Citizenship Within and Across Nations

Nov 12, 2013

TV Show


Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah explores the role of civic honor, and its negative counterpart, shame, in shaping the political behavior of individuals and of nations, and in particular, in shaping the moral dimensions of political behavior.


JOEL ROSENTHAL: Good evening. I'm Joel Rosenthal, president of the Carnegie Council.

I have the privilege of introducing our guest speaker this evening, Kwame Anthony Appiah. Professor Appiah is one of the most admired voices for ethics and a great friend of the Carnegie Council. So we are especially delighted to welcome him back on the occasion of our third annual Global Ethics Fellows Conference.

For those of you just joining us, our fellows program consists of 36 Global Ethics Fellows and, as of this year, several of their students. The vision for our fellows program is to create and sustain a Global Ethics Network. Many of our fellows have traveled a great distance to be with us this week, leaving behind competing commitments to work and family. Please know how much we appreciate the time, effort, and energy that all of you are putting into this project.

Now, you should know, and I should confess, that "network" is not one of my favorite words. It's one of those fashionable buzzwords that I approach with skepticism. Some of you know me as a realist. "Network" is used so frequently these days that whenever I hear the word, I immediately suspect it might be covering up a poorly formed concept, rather than revealing something original or actually useful. But in this case, in the case of our project, our intention in using the word "network" is purposeful. So if I may, just a few words to explain.

The dictionary definition of "network" gives us three images: first, a structure in which chords, threads, or wires are interwoven at regular intervals; second, a group of interconnected broadcast stations that share a large portion of their programming (you recognize this; that's good); and third, a system of computers linked together (I like that).

So this is actually an accurate composite of our concept. All of you in this room are the creators, contributors, and transmitters of ideas about ethics. You also get together at regular intervals to share a large portion of common programming. So to use the verb, our aim is to network you, to weave, to interconnect, and to link you, to enable you to learn and create together.

The purpose of our network is to engage our global audience in a substantial and proactive way, to enable scholars, teacher, students, and community leaders around the world to not only have access to our work, but to have a genuine voice in it. And you, the fellows and students, are the leaders in that effort.

In this way, our speaker this evening, Professor Appiah, is actually the leader of you leaders. His scholarship and his personal example inspire us.

Among the many lessons we take from Professor Appiah is that ethical inquiry is something that cannot really be done alone, in isolation. It's best done together and in comparative fashion. In order to understand our own values, interests, and identities, we should try to understand the values, interests, and identities of others. Ethical inquiry should avoid singular moral assertions to entertain competing moral claims.

Similarly, identity is best understood rarely as simple and singular; rather, it is more likely to be more complex and plural. In this way, ethical inquiry should be a journey, to find and hear the moral voices of all. It should raise both self-awareness and empathy.

We know Professor Appiah for his distinguished scholarship on the central question that preoccupies us here at the Carnegie Council: How can we live together peacefully while acknowledging our deepest differences? His work on the ethics of identity and cosmopolitanism has had profound effect on how we think about rights and responsibilities, citizenship, and difference. He has also had a great impact on the way we think about how norms change over time—that is, how our perceptions of what is expected and required evolve, according to culture, context, and historical experience. [Editor's note: Check out Appiah's Carnegie Council Thought Leader interview.]

His books—The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen [see Ethics & International Affairs book review]; The Ethics of Identity [See Appiah's Carnegie Council talk]; and Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers—are themselves the core curriculum in ethics in international affairs. So you've all seen Professor Appiah's bio. I'll let his many additional publications and high honors speak for themselves—except for one honor, in particular, that is recent and particularly noteworthy. In 2012 President Obama awarded Professor Appiah the National Humanities Medal in a ceremony at the White House.

I think it is significant that this national award has recognized one of the world's greatest scholars of cosmopolitanism. This shows in a dramatic way that one can be rooted in a particular time, place, and country and yet connect seamlessly to universal human experience. What a wonderful message for our country and for the world embodied in the life and work of this man.

So please join me in giving a warm welcome to our guest this evening, Kwame Anthony Appiah.


KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Thank you very much for those kind words.

I had an English mother, so I was raised not to know what to do when people are too nice about you. [Laughter] So I'll just move on.

My general theme this evening is going to be what I call civic honor. I want to explore the role of honor, and its negative counterpart, shame, in shaping the political behavior of individuals and of nations, and in particular in shaping the moral dimensions of political behavior.

I will begin with some remarks about the role of honor in the civic life of democracy, and then I want to talk a little bit about honor's role in the global ethical conversation across nations—hence, "Citizenship Within and Across Nations."

My account needs to start with something about honor. I begin with an insight that I gleaned from the anthropologist Frank Henderson Stewart, which is that honor is fundamentally about rights to respect. So to honor a person is to treat her as someone worthy of respect, as entitled to be respected. And, if you recognize yourself as honorable, you will have self-respect; you will pay yourself the respect that is your due, just as others should pay you due respect if you are worthy of it.

The character of the respect due, how one gains that respect, how one displays respect, and how you win and lose these rights to respect—all of these are culturally variable. But the substance of honor, the structure, rights to respect assigned by social norms or conventions—by an honor code, if you like—that, I think, is a human universal, which is why we can talk about honor pretty much everywhere. So there is a shared structure. It has different content in different places, but there is a shared structure.

Now, sometimes you have honor in virtue of who you are—a president, a mother. On other occasions, you get it because of something you have done—a heroic act or scoring high on the exams in the old Confucian system. But if you breach the codes that govern it, you can lose your honor, and that will lead, in those who care about their honor, to the feeling of shame, because shame is the response appropriate to your own dishonorable behavior.

