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The Honor Code is broken

<h6>Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

The Honor Code was one of the first things I learned about Princeton. It was one of the contributing factors to my decision to attend the University — I wanted to be in a place based on trust. I recently read a 1996 op-ed in The Daily Princetonian from then-Contributing Columnist Ilya Shapiro ’99, in which he laments that the Honor Code was more a slogan than a reality. 25 years later, I find that things are much the same. The problem is simple: the Honor Code is not fundamentally based on honor.

The Honor Code was established at Princeton in 1893 — when Princeton still had heavy Presbyterian influence. In a religious context, it’s not hard to see why it might be effective. Cheating on an exam is an offense against the University. Swearing falsely is an offense against God. But Princeton has been a secular institution for almost 200 years, and the student body is not, on average, particularly devout. The Honor Code has a grounding problem: what is it based on?

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From my first few months at the University, the answer has become painfully clear: the Honor Code, or whatever is left of it, is based on fear. In the Honor Council’s briefing to the Class of 2024, the severity of being suspected of breaking the Honor Code, the painfulness of the ensuing process, and the drastic nature of the consequences if found guilty, received significant airtime. Almost every example presented was an example of carelessness, not intentional cheating. But, to the best of my memory, at no point did the presenters appeal to the honor of the incoming class.

In an interview with me, Honor Committee Chair Wells Carson ’22 confirmed my impression of the Honor Code. 

“I don’t necessarily think that a student at Princeton is by default more honorable,” he said. “But I think because of the Honor Code they’re held to a higher standard. Their actions are required to be more honorable because of the system.”  When asked what his primary message would be to incoming students, he summarized his understanding of the Honor system. “The Honor Code is a system that creates accountability for all parties involved,” he added, “I sincerely hope it’s not only instilling fear.”

If I understand Carson correctly, his theory of the Honor Code is that the existence of the Code creates a culture of accountability based on principles that are generally agreed upon as honorable. But despite Carson’s hope that this is a system that goes beyond fear, I fail to see how this holds up. It’s true that fear of being sent to jail is only a small part of the reason I didn’t rob a bank today. But the law can only take responsibility for the fear part, since that’s the only part of my incentive structure that it affected. The Honor Code’s only contribution to the calculus of academic integrity is the fear of the consequences if you get caught. Either way, personal honor doesn’t figure in at all.

The truth is that a campus actually based on personal honor would look very different. Ilya Shapiro imagined a school where professors release all final exams at once and students could choose how to pace their exams. But we all know that the Honor Code doesn’t actually do anything to inspire such trust on its own.

Cheating in elite high schools is an open secret — and many of Princeton’s students come from such institutions. While Princeton has, on average, trusted students more than its peer schools, laudably skipping the Proctorio exam software during the COVID-19 pandemic, enforcement still takes precedence over trust. Professors know what environments students have come from and take appropriate preventive measures.

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The Honor Code today relies heavily on peer reporting. Students have long felt uncomfortable reporting peers of cheating. A 2009 report from The Daily Princetonian found that of 85 students who reported seeing someone cheat, only four reported it. Again, professors know this and take steps to compensate. At the end of the day, Shapiro’s dream of a campus based on trust doesn’t fit with what we know about the student body.

But Princeton’s decision to accept the Honor Code as a system of external incentives rather than developing students’ honor is a failure. Suggesting that students are naturally dishonorable doesn’t give the admissions process enough credit. The problem isn’t that students don’t have a code of honor — it’s that they don’t think cheating (or lying on an honor statement) falls within it. If you gave Princeton students a range of ethical situations, many would often do the right rather than the self-serving thing. But in environments where cheating is prevalent, cheating may not seem that bad.

Fixing a values gap is no easy lift. The ephemeral question of whether virtue can be taught is too thorny to resolve here, but we can at least make an effort to make this one virtue universal. We need to change how we talk about cheating.

We don’t discourage sexual assault by emphasizing the strict penalties; we discourage it through a focus on the human consequences of the act. We need to reframe the discussion around cheating in the same way — you shouldn’t cheat because cheating is wrong, not because you might get caught.

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Princeton needs to emphasize its values more generally in extracurricular programming. Orientation programming needs to include character-building exercises and genuinely thorny ethical dilemmas which help students develop better moral intuition about such situations. The events should continue throughout the year. Inclusivity is an unshakable norm at Princeton. Honor needs to be elevated to the same status.

Then, the University has to stop abusing the Honor Code for situations that have nothing to do with honor. The reason that students don’t report peers for cheating isn’t due to some gleeful flaunting of the rules. They’re letting a classmate get ahead of them! Instead, students don’t report peers because they don’t think it is the honorable thing to do. 

Does the University disagree with this assessment? Do they think that obedience should always take precedence over empathy and friendship in the ideal Princetonian? Or are they cynically abusing the term honor to make up for integrity they can’t instill in individual students?

When I asked Carson about student reporting of Honor Code violations, he expressed his hope that students would come forward when they saw cheating during in-class examinations but refused to make a judgement on the integrity of students who didn’t come forward. “I think it would be near-sighted that every student should have the same idea on integrity and what they think is right as me,” he said. This puts a fine point on the murky nature of the application of Honor Code as an absolutist principle to such a difficult situation. Rules are sometimes arbitrary. But the word “honor” shouldn’t be used unless it’s meant.

Then we get to the most heavy-handed use of the disciplinary proceeding — penalizing students for improper collaboration, especially in the computer science department. A 2015 analysis from the Washington Post noted that computer science departments at colleges across the country use Honor Codes to crack down on collaboration in a field that is almost entirely based on collaboration. 

But leaving that aside, it’s unclear why collaboration that would be honorable in the math department is dishonorable in the computer science department. Honor doesn’t work like that. It’s worth noting that the University doesn’t use the word “honor” when describing such cases, but the proportionality of the recommended punishments don’t show that the University understands the distinction.

At the same time, there are things that should be covered by the Honor Code. A New York Times analysis of the Princeton Honor Code from 1996 contains a retired anecdote, apparently once told at every orientation. “Years after graduation, several alumni are sitting around reminiscing about the worst things they did in college,” the story goes. “Most of the tales are about pranks, like stealing the moose head from an eating club. But one graduate confesses that he once cheated on an exam. The room falls suddenly silent, and the next day the former student is anonymously reported to the university's Honor Committee.”

The story sounds apocryphal, if not implausible, given what we know about how effective the peer reporting system is. But it also highlights just how ridiculous the current honor system is. Is a prank that ruins the day of one of Princeton’s working class staff members an honorable thing to do while cheating on an exam is verboten? Would these imaginary alumni have bat an eyelid if someone had described breaking COVID protocols, potentially threatening the health of thousands of fellow Americans? We can’t separate honor in academics from honor in general.

Some have suggested retiring the Honor Code altogether — renaming the system what it is: a system of external motivators. That would be the easy way out (though admittedly not as easy as what Princeton will, in all probability, end up doing — changing nothing and continuing to call it the Honor Code). But I haven’t lost hope in Shapiro’s vision of a campus based on earned trust. Is it not still important that Princeton graduates are honorable even without a harsh rulebook?

Secularists have argued for years that we don’t need religion to provide our moral compass. But no one argues that we can replace religious values with nothing. It’s time for the University to add substance to the honor policy and make a genuine effort to inculcate an unshakable sense of integrity among its students.

Rohit Narayanan is a first-year from McLean, Virginia. He can be reached at rohitan@princeton.edu.

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