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Kwame Appiah: Honour ended slavery but produced killings in its name

Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah says, honour differs from morality in not being essentially good or bad but can create a sense of shame which lead to positive outcomes like an end to slavery and colonialism, but also to negative phenomenon such as “honour” killings.

Appiah, a professor of law and philosophy at the New York University, said in an interview, “Honour is different from morality. Morality is what holds you responsible and honour is something other people have a stake in. It has its bad side which we cannot get rid of, but it can be a force, or a tool, for good too,”.

“Concern over national honour can lead to changing a country or society for the better,” said the author of “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen” which deals majorly with three changes — the ends of foot-binding in China, the slavery trade in the Western world and duelling in England — that came through moral shifts.

Appiah, who was here for the Jaipur Literature Festival, argues that it was a “sense of shame” at sullying of national honour that brought an end to these practices like foot-binding, or extremely tight binding of young girls’ feet to prevent further growth as a sign of “beauty” and “high status”, when the Chinese found what other people thought about it.

“Then it was the British who ran the slave trade but attitudes towards it were changing. During the American Revolution, when the colonists said they were asking for freedom, the British retorted by asking them about the slaves they had and the question of their freedom,” he said, noting both sides sought to “shame each other”.

Appiah, who is a grandson of leading British statesman Sir Stafford Cripps of the Labour Party, contends it was a “sense of honour” that made Britain stop the slave trade. “The honour of the British was at stake after people like (abolitionist William) Wilberforce called it a national shame and disgrace, they stopped the slave trade (in the early 1800s) and then abolished slavery altogether (in the 1830s).”

It took a much longer time for America to realise that slavery and racial discrimination were wrong, he said. “Slave-owners had sought to cover up by claiming how happy their slaves were.”

Appiah also says it was this “shame” that helped end colonialism, which entailed a “psychology of dishonour” for the colonial subject.

“It was a psychology of dishonour for the inhabitants of the colonised countries who lost respect in their own countries. There was a social order of respect which changed to another order in which they were looked with contempt,” he said.

In the case of British India, this was true for Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru despite all their achievements, and in the case of his Ghana, it was the question of primitive rights.

Appiah, whose focus is on moral revolutions, notes that revolutions, in the classic sense require a big change in a small time, related to political revolutions like the French Revolution but moral and lifestyle revolutions were different, especially in their time frames.

The difference is that lifestyle revolutions runs with new ideas or a big leap in morality while moral ones, like gender equality and the abolition of slavery, have arguments already in place, and the problem is not about changing minds but changing habits, he said.

On the flip side, Appiah says that honour can be against morality and can lead to acts like “honour killings” despite the perpetrators knowing their actions are morally wrong.

“Honour killings”, a feature of patriarchal societies, are resorted to by those who are morally weak and the motivation for it is the shame, which stems from honour, rather than guilt, which is moral, he said.

Appiah however, said that despite being seen most in the Middle East and South Asia, it was important not to dismiss it as a “Muslim, or Arab thing”. He added that it was also seen in modern Europe, including a “weird” case in Italy in the 1960s though it had not involved killing.

He said laws were needed against this phenomenon, but the real deterrent was only moral change

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