An appropriate response from others is, first, to lose respect for you, to cease to respect you, and then actively to treat you with disrespect. There is a fine old English word for that kind of active disrespect: it is contempt. And there is a fine old English verb that nobody uses anymore, which is to contemn.

Respect and contempt for one person can both be the results of things done by others. So you can gain honor for and from your family, your country, your profession. What that means is that others who share your identity—fellow members of your family, fellow citizens, professional colleagues—can be entitled to share in the respect due for what you have done.

Your social identity actually maters to honor in two quite distinct ways. First, as I have just said, you can share in the honor of those whose identity you share. I got interested in this topic because I was interested in identity in ethics. But it is important to see that identity matters in a second quite distinct way, because it determines usually what the codes of honor require of you.

Gender identity plays a crucial role, for example, in fixing what many codes of honor demand. They demand different things of women from what they demand of men. In 18th century England, for example, the codes required men, but not women, of the upper classes to answer challenges to a duel from other gentlemen, but not from ladies, and they prohibited dueling among what were called then "the lower orders." And if a gentleman was challenged by a man who was not a gentleman, the right response was not to accept the challenge but to beat the challenger with a horsewhip. Codes of honor, then, govern people of particular social identities and determine how they should behave, how they should respond to people both of their own identity and of others.

Now, to be respected is to be respected by somebody, and usually what matters for honor is the respect of some particular social group, the members of some particular social group. But I'm going to call it "honor world," a group of people who acknowledge the same codes. Acknowledging the same codes is not the same thing as being subject to the same demands, as the case of dueling shows. Ladies and gentlemen acknowledge the same codes but they make different demands of them.

But while honor is indeed an entitlement to respect, a person of honor cares not—or at least not only—about being respected, but about being worthy of respect. For the honorable person, honor itself is the thing that matters, not the rewards of honor.

Now, as I said, honor can be both individual and collective. The civic honor that I want to talk about in this lecture takes both forms.

The individual form is a kind of honor due from citizens of a state to one another. It's governed by social codes associated with the political life of the nation, and that is what makes it civic. And I'll suggest that it plays a crucial role in moving citizens to do many of the things that are necessary if a society, and particularly a democratic society, is to function well.

I will take up the collective form of civic honor at the end. But if I call it, as it were for a marker now, "national honor," you will already have some idea of what I have in mind.

The core of individual civic honor is quite simple. We think of people who contribute to civic life as worthy of the respect of their fellow citizens. We display that respect by treating them in ways that show our positive regard for them.

When I learn my neighbor is a member of the local volunteer fire service, protecting our community from the threat of conflagrations, I see her in a new and positive light. She knows this, in part, because she knows that we share a code that makes this act honorable.

Similarly, when I see people from my district at the voting booth, we look at each other with the mutual regard of people who know they are voluntarily doing something important together. That at least is true in Pennington, New Jersey.

And here's a third, particularly American, example. Quite often as I pass through an American airport—I noticed today that I had reached 100,000 miles on my United frequent flyer number, so I guess I do that rather often; that's just one of the airlines I use—I will hear someone say to a member of the United States armed forces who is traveling in uniform, "Thank you for your service." We are grateful, in a country with a volunteer military, for those who offer to serve. This expression of gratitude honors that service; treats it, that is, as making the soldier or sailor or airman or marine as someone who is worthy of our civic respect.

Such routine moments of recognition are part of the everyday experience of civic honor in a modern democracy, as are the corresponding moments of civic shame. So civic honor can help provide some of the motivation for the many acts that citizens need to engage in if a society—and I think especially a democracy—is to work. The reason is that many of the acts that are essential to the life of a modern nation—like voting, for example—are, in our philosophers' jargon, supererogatory. They are good things to do, but they are not obligations. So though we certainly want people to do these things, it would be wrong to punish them if they didn't. Punishment is only appropriate for a breach of a duty.

They are also hard to keep track of in the ways that would allow us to incentivize them through the market. We could reward people with dollars for keeping themselves informed about public matters and voting responsibly, but how would we confirm that this is what they were doing? It would require both extensive and expensive surveillance in ways that would be unbearably intrusive. In the United States we have a history of not allowing people to place constraints on voting on the basis of what you know, because it was used to exclude people from the vote in a racially discriminatory manner. And anyway, if the rewards were to be substantial—they'd have to be in order to have any effect—the incentives themselves would cost a great deal.

A code of honor, once established, on the other hand, does the job at almost no cost because people in an honor world automatically regard those who meet its codes with respect and those who breach them with contempt. These responses are psychologically automatic, and so the system is extremely cheap to maintain. It only requires us to respond in ways we are naturally inclined to respond anyway. If we want to incentivize the sorts of behavior that will make a modern society and state function well, we would be wise, therefore, not to rely solely on the law and the market.

The kinds of behavior we want to encourage are widespread, diverse, and pervade all spheres of life. This is especially true in a democracy where, as we say, the people rule, because to take that idea seriously we have to suppose both that a people can act together and, since the people can only act through the agency of individual men and women, that there are many individual acts that together make it true that the people are ruling.

So when America starts or ends a war, accedes to a treaty, gives foreign aid, raises taxes, authorizes corporations, creates patents, defines and punishes crimes, these things are done in the name of the American people. We, the American people, choose by way of elections the occupants of the legislative and executive positions that manage the doing of these things, and that popular election occurs through the acts of individual voters.

But in a democracy people need to be involved in government in many ways way beyond just voting, because we are managing the republic together, and its successful functioning requires many citizens playing many roles. Some will be soldiers, police officers, civil servants, judges, elected officials, employed to do the labor that is required if America is to do anything at all. Others will serve the republic from time to time as unpaid jurors or election officials. But the republic will only function properly if most of the citizens who do these things think about what they are doing in rather specific ways.

