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Everyday Ethics

The Question of Honor

As an Honors student writing my Honors thesis and purportedly adhering to numerous Honor codes at Penn State, I am obliged to reflect on the concept of "honor." What does it mean to be honorable? Should I be honored because I am in the Honors College, because of academic success...or is it more than that? The term "honor" appears to me to have two very distinct uses. First, there is the honor associated with academic distinction, athletic performance, and extracurricular leadership. But then there is also the honor that can't be written down, formatted and pasted on a r�sum�, the kind of honor that requires integrity and strength of character. Unfortunately, this more profound sense of honor, this deep-seated self-assurance and conviction of purpose is not something that can be easily identified; this sort of honor can only be affirmed by observing an individual's actions over time and in critical moments of mental and physical duress.

As an Honors student writing my Honors thesis and purportedly adhering to numerous Honor codes at Penn State, I am obliged to reflect on the concept of "honor."  What does it mean to be honorable?  Should I be honored because I am in the Honors College, because of academic success...or is it more than that?  The term "honor" appears to me to have two very distinct uses.  First, there is the honor associated with academic distinction, athletic performance, and extracurricular leadership.  But then there is also the honor that can't be written down, formatted and pasted on a r�sum�, the kind of honor that requires integrity and strength of character.  Unfortunately, this more profound sense of honor, this deep-seated self-assurance and conviction of purpose is not something that can be easily identified; this sort of honor can only be affirmed by observing an individual's actions over time and in critical moments of mental and physical duress. 

Now, while in practice the assumption is that those who achieve distinction possess this integrity, it is certainly not always the case.  We frequently hear about the debauchery of distinguished politicians, the perversion of high priests, and the corruption of decorated law enforcement officers in the evening news.  And we are extremely reluctant to call them honorable, despite their impressive accomplishments.  Equivalently, students who have gleaned a certain degree of distinction - whether in school, on the field, or in the community - do not necessarily possess the high degree of integrity required for this more profound sense of honor.  And this becomes an issue for the faculty and administrators of the Honors College, as they undoubtedly do not wish to produce merely accomplished students, but truly honorable individuals. 

For the Honors College, the question then becomes -- how can instructors and advisors instill students with this more profound variety of honor?  Should coursework be delivered in a broader context - that is - perhaps a broader political, economic, and moral context?  Should more emphasis be given to the implications of certain practices, rather than to their mere execution?  How can students be encouraged to reflect on their values and to develop an internal moral compass?  Moreover, how will they know when they have succeeded?

As for the students, we should be asking ourselves - what do I value?  What do I consider my virtues? Am I truly committed to any ethical paradigm, or do I just pretend to subscribe to a general sense of morality without really considering the implications of my views and actions?  Would I really consider myself an honorable person?