Honor Versus Justice

Are “honor courts”, like those used at the University of Virginia, appropriate for handling cases of college cheating?

To answer, we need to explore briefly what “honor” and “justice” are about. Because they are not about the same thing.

There are two kinds of honor: (a) our own self-respect and (b) the respect accorded us by others.

Self-respect comes from integrity, the consistency of our behavior with our standards. We feel shame or guilt when we let ourselves down by doing something that we believe is wrong. That feeling moves us to correct the harm we’ve done and avoid doing it again.

The respect of others, in an honor system setting, is the trust the faculty affords students. Students are trusted to do the right thing, on their own, without someone standing over their shoulder.

So far, so good. But now we come to the “honor court”.

An “honor court” defends the honor of the student body. It has but a single penalty, expulsion. The message is that “we will not tolerate cheats among us”. By this action, students expect to command respect from the adults in the academic community.

Sounds cool, right? Well, not so much after you lookup “honor killing” in Wikipedia. Outrageous? Not after you learn about the duel at the University of Virginia that resulted in a teacher’s death, and also gave birth to the “honor court”. You see we’re still talking about the same stuff here, “honor”.

The fact is that some things done in the name of “honor” are dishonorable and immoral.

And that brings us to “justice”. An “honor court” and a “court of justice” have very different goals.

Justice seeks to restore the balance of rights. These include the rights of the victim, the accused, the guilty, and the community. The victim has a right to reasonable recompense or repair of the damage suffered. The accused has a right to a fair trial. The guilty one has a right to a fair penalty. The community has a right to an effective penalty, one that reasonably prevents further victims.

To be effective, a penalty should provide reasonable assurance the offense will not be repeated. To be fair, a penalty should go no farther than that.

What penalty is both fair and effective the first time a student cheats on a test?

The most comprehensive study of college cheating was conducted by William Bowers while at Columbia University in New York. He surveyed 5000 students from 99 colleges. Two findings are especially relevant. First, 50% of the students admitted cheating at least once in college (either copying during a test, using crib notes, plagiarizing, or submitting someone else’s paper). Second, of those who admitted cheating on a test, at least 45% reported they did it only once (choices were “never”, “once”, “a few times”, or “several or many times”).

If 45% of those who cheat on a test stop on their own, without being caught, and with no penalty except their own shame, how do we justify kicking these students out of college on the first offense?

Expulsion cannot be justified unless there is some clear evidence that a lesser penalty would be ineffective.

A more appropriate penalty would be failing the test or the course, counseling, probation (taking the next few tests under surveillance), or a number of other more appropriate, but less dramatic, interventions.

If we’re dealing with an incorrigible, repeat offender, then don’t be shy about kicking him out. But this should be a last option, not the only option.

So, here we are with two options. Handling cheating cases in an “honor court” or handling them in a “court of justice”. It depends on your objective.

Here is a small wisdom:

Those seeking honor for honor’s sake alone are self-serving, and undeserving.

Those seeking justice for the sake of being just, have also earned honor, even though they did not seek it.

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