Kwame Anthony Appiah on Honor and the Boardroom

By: Mark Athitakis

Whether it's tackling a major social justice issue or addressing a breach of ethics within your board, a sense of honor is critical. Author and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah discusses how issues of honor have played out throughout history, and why it can be so hard to cultivate today. (Titled "The Honorable Thing to Do" in the print edition.)

The topics at the core of Kwame Anthony Appiah's latest book, The Honor Code, are unsettling: dueling, foot binding, and the Atlantic slave trade. But they are also behaviors that are no longer practiced, and in the book Appiah argues that they ended because of powerful changes in the ways groups thought about honor, respect, and ethics. "Attending to honor … can help us both to treat others as we should and to make the best of our own lives," he writes.

Appiah approaches the subject from a global perspective. Raised in Ghana and educated in England, he currently teaches philosophy at Princeton University, and he's studied issues of honor as they've emerged around the world—and in boardrooms. In this interview, Appiah discusses some of the strategies for making moral changes, including satire and collective action, and how these issues play out in nonprofits.

Associations Now: You discuss a number of ways people made large moral changes in your book, and among them are mockery, satire, or shaming—dueling was made to look disreputable because the media and organizations began to make fun of it. Does that strategy risk alienating the people it's important to influence?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: There's always a problem with mobilizing shame, which is that it produces a collective backlash. It can lead to people actually holding on to the thing that you're trying to shame them for, as a sign of their independence and their identity and their difference from the people who are trying to shame them. So if your outsider is trying to shame people, you do have to be very careful.

In order to shame people out of a practice, they've got to think it's wrong. Shame is a feeling you have when you feel that other people don't just disrespect you but rightly disrespect you or are entitled to disrespect you because you've done something wrong. So you've got to be careful to proceed with the moral argument as well. In the cases of dueling and slavery and foot binding, the moral arguments were well understood before the considerations of shame got into play. And it was precisely because of the sense that … the slave trade was shameful to Britain, for example, that the anti-slavery movement was able to get the slave trade abolished in 1807.

So shaming requires uptake on the part of the person you're trying to shame. It presupposes that you are in a moral world together, and if you're not, it isn't going to work at all. In fact, it will just reinforce the sense that you are in different moral worlds, and that will make your appeals not only not likely to work, but actually risk strengthening the very practice that you're attacking.

A number of organizations sprung up to address these moral issues: There was an anti-dueling association, an anti-foot-binding society, and anti-slavery organizations. How important were those organizations in affecting change?

You can't do without them. Honor is part of what gets people active—it gets them engaged. But social change requires institutional mechanisms. And abolition societies, whether it's about abolishing slavery or abolishing foot binding and anti-dueling societies, were absolutely crucial.

Part of the genius of foot-binding societies was that they solved the central problem that the abolition of foot binding faced. It had been a condition of honorable marriage that the woman's feet were bound, and the anti-foot-binding societies made joining them entail a pledge not only that you wouldn't bind the feet of your daughters but that you wouldn't marry your sons to women whose feet were bound. So at the same time as creating a generation of unbound women, it created a generation of families that would marry their sons to them.

That sense of collectivity that is committed to a cause brings other people in, and it snowballs. The rise of abolitionists and associations in England would lead to the abolition of slavery in the colonies between the 1830s and 1840s. There were huge meetings all over the country with long, long sessions of people describing the conditions of slavery in the colonies and urging people to petition the government against it. That sense of creating a solidarity of people who are in tune on a single cause was absolutely essential to make it happen. But in order to get them into that, they had to see that the thing that they were fighting was wrong, and they had to feel implicated by it. And the way they felt implicated by it was that it affected the national honor.

Is there a tipping point where these sort of collective movements start to come together?

