The Norman Transcript

September 28, 2013

A lesson about honor

By Stephen L. Carter
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — 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.

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 illustration of “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.

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.

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.

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 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.”

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, there is in the human spirit something that craves not wealth or power, but comfort from being right; and that deep down beneath even the partisan vainglory of our politics, a seed kernel of this desire survives.

Coach Labrum 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.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University.