Public officials must, for one thing, avoid using—or, ideally, even appearing to use—the powers they are granted by their public role to their private advantage. For another, they must observe norms of non-discrimination. The republic can flourish with less than perfect conformity to these ideals, but certain basic standards—the rules against nepotism and bribe taking, for example—are rightly enforced by the criminal law. And others, such as persistent or egregious racism or sexism in the exercise of your duties, are properly grounds for removal.

But, as I already remarked, one central task that must be performed if the republic is to flourish is voting. Among the major reasons that democracies are better places to live than tyrannies is the fact that we can change our rulers from time to time. That disciplines those who are for the time being exercising authority. An effective lifetime guarantee for incumbents able, once they arrive, to steer the state's resources, and those who will continue to vote for them in return, exposes them to temptations it is hard to resist.

There are other conditions that must be met if there is to be a reasonable accountability. Voting districts need to be designed so that there is a reasonable chance that incumbents will be removed if enough voters are dissatisfied, for example. And replacing them has to have a prospect of leading to a change in actual policies. The current system in the United States, with its partisan districting and divided government, operating with parliamentary-style parties, often doesn't meet these two conditions. So we have a problem about whether we have real accountability.

But even if they were both met, the discipline of the threat of removal only works if voters' choices are responsive to what elected officials actually do. That requires, first, that there be reliable information about what they do, about the activities of our political officers; and second, that we pay attention, some of us, to that information.

The first of these conditions means that someone has actually to investigate and report on public affairs, paying attention to what is happening, deciding what is important, making it known. So we need the freedom of expression promised in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and we need a free media that takes its job seriously.

The second condition requires that citizens actually aim to vote in ways that are guided by this information. It's not enough for the information to be there; we have to respond to it. Without a lively world of journalism governed by respect for the truth, the electorate cannot do its job. And even with it, only an electorate that takes notice of that journalism will be able to act together to discipline those who rule.

These are examples of the many different ways in which citizens participate in the activity of the republic. Participation of the ordinary citizen in ways like these is the literal reality that makes it figuratively true that the people govern. The workings of the republic are, in complex ways, the outcome of all these things that individual citizens do.

But that means that those who do not participate in any of these ways are what we call free riders on the contributions of those who do. They are gaining the advantages of a shared practice without contributing their fair share to the burdens, like the rider on the public bus or train who hadn't paid for her ticket. Free riding of this sort is, generally speaking, wrong, and it wrongs particularly those who are contributing their fair share.

Acts of this kind tear the delicate fabric of the political bond, which is in a large-scale modern society always a bond between strangers. When members of the community fail to contribute in this way, they lose the right to the respect of their fellows. And since, as I have said, honor is basically a system of rights through respect, and shame is the proper response to the loss of such a right, it is shameful.

So my argument so far has been that the codes of civic honor are an essential part of the life of a modern society. Internalizing these codes make us responsive to those who respect them, and it means that our civic behavior can be shaped by the respect of others and our own sense of honor, and that we can shape the behavior of our fellow citizens by granting them the civic respect that is their due and contemning those who have fallen below the standards we have set.

I want to turn now from this individual civic honor to national honor, which also engages the capacity for self-respect and shame of individual members of the nation.

The respect that is due to citizens singly in virtue of their nation's honor derives from the fact that the nation to which they belong is worthy of respect, if it is. The natural response to such national honor is pride. National honor travels with national pride as national dishonor travels with civic shame. It is evident in those moments of national triumph—whether in real conflicts, as in battle, or in symbolic ones, as in the Olympics—where victory for my nation means defeat for others.

The struggle for honor among nations is often violently competitive. Consider, for example, the transatlantic polemics that led up to the American Declaration of Independence. In those debates, partisans of Britain made much of the claim that slavery was alien to British law. England was a country suffused with the rhetoric of the freeborn Englishman, and Lord Mansfield's decision in the famous Somersett's case of 1772—whatever it meant as a matter of technical law, and that's disputed—had been taken by friends and enemies of slavery alike to mean that a slave who stepped on British soil was at once a free man.

The fact that the Americans, unlike Britons at home, were slaveholders, supporters of the British side could argue, made them unworthy of liberty. Those, I quote, "who do not scruple to detain others in slavery, have but a very partial and unjust claim to the protection of the laws of liberty," the anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp wrote in 1769—and he was someone who supported American independence.

The dynamic was straightforward, as the historian Christopher Leslie Brown has argued in his wonderful book Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism. British accusations of American hypocrisy about slavery produced American accusations of British hypocrisy about the slave trade. The Americans may have been slaveholders, but the British were slave traders. The unexpressed premise of these arguments was clear enough. As Brown puts it: "How individuals, communities, even nations, conducted themselves with regard to human bondage could provide a legitimate standard for evaluating their politics. And only those who divested themselves from chattel slavery could rightfully campaign for political liberty."

Granville Sharp insisted on the point. Slavery and the slave trade were, with other sins of empire, the source of, he said, "indelible disgrace." They were "a national undertaking, which may occasion the imputation of a national guilt"—I would say "shame." "As one defends one's personal honor against other persons, one defends the national honor against other nations."

Frederick Douglass got to the heart of the matter in a letter to another famous American, Horace Greeley, in 1845, explaining why he felt it important to campaign, as he did in Britain, for American abolition. Douglass wrote: "Slavery exists in the United States because it is reputable, and it is reputable in the United States because it is not disreputable out of the United States, as it ought to be."

So the end of slavery shows how a concern for national honor—and Brown's point is that, as a result of these polemics, the movement for the abolition of the slave trade really took place, and that there is a deep connection between the debates about American independence and the ending of the slave trade, which Britain did in 1807—that is, for the entitlement to respect of one's nation, can play a crucial role in bringing people like the great abolitionist Granville Sharp to feel that they must work to change the practices of their countrymen or their country.

