Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2010

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Honor Code 101

Honor Code 101
Outside Palmer Auditorium, members of the Class of 2014 sign a matriculation pledge. During the Convocation ceremony that follows, students vow to uphold the honor code. Photo by A. Vincent Scarano.

Philosophy Professor Simon Feldman issues a challenge to incoming freshmen at convocation

excerpted from original speech delivered by Feldman on Sept. 2, 2010


The Connecticut College matriculation pledge:

“I accept membership into Connecticut College, a community committed to cultural and intellectual diversity. I understand my obligation to this community under the Honor Code and pledge to uphold standards of behavior governed by honor. I pledge to take responsibility for my beliefs, and to conduct myself with integrity, civility and the utmost respect for the dignity of all human beings. I pledge that my actions will be thoughtful and ethical and that I will do my best to instill a sense of responsibility in those among us who falter.”

A few seconds ago you all pledged to take responsibility for your beliefs. What could that mean?

One good possibility is that it means you should to be “true” to your beliefs. You should “translate your beliefs into action.” Or, in pledging to take responsibility for your beliefs, you were pledging to be “true to yourselves.” Could it be that the ideal of being true to yourself is at the core of the Honor Code?

Being true to yourself means not failing to be true to your beliefs out of weakness of will. If you've ever done something while feeling at that very moment that you shouldn't be doing it, then you know what weak will is. You smoke a cigarette even though you resolved to quit five minutes ago. You sit on the couch eating Sun Chips and watching “Family Guy” instead of going to the gym. Or, in the following, entirely hypothetical scenario, you party with your friends instead of writing your philosophy paper, and in the morning you guiltily download one from philosophy-essays-that-don't-suck.com and turn it in as your own.

The idea here is that in pledging to take responsibility for your beliefs, you've pledged not to be weak willed, and this means, to put it harshly, that you've given up the right to make excuses for doing what you know is wrong.

A correlate of this renunciation of excuses is that being true to yourself means standing up for your beliefs even if they're unpopular. It means you shouldn't sit and let things pass by out of embarrassment or fear of criticism.

If someone says or does something that you think is wrong or offensive, you should let it be known; you should explain your position. Of course it may not be reasonable to expect everyone to be able to do this all the time. So it's worth noticing that the requirement to be true to our own beliefs gives us reason to stand up for others too.

Another, perhaps less obvious, implication of pledging to take responsibility for your beliefs and being true to yourself is that, in doing so, you have thereby committed to take responsibility for your actions. To take responsibility for what you do is to acknowledge the existentialist thought that your behavior constitutes who you are. To fail to take responsibility for what you do is to deny that your behavior is the basic determinant of who you are, and is, in Jean-Paul Sartre's sense, to be in bad faith. It is to refuse to acknowledge a fundamental truth about yourself, namely that you are a free and responsible person.

The implication for the Honor Code is clear. Taking responsibility for your beliefs requires that you acknowledge what you've done. In the language of empowerment, it means you've got to “own it”; in the language of personal responsibility, it means you've got to “own up to it.” You've got to be willing either to defend what you've done as a matter of conscience or to acknowledge that you've done what you know to be wrong and commit to changing your behavior so that it matches the beliefs that you avow.

But now I want to have a little cruel philosophical fun and turn the tables on you. I want to suggest several huge problems with the idea that being true to yourself is a plausible way of grounding the duties of the Honor Code and with the idea that being true to yourself is an especially good thing at all.

First, note that being true to yourself is a purely formal requirement; it has no particular content. Horrible people can be conscientious; they can be activists for despicable causes and they can take responsibility for what they've done. Should we be inclined to be lenient with a plagiarist who convinced us that, in cheating, he was being true to himself? I'm actually not so sure what the ethical answer to this question is, but as a matter of simple fact, the Honor Code does not work that way. And this is strong reason to doubt that the ideal of being true to yourself can be a grounding for the Honor Code.

