Honor Principle

Policy and the Honor Principle

Sid Rothstein ’09

The Honor Principle is great, but it makes things rather complicated here at Reed because we have policies too. We have significantly fewer than other colleges (four or five depending on how you count: Sexual Harassment Policy, Academic Honesty Policy, Drug and Alcohol Policy, Dog Policy, Kid Policy), but we have enough to make things complicated. Here’s the problem: how can more than one system of norms consistently guide our behavior? Almost by definition, either the Honor Principle trumps policy, or policy trumps the Honor Principle; and, if this is true, why would we go through the trouble of having two sets of norms when we could have just one? Below I share my view of the relationship between policy and the Honor Principle, and explain why we have both.

We have policies for at least two reasons, one external and the other internal. The federal government is a good place to look for policies, so it might as well take some of the blame for ours. In order to receive necessary federal funding, colleges are required to have a written Drug and Alcohol Policy as well as a Sexual Harassment Policy. So one reason we have policies is that they help secure the funding that keeps the lights on.

Other policies arose organically, indicating our community’s failure to self-govern in certain areas. The Dog Policy, for example, is an admission that, as a community, we failed to develop community norms regarding the role of dogs on campus (The Kid Policy is similar – look it up.) A written policy reflects our community’s failure to reach consensus, and the subsequent need to rely on a non-negotiable rule in order maintain a livable (but not ideal) environment.

Policy is what you follow without, or despite, thinking: I choose to leave my dog on a leash because I’ll “get in trouble” if I don’t. The Honor Principle is what you follow because you think: I choose to unleash my dog because I know I can trust him. How can you follow both policy and the Honor Principle? If I trust my dog, and I follow policy, he remains leashed, but if I follow the Honor Principle, there’s a good chance I will unleash him and violate the Dog Policy. Does this mean that if you want to think, you must violate policy? Well, not always.

Policy obviates the need for thinking because it does all the thinking for you. At Reed, I look at policies as predictions about the Honor Principle. The Dog Policy is a bet that my unleashed dog will unnecessarily discomfit someone, thereby making me responsible for violating the Honor Principle. Policy presents a particular interpretation of probability, and following policy frees you from the responsibility of determining for yourself what the odds are that your action will unnecessarily discomfit someone.

The Honor Principle, conversely, gives you a more real freedom by requiring that you think constantly. Rather than keeping my dog leashed because someone tells me a bad thing might happen, the Honor Principle forces me to judge for myself whether that bad thing really will happen (and to discuss my judgment with others.) This means that in some cases, I can unleash my dog; in others I have to keep my dog leashed, just as I would under policy. The Honor Principle’s freedom is the freedom to decide, but your independent decision is meaningless unless there really are situations where the Honor Principle allows you to do things forbidden by policy. Without question, those situations exist: a policy violation is not necessarily an Honor Principle violation.

So, back to the original question: how can you live in a community where two opposing norms supposedly guide your behavior? For me, it’s easy. I ignore policy, mainly because the Honor Principle allows me to. While I actively ignore policy, upon reflection, it’s rare that I actually violate any specific policies. Often, making choices consistent with the Honor Principle will result in actions consistent with policy. At Reed, with so few policies, the odds are that policies do accurately predict Honor Principle violations - but don’t take my word for it.

For an excellent article on the Honor Principle and policy, see “The Reed Law, or Why the Honor Principle is Better than Oral Sex” from the 1978 Student Handbook.