The Inner Light and the Honor Code

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The Inner Light and the Honor Code

[Ed. Note: Please also read Linking Faith and Animal Rights, Why You Should Care About the Faith-Based Arguments For (And Against) Animal Liberation.]

By Gracia Fay Ellwood on The Peaceable Table

A certain percentage of people do evil with no apparent compunctions, but a great many intend to be decent, caring folk. In their innermost being, probably unknown even to themselves, all are far better than what they do with their forks in support of the evil system that entraps them. With the help of the Spirit of God, they can become free from that system, so that their actions more and more show who they really are.

The Mansfield Judgment

In 1769 a customs official named Charles Steuart, from the British colony of Massachusetts, took with him to England one James Somersett, an enslaved African he had purchased in Virginia. Steuart was not pleased when Somersett escaped in 1771. He recaptured his "property" that November, and put him in chains aboard the ship Ann and Mary, bound for the colony of Jamaica, where Steuart intended to sell him. But Somersett's godparents, Mary Cade, Thomas Marlow, and John Walkin, asked the Court of the King's Bench for a ruling of habeas corpus, claiming that their godson's re-enslavement was not legal.

The case attracted much attention in the press, and by the time of the hearings, Somersett had no fewer than five legal counsel. One of them argued in effect that slavery is incompatible with what it means to be English, entailing that when Somersett set foot in England he became a free man. After weeks of deliberation the judge, William Murray, earl of Mansfield, gave his decision in the ex-slave's favor. Although Mansfield based his decision on legal technicalities, he made it clear that slavery was "odious" and could only be maintained under "positive law" supporting it, which did not exist in England. This so-called Mansfield Judgment was to be influential in the campaigns, over the next sixty years, to abolish the British institutions of kidnapping and holding African humans in chattel slavery.

Introducing the Honor Code

Two important themes are discernible in this case: an awareness of atrocious injustice, and a sense that (national) honor requires a correcting of that injustice. The latter theme is the topic of a major book by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. Appiah, who grew up in Ghana, was educated in England and now teaches at Princeton, analyzes the part that conceptions of honor played in four revolutions of varying moral weight: the ending of the duel, the freeing of Chinese women's feet, the abolition of Atlantic slavery, and the contemporary campaigns against the "honor" murders of women in Pakistan and other middle-eastern countries. (He mentions factory farming, together with still other social evils, in passing, suggesting that issues of honor may have a part in ending it as well.)

Despite having prevailed for hundreds of years (footbinding for nearly a thousand), the first three of these evils each fell within about a generation. The moral objections to them were already known, says Appiah; the main thing that was different was the conception of honor.

Appiah's analysis of honor shows it to be complex; the word applies not only to the respect shown to those in the upper ranks of a hierarchy just because of the class in which they were born, but also the esteem granted those who meet or exceed the standards of their class or category. This dual meaning implies that a person can both be honorable and be shamed at the same time for closely linked reasons. (An example might be Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, who is proud of his status as a gentleman of wealth and aristocratic lineage, but also deeply ashamed because, as Elizabeth Bennet tells him, his behavior has been arrogant and disdainful, and thus not gentlemanlike.) A form of honor--dignity--can be claimed by all human beings, including those of low class or poor achievement.

From Honor to Shame

Different but linked aspects of honor stand out in the three successful revolutions. The duel was an institution in which aristocrats defended their honor against the perceived insults of others of their class, thereby flaunting both their (supposed) manliness and their ability to get by with a crime punishable by death among the lower orders. But the duel's days were numbered when social and political power began to shift from the hereditary aristocrats to the middle class. When bankers, or--even worse--linendrapers' assistants took to dueling, the institution began to seem ridiculous, and fizzled out. Thus what the condemnation of its irrationality and deadly violence and could not achieve was brought about by laughter.

Similarly, for centuries Chinese footbinding was associated with upper-class status; despite occasional protests against its cruelty, it was so crucial to social acceptability that without it a woman was not thought to be marriageable. Becoming more and more widely adopted did not make it seem ridiculous, perhaps because in essence it served not to assert a man's power, but to imply a woman's disempowerment: a woman with tiny, deformed feet literally could not go her own way. What caused it to fall was not an internal shift of power so much as a broadening, so to speak, of the cultural conversation. During the mid-nineteenth century, China's proud sovereignty was breached by the West, and forced to accept humiliating trade arrangements. Western ideas also entered more quietly, through resident Westerners, especially missionaries--both women and men being particularly influential in condemning footbinding--and young Chinese men who returned from studying in universities like Cambridge or Harvard. Finding that Westerners considered bound feet grotesque, those who cared about their country increasingly felt that the "golden lotuses" were not a woman's pride but China's shame. In such an atmosphere the institution could not long survive.

