I welcome the opportunity to contribute to Honor Ethics. By way of brief introduction, I have published only one article on honor, in the local Sewanee alumni magazine, but I have taught a course, “Ethics of Honor” for years. That class has become for me a philosophical “laboratory” for thinking about this under-discussed notion. I welcome the chance to explore the ethics of honor with those who have had more to write about this than I have.
One section of my class on honor has students read editorials and articles on the 1906 founding of Sewanee’s Honor System. From then until now, Sewanee has had a student-run honor code. It has changed over time. What one at first an informal code, based on agreement of the small student body of around 200 students about what it means to be a gentleman, has become increasingly formal, with no more reference to the grounding ideal of being a gentleman, but with an increasing focus on the intricacies of due process governing honor trials. Since 1906 faculty have the sole responsibility of reporting possible infractions to the Honor Council. Even today, only the student Honor Council can determine that an honor violation has taken place.
When I examine in the school newspaper, The Sewanee Purple, early articles and editorials on the newly formed Honor System, I see a world that no longer exists at Sewanee, despite our perpetuation of the Honor system.
To see this, consider the following two passages from 1911 and a 1913 Sewanee Purple editorials on the Honor System:
“The honor system marks an important step forward in college life. This system, which has been adopted by most of the leading colleges, is based on the fact that a man’s word of honor is absolutely sacred and must be kept so. Each student when he registered, ipso facto, endorsed this system and pledged himself to support it.”
And from 1913:
“There seem to be men in the University who do not fully comprehend or grasp the principles of the Honor System. In an article in last week’s PURPLE there was mentioned a basic principle of the System:—personal integrity and corporate honesty. These two elements, of course, go hand in hand. But there are other elements of a wider vision. When a student enters this University he becomes a member of the corporation of the student-body and thereby enters upon that corporate trust which is given to that body by those in authority. There is nothing more sacred in the world than this implicit trust and confidence which we as students enter upon and pledge ourselves to uphold; there can be nothing of greater pride to us in our student lives than to realize and to live up to this trust. Only the man who has no pride in the corporate trust is ruled by fear. When this corporate trust is violated, when the fair name of the University is dishonored, that very pride in our souls swell to indignation and horror — and the violator is punished. He is punished not by condoning his crime, and thereby hardening his disgrace, but by ejecting him from our midst as an undesirable, as a prostitute of our fair name. It is felt, as has been said, that the jealous self-respect of the student-body is the best guarantee of honesty. The Honor System is here a part of the life and not of the law of the place.”
I find this language interesting, but foreign. At Sewanee today, Sewanee students do not write such editorials on the Honor System. (I will write on an exception later.) The system is such a non-controversially integral part of the institution that students feel no need to editorialize about it. But if they did–and this is my main point–it would be strange to find students using the vocabulary of the sacredness of trust, the fact that there can be nothing of greater pride than trust, violations of which produce indignation and horror in the student body, and prostitution of our our school’s fair name. I venture that no such language is part of the life of this place. We live in an age of cynicism about such ways of speaking and thinking.
In this regard consider, chronicler of Southern life, William Alexander Percy’s analysis of life in the South before World War Two: “The Old Southern way of life in which I had been reared existed no more and its values were ignored or derided….[P]olitics used to be the study of men proud and jealous of America’s honor, now it was a game played by self-seekers . . .; where there had been an accepted pattern of living, there was no pattern whatsoever” (1941, Lanterns on the Levee, 312).
No doubt many people—myself included— are happy that unsavory aspects of the Southern way of life have been lost. But Percy’s main point is that we now lack any common pattern whatsoever. But if we lack any common pattern, we lack a common pattern of living out of an ideal of honor. We may have made social progress in a way that makes it difficult to take living honorably seriously.
To be clear, I am not taking from Percy’s remark the conclusion that there is no role at all for an ideal of honor today. Perhaps, Peter Berger is right in thinking that the ideal today finds its homes in specific arenas: in the armed services, academic institutions, and in the nostalgic reminiscence, not as a basic, general organizing ideal for the whole of people’s lives. And maybe there is room for those who operate in these honor arenas to construct a life for themselves sustained by their private acceptance of the ideal of honor. If, however, in life outside of these specialized contexts, the ideal of honor no longer makes sense to us, and if that loss of intelligibility depends on the loss of a “pattern of living”, then maybe the problem for us should be to investigate how to make such a pattern of a life committed to honor not only intelligible, but also a live option for most people. In our age of cynicism, how can we in the academy do this? More on this later.