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Author Finds 'Honor Code' Isn't What It Used To Be

Stories of honor killings in South Asia horrify most Americans, but it wasn't long ago that Americans fought duels and bought and sold slaves -- practices condemned today -- all in the name of honor.

In his book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, author and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah examines the moral revolutions that led to the end of these practices, and how we can use history's lessons to help solve today's problems.

Appiah tells NPR's Neal Conan that it was rarely the rule of law that ended those customs, which were eventually considered abhorrent. Instead, the upending of the notions of honor that drove such practices has proved a more effective driver of social reforms.

Appiah points to the duel -- the classic standoff between two men and their weapons -- as a case in point. Dueling was once the preferred method for defending one's honor across the Western world, but it took two centuries for English nobility to finally abandon the practice after the British government made it illegal.

Appiah says the end of the duel came in the 1800s when commoners began adopting the practice.

"Instead of its being thought to be a way of defending your honor, it just becomes ridiculous," Appiah says. "It can only work to generate honor for gentlemen -- if only gentlemen are allowed to do it."

But social change need not take centuries, he says. Foot-binding, once widespread across China, fell out of favor in just a few decades once people came to see the practice as shameful.

Appiah hopes that shifting perceptions of honor will similarly spell the demise of the practice of honor killings, where women in many parts of the world are killed by family members or spouses in the name of protecting the family's reputation.

He says, "My reason for hope is that just as it only took a short generation to move from dueling being required to being ridiculous ... we can move, swiftly, to a world without honor killing."

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