The Decline (and Fall?) of the Honor System

There was a time in Virginia when a gentleman’s word was his bond. Lying, cheating and stealing were universally condemned as reprehensible. The values of this by-gone era were enshrined in single-sanction honor codes at many Virginia universities. A handful of people paid a high price — expulsion — for violating honor codes. Though harsh, the codes created communities of trust that benefited the vast majority who abided by the rules. Further, the system produced generations of graduates who endeavored to conduct themselves with honor in their personal, work and civic lives.

Moral relativism and situational ethics have been undermining honor codes for years. To many, expulsion seems an excessively harsh penalty. More recently, the codes have come under attack as instruments of classist and racist oppression. The Washington Post, for instance, has attacked the Virginia Military Institute honor code for disciplining a disproportionate number of minority students. Similar criticisms have been leveled against the honor system at the University of Virginia, which some believe is now on its deathbed. When all narratives are widely said to be “socially constructed” to reinforce systems of power, who’s to say what constitutes lying, cheating and stealing anyway?

Alumni groups at UVa, VMI, and Washington & Lee University — not the official alumni associations, but dissident groups like The Jefferson Council, the Spirit of VMI, and the General’s Redoubt — are alarmed by what they see, and they’re pushing back. The first step is to document and explain why honor codes are dying. The following article recently published in The W&L Spectator, an independent student magazine, explores what is happening at W&L. — JAB

by Iain MacLeod ‘22

Washington and Lee University has long been recognized for the distinctive bond of trust within its community. This unique culture has been primarily attributable to our Honor System, which has long stood out from comparable systems or codes at other universities. There are three easily discernable causes for the difference.

First, the Honor System is entirely student-led.[1] Most university honor codes are at least partially governed by the faculty or university administration, emphasizing the youth and tendency towards indiscretion of the student population by implying the need for some form of “adult” oversight. W&L’s system, administered by a democratically elected student committee known as the Executive Committee (EC), recognizes the need for personal responsibility in promoting honorable conduct.

Second, the Honor System operates under a single sanction. Any student found by EC investigation to be guilty of an Honor Violation is given the option to withdraw from the university without any record of their infraction. Students also have the right to appeal to a trial by their peers, but if convicted, they are dismissed from the university with an Honor Violation on their record.[2]

Finally, the Honor System is uncodified; there is no code or list of infractions that exclusively constitutes an honor violation.[3] It would be more accurate to say that the system is incompletely codified since it does have codified procedures for the adjudication of honor matters, and since lying, cheating and stealing have been traditionally understood to be clear violations of one’s honor. It should be noted, however, that lying, cheating and stealing are no longer explicitly represented as such in the current White Book, which is the student handbook for the Honor System.[4]

Unproctored tests and exams are one easily identifiable benefit of Washington and Lee’s unique Honor System. Professors trust students to take examinations according to instructions and without oversight, trusting that they will not cheat. Students also routinely leave their valuable personal belongings (backpacks, laptops, books, etc.) sitting anywhere on campus with complete conviction that their possessions will still be there when they return. Such practices, almost unthinkable in most places, are only possible due to the high standard of conduct traditionally expected from those under the auspices of the Honor System.

While some might argue that this is simply due to the severity of the consequences for violations, the testimony of generations of Washington and Lee students refers these benefits not to the fear of consequences, but to the trust engendered by the commitment all W&L students make when they enroll to behave honorably.


Unfortunately, the community trust that has so long defined Washington and Lee has weakened considerably in recent years. The student body is increasingly factionalized, and apathy or suspicion towards the Honor System and the Executive Committee are common. This dysphoria has not developed in a vacuum. In fact, the shifting perception of the Honor System reflects shifts in the system itself from an implied absolute moral standard to a subjective one.

In the 1918 parallel of the White Book, the Honor System is defined as: “A system of student self-government in which each student pledges his word of honor to his fellow students that he will take no unfair advantage of them in the performance of any college work.” In the next paragraph, it is clarified that “Its [the Honor System’s] essential foundation is justice.”[5] At this time, the system clearly derived its authority from an absolute, or at least an objective, definition of morality.

