Kwame Anthony Appiah during a visit to Knox Co...
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This past Sunday, The New York Times Book Review ran a piece by Jonathan Haidt about Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s new book The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. I haven’t read the book yet, though I immediately added it to my Amazon Wishlist as it fits right in with some research I’ve begun on contemporary morality.

The review itself, however, is very well written and worthy of consideration. I brought a portion of the piece, Haidt’s only criticism, actually, into the English Composition course that I teach and asked the class to consider it. The conversation that it spurred was interesting, so I thought I’d extend it to you as well. Here’s the selection, and you should know that early in the essay “WEIRD” is explained to be an acronym for “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.” Without further ado:

Yet by Appiah’s own analysis, peer honor can survive only in an “honor world,” and that is precisely the kind of world that WEIRD societies asphyxiate. At the University of Virginia, for example, we have a student-run honor system, created in 1842 by a few hundred sons of Virginia planters whose families vigilantly tracked one another’s reputations and arranged marital and commercial alliances accordingly. In that world, a gentleman could not tolerate a stain upon his honor, and neither could a community of gentlemen. We therefore have a “single sanction” based on a psychology of purity: any dishonorable behavior contaminates the whole community, so any violation of the honor code is punishable by expulsion.

Today, however, the university’s 21,000 students come from all over the world, and concerns about purity are mostly confined to the cafeteria. The moral domain has shrunk — as it must to accommodate the individualism, mobility and diversity of a WEIRD society — to its bare minimum: don’t hurt people, treat them fairly but otherwise leave them alone. Students at Virginia work hard and care about their grades, but when they learn about fellow students’ cheating, they usually do nothing. They understand that cheating harms others (in courses graded on a curve), but because WEIRD moral calculus involves only individuals (not the honor of the group), they feel that expulsion is too harsh a punishment. And because they do not feel personally dishonored by a cheater, it’s not clear to them why they should step forward and press charges. The result is that our purity-based single sanction, still in force long after the death of its natal honor world, increases students’ willingness to tolerate dishonorable behavior.

I’m most interested in this assertion, “The moral domain has shrunk — as it must to accommodate the individualism, mobility and diversity of a WEIRD society — to its bare minimum: don’t hurt people, treat them fairly but otherwise leave them alone.” Is this an accurate summation of contemporary morality? If so, where does Christian morality, or any system of ethics based on religion, fit into this picture?

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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