A related point is that the duty to be true to yourself is an entirely relativistic one. If given pride of place, the implication would be that so long as you've been true to yourself, no one can make any further claims against you. But is this right? Is this even compatible with the idea suggested a minute ago that you should stand up for your values? What's the point of standing up for what you think is right if, by your own lights, the people who disagree with you should continue to do what they think is right?

The mandate to be true to yourself is also essentially egoistic. Is the reason to stand up for others really that doing so is a way of being true to yourself? This would make our concern for others purely instrumental to our self-concern. This doesn't seem like an especially honorable or virtuous position.

I propose that rather than interpreting the pledge to take responsibility for your beliefs as a conservative pledge to live in accordance with your beliefs, that instead we take it as a pledge to take responsibility for figuring out, prospectively, what to believe. I propose that this responsibility is at the core of the Honor Code and also at the core of a liberal education. Instead of being faithful to some antecedently stable beliefs and values, we've now got three rather different responsibilities:

1. Instead of being confident in our beliefs and sticking to them, we've got to try to figure out why we believe what we do and whether we have good reasons for believing it. It means doing intellectual work before, during and after we act.

2. Instead of going straight to the project of convincing others that we are right, we should commit to what philosophers call the Principle of Charity. This means trying to understand others in the best possible light and seeing the sense in what other people think, even and perhaps especially when it looks crazy to us. This requires serious listening and hard interpretive work.

3. We've got to try to reconstruct our own beliefs, integrating, wherever possible, what we've learned from others. This means you've got to do your own hard work. There's no way to figure out what to believe without slogging through the messy possibilities and burning some serious mental rubber of your own. Quite literally, no one else can do that work for you.

Now, about the commitment to “cultural and intellectual diversity” that you all just made in the pledge. Why did you commit to this?

One might think that a commitment to diversity stems from the thought that none of us has any privileged justification for what we think or how we live. This kind of relativism can be a little disorienting but also has a nice and open-minded ring to it. After all, we'd be grounding the commitment to diversity in the seemingly democratic thought that, ultimately, no one is better or “more right” than anyone else.

But what should we say to or about people who are not committed to cultural or intellectual diversity or who don't think everyone deserves to be treated civilly and respectfully? Does committing to diversity mean that we must also value the expression of uncivil and disrespectful perspectives? On the one hand, if it did, then we'd obviously be defeating our commitment to civility and respect. But if it didn't, then it seems we've got to abandon our “open-minded” relativistic justification for valuing diversity in the first place and “own up” to the truth that we are claiming a definite and privileged moral high ground.

The Honor Code and the pledge are filled with the language of a robust moral metaphysics: “honor,” “integrity,” “respect,” “human dignity.” The commitment to diversity you've just undertaken does not sit easily alongside the thought that everyone's opinion is “equally valid.” But it does sit quite nicely with the thought that taking responsibility for our beliefs is one of the most important things we can do because that requires learning from each other. And incivility and disrespect make such learning pretty much impossible.

OK, now an exciting conclusion with some rousing advice:

If you're going to take college as an opportunity to keep your pledge to take responsibility for what to believe, then I really hope you won't be true to yourselves.

Don't worry about contradicting yourself or being a hypocrite or a phony — it's called changing, and you're allowed to do it. Try on new ideas and theories and see what they feel like from the inside. Wear clothes you wouldn't have been caught dead in in high school. Listen to new music — the kind of music that last week you thought was for losers. Willingly subject yourself to the charge of being an inauthentic pseudo-intellectual poser. If no one thinks that about you, you're probably not learning anything. Instead of being true to yourself, pretend to be someone different and I virtually guarantee you'll make new friends, not be bored and, in all likelihood, find a major that surprises and compels you. It's going to feel weird. You're going to feel alienated from who you think you are. But this is a good thing. It means you are stepping outside your comfort zone, otherwise known as the comfortable delusion that you have a true self that you've got to stick to.

I expect I haven't convinced many of you that you shouldn't be true to yourselves. But if you agree at least that trying to figure out what to believe about important things is one of the main points of college (and life for that matter), then I think you've taken the first step toward my counterintuitive position. Short of that, I hope you are thoroughly confused.


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