Honor Principle

Honor as action

Chris Moses ’02

A great deal of discussion surrounding the Honor Principle takes shape in positioning personal freedom—usually characterized by some extreme example of individual indulgence— against the notion of community norms, typically given as a generic and uncontroversial way of life. An example might be: you should not see yourself as being able to play your stereo loudly at three in the morning because it helps you study and perform at your best. It is an unarguable point that the majority of the community reserves that time for the enjoyment of quiet and peaceful rest.

This type of description highlights two basic points that most agree are very important facts of life under the Honor Principle. First: that one must make an effort to understand the expectations for fairness (equal treatment), ethical behavior (academic and professional honesty), and personal comfort (physical and emotional safety) existing within the Reed Community, and take heed to respect them such that you are also enjoying their benefit. Second: that no individual liberty or right exists to the extent that its exercise causes unnecessary harm or discomfort to another individual, group, or to the community as a whole. The first is a generally positive assurance of rights for everyone (being able to both sleep and study) and the second a more specific proscription of rights for the individual (loud music at three in the morning does more to prevent, rather than promote, studying and sleeping).

This sort of description does a good deal of work in explaining the Honor Principle, and in fact offers a fairly accurate description of how it functions in community documents and through the officiation of the Judicial Board. My reason for offering it, however, is not to canonize it further, but rather to point out a problem I have with its inability to offer a viable definition for what the Honor Principle actually is; for its failure to provide a way for discussing and debating life at Reed College that does not resort to ephemeral ideas and Noble Truths that do not have any value other than fuelling circular debate and self-congratulating rhetoric. My method for doing so is in no way original, but I think it a worthwhile exercise for this particular discussion.

The problem with the above characterization of the Honor Principle is that its goal is to serve as a mode of judgment in pragmatic circumstances – ones unique to specific times and places—while maintaining that these judgments somehow conform to an independent standard, to a principle of honor. I think this limits us because we are always trying to come up with some idea that will not only describe, but order and clarify, all that conduct which has both supported and violated the Honor Principle, past, present, and future, and we fail, if only because such tasks are reserved for the gods.

What I would suggest as an alternative is a more concrete, yet far more reaching, definition for discussion: that the Honor Principle is quite simply the way of life you have chosen to adopt by becoming a member of the Reed Community; that it is forever changing with individuals’ development, circumstance, and people’s arrivals and departures from the community; and that it is not so much an expectation, but an obligation, for how you bring yourself to action. As a “way of life” the Honor Principle is a commitment to the fact that intellectual growth, education, and creative self-realization occurs best in a community committed to the values of trust, honesty, and rigorous commitment to school-work; that these values are beliefs and represent choices that necessarily exclude other values and thus can be used to both promote and curtail behavior (plurality against uniformity; debate against censorship and Truth; self-sacrifice against self-indulgence); and that they exist in “principle” only to the extent that they inform the way we simultaneously live our lives as a community.

By making the Honor Principle the way we act as Reedies, day in and day out, rather than a standard that we sometimes compare ourselves and others to (eitcharles at moments of contention or of pride), I think we properly assume the tremendous responsibility needed to maintain Reed as the excellent school that it is. Further, we understand the consequences— positive, negative, and ambivalent—that our beliefs and actions always and already entail . Only with vigilant practice can we make the language of Honor truly principled.