By 1977, the system was defined thus: “It is important to understand that the system is completely student-administered and concerned solely with those offenses which are considered dishonorable by the student generation involved. The Honor System at Washington and Lee University is summarized in the following statement: ‘A Washington and Lee student is to conduct himself as a gentleman in matters of honor at all times; he is trusted and assumes the obligation to be trustworthy.’”[6] The restriction of the system to offenses against the current student generation did not deny an objective standard of morality, as it refers to an implied absolute standard of conducting oneself “as a gentleman in matters of honor at all times.” Neither did it represent offenses outside the system’s scope as acceptable, but simply sets a limit on the judicial reach of the Honor System.

In the 2000-2001 academic year, the White Book represented honor itself as a subjective concept for the first time, though lying, cheating, and stealing were still established as clear violations.[7] By 2006, lying, cheating, and stealing were represented as only a “historical standard” for the violation of the community’s trust,[8] and by 2015, lying, cheating and stealing were no longer explicitly mentioned in the White Book.[9]

Our current 2021 White Book says: “Each new generation of students defines the Honor System by its actions and the behavior it deems dishonorable. At Washington and Lee, dishonorable conduct is not codified; rather, the Honor System is based upon the principle that any action deemed a breach of the community’s trust will be considered an Honor Violation.”[10] The difference between the standard of honor under the 1918 or even the 1977 system and our current one is no less than the difference between an objective moral standard and a subjective one.

The primary defense for a subjectivized Honor System is to frame any assertion of absolute truth as a form of codification. This establishment of moral subjectivity as foundational to the system has led to its enervation, as an Honor System that is simply a loose sum of its constituents’ views is no better than they are and will sink to their level instead of impelling a higher standard based in self-discipline.

Subjectivity inevitably engenders uncertainty, and uncertainty related to very basic questions pertaining to the Honor System is now uncomfortably common. Incoming freshmen (and sometimes students in other classes) are often confused over what defines an Honor Violation, but the Executive Committee avoids soliciting a standard through democratic means to avoid codifying the system. In practice, only EC members know what standard they exercise behind closed doors at any given moment, but they don’t share that standard with the student body for fear either of violating due process for the accused, or inadvertently codifying the system by sharing their subjective standard. Adding to the feeling that there is really no standard at all, some students and even EC members argue that the subjective nature of the Honor System renders lying, cheating, and stealing potentially permissible if such an idea were ever considered acceptable by the student body.

The clear weakness of this subjective, non-codified system has naturally led some students to call for full codification, which would likely take one of two forms. The newly established code could devolve into judicial authoritarianism through ever-expanding conduct regulation, or it might be designed as a minimalist code which would have no practical bearing on most student conduct. In either case, codification would refocus the system on the process of conduct regulation and not the development and preservation of trust within the community, and the bond shared by generations of Washington and Lee students would be lost. I am firmly against full codification, but I do understand the reasoning behind it, based in the need for operational transparency in the Honor System.

The original Honor System was not subjective and did not suffer from the same transparency issues that have galvanized calls for full codification. Once upon a time, all Washington and Lee students knew that lying, cheating, and stealing were Honor Violations, and understood that our commitment to partial non-codification was not a rejection of absolute truth but the acceptance of our imperfect ability, as imperfect people, to adjudicate it. Students were not expected to determine the standard as they saw it, but to pursue the highest standard they could imagine. Thus, the impetus of conduct management was on the student body at large. Honor Trials were a last resort, not an administrative default, and trust was built within the Student Body, not through EC intervention.


While subjectivity is the primary issue within the current Honor System itself, this problem is exacerbated by defects in the system’s execution. While the two issues are linked, they are distinguishable in the sense that problems with the system’s execution most likely developed, at least initially, independent of the problem of subjectivity.

This defect of execution is primarily based in the increasing partisan activism of the Executive Committee. At some point in recent years, the committee began to treat “promoting awareness” for various clubs and initiatives on campus as one of its primary responsibilities. This practice has raised the EC’s public profile and has resulted in confusion and occasionally recrimination over whether the committee advocates for all students and groups fairly, as well as exacerbating disagreements between factions of students over what fair representation means.

