By Stephen L. Carter
New Haven, Conn.: I trust you’re as impressed as I am by the news that Matt Labrum, football coach at Union High School in Roosevelt, Utah, has suspended his entire team — all 80 players — for what he calls a “lack of character.” Unlike the win-first coaches celebrated in the sports pages, Labrum was referring to what was going on off the field, where a minority of the players had been skipping or failing classes and were perhaps involved in cyberbullying as well.
Understand what’s happening here: Everyone is being punished for the actions of a few. The unspoken suggestion is that members of a team should watch out for one another. If Player A breaks the rules, Player B shares responsibility. This communal understanding of good character provides an admirably clear illustration of the elusive concept known as “honor” — a swiftly dying virtue in an era in which ends always seem to outshine means.
Honor implies more than honesty. It often requires, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, fealty to “a moral bounden duty: sometimes implying that there is no legal obligation.” One who seeks to be thought of as honorable may see life as guided by a code that governs the means through which we may pursue our ends. Writes the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah: “An honor code says how people of certain identities can gain the right to respect, how they can lose it, and how having and losing honor changes the way they should be treated.”
Although the idea of living by a code of honor goes back at least to classical Greece, the concept is nowadays reflected for most young people in the honor codes that their schools require them to sign. An honor code typically constitutes a student’s agreement not to violate the norms of academic integrity. In its traditional form, an honor code requires not only that students agree not to cheat, but also that they agree to report violations of the code by others. If Student A is aware that Student B is cheating and does nothing about it, A and B are both in violation. Academic dishonesty, in this understanding, reflects badly on the entire institution.
The traditional approach survives at the nation’s service academies (though it has been slightly amended at Annapolis). In general, however, honor codes have been watered down. The reporting requirement is vanishing. Yet without its communal aspect, an honor code is a redundancy, given that every academic institution bans cheating, without regard to whether the students sign an undertaking not to engage in it.
The literature on cheating strongly suggests that among students inclined to cheat, concern about what one’s peers will think plays little deterrent role. On the other hand, the fear of formal punishment plays a major role, and students are significantly less likely to cheat when they believe that other students will turn them in.
The notion that students should monitor one another recalls the communal nature of the traditional understanding of honor. Those who are honorable want to be surrounded by others who are honorable. Thus the prominent Presbyterian pastor John Hall, in an 1877 pamphlet titled “Questions of the Day,” explained: “If a ‘man of honor’ violates any of the rules of honor’s code … his associates know what to do with him. They cut him.”
The cutting was not literal but figurative. In practice, Hall was saying, the dishonorable man’s associates write him out of their company. Honor itself, as traditionally understood, requires nothing less.
An honor code properly understood, then, is an agreement not between a school and each of its individual students, but between the school and its entire student body. “We are an honorable people,” the students are swearing. “We don’t want the dishonorable around any more than you do. You can trust us to root them out.”
At the same time, the ultimate reward for honor is within; it comes from raising people for whom good character is an end in itself. In her book Liberalism With Honor, the political scientist Sharon R. Krause puts it this way: “In contrast to public honors, honor as a quality of character is an internal phenomenon. One can be true to the code without receiving public recognition for it.” Thus “the honorable student adheres to the honor code out of self-respect, not from fear of reprisals or the promise of public approval.”
The problem, alas, comes from the other direction: The student who adheres to an honor code requiring that students report violations by others is the one who faces disapproval. But the otherwise admirable loyalty that keeps young people from wanting to shoulder the responsibility for policing other students readily translates into a reluctance to blow the whistle on one’s fellow investment bankers or government bureaucrats.
Does honor matter? Appiah argues that even nations can be moved by appeals to honor — not explicit moral persuasion, but a desire for the approbation of other nations. It’s my impression that nations which cheat on morality, like students who cheat on exams, try to get away with what they think they can. Yet I’d like to think that Appiah is right, that there is in the human spirit something that craves not wealth or power or victory, but the comfort that comes from being right; and that deep down beneath even the partisan vainglory of our politics, a seed kernel of this desire survives.
Honor, Krause says, ought to be “transpartisan” — a virtue we admire in others and cultivate in ourselves without regard to ideological differences or careerist goals. She adds: “Honor is especially instructive for us today because of the way it connects personal ambition to principled higher purpose.”
One can only hope that a transpartisan sense of honor will remind us that the virtue of the ends we seek must be mirrored by the means we choose, that losing nobly is more to be admired than winning dishonorably. Coach Labrum, in his letter explaining the suspensions, told his team: “The lack of character we are showing off the field is outshining what we are achieving on the field.”
If one is searching for the first principles of the life well lived, this isn’t a bad place to start.
Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama, and the novel The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln. He can be emailed at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @StepCarter.