Book review: The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen by Kwame Anthony Appiah.
This book argues that moral changes such as the abolition of dueling, slavery, and foot-binding are not the result of new understanding of why they are undesirable. They result from changes in how they affect the honor (or status) of the groups that have the power to create the change.
Dueling was mostly associated with a hereditary class of gentlemen, and feeling a responsibility to duel was a symbol of that status. When the nature of the upper class changed to include a much less well defined class that included successful businessmen, and society became more egalitarian, the distinction associated with demonstrating that one was a member of the hereditary elite lost enough value that the costs of dueling outweighed the prestige.
Slave-owners increasingly portrayed the labor that slaves preformed in a way that also implied the work of British manual laborers deserved low status, and rising resentment and political power of that labor class created a movement to abolish slavery.
The inability of Chinese elites to ignore the opinions of elites in other nations whose military and technological might made it hard for China to dismiss them as inferior altered the class of people whom the Chinese elites wanted respect from.
These are plausible stories, backed by a modest amount of evidence. I don’t know of any strong explanations that compete with this. But I don’t get the impression that the author tried as hard as I would like to find evidence for competing explanations. For instance, he presents some partial evidence to the effect that Britain abolished slavery at a time when slavery was increasingly profitable. But I didn’t see any consideration of the costs of keeping slaves from running away, which I expect were increasing due to improved long-distance transportation such as railroads. He lists references which might constitute authoritative support for his position, but it looks like it would be time-consuming to verify that.
Whether this book can help spark new moral revolutions is unclear, but it should make our efforts to do so more cost-effective, if only by reducing the effort put into ineffective approaches.