They show too that the possibility of shame in the eyes of people of other nations is central to shaping these feelings. Shame in the face of outsiders—the North American and Caribbean critics of the hollowness of British claims to be the bastion of freedom when it carried on the slave trade—these sentiments played a key part in bringing about British abolition.

But national honor is a sensitive matter and it has to be carefully handled. Here is a different and more depressing story. In 1929, the Church of Scotland, which had a long and successful history of missions and education among the Kikuyu in colonial Kenya, began a campaign to eradicate their practice of FGC, female circumcision or female genital cutting. The results were hardly what they would have hoped for. Large numbers of Kikuyu left the church, founding independent African churches. The leading anti-colonial political organization, the Kikuyu Central Association, under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta, who as you know went on to be the first president of Kenya, mounted a vigorous attack on the church's policies. The result was that female circumcision became a nationalist issue.

When the Mau Mau movement erupted into rebellion, circumcision was one element of the definition of Kikuyu identity for both men and women. So a custom that seems likely otherwise to have disappeared quietly grew further entrenched. It is estimated that about half of Kenyan women today have undergone some form of genital cutting, not necessarily the most extreme forms. Sometimes it is clear, therefore, that efforts to reform practices in other societies from outside can backfire, as it did in this case.

We, after all, are outsiders. Their customs may look strange to us, but then we look pretty strange to them. And especially when the practices involve gender, they involve things that are at the heart of people's family lives, their relationships with their spouses and their children, and often their gods. It shouldn't be surprising, then, if outside criticism produces only hostile defensiveness, all the more so when the customs are part of the normal life of ordinary people.

In the name of our culture, our traditions, our freedom from outside independence, locals respond to foreign criticism by entrenching the very practices the foreigners are trying to get them to abandon. So instead of reform, you get backlash. Attempts to shame can inflame the national honor to hold onto our traditions as easily as they can engage it in the service of reform. So if you care about the foreign victims of these sorts of practices, you will want to proceed carefully and perhaps learn from history.

International humanitarian campaigns do not have to backfire. But it might be useful to look at one of the most notable successes and see what swings the balance.

Consider the late-19th-century campaigns against the millennium-old practice of foot binding in China. The custom began to die out among the elite in the first decade of the 20th century. But in most places, wherever the change began, it happened quickly. The campaign against foot binding didn't work immediately, but when the movement did take hold, that thousand-year-old practice essentially vanished in a single generation. So at some point, to put it simply, the campaigners got something right.

Now, the movement that eventually turned the Chinese around began with Christian missionaries in the 1860s. In 1874, the Reverend. John Macgowan of the London Mission Society, who had been already campaigning for some 15 years against foot binding, and his wife, called a meeting of Christian women in Xiamen. They were then joined in 1894 by the Unbound Foot Association, which the Confucian scholar-administrator Kang Youwei helped found. It eventually had more than 10,000 members.

The next year, Mrs. Archibald Little, a successful writer and the wife of an English businessman, founded a new national organization, what she called The Natural Foot Society. Mrs. Little traveled the country campaigning, organizing meetings, against foot binding. So together a mixture of campaigning outsiders and modernizing insiders built a national movement for change.

Now, the wisest of the campaigners began by insisting on what was true, which was that they were fundamentally respectful of China's people and of what was best in China's civilization. The Christian missionaries set up newspapers and magazines that gave the literati, the Mandarins, access in elegant classical Chinese to ideas and events from the world outside China.

The Reverend Timothy Richard of the Baptist Missionary Society, who edited a paper called The Eastern Times for a period beginning in 1890, was influential through its pages. Richard grasped that the key to China lay with the literati. He dressed as they did and he spent a great deal of time and money writing, translating, and publishing Christian literature—catechisms, sermons, the New Testament. But he prepared himself by studying the texts that formed the core of the training for the national exams, the Confucian classics.

Horrified by famines he witnessed in the 1870s and by the inability of the Manchu regime and its Mandarin agents in the provinces to respond to it, he concluded that what China needed above all was that knowledge of modern science that was, with Christianity, one of Western civilization's greatest fruits. He was convinced, he said, that in lecturing to the literati about these what he called "miracles of science" that he could get them to use modern science "to build railways, to open mines, to avert recurrences of famine, and to save the people from their grinding poverty." So it was this modernizing Christianity, with its vision of science and technology in the service of human needs, that the modernizing literati responded to.

Mrs. Little, perhaps because she was not a missionary, grasped that the association of anti-foot binding with Christianity in an overwhelmingly Confucian society was a handicap. So her campaign was also addressed to the literati as much as anyone, and she didn't mention any Christian arguments. Her main strategy was to republish and circulate anti-foot-binding essays written by distinguished scholar administrators.

Kang Youwei, the founder of that first indigenous anti-foot-binding association, wrote in his autobiography that A Review of the Times, one of these missionary newspapers, introduced him to Western ideas beginning in 1883 and that this is what had led him to start thinking about the question of foot binding. He had, he said, been distressed by the pain his sisters underwent when their feet were bound, and when the time came, he refused to allow the binding of his own daughters' feet, much to the consternation of his family and his in-laws. In 1898, Kang wrote a memorandum to the emperor urging him to bring foot binding to an end.

Now, his memorandum compared Chinese to their disadvantage to foreigners. So we get back now to national honor: "I look at Europeans and Americans," he wrote, "so strong and vigorous because their mothers do not bind feet, and therefore have strong offspring."

