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What causes moral change? Some reflections on Appiah's Honour Code

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Chinese Foot BindingMorality changes over time. Once upon time, racism, sexism, and torture were widely practiced and, in some cases, celebrated. None of these practices has been completely eliminated, but there has been a significant change in our moral attitudes toward them. The vast majority of people now view them as unacceptable. What causes this kind of moral change?In his book, The Honor Code, Kwame Anthony Appiah examines three historical moral revolutions (and one ongoing revolution) and comes up with an answer. He argues that changing perceptions of honour, as opposed to changes in moral belief, do most of the work. Indeed, he argues that in each of the three cases he examines, both moral argumentation and legal norms had already condemned the practices in question. They prevailed in spite of this. It was only when the practices were perceived to be dishonourable that the moral revolutions really took effect.I recently read (well listened to) Appiah’s book. I found it a fascinating exploration of moral change, but I couldn’t figure out whether it the central thesis was interesting or not. I couldn’t shake the sense that there was something trivial about it. In what follows, I want to bring some order to my thoughts and see whether my initial impression is wrong. Is there, in fact, something insightful about Appiah’s argument? I will give an equivocal assessment in what follows.1. Preliminary Thoughts about the Mechanics of Moral ChangeBefore I get into Appiah’s argument, I want to make a few general comments about the nature of moral change. Morality can be thought of as a system of propositions and imperatives. It consists of propositions describing the value of certain actions, events and states of affairs, e.g. “pleasure is good”, “pain is bad”, “friendship is good”, “torture is bad” and so forth. It consists of imperatives telling people to do or forbear from doing certain things, e.g. “don’t torture people”, “do give money to charity” and so. . .

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News source: Philosophical Disquisitions

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