This expectation of advocacy has no basis in the White Book or the Student Body Constitution except in such ideals as “the promotion of college spirit”[11] or “the attainment of those things which will go to make the university greater in every way.”[12] Framing partisan activism as an extension of such ideals is subjective and totally inconsistent with the Executive Committee’s responsibility to represent the entire student body.

The result of this activist shift has been a conflict of interest for EC representatives. The EC’s judicial role, due to the need for confidentiality to ensure due process, is naturally very much out of the public eye. The EC’s self-expanded social function is, by design, highly visible to the student body. The former is an essential responsibility that receives little public praise. The latter in no way aids the execution of the Honor System but does bring the benefit of recognition and affirmation. Under these circumstances, it should surprise nobody with a basic understanding of human nature if EC representatives end up prioritizing their public image over their judicial responsibilities.

This conflict of interest has weakened the Honor System in three ways.

First, the expectation of activism has, independent of partisanship, only added to the already high workload of an EC representative. Most reps have full class schedules, Greek affiliations, and club memberships alongside their EC duties, and adding advocacy and activism to their roles infringes upon the time and energy needed for Honor Matters.

Second, some EC members have used the committee’s increased public platform to advocate for and solidify the Honor System’s subjectivity, aggravating the system’s structural problems.

Third and most consequentially in recent months, the Executive Committee’s activist attitude, combined with the structural weakness of the subjective Honor System, has all but eliminated the line between the personal views of EC representatives and official EC policy. The most glaring example comes from last year’s debate over W&L’s institutional history.

In the wake of the George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery murders, the Executive Committee sent out a Google Form requesting input from the student body on issues of race and Confederate symbols on campus, with the results to be shared in a joint meeting with Washington and Lee’s Board of Trustees.[13] Just two days after that joint meeting, the EC announced its support for changing the name of Washington and Lee University. The committee never clarified whether it supported only Robert E. Lee’s removal as a namesake, or perhaps George Washington as well.[14]

At no time before or after its decision did the Executive Committee attempt to democratically ascertain the holistic view of the student body on Washington and Lee’s name, nor even inform the student body it was considering a statement on the issue. Furthermore, the committee violated W&L’s Student Body Constitution by making the decision in a closed meeting, since the constitution stipulates that EC business meetings must be conducted with the knowledge of the Student Body and include an open portion for the student body to bring forward questions or concerns.[15] [16]

In the aftermath, EC representatives framed their decision as an effort to affirm partisan pro-name-change activism on campus, independent from its representative role. In other words, the committee based its statement in an invented responsibility for social activism independent of (and, by its partisan nature, conflicting with) the committee’s responsibility to impartially represent its constituents.

Even further, a few representatives publicly criticized constituents who spoke against the decision while reassuring those who voiced their support for the name change that the EC would continue to affirm their activism. While the committee attempted to defend this behavior as personal statements by individual members outside of their capacity as representatives, this claim rang hollow considering these personal views had clearly been the basis for an official statement by a representative body.

In their handling of this issue, the Executive Committee intentionally abdicated its responsibility to serve its constituents impartially, violated the Student Body Constitution, and permitted the belittling of its constituents by individual representatives to facilitate and defend an act of partisan virtue-signaling. In other words, the committee sold out to appear culturally relevant.

If partiality on the basis of identity is essential to promoting societal equity, as was claimed by several EC representatives in the aftermath of the committee’s statement, then those same reps could not be impartial in Honor matters without being hypocrites. Of course, the alternative of politicized or discriminatory Honor Investigations is far more alarming than hypocrisy of this kind.

Following their statement of support for a name change, the EC insisted that they remained completely impartial in Honor Matters. We can hope they were, even if that did render some among them hypocrites. That said, the student body had and has no way of knowing for sure due to the confidentiality of investigations. This uncertainty, along with the Orwellian doublethink the EC used to justify blatant partisanship, have caused some on campus to lose trust in the Executive Committee altogether.

Returning to the big picture, subjectivity and administrative activism have both served to concentrate responsibility in the Executive Committee that should be exercised by the student body. The Honor System should not reflect a subjective standard derived from the inclinations of the EC, and the self-determination of individuals and groups on campus should be the responsibility of those individuals and groups themselves.

