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Honor Code: The Morality of Lying

February 28, 2017

From listening to bedtime stories to the teachings in religions, in some way or another, we are introduced to the negative consequences of lying. And here at Holderness School, we have our own reminder of the tale Pinocchio – the Honor Code. On Monday, February 27, 2017 the entire student body and staff signed their names under the Honor Code that took exactly 17 minutes. At the end of it, we all felt a little more officially bound to the contract of honesty.


If this Honor Code is boiled down to one phrase, it would be: “to act in the spirit and intention of honesty; to do the right thing even if no one is looking.” This very essence of the Honor Code encourages students and faculty to exercise the principles of morality at all times because that would always be “the right thing to do.” So does that mean that telling a lie, even a white lie, is a violation to the Honor Code, a violation to one’s own dignity and a violation to the universally upheld ethical law that governs humankind?  Immanuel Kant, an influential 18th century German philosopher, would answer yes.


In fact, if this Honor Code could be embodied by one person, it would be him. Kant believed that lying was always morally wrong. He believed that humans are born with “dignity” that gives us the ability to make free choices and rationalize our decisions. Because of this, he cogently argued that lying is corrupting our own dignity, the very essence that makes us human and robs us of our unique gift of free will. A cursory glance at this principle might show that it is well-founded. But when put into an extreme situation, and I agree that this is quite a peculiar case, this theory might not hold true. Below is a classic example that was proposed by Benjamin Constant in 1797 to contradict Kant’s theory. Constant proposed a situation where your best friend is being chased down by a murderer and she or he is trying to hide in your house. The murderer then came knocking on your door and asked where your best friend is. Would you then tell him the truth?


It would be absurd in this situation to tell the murderer the truth, for he will be able to complete the murder, with you as an accomplice. In a sense, your “moral sense” (hopefully) tells you that the murderer doesn’t quite “deserve” the truth, and you don’t want to get your friend killed either so you don’t tell the murderer where your friend is. As one can see, Kant’s principle (which we established earlier symbolizes the Honor Code) did not hold in this very situation.


Now perhaps you are not quite satisfied with the extremity of this case and still want to stand up for Kant (and the Honor Code). Here is another situation more conventional to everyday life. Picture yourself receiving a gift from your best friend, a pair of socks that are just downright hideous. Now in this situation, would you tell her the truth: “Wow, they are really ugly.” Or would you say something more along the line of “they are great,” a blatant white lie?


In these two cases, why are we more inclined to choose the other option that clearly contradicts our moral sense? Is there another force at work that influences our decision? Clearly. It’s common sense, an ability that allows us to recognize the foreseeable consequences. It was easier to avoid the bad consequence because they are foreseeable: the death or disheartenment of your best friend. But what happen if they aren’t so easily predicted?


I remember back in Vietnam when I was in grade 8th. There was a kid who, one time, didn’t do her homework for three days straight. When asked, she would mention excuses that the teacher assumed were lies. Instead of asking why the student was lying, the teacher ignored the ability of the student to explain herself. She proceeded to call the kid’s parents and told them the truth. The following day, there were bruises on the girl’s arms.


Undoubtedly, this was not the intended outcome the teacher wanted. She, being from Canada, did not quite understand the mentality of Vietnamese parenting when it comes to education. The point here is that, evidently, there are multiple invisible forces at work and always relying on a code of honor isn’t enough. Teachers rarely know students’ personal family situation and sometimes, like in this situation, a phone call or a quick jump to conclusion can prove detrimental to a student’s life.


Perhaps, moral sense is about more than just telling the truth. It’s about forgiveness, empathy and the mindset that there is always more than meets the eye. The distinction between being honest and being moral is the fact that doing something morally right can sometimes encompass things society frowns upon or go against a set of rules. Perhaps, it is more important to treat each other with dignity and kindness, rather than acting on one’s own dignity or set of rules. Perhaps, Holderness needs a Moral Code instead of an Honor Code. Because despite the fact that we all signed the honesty contract, this school – and maybe the world – is better off with a lie or two.

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