Our country’s political system—a representative government operated and maintained by citizens who are selected through regular elections that are open to all other qualified citizens—was designed by men of the 18th-century Enlightenment. These men held many views in common: the importance of personal freedom, the necessity of personal rights and responsibilities, the tyranny of an unchecked majority, and the private nature of a person’s religious beliefs. One idea which would seem to underlie and bind all of these others, and yet is not much discussed, is that of personal honor.1
Personal honor is an old idea. Today, in movies and books, it is most often portrayed as a febrile touchiness, usually associated with the phrase “impugned my honor.” With that phrase, one gentleman asserts that another has said something scurrilous and implied that he is not of good character—having supposedly cheated at cards, insulted a lady, or committed some other social offense—and to relieve this stain upon his honor, the first gentleman challenges the second to a duel, at dawn, with swords or pistols, which will leave one of them dead and the other either exonerated or avenged.2 Personal honor in this sense implies bad temper, ill feeling, and a wasteful spillage of blood.
My understanding of personal honor is much simpler: it is the collection of actions and courses to which a person has, either consciously or upon reflection, committed him- or herself. A person determines that he or she will always speak the truth, deal fairly with others, defend the young and the weak, pay off debts, keep honest books, offer courtesy to those who deserve it, or undertake some other commitment the person deems proper. Likewise, he or she will not lie, steal, break laws, pass rumors and idle gossip, damage another’s character or property through malice or carelessness, or—yes—cheat at cards or other games. Personal honor is the set of promises we make to ourselves. It is the watch our conscience sets upon our actions.
Essential to this definition of personal honor is the notion of integrity. Related to the word “integral,” integrity implies a personal wholeness. One is a complete person, the same in all situations3 and guided by the same commitments and restraints, regardless of circumstances. A person who presents one face to the outside world, such as honest businessman and civic supporter, but acts differently in private, such as cheating on his wife and falsifying his tax returns, cannot be said to have integrity. New Age psychology and sociology aside, a person is not made up of independent cubbyholes which may be filled with whatever seems right in the current situation. We each of us have one face and one soul, if you will, and we need to keep it intact and clean.
That face and that soul are what polite society considers to be a man’s or a woman’s character. Character is the reflection of personal honor in the eyes of others. Character is what leads one person to say of another such things as, “I know John [or Jane], and he [or she] would never …” and fill in your own selection of misdeeds. Character is the peek we have past the eyes, through the skin, and into the soul. Character is the internal image we carry of that other person, the map by which we project his or her actions and responses. Character is what we expect him or her to do or not do under any and all circumstances.
In my view—and, I believe, in the view of those 18th-century gentlemen who designed it—in order to work, a representative democracy requires the participation of people who understand and possess a sense of personal honor. And they are needed not just for democracy to work well, but for it to work at all.
Consider the people who run for office. All they can offer the electorate is their platform and their promises. These are nothing but words, written on paper and spoken on the wind, unless they are backed up by the candidate’s personal honor and sense of integrity. Voters may like what they see in the platform and what they hear of the promises, but they will always filter such words through their perceptions of the candidate’s character.
A candidate who has lied in the past, who has participated in fraud, who says one thing to his or her supporters and another to the inner circle of the campaign—and then been found out in the lie, fraud, or deception—has nothing left to offer the public. He or she may give the people an ironical wink, may suggest that everyone lies and cheats, that all of this belongs to some notion of “the real world,” and that no one is guilty because we are all guilty at some undefined level of original sin. But it won’t wash—or it shouldn’t. And voters who care so much about the platform and the promises that they will ignore the character of the politician who mouths them will eventually be disappointed.
The 20th century4 gave us the politics of the Big Lie. Deception became, in the words of Frank Herbert’s Dune, “a tool of statecraft.” Madison Avenue and the manipulation of public perceptions became a practiced art. Say something often enough, and people will come to believe it. They will slowly but inevitably replace what they know with the sometimes comforting, but more often angering or frightening, images and suggestions upon which the politician, the marketer, or the political party insists. This will all work for a while. A pleasing lie can usually beat out a hard-edged or uncomfortable truth—but only for a while. In the long run, a platform and promises founded on deception and lies will fall apart. In the long run, people’s common sense and the wisdom of crowds—containing the principles and truths your grandmother told you, founded upon her long and eventful life—will come back around to top dead center.
And then, consider the people who actually win the election and intend to run the government. To be effective, they must believe in something greater than themselves, their personal careers, and their perceived advantages. Specifically, those charged with the public trust must believe in the supremacy of the rule of law and the constitution. They must hold to the truth in what they say and do, mindful of the faith that others have invested in them. They must swear to uphold the law. A person without honor or integrity is unlikely to keep these commitments.
Next, consider the character of the voter. If the actions of government and the laws passed by its deliberative body—Congress, Parliament, or Duma—and executed by its leader and his or her associated bureaucracy—President or Prime Minister, administration or cabinet—matter at all, then the voter must take seriously the choices offered in a free election. The individual voter needs to weigh personal preference and perceived advantage against the public good and the rights of others who may have different preferences and advantages. The voter needs to weigh the pleasing platform and the pretty promises against the character of the politician and make the best choices, guided by sober reflection and the voter’s best sense of how the world actually works and where his or her nation and society are currently headed.
One of the tragedies of the Big Lie mentality is its power to render voters eventually immune to truth. They come to feel that truth and the actual nature of things are either unimportant or indecipherable. That all politicians are liars and cheats, or they are indebted to forces external to the polity—Big Business, Big Oil, the United Nations, or the Illuminati—and therefore not to be trusted. That the system is irretrievably corrupt. And worse, that one’s vote does not count. With such a mindset, the voter will shrug, cast the ballot for a pretty promise, and hope for the best.
The voter must also make certain commitments based on personal honor. These include voting according to the rules and not stuffing the ballot box by reappearing in a different precinct under a new identity. A jaded voter who believes in the Big Lie or doubts the integrity of the system has no reason to follow the rules but may manipulate them for private or ideological ends.
And then, once his or her ballot is dropped in the box, the voter must agree to a abide by the results, live with the consequences, and not harbor thoughts of revolution or political action by other means. For a representative democracy to work, the populace must believe in and support its operation, without reservations or contingencies. Democracy is a fragile system. It works because people agree that it works. When they no longer give that agreement, for whatever reason, then more robust systems enforced by the muzzles of guns will take over.
And finally, consider the people who hold the elections and manage the voting process. They are usually volunteers, not politicians nor affiliated with any party or branch of the government. They undertake a duty to manage the polling place, sign in the voters, oversee the casting of ballots, and stand behind the results. The system of representative democracy requires these workers to demonstrate the integrity of the process and expose rule breakers and unfair practices in order to eliminate them. We require their integrity and personal honor to uphold a commitment even higher than that of the people who would run the government in the name of the voters.
These are the many examples of how we depend on private honor to function in the public space. The 18th-century gentlemen believed it could be made to work. Here in the 21st century, we need to reacquaint ourselves with these principles, or the result will be chaos and eventually tyranny.
1. Although the Declaration of Independence does conclude with a mutual pledge of “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
2. Note that it is almost impossible to talk about this kind of honor except in such brittle and antique phrasings.
3. True, people have different roles in life. A man will have different responsibilities and meet different necessities as a business executive than he encounters as a father or a player on the company softball team. Yet the duties and requirements of personal honor lie so close to the core of his character that they govern all situations. A man tells the truth to—and does not steal from—his business partners, his children, or his teammates.
4. In retrospect, a really bad time for the human race.