame. They are part of how individual honor works to shape our political lives.

But collective honor matters greatly for civic life, too. Consider this simple example: many left-wing critics of the American government in the 1950s were subjected to harassment.[13] One of my intellectual heroes, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, was prosecuted (unsuccessfully, in the end) for being an unregistered foreign agent.[14] A source of solace during this difficult time in his life was the support of men and women — some ordinary, some, like Albert Einstein, rather less so — not just in the United States but elsewhere. In his account of the trial, In Battle for Peace, Du Bois quoted letters of greeting from China and Russia, Israel and New Zealand, Germany and French North Africa.[15] This sense that the world was watching had a major impact on the development of US policies on civil rights and racial justice, in part because American racism was so damaging to the country’s reputation in the ideological struggle with the Soviet Union and the communist world.[16] American national honor played a role in ending some of the more deplorable excesses of racism.

Similarly, the campaigns for freedom of expression and association conducted by the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC) in recent years have been supported by the work of a great network of PEN Centers around the world, which were active, among other things, in nominating Liu Xiaobo, one of the ICPC’s former presidents, for the Nobel Peace Prize.[17] Liu’s continued imprisonment damages China’s reputation in the eyes of many around the world who regard her civilization with great respect. While he remains in prison, we can hope that the fact that the world is watching explains why more of his ICPC colleagues, many of whom have been invited to “drink tea” with the authorities, still remain at large.[18] Chinese people—including those in the government—care to be entitled to the respect of humanity. They care about their country’s honor.


[1]“Chiunque cagiona la morte del coniuge, della figlia o della sorella, nell'atto in cui ne scopre la illegittima relazione carnale e nello stato d'ira determinato dall'offesa recata all'onor suo o della famiglia, è punito con la reclusione da tre a sette anni.” Art. 587 of the 1930 Italian Criminal Code, repealed by the Italian Law no. 442 of 5 August 1981.

[2]And the associated term for something like shame: αἶσχος.

[3]Michel de Montaigne Les Essais Livre II, Chapitre 7 http://artflx.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.0:3:6.montaigne. Accessed December 20 2012.

[4]Jean O’Grady and John M. Robson (ed.) Index to Collected Works (Collected Works of John Stuart Mill Vol. 33) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991).

[5]See, e.g., Henry Sidgwick The Methods of Ethics (London: Macmillan and Co., 1901): 30.

[6]Michael Carr “Chinese ‘Face’ in Japanese and English (Part 1)” 人文研究 ((The Review of Liberal Arts) (Otaru: Otaru University of Commerce, August 1992) Vol. 84, 39-77. http://barrel.ih.otaru-uc.ac.jp/handle/10252/1737Accessed December 28, 2012.

[7]David Ho argues for a distinction between honor and face, while pointing out their obvious affinities; David Yau-fai Ho “On the Concept of Face” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 81, No. 4 (Jan., 1976): 877.

[8]The account and some of the evidence for it is to be found in Kwame Anthony Appiah The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010).

[9]Frank Henderson Stewart Honor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994): see esp. chapter 2, and appendix 1.

[10]Confucius The Analects in The Chinese Classics Volume 1 trans. James Legge (London: Trübner and Co, 1861): 33.

[11]Immanuel Kant Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Mary Gregor (ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997): 7.

[12]These are the acts, which the Stoics called ἀδιάφορα (“indifferent things”), that morality neither mandates nor forbids.

[13]Richard M. Fried Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[14]David Levering Lewis W. E. B. Du Bois, 1919-1963: The Fight for Equality and the American Century (New York: Henry Holt, 2001): Chapter 14.

[15]W. E. B. Du Bois In Battle for Peace: The Story of my 83rd Birthday (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007): 131-133.

[16]Mary L. Dudziak Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[17]“Why I nominated Liu Xiaobo,” in Foreign Policy, Friday October 10 2010 http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/10/08/why_i_nominated_liu_xiaobo Accessed December 20 2012.

[18]“‘Drinking tea’ refers to the widespread practice by the Domestic Security Department police and other authorities of inviting citizens who have been engaged in subversive behaviors to “tea,” where they are interrogated about their political activities and warned against further involvement. One who has been compelled to attend these tea sessions is said to have ‘been tea-drinked.’” “Drink Tea” China Digital Times http://chinadigitaltimes.net/space/Drink_tea. Accessed December 30 2012.

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