Again, the Honor System did not always have these problems. For decades it advanced a high standard of conduct whose exercise depended on the student body and which the Executive Committee would intervene to uphold only when absolutely necessary. In older Student Body Constitutions, most administrative and social functions were addressed by independent individuals or committees with general EC oversight, allowing the committee to focus primarily on Honor Matters, and preserving both the committee and the system from the conflicts of interest that are currently weakening both.[17] [18] [19]


Between subjectivity and the concentration of power in the hands of the Executive Committee, the Honor System at Washington and Lee is in a very precarious position. On the one hand, there is the danger of moral anarchy in the current subjective standard of honor. On the other hand, codification, although nominally a solution to subjectivity, raises the specter of judicial authoritarianism or judicial impotency, depending on how the code would be written.

Given these two unappealing alternatives, the Executive Committee’s efforts to promote the current subjective Honor System are understandable, though not excusable. The administrative centralization of the System causes any systemic deficiency to reflect primarily on the EC, so presenting the system as thriving aligns with representatives’ self-interest. The university administration has no incentive to highlight the Honor System’s glaring weaknesses because a favorable public perception is very useful in attracting prospective students. If anything, the enervation of student self-government only helps the Student Affairs bureaucracy consolidate its influence over the student body.

Without a change of course, the community’s trust will continue to be shaken by partisanship and abuse of power until the system is codified or the single sanction is removed — either outcome serving to curb the power of the Executive Committee. In the best-case scenario, last year’s fiasco was enough of a warning to the EC that they will do a better job of at least appearing impartial in the future. The current EC has made some effort to avoid blatantly partisan rhetoric like that seen last year, but still sent an email expressing unqualified support for those demanding a name change after the Board of Trustees voted to retain the name last June. Thus, it is unclear whether we have settled into an uneasy status quo or remain on a path towards a more consequential reckoning with the current system’s weaknesses.

Either way, the status quo is insufficient because it promotes subjectivity. Full codification is also unacceptable because it shifts the focus of the system to controlling conduct administratively instead of encouraging self-government. Repealing the single sanction would signify that dishonorable behavior is tolerable within the community, thus killing the system for good by violating its fundamental premise that all Washington and Lee students must act honorably.

There is only one escape from this dilemma: a public recommitment to the existence of an absolute standard of honor, and the self-restriction of the EC to its proper judicial role through the abandonment of partisan social advocacy and activism to its proper sphere in the student body. While individuals of different philosophies or religions might disagree on the exact nature of the appropriate standard of honor, lying, cheating and stealing at least clearly constitute dishonorable behavior, and the partial non-codification of the system would prevent the frailty or prejudice of any one individual or group’s standard of honor from hijacking the system.

In other words, the only solution to the weakness of the current Honor System is a return to the Honor System as it was originally intended. Unfortunately, moral decay is a hard thing to check, and almost impossible to reverse. Unless the Washington and Lee Student Body returns to its original principles of honor, however, the Honor System’s decline will eventually lead to its fall.

[1] The White Book (2021) Article I. The Honor System

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The White Book (2021)

[5] This quote is taken from a section in the 1918 Calyx titled “The Honor System”. It appears that what would eventually become the White Book was published as part of the Calyx at this time. Source obtained through Washington and Lee Special Collections.

[6] The White Book (1977), Article I. Source obtained through Washington and Lee Special Collections.

[7] The White Book (2000-2001), Introduction. Source obtained through Washington and Lee Special Collections.

[8] The White Book (2006-2007), Introduction. Source obtained through Washington and Lee Special Collections.

[9] The White Book (2015-2016), Introduction. Source obtained through Washington and Lee Special Collections.

[10] The White Book (current) Article I. The Honor System

[11] Student Body Constitution (2017) of Washington and Lee University, preamble

[12] Ibid.

[13] June 30, 2020. Email from the Executive Committee to the Student Body, subject line “Board of Trustees ‘Listening Group’.”