But a central theme of his argument had to do with the damage done by foot binding to China's national honor: "All countries have international relations and they compare their political institutions with one another," he began, "so that if one commits the slightest error, the others ridicule and look down upon it." He went on, "There is nothing which makes us objects of ridicule so much as foot binding. I, your humble servant, feel deeply ashamed at heart."

This concern for China's image in the wider world reflected the way in which, over the course of the later 19th century, many of the Chinese literati, like Kang Youwei, had been drawn into conversation with intellectuals from outside Confucian tradition. Kang was ashamed that his society mutilated its daughters. But that wasn't because people like Reverend Richard and Mrs. Little set out to shame him. Far from it. Their arguments were founded, not in contempt, but in respect for China's cultural achievements. Their mutual esteem opened many of the literati to new ideas and attitudes. Kang's memorandum gave, in that fine Jeffersonian phrase, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind. But that was only possible because the foreigners from whom he learned engaged him with a decent respect of their own. He was guided by values he had come to see they shared.

So a second essential reason for the campaign's success was that it created institutions. It didn't content itself just with rhetoric, just with conversation. In particular, it created organizations within China whose members publicly pledged to do two crucial things: not to bind their daughters' feet—that was obvious—but, more interesting, not to allow their sons to marry women whose feet were bound.

In a society in which marriages were arranged, it was a very good reason not to give up foot binding your daughters until there were men ready to marry them. The genius of the strategy of the anti-foot-binding societies was that it responded precisely to this difficulty. It created both unbound unmarried women and men who would marry them at the same time. To reform tradition you had to change the shared commitments of the community. If Chinese families bound their daughters' feet because that was the normal thing to do, they had to change what was normal.

Historical cases like these are complex, of course, but the end of foot binding shows, I think, how a respectful critique from outside, as one conducted by people who display their respect for the people and the civilization they are addressing, can engage the natural concern for national honor in service of moral reform. The work must mostly be led and carried through by insiders. But outsiders, thoughtful, respectful outsiders, who speak as informal equals across the boundaries of society, can advance the cause.

Of course, that you can help change another society does not mean that you must. Many people in other societies think that their behavior is none of our business. It is, after all, not evident that any country has achieved a level of moral perfection that leaves its people without reforms of their own to pursue. And reform at home is something you have a better chance of having the knowledge, the understanding, and the tact to achieve.

As the failure in colonial Kenya nearly a century ago should remind us negatively, and the Reverend Richard's deep study of the Confucian classics shows positively, achieving the level of understanding and tact required can require considerable work, and it is easy to misstep. In any case, there is something positive to be said for sticking to the work of domestic reform. You have the standing—indeed, especially in a democracy, you have the responsibility—to argue about the state of your own society.

But the international human rights movement is busy with precisely such cross-cultural interventions, even as each national human rights community seeks to secure human rights at home. It seems to me that there are three arguments, which I will make quickly, for this approach.

First of all, there is an absolutely basic moral reason why it is the business of everyone to be concerned with the moral welfare of people everywhere. Morality addresses us as agents, not as citizens of this nation or that, and it concerns our obligations to all others, not just to those at home. Morality is in these ways universal.

A second, more political, reason is that in endorsing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations declared some matters to be the business, not just of one nation, but of the people of all nations. What is the proper business of nations is the proper concern of their citizens, especially, once more, in democracies where the people rule. So if our nations have these responsibilities, it is part of our job as citizens to think about how to make our own nation and others live up to them, in part by making these standards central to the foreign policy of our own governments. The second reason, then, why cross-cultural moral pressure is appropriate, is that the international community has committed itself to this idea. It's something we are in the business of doing.

I want to mention a third reason why we should commit ourselves to an international regime, a cross-cultural moral persuasion. It's one of individual prudence. States, especially states equipped with the apparatus of one power, are very potent. They have the capacity to dominate their citizens and, if they are powerful enough, strangers as well, in ways that run far beyond any reasonable conception of their legitimate authority. And those who exercise state power face many temptations to abuse this capacity in precisely these ways.

In a multinational world, where the collective commitment to respect the legitimate sovereignty of nations makes it possible for each country to escape to some degree from the domination of others, a critic of the government in Country A in Country B has the real prospect of being able to escape A's retribution, even if what he is saying is something that would be sanctioned on the territory of A.

Once more, here history can be our guide. Many left wing critics of the American government in the 1950s, in the age of McCarthy, were subjected to harassment. One of my intellectual heroes, W. E. B. Du Bois, was prosecuted, unsuccessfully in the end, for being an unregistered foreign agent.

A source of solace during this difficult time in his life was the support of men and women—some ordinary; some, like Albert Einstein, rather less so—not just in the United States, but elsewhere. In his account of his trial, Du Bois quoted letters of greeting from China and Russia, Israel and New Zealand, Germany, and French North Africa. This sense that the world was watching had a major impact on the development of U.S. policies on civil rights and racial justice, in part because American racism was so damaging to the country's reputation in the ideological struggle with the Soviet Union and the communist world.

In short, people outside our state engaged with making sure it respects our rights can increase the likelihood that we will escape abuse by our own government. So we each have a reason to support a system that achieves this effect.

But if we are to make such a system work, we require the background of respectful dialogue across societies that was so essential in the successes against foot binding in China.

Appeals to national honor have to be appeals between moral equals, people who regard each other, so to speak, face to face, vis-à-vis. That suggests that we should all commit ourselves to participating in a conversation across societies that starts with the basic cosmopolitan metaphor that we are fellow citizens of one world. The engagement of national honor across societies in the project of helping one another achieve the global realization of the basic human rights of every man and woman is one of the most powerful mechanisms, I think, for giving meaning to a cosmopolitan ideal.

