In a mandatory writing class, my professor emphasized proper citation of sources. She gave an example of what NOT to do based on her membership on the university’s board that investigates alleged lapses of academic integrity. One accused student defended himself by throwing his mother under the bus: “It wasn’t my fault. My mother wrote the paper. She made the mistake.” When confronted, the student made a truthful statement, but the situation from which it arose from wasn’t honorable.
Is the concept of honor a farce? The US President signed a “National Character Counts Week” proclamation endorsing honesty, integrity, and respect for others, ironically while in the midst of an impeachment inquiry for malfeasance:
NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim October 20 through October 26, 2019, as National Character Counts Week.
American citizens deserve to have confidence in the integrity of elected and appointed officials, expecting that they will conduct themselves ethically and responsibly. While a lie detector test is not required for office, we assume that our leaders will have upstanding character, an implied social contract. Additionally, they swear an oath of allegiance to the US, an explicit vow before witnesses and God: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.” We expect honorable behavior, to include studying, or at least reading, the Constitution that they are pledging to uphold.
Trust is a bedrock value of relationships, whether it concerns a spouse, a friend, or the government. A critical element of trustworthy behavior is honor. At a recent gathering, three of my classmates spoke about their interactions with the US Military Academy honor system. West Point’s honor code: “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do” gives voice to a bedrock value for the United States Corps of Cadets. When new officers drive out the gate after graduation, they may have discarded cadet uniforms, but the expectation is that they have internalized the concept of honor.** Reciting the code or writing about character is simple; putting the principle into practice is hard, as the precept, “Choose the harder right over the easier wrong” reminds. Striving to live ethically is not one-and-done, but distinguishes an honorable citizen or public servant from someone who acts in self-interest. Then as now, the toleration clause challenges adherents to judge an action independently of friendship or affinity.
From his perspective as a former honor rep, Jim reflected: “Many people no longer accept objective truth as a real concept, or even a desirable approach to living. This, of course, leads to many fractures and polarization in civil society. If truth is relative, then lies are a matter of opinion… Intent is an element of the crime. If I intend to deceive, I am lying; if I am wrong about something, that does not rise to the level of a lie.” For example, one classmate was written up for “Gross lack of judgment: bringing discredit upon the United States of America and the US Corps of Cadets.” Apparently, the cadet urinated on the United Nations during a field trip to NYC. His offense violated regulations (and prudence), but there was no intent to deceive since the incident occurred during daylight.***
The Character Counts proclamation instructs: “Americans fortify our Nation’s ideals and influence future generations by leading lives governed by principle and conviction. By their example, they remind us that character is developed consciously through exemplary effort and respect for others… The good character of our people is vital to maintaining our freedom. The strength of our Union and the defense of our precious liberty require both constant vigilance and moral clarity.”*
If honesty is waning, what are the implications for the future of society? Who or what institutions can we trust? Who will guard our country’s honor, defend the checks and balances of branches of government, and uphold founders’ values? That responsibility belongs to all of us because “Our Nation is only as strong as the virtue and character of our citizenry [which includes its leadership].“*
Act so people remember you as a synonym for honor, not an antonym. Be the trust you wish to see in the world.
© Joan S Grey, 25 OCT 19
IndexCardCure™: “a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way”
Acknowledgment statement: I acknowledge the help of my West Point 1980 classmates: Collin Agee, John Agoglia, and Jim Campbell for their insights and observations on honor and edits on this blog.
* Presidential Proclamation on National Character Counts Week, 2019; issued on October 18, 2019
**A West Point graduate found to have lied, cheated, stolen, or tolerated is not required to relinquish his/her class ring. But in the middle of the night, the “ghostly assemblage” of the Corps may poke at the conscience of a transgressor.
***Based on my memory. Memories can be faulty.
For more information on this topic, check out Countering Truth Decay: A RAND Initiative to Restore the Role of Facts and Analysis in Public Life