YODER: The moral failures of the honor referenda

Support officers’ multi-sanction movement belies a post-modern moral philosophy that could undermine the system

Not long ago, a curious thing happened to me. While dining with a friend, I was approached by two members of Honor. They attempted to convince us to sign a few petitions for some referenda. In the course of our conversation, it became clear that all of the proposals — though most explicitly the third — related in some way to the institution of a multi-sanction system. I declined, saying that I considered the matter closed after the previous vote. My interlocutor directed me to the question of student IDs, arguing that our opinions on whether or not flashing a fake ID constitutes an honor offense may have changed and thus the policy should change. When I objected that, although opinions may change, moral principles do not, he promptly replied that the Committee is not based on moral principles.

I appreciate this moment of honesty. Never before have I heard so openly the postmodern underpinnings of the multi-sanction movement. And this, I believe, is perhaps the greatest flaw of that movement’s discourse.

To admit outright that the Committee isn’t interested in operating according to moral principles is to argue for honor’s abolition. If the Committee is unwilling or unable to support its powers through moral argument, then we might as well relegate its work to the University Judiciary Committee. After all, what really differentiates lying, cheating and stealing from other offenses, if not some factor grounded in moral reason? The standard reply about “fostering a community of trust” is helpful but inadequate. Surely the crimes adjudicated by UJC are also an assault on that community.

As it is, there’s no point in maintaining an honor code if we are unwilling to let it work as a force for a certain kind of moral order informed by ethical reason. Of course, the multi-sanction advocates have their ethical rationalization — "accurate and fair representation" or, if they are feeling particularly Jeffersonian, "student self-governance." Here we hit on one of the fundamental flaws of the proposal.

Majorities make policy, not truth. Normally this persistent fact wouldn’t matter, but in the case of the Committee, it becomes rather pertinent indeed. Opponents of these alleged “reforms” can point to particular principles — justice, for one — for their position. I would have more respect for the advocates of a multi-sanction system if they, too, attempted to justify their views based on a moral principle. Student self-governance is at best a procedural value and at worst a platitude. Though useful, it is not a good in itself. What’s more, the question to be decided is not principally procedural in nature, and thus requires a more thorough and incisive discussion.

But it will be impossible to have that discussion if the advocates for a multi-sanction system maintain that the Committee is not concerned with morality as such. To argue or imply, as the authors of Referendum Item One do, that the “fundamental purpose” of honor is student self-governance is to err grievously. It is also historically inaccurate. The Committee has its roots in the proposal of a professor following the grim violence between students and faculty in the early years of the University.

The idea upon which these “reformers” are basing their measures is a type of postmodern moral philosophy — albeit a half-baked one. It is little more than an attitude. Nevertheless, if that attitude is common among would-be reformers, then the question of honor sanctions becomes something far greater than the particular nostrums we’ll face on the ballot. It will force us to examine the very purpose of the Committee. Are we, in keeping with past generations, to regard the Committee as the guarantor of a just order — the so-called community of trust? Or is the Committee nothing more than a vehicle for resume building and for the punishment of offenses not fundamentally different than any others? Is the Committee to rest on truth or the will of the students? They are not identical.

I am reminded of Chesterton’s Fence, the prudential law that dictates that one must not abolish a rule (“a fence”) before one knows why it was first erected. The single sanction was put in place for a moral reason, yet advocates of reform continue to ignore that justification in a populist appeal to student self-governance. We ought to eschew such imprudence.

One final note — it is disingenuous in the extreme of those behind the referenda to act as if their measures are not oriented around and intended for the institution of a multi-sanction system. The third referendum puts the question to us now, though in a non-binding way. Item two means we’d see it next year. And item one ensures that, should the others fail to pass, the issue will never go away. If that is to be the case, they better come up with some real moral arguments.

Richard Yoder is a second-year in the College.

related stories