Appiah makes a case that honor was also involved in the movement to end British involvement in slavery. William Wilberforce, the devout Evangelical statesman who led the campaigns in Parliament for decades, pointed out that slavery was incompatible with Britain's claim to be Christian, and was thus a blot upon its honor. For an individual to be preoccupied with his own honor was selfish, unworthy; but concern for national honor could enable one to get beyond himself and sacrifice for the greater good, thus wielding moral power. Furthermore, group honor as basic human dignity was a particular issue in the involvement of the working classes in the anti-slavery movement. Many voices compared the abuses and exploitation workers suffered with those undergone by slaves. A sense of identification took root: like the slaves, workers were mistreated and held in contempt because they labored. But workers increasingly came to hold that labor deserves respect. Workers in northern manufacturing cities competed with one another by city to gain the greatest number of signatures on petitions to Parliament and pledges to boycott West Indian sugar. And Parliament began to accept the idea that they had to listen to the "lowly" instead of only talking down to them.

Regarding Appiah's insightful discussion of present-day campaigns against the "honor" murders of women in Pakistan and other countries, it is noteworthy that, as with the anti-slavery campaigns, activists claim their nation's religion as ally, so that the widespread flouting of its principles is a source of shame. There is broad (if not entirely unanimous) agreement, in Pakistan and elsewhere, that honor murders are incompatible with Islam, one of whose central assertions is "Allah is compassionate." Another similarity is a broadening of cultural conversation, facilitated by the Internet, leading to an alliance between the victimized class and women in other countries. As British workers identified with abused slaves, foreign women today see their own dignity being assaulted by the evil practice.

Basic Dignity and the Light

When honor (as catalyst for change) is understood as the basic dignity of all persons, we are not far from the central Quaker conviction that there is an Inner Light, or That of God, in everyone. Of course, universal dignity may also have somewhat different bases, e.g. the Jewish and Christian belief that all persons are created in the image of God, or the conviction of our country's founding fathers of a self-evident truth that all men [sic] are created equal. But let us briefly pursue the implications of the Light as the source of a changed conception of honor that may hasten the moral revolution that we seek.

Early Friends were in fact much concerned with the meaning of honor. They lived in a society polarized by class, in which people of lower classes (as were most of them) were expected to bow and doff their hats to richly-dressed aristocrats, addressing them by title. But on the basis of their experience of the Divine Light as one in all persons and conferring true honor on all, Quakers rejected such practices, keeping their hats on, using only the title "Friend" (derived from John 15:15, "No longer do I call you servants . . . but I have called you friends"). This rejection of titles essentially continues today. The presence in every person of the equalizing and unifying Light was, and is, also the basis for Friends' refusal of exploitation, war, and other forms of violence. In the last few decades Friends have increasingly come to affirm the presence of the Light throughout the cosmos, and many other spiritually aware people as well are affirming that human treatment of nature must change radically. But for most, this expanded vision has obviously not yet materialized into a stance of nonviolence toward animals.

Honor and the Revolution for Animals

Readers of PT may not all think in terms of the Divine Light present in every heart, but most probably agree that both animals and people are due the respect, or even reverence, that would be appropriate for those in whom the Light dwells. How might this conviction help us communicate better with the unconvinced?

The way the duel ended--by being shown as embarrassing and ridiculous--is not the way for us to take. Many meat-eaters already see vegetarians as looking down on them from their moral high ground and holding them in contempt, or accusing them of dark deeds. In fact they are born into a system that does make them complicit in terrible cruelties to animals, whether knowingly or not; and informing them of these unwelcome facts is a necessary part of our message. But it must be presented in ways that will awaken their compassion. Trying to shame them for their complicity would in most cases make them more defensive.

It is more profitable to stress the positive sides. The general view justifying the status quo--that a "food" animal is a dimwitted, lumpish object, identical to every one of "its" kind--must be corrected by information supporting animals' basic dignity. Such information is increasingly available thanks to ethologists and other observers: animals are complex and sensitive beings, capable both of pleasure and of terrible suffering; many are capable of love.

It is also good to stress the basic dignity of the human beings we are addressing. They are bearers of the Light, or of the Divine Image; they have the potential for manifesting gleams of the divine love to "the least of these." A certain percentage of people do evil with no apparent compunctions, but a great many intend to be decent, caring folk. In their innermost being, probably unknown even to themselves, all are far better than what they do with their forks in support of the evil system that entraps them. With the help of the Spirit of God, they can become free from that system, so that their actions more and more show who they really are.