It's hard to say. … [T]he first anti-foot-binding societies in China were organized by the missionaries. The reason they thought it was wrong was basically that they weren't Chinese, so it didn't occur to them to think that it was right. The main mechanism the missionaries used is that they offered education and medical care and so on, and they invited people to become Christians. Not a lot of Christian conversion occurred in China in the late 19th century: There probably weren't more than 200,000 Christians in China by the end of the 19th century.

But a lot of people did things around the missions and sent their children to be taught there. So they could pull people into it without really appealing to the considerations of national honor. Things changed when the Chinese started organizing around people like [anti-foot-binding advocate] Kang Youwei. What gets them going isn't just the sense that it's wrong and that it's barbaric but that they need to do something about it as Chinese. The fact that in the eyes of their international peers this practice made China look bad was a significant motivation.

Thinking about how moral issues play out inside organizations, is it possible to make an organization incorruptible, especially if an organization is successful and is well financed?

The mechanisms by which you can get rich and powerful people to behave must include significant amounts of oversight of financial activity. If you let that lapse, you will get what you deserve. But it's also true that one of the mechanisms that constrains the behavior of even very successful people is a concern for their honor, not to be caught doing shameful things.

One of the things that is very striking, I think, about Bernie Madoff was that he was making lots of money, and he was turning that into prestige and into esteem. He was on the board of all kinds of philanthropic organizations. And he was no doubt genuinely supportive of some of these causes, but surely the way he chose to get involved with them showed that he was looking for rewards in the economy of esteem as well in the financial economy. And one of the reasons he couldn't get out was not just that he would lose money and perhaps even get into legal trouble, but that he would have to face the shame of dealing with all these people that he was associated with through philanthropic work, whose main reward is supposed to be honor.

You have to hope to create a general culture of thinking that public service is honorable, and that means that when you fail to live up to the standards of public service, that is shameful and therefore that's one of the reasons why you shouldn't do it. If you create a climate in which only the bottom line matters, and it's never the handshake—that it's the details of the written contract that matter—then you can't run businesses that way. If you don't have a system of honor to sustain the values that make these things work, then you have to have a very pervasive system of surveillance. You have to have regulation.

Is it possible to make that pressure internal? Can a board focus on a sense of honor successfully by itself?

I'm on a bunch of boards, and people do this because it's in service to some goal, whether it's the academy or whether it's free expression in the case of the PEN American Center [that] I'm on the board of. In those cases, people are sorting those goals with a strong sense of there being central values of theirs that are being served and therefore with a strong sense of the need to behave in a way that is consistent with those values. That includes living up to what you say you're doing, which is a large part of honor. A large part of honor is there not being a gap between what you profess and what you do.

And so I think that there is a sense of honor that leads people to operate on [boards]. They want to do it in the way that's worthy of respect, and they want to serve the goals of the institution. And I think it's perfectly proper that we have to be audited and that the attorneys general of the various states where these organizations are keeping an eye on not for profits and make sure that there isn't self-dealing. And all of us now, as a result of changes in the law over the last decade or so, have got explicit conflict-of-interest policies and so on, all of which are I think very good. And if we breach them, we are legally liable, and we should be.

But part of the point of honor is that … it can work in circumstances which are very hard for outsiders to perceive. When a board committee meets it's pretty easy for them—if they wanted to—to conceal in the minutes what's actually going on. You can't have every board committee visited by a cop whose job is to make sure that everybody's aboveboard. So in the end, the thing that protects us from vast corruption in these institutions is the individual sense of the methods of these committees and of the board as a whole [knowing] that they must live up to the standards they profess.

Yet that's why Bernie Madoff's fraud went undetected for so long.

I think the difficulty with the Madoff problem is that dishonorable people are in a particularly good position to take advantage because honorable people, since they themselves respond honorably, are not likely to be suspicious. It wouldn't occur to them to do the sorts of things he was doing. One suspects that part of why he was able to get away with it for so long was because of the vast network of his not-for-profit associations; he was seen to be a public-spirited person. And you don't want to create a world in which everybody wanders around being suspicious of everybody else and presumes the worst.