[14] July 2, 2020. Email from the Executive Committee to the Student Body, subject line “Message to the Student Body Regarding the Board of Trustees Listening Group Meeting”

[15] Student Body Constitution (2017) of Washington and Lee University, Section I:i:a

[16] The Student Body Constitution can only be amended by a two-thirds vote of a quorum of half of the student body. This last occurred in 2017, thus the student body operates under the 2017 constitution.

[17] Student Body Constitution (1913) of Washington and Lee University, Sections V, VII, and VIII. Source obtained through Washington and Lee Special Collections.

[18] Student Body Constitution (1938-1939) of Washington and Lee University, Sections V, VII, and VIII. Source obtained through Washington and Lee Special Collections.

[19] Student Body Constitution (1972-1973) of Washington and Lee University, Sections III, V, and VI contained within The Student Handbook (1972-1973). Source obtained through Washington and Lee Special Collections.

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20 responses to “The Decline (and Fall?) of the Honor System”

  1. hear hear

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Isn’t it “here here”? Or, are they interchangeable, and mix & matchable? “Hear here”? An ad for an audiologist. “Here hear”? An eavesdropper’s favorite seat.

  2. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Imagine if there were one for journalists…

  3. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
    Baconator with extra cheese

    The Honor System is dead.
    If you give money to a university thinking it’s the same place where you went to school 20 plus years ago then you are a fool.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      on that we do agree!

    2. I stopped giving to my alma mater in 2007.

    3. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      It died with the rise of televangelism.

  4. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    None other than Marse Robert himself crafted the W and L Honor Code in 1865. Lee envisioned less supervision from the faculty by turning the honor code over to the student body in the hope of student accountability. Lee operated like this as the Superintendent of West Point in the 1850s. I suppose since Lee is behind real honor it must fall too.

    1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
      Eric the half a troll

      Nothing like elevating an 18 year old to the bench in the name of efficiency… what could go wrong…?

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    “I will not lie, cheat, steal, tell racist, sexist, LBGTQ+ jokes, or laugh at those who do.”

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Good essay. I was curious who the EC is, how it is constituted and who gets on it and how.

  7. Heartening to see this informed and clear writing by a student. Apparently the depredations of Woke egalitarians at W&L have not yet driven away all the best and brightest.

  8. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Yeah well, there was a time when you pumped your gas and then went into the store and paid, too.

    1. Not all change is change for the better, says the conservative swiping his credit card at the pump.

      But honor does not change. Nor the perennial problem of those insensible to honor: you better not depend on Falstaff as a soldier in your army (or anywhere else).

      Why, thou owest God a death.



      Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before 
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks 
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
 come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
 honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
 he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no. Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea, 
to the dead. But will it not live with the living? 
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore 
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so 
ends my catechism.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Okay. Now tell me how the GOP heaping praise on Putin fits in to honorable men?

        The Left has won because the Right has lost its mind, completely insane. Perhaps Mark Antony’s description of “the honorable men” is more apropos?

        1. Baffling reference to the GOP. Unless you mean Trump. Trump said of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine “this is genius”and “how smart is that?” That and previous conduct — daily behavior not just the occasional lapse — suggests Trump = President Falstaff. But be forewarned: Falstaff is popular. Falstaff speaks for and appeals to many. In a democracy, Falstaff can win.

          Not at W&L though. There, Trump would have been thrown out his first semester.

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Pompeo, BTW a USMA grad, Cruz, Hawley, about 40-some odd percent of the GOP, plus its propaganda arm, Faux.

          2. Kudos for the earlier reference to Mark Anthony’s sarcastic use of “these honorable men.” Political parties value honor? No, “these honorable men” care only about winning. Anyway, to return to the point: W&L ‘s honor code is meant to educate honorable leaders. Unless it degenerates into slap-on-the-wrist pragmatism. A calculation of what you can get away with. I think that is the point of the article.

        2. Eric the half a troll Avatar
          Eric the half a troll

          “Honor” is always big in the trenches… so believe the generals…

  9. Merchantseamen Avatar

    Politicians, Lawyers, and as Nancy says Journalists. When not lying and cheating they are kissing babies and stealing their lollipops.

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