Cadets at our military academies are supposed to have an honor code. It is engraved in stone on each campus and reads: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do.” Apparently seventy-five cadets at West Point were accused in December of cheating on a calculus exam; so maybe faith in the code is not as strong as it once was.
For some of us, honor is an important part of character that is hardly taught in schools anymore. For some of us, honor comes from the teachings of our family, our fathers and mothers by word and example. And honor has more depth than the cadet code, which is really too easy.
Aside from the simple negatives of not lying, cheating, or stealing, an honorable person has many positive actions he or she needs to undertake. One such is keeping your word. If you make a promise, even one that is merely implied by your assurances to another person, then you are honor-bound to keep it or fail and perhaps die in the trying. One’s word is a commitment, and any pledge is sacred. This applies not only to friends and families but also to the people with whom one associates, perhaps even former and potential enemies. For this reason, an honorable person is not easy or loose with his or her commitments. An examined conscience—and a knowledge of what one’s life is worth, because that person has fully considered the possibility of losing it—necessarily limits the ways and directions in which he or she might spread personal loyalties. Being ready to try and die is serious business. Giving oneself an escape clause, by not really “meaning it,” is the sign of a weak character.
In that same line, an honorable person pays his or her debts. Gambling debts, personal loans, extended credit, even serious favors, and other obligations weigh upon his or her soul. And the sooner they are paid off, the happier the honorable man or woman feels. While he or she will not necessarily reject an offer to rescind a debt or cancel a loan, the honorable person will not seek it. And the person will realize that being forgiven a debt or loan creates further obligations that are moral, personal, and perhaps payable only in the future. All of this is because the honorable person sees existence, life, and one’s passage through it as a kind of balancing act, an attempt at equilibrium. What is taken or accepted must also be paid back or given again. Good deeds are repaid with good. Bad deeds receive retribution. This is not “an eye for an eye,” because vengeance is a choice that can be rejected. But to achieve peace and the benefits of a quiet life, the honorable person must be ready to sacrifice.
The honorable person is not just honest in words but also in actions. That is, he or she lives according to a professed faith and set of beliefs. This does not necessarily require faith in a god—personal or distant—or some other form of supreme being.1 But a life of honor means being consistent as a whole person. Believing, speaking, and acting are a conscious pattern that is based on either a conception of the truth or acknowledgment and acceptance of lies. The honorable person knows that inconsistencies, falsehoods, and the lies told to cover up the inconsistencies creates a pattern: a personal maze full of dead ends, with no clear way through to success, a quiet life, and a good death.
The honorable person also treats others—or at least those whom he or she is prepared to accept as peers—with respect and good intentions. Respect may be offered provisionally, and good intentions may be extended as a gamble, to those with whom the person is unfamiliar or whose status remains in doubt. Enemies once declared may be fought and defeated, but all others should be granted the benefit of the doubt. Respect and benign—if not positively good—intentions create the easiest path for a person to achieve that success, quiet life, and good death. The paths of suspicion, of deceit and double-dealing, of putting personal interests first—all of these lead to chaos. And inviting chaos is not what the honorable person does.
Ultimately, the honorable person serves a higher purpose than satisfying oneself and fulfilling personal desires. Such a purpose may not necessarily involve the sacrifice of surrendering to the needs of other people. It may involve sacrificing in order to hone a talent and develop a skill or an art form that—eventually, in the long run—might give aid or pleasure to others. But for the present, that effort and sacrifice might look like selfishness. Still, it is serving a purpose beyond immediate pleasures and careless actions. Similarly, the person might sacrifice to become a better advocate, or the creator of some useful invention or positive belief system, or a soldier willing to give a life for the benefit of culture, society, or country. This higher purpose is unique to each person —but it is always there.
Compared to these various dimensions of honor, the code of the cadets is just too simple, too easy. And yet, in the December calculus exam, the little boys of West Point could not even serve that. We can weep for them.
1. I myself have no supernatural allegiance to such a being. But I do have faith in the consistency of certain processes: the interactions of physical laws, which we are discovering even now; the operations of evolution to maintain a viable kernel of life in a changing earthly environment; the efficacy of basic moral laws, which play out in different cultures and different times; the beauty of the human mind and of the universe which we inhabit. These things are good enough for me.