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CONNOLLY: The firm morality of a multi-sanction system

Ending the single sanction would encourage reporting and foster a true community of trust

Last week, second-year student Richard Yoder authored an Opinion piece in which he decried the moral failures of the upcoming honor referenda. Yoder’s grievances seem to center on his presupposition that the students spearheading the proposed reforms are not impelled by a driving moral principle. Instead, he finds a movement defined by a “post-modern” attitude, characterized by an utter lack of firm principle or grounding. “I would have more respect for advocates of a multi-sanction system,” Yoder writes. “If they, too, attempted to justify their views based on a moral principle.”

The purpose of this column is to articulate a moral ground on which advocates of a multi-sanction system can rest. But before delving into the meat of this reasoning, I first must point out an important discrepancy in Yoder’s argument. Yoder’s overriding point, that the honor reformers are not grounded in moral principle, seems based on a small interaction with an Honor Committee support officer. But Ian Robertson and Jaeyoon Park, the students leading the reform effort, state, “We have never expressed the opinion that the honor system is not founded on moral principles.” That this small interaction, which inaccurately reflects the views of the reformers, would lead Yoder to conclude the effort for a multi-sanction system lacks principle is problematic.

So: on what ground can a principled advocate of a multi-sanction system stand? Yoder offers some clues in his article, stating, “One must not abolish a rule before one knows why it was first erected.” This reasoning, known as “Chesterton’s Fence,” is a good starting point for recognizing the core purpose of the honor system: to forge a more honorable University community, comprised of honorable individuals. This is and must be the true background of the institution of the single sanction. The single sanction’s survival over the years, as well as its moral underpinnings, are grounded in the view that a single sanction system is the best system that we have for inspiring honesty, for banishing lying and for holding our peers accountable for their actions.

I support a multi-sanction system because I believe such a system would best promote a community where we do not tolerate lying, cheating or stealing. In short, I believe it is the best system for creating the community Yoder and other single sanction advocates also seek: the true community of trust. This is the firm moral ground Yoder was seeking. My experience at this University has taught me the single sanction dissuades students from reporting honor offenses. Students often believe an act of lying, cheating or stealing does merit punishment, but perhaps not expulsion. And so reporting rates remain low as the single sanction inadvertently and somewhat ironically lets offenders off scot free.

The natural answer to this problem, Yoder and others might answer, is to make reporting mandatory. But reporting honor offenses has been optional for decades now, and with good reason, too. No one seems to question this sound rule (at least at this particular moment in our honor discourse). And so it is the single sanction we must blame for low reporting rates, the single sanction we must blame for many of our failures to hold offending students accountable for their actions.

Yoder says, rightly, “Majorities make policies, not truths.” What is the truth, or the moral purity, we seek? Justice? A true community of trust? If so, vote multi-sanction. We need a majority of votes in order to bring us closer to the ideal that we seek.

One often overhears students of this University saying, “Our honor system is broken.” We ought to take such chatter seriously. Remembering the goals of our past, recognizing the failures of our present and following guidance of a strong moral compass into the future, let us vote to restore what the poets say is our best quality: honor, not honor-with-a-capital-H, but just ordinary honor, honor that can be found anywhere.

Can honor be preserved at this University without the single sanction? Unequivocally, yes. Some will argue the single sanction is what distinguishes our honor from that of other schools and places. But they are mostly wrong. Our honor stems not from the single sanction, nor from the purple shadows on the colonnade-swept lawn nor from the majesty of our history. Throw that all away, take us back to when this place was just an ancient forest in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and honor remains. Ultimately, honor is about our shared commitment to leading honest, moral, just, decent lives. If we are more honorable here, it is because students here care more about honor, because honor is prioritized here in a way that is very rare and very special. This, and not anything else, is what makes us Virginian. Letting the single sanction hide this truth for much longer would be a shame.

John Connolly is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at