Friday, November 11, 2011

Our November Author: Kwame Anthony Appiah

This month we are reading The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen by Kwame Anthony Appiah.  Appiah has his own website that provides a lengthy biography, copious linkage to his print and audio interviews and in the "updates" section some friendly blog posts. You'll even find a friendly plug for Amnesty's Global Ethics Book Series.

Here's a brief personal introduction:

A few recommendations from interviews I sampled: Radio Open Source (great discussion about honor and the Iraq war), Appiah in conversation with Jack Miles in LAPL's ALOUD series, at the Aspen Institute (disappointed in his answer on the death penalty but otherwise interesting observations on our political polarization) or for a free-ranging discussion less tethered to the book, try APM's On Being. If you haven't read the book, these interviews should give you enough background to participate in the discussion, and if you have, the Q&As are good for seeing the variety of social problems one might want to apply these insights to. Check out these Bloomberg ("Princeton's Appiah sees role of honor in finance, gay-bashing") and WaPo ("What will future generations condemn us for?") articles for more potential moral revolutions in progress or in our future.

Finally, in this interview at the Browser he recommends five books related to The Honor Code, I was fascinated by this passage from the interview,
It turns out that one of the biggest things that explain the different murder rates in different parts of the American South is whether you’re in a region that was significantly settled by Scots-Irish. If you are from a region that was significantly settled by Scots-Irish who brought with them the kind of honour code that comes from a rural society that kept cattle, in those regions the rate of honour-related reasons (you flirted with my wife and such) are much higher than in other parts of the United States. 
Is that now? 
These data would be from the 60s, 70s, 80s. 
That’s bizarre. 
In fact, attitudes to honour in the South are very different from attitudes to honour in the North. Someone did a nice survey recently where they sent imaginary CVs applying for jobs, and in these CVs there were people who been in prison. If the CV showed that the reason they were in prison was that they had reacted violently to a threat to their honour, then in the South they could get a job but in the North they couldn’t. The point is that there is plenty of evidence of the pervasiveness of these issues of honour today, including in such things as the murder rates and the rates of assault. You have to face up to that and look for the possibilities for reform – unless you think you can get rid of it, and I don’t think you can. So, as I say, it can be and has been reformed and been moralised. It has changed from motivating people to do what’s bad to motivating them to do what’s good. Hard as it is to imagine when you’re stuck in the middle, we have historical evidence to show that it can be changed.
Hmmm... going back to his weak answer to an audience question about honor and the death penalty in the Aspen interview, let me see if I can help Appiah out. If the states of the former Confederacy accounted for approximately 90 percent of total executions  in the two decades following reinstatement of the death penalty in the late 70s, could attitudes about honor be a factor in some way? Could it explain the disconnect between the audience reaction to Rick Perry's execution record at the recent Republican debate, and that damned Yankee moderator Brian William's surprise at the cheers? Discuss...

What other disconnects between honor and morality occurred to you as you read, or what moral revolutions do you want to see happen?
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