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.