December 18, 2010


Appiah, Kwame Anthony, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen (New York: Norton, 2010) ("It's important to understand that while honor is an entitlement to respect--and shame comes when you lose that title--a person of honor cares first of all not about being respected but about being worthy of respect. Someone who just wants to be respected won't care whether he is really living up to the code; he will just want to be thought to be living up to it. He will be managing his reputation, not maintaining his honor. To be honorable you have both to understand the honor code and to be attached to it: these are the conditions that the anthropologist Frank Henderson Stewart takes to define a sense of honor. For the honorable person, honor itself is the thing that matters, not honor's rewards. You feel shame when you have not met the standard of the honor code, and you feel it . . . whether or not anyone else knows you have failed." "Shame is the feeling appropriate to one's own dishonorable behavior. (Because of this connection between honor and shame, one way of speaking of those who are especially dishonorable is to say that they are shameless.) The appropriate response from others if you breach the code is, first, to cease to respect you and, then, actively to treat you with disrespect. The feeling we have for those who have done what is shameful is contempt. . . ." Id. at 16-17. "What is democratic about our current culture, then, is that we now presuppose all normal human beings, not just those who are especially elevated, to be entitled to respect. But granting everyone recognition respect is perfectly consistent with granting greater appraisal respect to some that to others, because these are different forms of respect. From now, I'll reserve the term dignity for one species of honor, namely, the right to recognition respect. So now we can say: Honoring some especially is consistent with recognizing the dignity of everyone else. Such dignity does not require the comparative forms of appraisal that go with more competitive forms of honor. It;s not something you earn and the appropriate response to you dignity is not pride so much as self-respect; after all, if your humanity entitles you to respect, then it entitles you to respect even from yourself! Id. at 130. "[R]ecognition respect of a basic sort is now something we believe everyone is entitled to, in the form of human dignity. But that doesn't mean that wee won't grant different forms of respect to people of particular identities. We grant just particular rights to respect to priest during services, mangers at work, policemen in uniform, judges on the bench, and many other public officials in the conduct of their duties. Often in these cases our respect takes the form of a kind of context-bound deference: in the courtroom, we call the judge 'Your Honor,' and we don't criticize her with the same frankness we might display if she made a legal error in a dinner party conversation." "One of the consequences of the democratization of our culture is that we don't expect people to show deference of this sort to their fellow citizens outside of the contexts of their special roles . . . ." Id. at 190-191. (1) Professor Appiah has provided a thoughtful discourse on the nature, sources, and meanings of honor. The deficiency of The Honor Code, if it is a deficiency, in that it does not say enough about why we ought to show respect (that is, why we should honor) certain individuals and about why we ought not show respect (that is, why we should hold in contempt) certain other individuals. For instance, why we ought to respect the Office of the President of the United States, and by extension the person occupying that office; yet why we perhaps not respect Richard Nixon the man. There is a tension there, a tension which is not adequately resolved by drawing contextual lines. (2) The book contains a very brief discussion, a mere reference really, of professional ethics and esteem. Though it is certainly far beyond the scope of The Honor Code, I could not help but think about the status of honor within my own professions: law and law teaching. Not knowing of any empirical study addressing the question, I cannot support the following proposition with hard evidence. Yet, it does seem to me that both professions are highly populated by individuals who want to be thought as honorable and want to be thought of deserving of respect, but who are not all that interested in being honorable or being worthy of respect. In professional ethics/responsibility courses for lawyers the focus seems to be on what actions will get a lawyer disbarred, or disciplined, or the subject of a malpractice suit. Virtually no time is devoted to what is required of the lawyer to be affirmatively worthy of professional respect. All sorts of pieces are written about 'super lawyers,' meaning the lawyers you should hire to represent you (assuming you can afford to do so). Very little print space is devoted to identifying lawyers who are worthy of our respect by virtue of the way they conduct themselves and the values that exhibit. As to the profession of law teaching . . . . Some things are better left unsaid. (3) In reading The Honor Code I was reminded of something V.S. Naipaul had written. "When men knew in their bones that governments are malign, and that there are no laws or institutions they can trust, the idea of honor becomes vital. Without that idea men who have no voice or representation in the world can become nothing. The poor, especially, need the idea." V. S. Naipaul, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excisions Among the Converted People (New York: Random House, 1998), at 322. "[W]he there was no law, no constitution that men could trust, the code and the idea of honor protected men. But it also worked the other way. Where the code was strong there could be no rule of law." Id. at 328. One might wonder whether a renewed interest in honor codes indicates a sense that the law is failing, that the law does not inspire trust, that the law itself is deemed unworthy of respect? When the law is viewed as so broken as to be worthy of disrespect, people search for an alternatively to law.).

Bok, Sissela, Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science (New Haven & London: Yale U. Press, 2010) ("My second aim was to consider . . . perennial moral issues about how we should lead our lives and how we should treat another. What are the wisest steps to take in the pursuit of happiness? What moral considerations should set limits to such pursuits? What else should matter in human life aside from happiness? How should we weigh our own happiness against that of others in a world where we are aware, as never before, of extremes of misery and opulence? How might we best take into account what we are learning about the effects of our individual and collective choices on the prospects for the well-being of future generation? And how should we respond to individuals and groups advocating intolerant or outright inhumane conceptions of happiness or well0being?" "Bypassing such moral issues makes it easier to give short shrift to assumptions that form the subtext to even the most innocuous-seeming views of happiness. These assumptions concern power--power exerted or defended against, whether in families, communities, or political and religious institutions. Often unspoken, these assumptions are about who has the right to pursue happiness, who does or does not deserve happiness, and whether the happiness of some requires the exclusion or exploitation of others, Today, conflicts over them are playing out on a far larger stage than ever before, reaching billions of individuals across the globe, their fortunes affected by global economics shifts beyond their control, their hopes fanned by mass media promotion of methods for achieving happiness in daily life or for finding the path to eternal bliss." Id. at 4. This is a thought-provoking read. However, in this age of the narcissist, the book will go pretty much unread because it requires one to think about the impact of one's choices on others..).

Coles, Robert, Handling One Another Along: Literature and Social Reflection, edited by Trevor Hall & Vicki Kennedy (New York: Random House, 2010) (From the book jacket: "In this book on shaping a meaningful and ethical life, . . . Robert Coles explores how character, courage, and human and moral understanding can be fostered by reflecting on the lives of others, through great literature and art. . . .").

Harris, Sam, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: The Free Pres, 2010) ("I will argue . . . that questions about values--about meaning, morality, and life's larger purpose--are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc. The most important of these facts are bound to transcend culture--just as facts about physical and mental health do. Cancer in the highlands of New Guinea is still cancer; cholera is still cholera; schizophrenia is still schizophrenia; and so, too, I will argue, compassion is still compassion, and well-being is still well-being. And if there are important cultural differences in how people flourish--if, for instance, there are incompatible but equivalent ways to raise happy, intelligent, and creative children--these difference are also facts that must depend upon the organization of the human brain. In principle, therefore, we can account for the ways in which culture defines us within the content of neuroscience and psychology. The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values." Id. at 1-2.).