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

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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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Innovation and Startup Culture Thriving in Ghana

Ghana is seeing a spurt in Innovation & Technology

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A worker using his innovation inside Nelson Boateng's Nelplast Factory
Inside Nelson Boateng's Nelplast Factory in the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, a worker creates bricks from recycled plastic and sand. VOA

ACCRA – Ghana is regarded as a West African hub of invention, with growing numbers of young people looking at local solutions to local problems.  In December, Ghana is hosting two conferences on innovation and technology.

Alhassan Baba Muniru, co-founder of the Recycle Up company, wants to clean up the natural environment in Ghana.

But he also wants to educate, empower and support young people to pursue conservation – and to make money while doing it.

At the December Innovation Africa summit in Accra, he plans to advocate for more support for young inventors, especially those looking to do green business.

“Even while we are in school we are already entrepreneurial so, for me, I can be able to do a formal job but the freedom of being able to bring my own ideas into action and really take charge of doing something practical and something which also makes society better – it’s much more fulfilling,” said Muniru.

Alhassan Baba Muniro talking about Innovation
Alhassan Baba Muniro wants to clean up and create jobs for young people. VOA

Part of Recycle Up’s work includes collecting plastic from schools to sell to people like Nelson Boateng, whose company mixes it with sand to create bricks.

Muniru and Boateng walk through the factory in the outskirts of Accra, where plastic from across the city is shredded, melted, mixed and then molded into bricks to be used for roads, pavements and buildings.

Boateng, who also manufactures plastic bags, said the bricks are his way of helping to clean up the environment and to provide jobs.

But while Ghana is seeing a spurt in innovation, he said the country needs a lot more infrastructure to support environmentally-friendly business.

“For innovations in Ghana, it’s very, very difficult if you don’t really have the heart.  You will lose hope because honestly speaking when I was doing my polybag that is polluting the environment, I was having a lot of money.  I have money, there wasn’t any problem. When I started this, when you go to the bank they don’t know this, they want something that the money will be flowing, not something you people don’t know –  and not something you say you are trying to save the environment, nobody will mind you on that,” he said.

Supporting local technology startups is expected to be discussed at another December conference in Accra – the second annual Ghana Tech Summit.

ALSO READ: India: Innovation Holds the Key to Job Crisis.

Ghanaian inventor Andrew Quao is working to ease the burden on hospitals with technology that allows pharmacies to diagnosis and monitor chronic and tropical diseases.

Andrew Quao, Co-founder of 'Red Birds' helps in innovation and startup.
Andrew Quao, Co-founder of healthcare tech startup ‘Red Birds’ works with pharmacies across Ghana. VOA

He said African healthcare sectors like Ghana’s are ripe for innovative solutions.

“I think it is growing in the right direction, I think the climate is good, you have got a good mix of local talent and experience and expats coming in and seeing Ghana as a good point to start, so that also works.  We have the ‘brain gain.’ The diasporans – people like myself who schooled in the U.S. – coming back and trying to bring innovations in country,” said Quao.

While both public and private sectors are backing innovation, entrepreneurs hope to see a swell of support from the Innovation Africa and Ghana Tech summits. (VOA)