The Ethics of Human Rights (48): Human Rights and Honor

Many human rights violations are perpetrated by people in power for selfish reasons, because they are corrupt or evil, or because they believe they are doing good. In such cases, it often helps to remove those people from their positions of power. Other types of rights violations, however, are deeply ingrained in a society’s everyday culture and are the daily habits of large numbers of people. Think of gender discrimination in traditional patriarchal societies, or homophobia, racism etc.

What can be done about the latter type of rights violation? It’s extremely hard to change cultural customs and beliefs (some say that we shouldn’t even try because we should avoid cultural imperialism). Cultures do change, of course, but very slowly. There’s an inherent inertia. Culture determines personal identity, and people obviously cling to identity. And there’s no identity, it seems, without stability. Culture is also a marker of belonging and community, two other cherished values. When cultures change, the patterns of belonging and community may also change, and that frightens people. The result is again inertia. And finally, there’s the time element: when something has existed for a very long time (or when people believe it has existed for a very long time) it becomes much harder to change because it has the patina of tradition. When something has survived for so long, it surely must have some value.

As a result of all this, appeals to change fall on deaf ears. You can reason, and say that certain practices aren’t in the best interests of anyone, that they aren’t really very old and traditional and that they aren’t anointed by religious texts or cultural transmission. Or you may have other killer arguments. When people’s identity and community are believed to be at stake, all this will fail. You can also outlaw the practices, but then the law will simply be put aside. You can claim that people are being immoral, but they will answer that they have another morality.

Then how to motivate people to do the right thing? Which tools are left? I’ve discussed Rorty’s story telling strategy before. And more recently, another philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, has claimed that appeals to honor may be successful catalysts of change. He

singles out three historic practices that later were stamped out: dueling, footbinding, and the Atlantic slave trade. In each case, he says, a successful public campaign to end the misconduct was based not on questions of right or wrong, but on honor. Dueling swiftly perished when attitudes changed among gentlemen, who went from considering it highly honorable, to disreputable. The excruciating binding of women’s feet disappeared with great abruptness once China began to worry about its reputation among nations, early in the 20th century — national honor seeming at stake. A similar sense of honor led Great Britain finally to ban the slave trade after all appeals to morality had proven futile. (source)

Shaming people or nations, and trying to convince them that they bring dishonor upon themselves by way of the rights violations they commit or condone, may indeed be more successful than simply telling them that they are morally wrong or that they act in an irrational manner against their own self-interest. People need the esteem and approval of others. Few of us can survive a constant barrage of contempt.

However, as Appiah also notices, honor has often been a force against human rights, sometimes even a deadly force. It may have contributed to the demise of dueling, but it was also its origin. And then there are the infamous honor killings, when fathers or other relatives kill girls after accusations of sexual or romantic misconduct. That’s a practice that has survived until today. Furthermore, shame and dishonor have often been used as cruel forms of criminal punishment, with convicted criminals forced to endure public humiliation. Hence, honor is a two-edged sword at best. Sharpening one edge may also make the use of the other edge more common.

7 thoughts on “The Ethics of Human Rights (48): Human Rights and Honor”

  1. […] Disgust can be good or bad for human rights. It’s probably true that no amount of rational argument against torture, incest, cannibalism etc. is as strong as the feelings of disgust produced by such actions. Some, such as Leon Kass, have therefore conceptualized disgust as a kind of moral wisdom: wisdom which can’t necessarily articulate itself or reason about itself, but which nevertheless guides our actions in a morally sound direction and guides them better and more effectively than rational argument. Disgust or nausea often makes us shudder, literally, at the immorality of others or ourselves. As a result, it helps to bring about a better world, and it does so more effectively than reasoning or persuasion (in this sense, disgust is similar to other emotions such as sympathy and shame). […]


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