Office of the

Dean of the Faculty

Speeches & Articles

What is an Honor Principle?

Presented at the Reed Union, March 17, 1998

By choosing to operate in terms of an Honor Principle, Reed College has made a choice about the kind of community it wishes to be. Specifically, Reed is not a community of law. Of course, the College does exist within larger communities of law, hence is forced to acknowledge and abide by the dictates of those communities. If the State of Oregon says that the College cannot serve liquor to individuals under the age of 21, then the College cannot serve liquor to individuals under the age of 21. Moreover, the College itself does have rules, and these rules are understood to describe specific actions that are to be disallowed. But if the laws of the State of Oregon necessarily override Reed's own honor principle, this is hardly sufficient to believe that the honor principle is of little importance, since any activity that the law does not reach – either because it does not speak to that activity or because the agents of the law do not choose to find out about it – any such activity nevertheless operates under the honor principle; and if the rules of the College do indeed prescribe and proscribe certain kinds of behavior, this too hardly nullifies the honor principle, since following those rules is, in part, what the honor principle is about.

In my opinion, the most important thing to understand about the honor principle is that it describes a doctrine of unfreedom. It is, most emphatically, not a doctrine of rights – and here, I think, is the source of a great deal of misunderstanding. Generally speaking, a right describes an area of activity that is to be protected from external interference. It describes, that is, a realm of freedom – understanding freedom here in the so-called "negative sense" as a license to engage in an activity unfettered. If you have a right to do X, this means that no one can prevent you from doing X if you so choose; and that's the sense in which, and the extent to which, your freedom is guaranteed.

But as members of the Reed community – as a member of a community that operates according to an honor principle – we have no rights. None. As citizens of Oregon and the United States we do indeed have civil rights; and as human beings, we might have rights, depending on whether not certain moral theories are true. But as member of the Reed community we have no rights, and we have no protected freedoms. It's important for everyone to understand this point: it is the defining feature of a community that operates under an honor principle.

Instead of rights, we have a generalized obligation constantly to assess and evaluate one another's behavior in order to determine to what extent it is honorable. No one has a right to do anything, but some things are right to do and some are not right; and to be a community not of rights but of right and wrong is to be a community that is constantly prepared to engage in two kinds of conversation, first, conversations about what kinds of behavior are in fact right or wrong and, second, given those conversations, further conversations about the rightness and wrongness of particular instances of behavior. In a community governed by an honor principle, it is never coherent to say "you have no right to do this" or "you have interfered with my right to do that." But it is always coherent to say "this was – or was not – the right thing to do."

What this means is that a community governed by an honor principle is a community not of rules and procedures but of virtue. As such, it is a community of unfreedom. There is no protected realm; one can never take refuge in, seek protection from, or hide behind a doctrine of rights. Anything that anyone does is, in principle, subject to evaluation. Was it a virtuous thing to do? was it consistent with notions of honorableness? does it contribute to the well-being of the community? is it the kind of behavior that we value and wish to encourage? In the absence of rights, behavior that we do not wish to value and do not wish to encourage has absolutely no protection.

The heart and soul of an honor principle is that it takes an optimistic view of human nature. This is its glory, and also its fragility. It presupposes, first, that most people most of the time are capable of, and in the right circumstances inclined to, virtuous, honorable behavior. Second, it presupposes that individuals are capable of, and in the right circumstances inclined to, serious, constructive and mutually respectful conversation about right and wrong. Finally, it presupposes that individuals will be interested in and committed to a strong degree of self-restraint and self-legislation, that they will bend over backwards to be cooperative, collegial and, indeed, virtuous, that they will not seek to claim rights that they do not have, that they will not insist on freedoms that are not theirs, but -- and this is very important -- that they will also be willing to call a spade a spade with respect to behavior that violates the principle of honor.

An excess of judgment is death to an honor principle; but just as bad, or even worse, is a deficiency of judgment. An honor principle system cannot work unless its members are, at one and the same time, scrupulous in restraining their own behavior, careful and cautious in evaluating the behavior of others, and principled and even severe in dealing with behavior that is, in the end, judged indeed to be dishonorable.