What struck me most about the recent Arab Spring was the way that, in the early days at least, ordinary people in the Arab world took responsibility for the public life of their society and rejected the claim of undemocratic elites to manage the state for them. This has brought a recovery of national honor—now somewhat interfered with by what has happened since—but at the time it brought a recovery of national honor, of the sense that we—we the Egyptians, we the Tunisians—are entitled to respect.

But the elites have powerful resources to resist the ambitions of ordinary people, and they have allies abroad who will support them, in part, because they fear the rise of the same sentiments in their own population.

Still, I believe that in the long run the thing that all governments have to do eventually in order to survive, which includes securing the material well-being of most people, will eventually produce a large body of citizens who see themselves as entitled to participate in running public life. Civic and national honor will both sustain them, as they sustain me and my fellow citizens here in the United States.

We have much to do. In a country that claims to be the land of the free, the United States has 4 percent of the world's population but nearly a quarter of the world's prisoners. The PRC, the People's Republic of China, with more than four times our population, has fewer people serving custodial sentences. These statistics show that we Americans have much work to do to secure the lives and liberties of those who live within our borders, and they are a source, to those of us who care about American honor, of a sense of national shame. It is a shame that goads us in our attempts at domestic reform. In pointing to the sources of American shame, people outside our country can help us face up to them and recover our national honor in the global honor world.

Our nation's honor has a claim on each of us. Each of us has a stake in our individual civic honor as well. American citizens who participate in the life of our republic will be guided by a sense of their individual civic honor and nourished by the respect of those at home and abroad who value what they are doing.

On days when the battle seems unavailing and the prospects of progress remote, they will be sustained too by the thought that we in America also have much of what we can be justly proud.

Thank you.


QUESTION: My name is Eddie Mandhry. I'm a member of the Carnegie New Leaders program and with NYU Africa House. Thank you for a very compelling presentation.

I am from Kenya. In March of this year, the Kenyan citizens elected Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, two individuals indicted by the International Criminal Court [ICC]. On the issue of national honor and legitimacy, the ICC is being questioned across the continent as an extension of neo-colonial Europe and America engaging with the continent in a way that is delegitimizing the choices of the people on the continent. I am wondering what you think about this situation that we are facing, where a head of state and his deputy, who were accused of presiding over crimes against humanity in 2007 and 2008, are facing the prospect of being brought to The Hague to face justice.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: I think the response of the African Union to this situation is a demonstration of the kind of backlash case that I was talking about in relation to the original Kenyan problem.

Let's think about why. What I was suggesting was that what we need is a background of respectful conversation in which people address one another vis-à-vis, face-to-face, as equals. I think part of the difficulty with a lot of the global dialogue about these sorts of things is that many people in the world feel—and, unfortunately, they are correct in thinking—that they are not being addressed by people who regard them as equals. They are not being addressed in a way that is respectful and is fundamentally rooted in a sense of their moral equality as fellow human beings. So the fundamental precondition for the success of this kind of engagement is not there.

So in those circumstances, when somebody criticizes you, your natural instinctual response is, "Well, you would say that. You don't care about us anyway, so of course you have a dim view of what we are doing." These kinds of interventions, even if the particular people at the ICC who brought the particular indictment did so on the basis of narrow legal consideration of actual evidence, which I think is a fair way to describe what they did, the background conditions are not ones in which this kind of cross-cultural intervention is likely to be successful. So the president is in a position where he is able to mobilize nationalist sentiment—in fact, pan-African nationalist sentiment across the continent—against this institution.

It's slightly puzzling to me in some ways, the African Union's response, because, after all, they didn't have to sign up to the ICC—we [the United States] haven't—and there is something weird about describing this institution, which was endorsed widely by many societies in the world through a United Nations process as a neo-colonial institution. It just seems to me that is just a mis-description of the historical process by which it was created.

But nevertheless, as I say, the real problem is the lack of the background, proper relationship, the sort of relationship that people like Reverend Richard had with people like Kang Youwei, where they were respectful people. A lot of the people who criticize Uhuru Kenyatta have no idea about anything in Kenya except that they disapprove of the behavior of the current president, and they're not entirely sure what he did. The ICC has said he has done something bad. In other words, many of the critics don't take the trouble to do the kind of respectful understanding of the situation in the society where you're criticizing someone. That is the absolutely basic precondition for criticism, being something that the people you are criticizing ought to take seriously, let alone that they psychologically are likely to take seriously.

This is an example of, I think, probably an instance of a problem whose largest version is the difficulty in relations, I think, between—I don't like these terms, but I am going to use them for shorthand—between the West and the world of Dar al-Islam, the world of Muslim people, because, again, there is a legitimate feeling among people in Muslim societies from Morocco to Indonesia that most of the people in the West who criticize things that go on in those spaces don't actually care about Muslims at all, and in fact have a kind of contempt for Islam that shows up in the fact that they say idiotic things about Muslims and about Islam, things that show they haven't the first idea about the thing they are criticizing. That kind of ignorant and disrespectful criticism just isn't the basis of a relationship that can make these mechanisms that I'm talking about work.

So I would say what is needed in the world today is a lot less criticism and a lot more of the kind of respectful engagement, trying to understand, get along with one another, talking about not just the things we disagree about, but also about some of the things we agree about, building the relationships across societies. This is something that can be done at the civil society level but also needs to go on inter-governmentally.

Against that background, when you know that the person criticizing you is someone like Reverend Richard, who loves China, you feel differently about his criticism. It cannot be said about most of the people criticizing Uhuru Kenyatta that they love Kenya, unfortunately.

QUESTION: Kavitha Rajagopalan, World Policy Institute. Thank you very much for a very thought-provoking conversation.

Really, lots of things coming to mind. First of all, about the rights, or I guess the responsibility of the individual voter, especially given tremendously low voter turnout in most democracies, very interesting things there.

