Honor Killers know their action is shameful

Kwame Anthony Appiah

Jaipur: The British-born Ghanaian philosopher, cultural, political and moral theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah asserted that phenomenon like “honor killings” are resorted by those who are morally weak and the motivation for it is shame rather than guilt.

Honor and morality can oppose each other, and the former can lead people into committing despicable acts like “honor killings” despite them knowing their actions are morally wrong and should not be done, he says.

“Honor and morality are different systems that can conflict in cases like of honor killings… Honor draws people to do something they know is morally wrong and they ought not to do but this does not stop them,” he said at a session titled “The Honor Code” at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Friday evening.

“Guilt is moral and shame stems from honor,” he said, adding that the sense of shame can be given to someone, not guilt.

Appiah, who holds a position at the New York University’s philosophy department and school of law and has authored “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen” which deals majorly with three changes — the end of the practice of foot-binding in China, the slavery trade and duelling in England — that came through moral shifts, says he had studied the issue and came to conclusion that honor was a matter of a system, based on local norms of how respect is assigned, and the right of respect is addressed through identity, which can be of family, caste, nation, religion or gender.

“Identity is what you are supposed to be doing.. You are supposed to confirm to the norms,” he said, adding morality is what holds you responsible and honor is something other people have a stake in.

On his typology of revolutions, Appiah contended that revolutions, in the classic sense entailing a big change in a small time, related to political revolutions of which the French Revolution is the ‘obvious’ stereotype but moral and lifestyle revolutions were different, insofar they had different time frames, and entail at least 20 to 25 years, or a generational gap, example attitude in the US for gay marriage.

The difference is that lifestyle revolutions encompass new ideas, a big change in morality and have significance in daily life, while the moral kind, such as on equality for women and abolition of slavery, have arguments already in place, so the issue is not about changing of minds but the big change comes when habits change, he said.

Leading Indian cultural and literary theorist Homi K Bhabha, who had initiated the discussion, contended that honour, especially in the case of “honor” killings, was linked to authority, and a sense of humiliation was important for both shame and honor, the latter being an ambivalent response to the issue of shame. He also contended that sex was a problematic area in this connection.

Appiah said it was a question of privacy that linked to sex. “Everyone knows what the others are doing. What is constrained by shame is visibility,” he said, stressing shame is connected to visibility and there is loss of respect through exposure, and thus shame.

Holding of laws were needed against issues like “honor killings” and racial discrimination, he however stressed that the law and the state were important factors here but not the determinants and a moral change was imperative.(Vikas Datta,IANS)

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