The Human Condition:

A Sense of Honor – November 12, 2017

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I’ve been reading disturbing stories on social media about honor violations at this nation’s military service academies like West Point and Annapolis. Evidently—and there is much controversy on both sides as to how much of this is true—standards are eroding and cadets are becoming less observant, both of their own actions and those of others. For the record, the honor code states: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” This is verbatim from the Virginia Military Institute. Other academies’ codes are similarly simple and direct. The penalty for any violation is an honor hearing usually followed, if the infraction is proved, by expulsion.

Having a code of conduct at school is nothing new nor particular to military academies. Most institutions of higher learning have codes, more usually involving academic honesty and issues like falsifying research data, sharing test answers, and plagiarizing the work of others. But “lie, cheat, or steal” covers those nicely, too. The intention is that anyone who passes out of the institution’s gates with either a military commission or an academic degree is presumed to reflect the institution’s traditions and values. The person is not just in possession of new knowledge that he or she did not have before, but the graduate has also acquired a sense of responsibility, as well as an understanding of and loyalty to certain patterns of thinking and acting. He or she can be trusted in the wider world to function in a particular way in relation to others. A complete education is not just about knowledge but also about core beliefs and accepted attitudes and obligations.

This is an old-fashioned idea about what education does for both the individual and society. And it calls into question the modern substitutes for traditional brick-and-mortar university learning that are now available through online teaching resources like the Khan Academy. I am all in favor of competition—especially the kind that can be offered easily, cheaply, and without the expenses associated with printing textbooks, physically traveling to remote locations, and finding room and board there. Competition like this opens educational opportunities for more people. But I also question whether a person sitting on his or her sofa, reading HTML texts, watching prepared videos, listening to online lectures, and passing online tests, will acquire the sense of academic community, identification with a particular way of being and presenting oneself, and adherence to institutional ideals that attendance away from home in a college or university environment can provide.

And perhaps my reservations no longer matter. If a university or military academy education has stopped being a life-changing experience, intended to mold the individual’s character, and has now become just another expensive commodity, like a Mercedes-Benz or an address in the upper East Fifties, then the old assumptions no longer apply. If the quest for a university education is now totally commercial, with the goal of receiving a piece of faux-parchment signifying validation of one’s academic success, no matter whether obtained through honest study or by fraudulent shortcuts, then the modern student might as well skip the tedious classroom discussions and sit at home in front of a computer screen, soaking up and regurgitating knowledge and then receiving a convenient Diplomate® app for easy display on his or her smartphone. Then the only thing he or she will really miss is four to six years of binge drinking and hookup sex.

The whole point of an honor code, especially in our military service academies, is that we expect our future military officers—and the educated technocrats from other universities, who will eventually run our society—to be special people. We expect them to have all the fluff and laziness, the willingness to succumb to temptation, and the selfishness of thinking about their personal goals, their precious careers, and their own skins ahead of the lives and safety of others and their duty to the nation—to have all of that ground out of them. We expect them to be fearless in facing hard facts and making hard choices. We expect them to be the sort of people that others can look up to, obey, and perhaps die at their command. Without this kind of moral training, this sense of honor, the graduates who become commissioned officers or trained professionals are just ordinary people—and perhaps cowards and thugs—who happen to have a special set of skills.

Honor is an old-fashioned idea. It seems quaintly 19th-century today. And it has been under attack for most of the 20th century.

In my terms, a sense of honor is nothing less than the codification of the superego—also known as the “parent” in Transactional Analysis—provided that this inner voice has been properly prepared and firmly established by the person’s mother, father, teacher, priest, coach, and perhaps his or her drill sergeant. In my family, with strong parents on both sides, we heard a lot of “That’s not the way we do things,” “That was a bad choice,” “Don’t be selfish,” “Don’t be small,” and similar admonishments spoken directly into our faces. If a child does not get such a thorough grounding in moral issues and proper choices by the time he or she reaches puberty, then rules that come later in life—even simple ones like “Do not lie, cheat, or steal”—will have little effect. The sense of personal honor, of obligation to something larger and more important than self—and hence “super” ego—will simply not exist within the adult’s mind. Either that, or it will exist but only as an abstraction, an intellectual curiosity, like quantum mechanics, and not something personally relevant and vital to his or her situation.

In traditional Western civilization, men have been ingrained with a sense of honor along the lines of “Do not lie, cheat, or steal,” combined with admonishments to be strong, to protect the weak, to have a firm purpose concerning our jobs and careers, to provide a good home to our families, and to be good citizens. Men are expected—were expected—to become brave soldiers, honest workers, and loyal companions.

Women, on the other hand, have traditionally had a separate sense of honor bound to their role as mothers and the founders of families. A woman’s honor has traditionally been completely physical, centered in her virginity. A woman might lie, cheat, and even steal—in fact, she was often expected to cultivate a certain artfully deceptive nature—but she was expected to defend the space between her legs, reserving it and her sexual favors only for authorized males. And that authority was always defined by other males—father, brother, husband—except in the singular instance that she might choose one man to love and cherish (and presumably obey) for the rest of her life, and tra-la-la. This was the traditional way a society that places great store in family relationships and transfer of property through inheritance tries to keep bloodlines “pure” and avoid giving favors and estates to the products of casual bastardy.

Now that women are taking a more active role in the greater society outside the home and attaining positions of authority, power, and respect, we have to widen the notion of female honor as well. We must expect women to become the same kind of brave soldiers, honest workers, and loyal companions that we require of men. A sense of honor is now a universal human requirement, not reserved to any gender roles.

Unfortunately, the trend in modern society has been moving away from any sense of honor at all. I saw this during my university days in the late ’60s, when I started meeting self-avowed hippies. The hippy lifestyle is based on doing what feels good rather than doing what feels right and appropriate. Smoke a joint, take hard drugs, get drunk, get laid, tune in, drop out—it’s all about personal gratification. That, and not being so awkward and gauche as to call other people’s values and actions into question. People with a sense of honor, with the built-in stop code that makes them think about the consequences of getting stoned or laid, were—and still are—considered “uptight,” “square,” and “rigid.” That is, unhip, uncool, and unpleasant.

A society of careless hedonists, who have no internal moral compass more sophisticated than “It feels good, so do it,” is easier to lead and control. You can sway them with cheap amusements and petty freedoms. And when you turn your back on them, they will sink down in a kind of beatific stupor rather than rising up in arms. Careless hedonists have no grit or gumption—old-fashioned words!—no expectations or goals beyond the next moment, and no sense of self that might wake up and say “No, not here,” “That’s wrong,” and “I won’t do that.”

A sense of honor is considered unfashionable these days, and so is optional. Is it any wonder then that our universities and other institutions, even our military service academies, are willing to let it erode? Is it any wonder that notions of honor and duty are fading into the past?

Or have they merely gone underground, among those of us who remember, waiting for a better day?