But what I want to ask you about is this concept that occurs to me more and more frequently in a very, very mobile, highly migrant world, about legitimate and illegitimate citizens, where the national honor of an immigrant, who might be legally a citizen in one place, is bound to another place, and what you think about that, and how that conversation plays out. Who has the right to speak on the behalf of one country's national honor and who has the right to advocate across boundaries, and in what circumstances?

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: That's a great question.

Maybe the way to start is this: people often talk about patriotism in terms of love. I think love is a really bad model for patriotism, love of country. But here's a good model: it's a concern for the honor of your country. Whether you have that concern, that's just a fact about you. That is to say it's a fact of political psychology that some people in some societies feel that they are participants in the collective honor of their nation.

Now, in societies of immigration, self-consciously as such, we invite people to interpret juridical citizenship—the fact of becoming a citizen, wherever you came from—we interpret that as entitling you to these sentiments, and in fact we invite you into these sentiments if we are doing it properly. We want you as a migrant coming into Canada or Australia or the United States or Brazil to come in and feel that what Brazil does matters to you in this way, and therefore that you have a stake in it, and therefore that you are entitled to a voice, because you are entitled to speak about things that affect you, and this is something that affects you.

Part of the difficulty with much of Western Europe is that that sense of inviting the migrant into the space of national honor, national engagement, patriotism, is just not there. Now, that doesn't mean that there aren't immigrants who feel this—there are, there are lots of them—but there are many who don't, and part of the reason they don't is because they weren't invited into it because the space that they are entering was defined by a different way of understanding nationality, which was less juridical and more has to do with the soil and the landscape and all sorts of interesting things that we could talk about. But the point is there is a background set of psychological and social mechanisms which can either invite the migrant into these sentiments or not.

Two days ago, I heard a very moving talk by a young Mexican-American citizen. She came to the United States across the border illegally with her parents when she was a child. So she lived part of her young life as someone without papers, as an illegal immigrant. But she has been invited into the space of this thing, and she felt this Americanness before she got her green card. It's one of the reasons why she wanted it. I think that's a really important question, what the social processes are that can make migrants feel this sense of ownership, which manifests itself in a concern for the national honor.

Now, the back side of this, the backflow of this, of course, is that I grew up in Ghana, my father was a member of the Ghanian Parliament, I had some interest in Ghanian politics. I'm not a Ghanian citizen; actually I never have been—though I lived in Ghana all my childhood, as it happens I was a British citizen all the time, though I didn't know that until I was about 18. So I feel these things. I feel pride because Ghana is doing a pretty good job of keeping a democracy going in a region where that is hard, and I feel engaged with that society. I'm glad to say that the uncontroversial Ghanian people that I know mostly think it's fine for me and they are mostly interested in my speaking in these ways about them. They are, as it were, claiming me.

This is a small and unimportant form of a very powerful phenomenon. It's the phenomenon that explains Boston Irish support for the IRA [Irish Republican Army]; it explains the role of the Sikh community in Canada in supporting some not-so-attractive movements in India, and so on.

There, as I say, what they are working through is actually a version of the very same kind of sense of how responsibility is to be felt. That excludes them if they are Sikhs in England, right? It's the idea that being a Sikh has nothing to do with where you live; it's a matter of ancestry, and maybe even of blood, and those are the things that you care about. What you care about is not the honor of India but the honor of the Sikhs.

Now, the point about these sentiments is that I don't think it is sensible to think of them as good or bad. They can be mobilized for good and they can be mobilized for evil. The question is how we can make sure that, given that they are there, we mobilize them in the right direction.

I think the fact that there are people in many societies now who have these ties of patriotism and honor with other societies is a good thing, because it allows, for example, people who are juridically American citizens to help other Americans understand things in other societies, which we are busy making a mess of in our foreign policy, for example, and they have a right to address us because they are juridically American and they have the information and the connections that also give them a kind of voice for the outside.

So I think actually, as I say, it can be used for good things, but a lot of it is also used for bad things.

I think that the problem in much of Europe—I went to a conference about migration in Oslo last summer. I came away pretty depressed, because there were mostly decent liberal people, nice dinner companions, people who in their own countries support the kinds of policies that seem to me civilized and decent. But they have a kind of incapacity, which if you—I said there are many things wrong with the United States, there are many things that I am ashamed of, but in this area I think we have done relatively well and I think in this area we can help our European friends and allies to think about what they have failed to do. As I said, what they have failed to do mostly is to invite—and I speak as someone with a Norwegian brother-in-law and three Norwegian nephews. I know what it's like to be an immigrant in Norway.

I'm not picking on the Norwegians. There are many worse offenders. But they still haven't really done this imaginative job of saying that people who live here and who are allowed to be here and who vote here, they have the same engagement with national honor and shame as everybody else, so they have the same rights to speak to us on the inside. They are in the networks of civic honor in our country, and they are people who have a stake in our being a decent country in the world, and they give us a resource which we wouldn't otherwise have, which is their connection with other countries with whom we have to deal.

QUESTION: My name is Kei Hiruta. I'm one of the Global Ethics Fellows.

There are many, many occasions on which we should treat others with respect and encourage them to change their behavior and habit. But there are some occasions on which we should not do that. So for example, let's say I walk out from this building after this seminar and try to go back home and I see a rapist committing the act of rape. My response shouldn't surely be, "Excuse me, can you please stop raping?" because that would be ridiculous. What I should do is to use force because that is probably the quickest way of stopping his action. Now, I think that this is a non-controversial case.

But there are controversial ones. For example, some animal rights activists have been agitating for terrorism because they think that the way in which animals are treated in research laboratories, for example, is outrageous, so that violence is the right response. We would think that they are going a little too far.

