A few weeks ago I read Kwame Anthony Appiah's new book The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.
In the book Appiah offers a theory about the mechanics of moral revolution, how and why certain cultures after centuries of moral stasis will, in a very short time, make drastic changes in their values and moral life. These moral revolutions are curious because the moral arguments against the dubious practices don't seem to be driving the change. In the case studies Appiah examines the moral arguments against a given practice were well known. And yet, those arguments made no dent decade after decade. As Appiah writes in his Preface:
...the arguments against each of these [immoral] practices were well known and clearly made a good deal before they came to an end. Not only were the arguments already there, they were made in terms that we--in other cultures or other times--can recognize and understand. Whatever happened when these immoral practices ceased, it wasn't, so it seemed to me, that people were bowled over by new moral arguments.And yet, often suddenly, moral revolutions do occur. So what is the trigger?
Appiah thinks the trigger is honor and shame. In the case studies he examines--the aristocratic duel, the Atlantic slave trade, and Chinese foot-binding--moral argument wasn't what changed minds. It was, rather, that an ancient or accepted practice suddenly became shameful to the general population. And when the practice tipped over from being honorable into being shameful the moral revolution occurred. We might say that moral revolutions occur when there is a shift in moral sentiments. Moral revolutions are driven by affective rather than cognitive factors. As Appiah writes,
One day, people will find themselves thinking not just that an old practice was wrong and a new one right but that there was something shameful in the old ways. In the course of the transition, many will change what they do because they are shamed out of an old way of doing things.According to Appiah a key factor in all this is respect, psychologically and socially. Moral change occurs in a population when people can no longer respect themselves for engaging in the old practice. Or if they come to feel that they are losing the respect of others. In sum, the real force behind human relations is an honor code, what we do to gain the esteem and respect of our peers. And while moral argument is nice, it tends to leave us unaffected. But if the honor code shifts around a given moral practice, well, we snap to attention and make the requisite changes. Shifts in honor and shame, due to their social force, are what drive moral change.
I'm wonder is something like this is happening today in America regarding same sex marriage. Attitudes, particularly among younger Americans, have been liberalizing on this subject, signaling a shift in the honor/shame dynamics. And as a consequence we've seen individual states legalize same sex marriage, the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and, in recent days, the declaration by the Justice Department that it will no longer defend Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Even the Republican party is experiencing honor/shame tensions. The presence of GOProud ruffled a lot of feathers at this year's CPAC convention. And there is a rift between Tea Party libertarians--who want the government to say out of marriage issues--and the Christian conservatives within the Republican base. Some pundits in recent days are suggesting that, in less than twenty years, gay marriage has shifted from being a divisive issue for Democrats toward being an issue that will split Republicans (with libertarians on one side and values conservatives on the other).
And much, if not most of this, appears to be being driven by shifts in honor/shame on this issue. Is it honorable or shameful to deny marriage to same sex couples? Public opinion polls seem to be shifting toward the answer shameful.
And, per Appiah's thesis, a moral shift is following.