One of the benefits of the society in which people are relatively honorable is that we can mostly assume the best of most people. And in fact we can. I like to remind my students that what protects them from murder in our society is not mostly the law against murder but the fact that most people think you shouldn't kill people. Most people do what's honorable not because somebody's watching and not because they'll go to jail if they don't or because they'll be mocked or laughed at, but because they want to be entitled to respect.

So how do you become vigilant against corruptibility without assuming there's corruption wherever you go?

I think the only way to be vigilant is to ask yourself, whether you're a member of the board or the chair of the board, "Do I feel that what we're doing here is consistent with our values?" And if you think it isn't, you have to argue strongly to your fellow board members that it isn't. And if you think it's bad enough, I think you have to resign. A threat to resign is a perfectly natural response of an honorable person, because what you're saying is, "In sitting on this board my honor is at stake in what we do."

Online Extra Sidebar: Three More Questions with Kwame Anthony Appiah

Associations Now: In the book, you write that "to be honorable you have both to understand the honor code and to be attached to it." What creates an attachment to a sense of honor?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: A large part of it has to do with the way in which people raised in honor cultures are. I think all cultures are honor conscious, but I mean people raised in a specific culture with a specific code. They learn as they're growing up from stories that they're told about other people, and perhaps occasionally from their own experience that in their society people gain and lose respect by doing various things in the code prescribed ... I think people grow up as if [they] were trying to attach themselves to the codes that they grew up in. Some of the interesting people are the people who don't end up attached to the local code.

So what happens that prompts people to break from honor cultures that support activities like foot binding or slavery?

I think that what happens in those cases is one kind of honor, namely national honor, can be mobilized against existing codes. In the code that existed in North Atlantic culture in the 18th century, it was normal to regard slaves with disrespect or contempt. And it took a certain kind of moral imagination to see that you mustn't do that. The people who did see that you couldn't do that had a source of moral strength in their evangelical religious beliefs but also a sense of honor that was very much tied up with conformity to morality. So they had a moralized sense of honor, which as one of its features is evangelical Christianity. And so for them, it was their honor as Englishmen and as Christians [that] led them to run against, to resist the prevailing acceptance of slavery.

One thing that you talk about in the book is that many of the immoral or dishonorable behaviors are very closely tied up in notions of elitism. How closely do you feel elitism is connected with immorality? Does an elitist group always run the risk of immoral behavior?

I think [John] Dalberg-Acton was right when he said that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. There are many reasons why elites are prone to immorality. One is a certain kind of asymmetry that occurs between the knowledge that elites have of the lives of those below them in their hierarchy and the knowledge that people lower in the hierarchy have about the lives of the elite. Characteristically, elite people don't know very much about the lives of ordinary people, whereas ordinary people do have access to information about the lives of elite people. [This is] because some of the ordinary people serve them and see them at home, are in their dining rooms when they eat, running their baths for them, and putting their clothes on [for] them….

But the difficulties about honor is that many of its features are associated with massively unequal societies. And if you're going to think of honor as something that could be mobilized in a good way, you have first to figure out how to democratize it. It used to be in much of North America and western Europe that in the higher levels of things like banking, there was a sense that you were not just making money and making a living, but that you were doing something that involved the public trust—that you had obligations which went beyond simply making money for your corporation or making money for yourself. And not just that your honor was important, but that it was also one of the things that was regarded well among your professional peers and by which you were evaluated. People would make deals with people in part because they expected them to behave honorably and so on…

The sense of honor is a matter of aiming in our life to be behaving in a way that is worthy of respect. Not just to be respected, which you can achieve by cheating, but to be worthy of respect, which you can only do if you do what is genuinely worthy of honor. And honorable people don't just want to be well thought of. They want to be well thought of because they're entitled to be well thought of. Because they've done the things that they're respected for and not just faked doing them.

Mark Athitakis is senior editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.