I just want to ask you your opinion about boundaries between where respect is the right attitude to hold and when it is not.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Respect is very complicated. One of the things about it is that, roughly speaking, it has a complex logical structure. It involves respect for a person as something in virtue of something. So you can continue, for example, to respect someone as one thing in virtue of A but deny them respect as something else in virtue of B, or indeed as the same thing in virtue of B. So it's a sort of complicated conceptual structure.

In the world of honor, it's rather hard—let me just make a general point about honoring, which is that it is much less coherent than moral evaluation. In morality, it is usually possible to make an "all moral things considered" judgment. In honor, often it is not possible to assemble all the elements into one picture because the honor that you have is kind of incommensurable with the honor that you might be entitled to and is therefore the shame that you ought to feel in virtue of the other. So what you ought to do if someone, in general, was to treat someone with the due respect is to treat them in the way that is made appropriate by who they are and what they have done.

The trouble with your rapist is that, because of what he has done, or is doing, it is not appropriate to show him the form of respect that consists in allowing people to go about their business. It is appropriate instead to try, as you said, to stop him.

So I can't give you a general answer because there isn't a general answer to the question as what and in virtue of what I am owed respect. If we were to take it case by case, if we consider the particular dimensions of respect and particular features in virtue of which people are being respected, then we can ask whether they continue to be entitled to those things.

What I meant by the background is a background of generally respectful conversation across societies. What that means has to be cashed out in terms of people treating people in other places in the ways made appropriate by the fact that those people have moral capacities, can suffer, are engaged in pursuing meaning—all the things that give moral significance to human life. But among the facts of that, some of the people in other places, is that they are doing terrible things and what is made appropriate by that fact is clearly not respect and may be, as I say, contempt, or as you said intervention.

More generally, I am in favor of cross-cultural conversation, but not obviously to, as it were, move to the international thing that corresponds to rape in the domestic case. Conversation ceases during acts of genocide. What is appropriate in those contexts is not to talk to people, but to try to stop them.

But I would like to make one point that is relevant in that case and is also relevant in the case of the rapist, which is that you should only try and stop a rapist if you are going to make things better, if you have reason to think that you will make things better. The same applies in the international context. Intervention is not for the purpose of moral narcissism; it's for the purpose of trying to make things better.

In contexts where intervention, though it would be justified if it would be effective, would be ineffective, you may have to watch something terrible going on because you don't have anything you can do at a reasonable cost, at the appropriate cost, to stop it. If the rape is being conducted by a young man who is surrounded by a gang which is endorsing it, intervening just might make things worse for the woman and it might be better to run and call the cops, for example, rather than intervening yourself.

The analogy in international cases is back to the central point I think about, taking global citizenship seriously, which is that you need information, you need to understand other societies. In order to decide whether you should respect someone, you need to know what they are doing and understand it in terms of the concepts under which they understand it—not because you are required to endorse their judgment, but because you can't make a judgment of your own until you have the proper understanding.

The answer to your question is I think one can't give a general specification, but there is a reason why. It's because there is this sort of three-phased relation: one respects someone as something, in virtue of something. All of those things need to be filled out before you can answer the question what is appropriate.

QUESTION: Christian Barry, Australian National University.

One of the things that struck me in your talk is that respectful dialogue across nations may not only be essential for bringing about salutary change and reasonable relations between nations, but it actually becomes a more important part of managing national affairs. That is, it always strikes me that there is a sense in which, especially in multicultural societies, the way in which a country deals with its external relations, relationships with others, whom many of its own citizens feel a kind of identity and connection with, is actually essential to discharging some sort of norm of equal respect for its own citizens.

One of the things that I don't think that in political philosophy has been looked at enough is the degree to which treatment of outsiders, treatment of others, are constrained not only by duties to them as such, but also by duties to those who are co-members. If we fail to do that, we are not just engendering our capacity to have influence on other societies, but actually to manage our own society's affairs.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Can I just say yes? It seems to me that is completely right. It fits with a thought I've had about what it is that liberal societies owe to their citizens, which is a kind of neutrality that says if that concern were displayed by citizens of group A, we would respond to it. So if citizens of Group B have the concern of this form, we must respond to that too. So if we respond to Irish-Americans by urging the British to behave in Ulster, then it's reasonable to respond to Jewish-Americans who are concerned about Israel by taking an interest in Israelis. But also our Arab-American citizens need to have their concerns about Palestine addressed too.

In general, in a decent society, part of its norm of equality will be that the legitimate concerns of all the groups are treated as having a weight that isn't devalued by the fact of "Oh, it's only the Palestinians" or "It's only the Irish." I think that in a multicultural society, like Australia or the United States, that is a really crucial norm.

I would say I never quite understood what the expression "honored in the breach" means, since it seems like you couldn't honor something in the breach. But anyway, it's a norm that is often not met as—

QUESTIONER: Immigration policy.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: Yes. Immigration policy in the United States, for example, for many years was incredibly distorted by the fact that Senator Kennedy insisted on—astonishing!—special preference for the Irish. I have nothing against the Irish, but I do have something against—astonishing!—special preference.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Everyone please help me to thank Professor Appiah.

You may also like

JUN 1, 2007 Journal

Ethics & International Affairs Volume 21.2 (Summer 2007): Book Reviews: Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers [Full Text]

These two books are the inaugural releases in Norton's Issues of Our Time series, but they are linked by much more than this fact. Each ...

DEC 15, 2011 Journal

Ethics & International Affairs Volume 25.4 (Winter 2011): Book Reviews [Full Text]: "The Honor Code" by Kwame Anthony Appiah [Full Text]

Far from being obsolete, Kwame Appiah argues, honor is alive and well today--and that is a very good thing. Honor persists because it reflects timeless ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation