On the picturesque slope of the Colonnade, flanked by the tranquil red bricks of our idyllic campus, it is easy to discuss honor. Our system was something that bound the student body to an ideal—a notion of goodness in each other and the world. Life was simple at Washington and Lee. Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal, and life will go on as it is. Trust others at their word, knowing they submit to the same notion of honor as you – it’s easy.
Things are not so simple outside the confines of Lexington. Honor is not something so easily defined. Culturally, we inherit a sense of right and wrong; however, as our individual cultures are drawn closer by the expansion of technology and the improvement of communications and transportation, it is increasingly common for cultural morals to come into conflict. Furthermore, some dilemmas afforded to us by technology are new. Is file sharing the same as stealing? If users of our website grant permission to access their personal data through Facebook, what is the honorable thing to do? They have given permission, after all, but they did so passively and possibly unknowingly.
These and other dilemmas require us to rethink the notion of honor in the context of our own real world experiences. Social norms are only one piece of a larger puzzle that we must solve in order to construct a functional notion of honor, a moral code, by which to live. We are entering an age where there cannot and will not ever again be a single code of morality to which each of us can subscribe. Certainly some things, long-established crimes such as murder, are straightforward, but newer, more nuanced situations cannot be so easily categorized.
What are we to do? We cannot wait for the courts to sort these things out. With due respect to the lawyers among us, that process takes too long, and must make decisions right now. Making these decisions is fraught with danger. If we are wrong, we are exposed to the cruel bias of hindsight. How can we operate under this type of uncertainty? I propose that there is no good answer to this question, but I offer three principles that I believe will at least grant us all the ability to defend our honor in any case:
1. Transparency – Whether we act rightly or wrongly in the judgment of others, being transparent about our thought process, objectives, and actions affords us the ability to maintain that we have acted honorably. Decisions and actions are chains, and if a link is broken, it cannot be hidden. Being transparent, especially about our mistakes, engenders good will in those we have wronged.
2. Empathy – The often quoted “golden rule” says to treat others as you would like to be treated. That may work in a society where cultural values are shared, but it doesn’t work anymore. Treat others the way they want to be treated, which is often quite different from the way you want to be treated. Only by being empathetic can you tell the difference.
3. Preferment – Preferment is the practice of advancing or promoting others in dignity. By acting to advance the dignity of others, you ensure that if you do wrong, you do so with the best of intentions, never being blinded by selfish ambition.
The world is tricky, and there are limitless ways to fail. As Washington and Lee alumni, we owe it to ourselves, to each other, and to our alma mater, to do our best to maintain our honor, regardless of the challenge.
David Croushore ('07) is currently pursuing an MBA with a focus on applied business analytics at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business and working with a top-tier professional services firm to provide analytics services and enterprise intelligence to Fortune 500 clients. A former member of the men's swimming team, David stays active by competing in triathlons, and is currently preparing for his second half-Ironman.
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