The Problem with Honor: Cold Wars and Hard Hearts

Dr. J responds to my criticism of her position on plagiarism detection. I am, she accuses, guilty of Cold War paranoia and preemptive warfare with my students:

That is to say, the classroom is a millieu in which everyone is suspicious and noone can be trusted, so every preemptive security mechanism one can employ should be employed. This is, in my opinion (and all due respect to AnPan), an awful way to conduct a classroom, especially a Philosophy classroom. That kind of CYA attitude is exactly what motivates students to cheat in the first place, convinced as they tend to be that grade-grubbing and ladder-climbing is more important than actually learning. I cannot stretch my imagination far enough to imagine a scenario in which condoning and confirming this world-view is beneficial to anyone. I am not my students’ antagonist. I’m not their enemy. We are not at war with one another.

“An awful way to conduct a classroom”? Ouch! But if Dr. J is right, I want to change my conduct. Is she? At this point, I feel like I’m no longer a good judge: some of the things she says in that post make me feel less receptive to her arguments, and indeed she suggests that my own use of the phrase “turning a blind eye” to describe her attitude towards cheating may have ratcheted up her own feelings of offense. In such a rhetorically hardened atmosphere, how can either of us expect to make accurate judgments? Phrases like “awful conduct” and “blind eye” are affronts to our honor: to accept that Dr. J is right would be to accept that I am an awful teacher, just as for her to accept that her policy towards plagiarism detection software is “turning a blind eye” would be an affront to her own participation in the Rhodes Honor Code, which requires signatories to report infractions. On this matter, we have hardened our hearts and our reputations are at stake: how can we have open minds?

“Honor Talk”

It’s a conundrum, certainly. I believe it is a conundrum generated by the question of honor itself, which is one of the reasons we ought to avoid “honor talk.” One objection to the language of honor and deference is that honor cannot operate without the structure of the affront to honor which demands satisfaction. Any insult, slight, or impugnment threatens an honorable person’s status, and thus it calls for a response: a demand for retraction or satisfaction… the duel. For me, the problem with honor is that it shuts down (reasonable, friendly, cooperative) conversation. It renders some things out of bounds of polite, honorable discussion. As a person grows in status, this penumbra of the unsayable becomes larger: just think of the things you’d discuss with your friends that you wouldn’t dare mention in front of the President. But this expanded aura of respectability is merely a customary privilege. It can’t be due to every person, and so it is at odds with equality. And so, honor produces error.

I think this is one part of my objection to an honor approach to plagiarism that Dr. J does not really pick up in her response. In my last post I wrote:

The commitment to merit seems especially to operate among elites, who will not bear any questioning of their integrity and use this language to justify their privileges. […] Though we may not like this power, we cannot ignore our role as gatekeepers, giving grades and writing recommendations that will serve, in future, as the justification for claims of merit and honor. If those grades and letters are based on false premises, the subsequent merit will be similarly false. But oh, how its bearers will pretend otherwise!

Dr. J doesn’t bring this concern up, and when she does mention the passage from which I’m quoting, she doesn’t perform her standard charitable reading of my position (I think because my position was not clearly stated) and so merely reiterates her own:

For my part, I think we’re morally obligated to respect persons, and morally prohibited from holding persons in contempt, qua “persons.” Things like Honor Codes, on my view, enforce these principles. Honor Codes operate on the presumption that it is not required in advance that one “prove” oneself “deserving” of respect, though the implicit caveat of those same codes is that if one does violate the presumptive trust, then one runs the risk of being expelled from the community that the Honor Code governs.

Let me try to clarify what I meant. “Respect” is one of the classic examples of Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance term,” insofar as it might mean many things in different contexts. When we speak of equality of respect, we generally mean something like the duty to treat each person as an autonomous end-in-themselves, both subject and legislator of the moral law. This kind of respect is intrinsic and indefeasible. It’s always a violation of a person’s equality to withdraw or refuse this sort of respect.  It’s precisely this kind of respect that rules contempt for persons out, on my view.

But “respect” can also be an evaluative term, used as an analogy for esteem: we hold some in more esteem than others, they are “highly respected.” To my mind, there is a tension between the evaluative and the egalitarian conceptions of respect. We cannot both hold each other simultaneously as equal ends-in-ourselves and as better and worse. Conceptually, of course, we can distinguish the equality of persons and the inequality of their actions or characters, but we have a strong tendency to let the one bleed into the other. In metaphysical terms, we mistake a person’s predicates for their substance.

Even if it weren’t at odd with equality, it would still be at odds with epistemic virtue. The fact that it is more difficult to admit that we are wrong and to change our position when our status is under threat seems like ample evidence of that!

Bayesian Reasoning in Light of New Facts

If we are now at odds over status, there might still be a way to return our attention to substantive question. Here’s one place to start: Dr. J did not always feel so confident of her views on cheating and plagiarism. Back in 2009, Dr. J wrote this about her attitude towards cheating:

I’m not absolutely committed to my position on this. I would say that I’m about 80% committed. I can be dissuaded, but it’s going to take some convincing. That’s what the comments section is for.

In the spirit of finding a common ground, let me reiterate two facts that seem material, in hopes that they will reach the principled disagreement between us.

1. I have not prosecuted any cases of plagiarism since I began using the detection services. Prior to that, I prosecuted one or two cases each semester.

2. Here’s why I no longer need to prosecute plagiarism: students submit their papers for grading electronically through SafeAssign, and they can revise those papers to provide proper citation for any material marked unoriginal. I only see the revised paper, not the original with potential plagiarism concerns.

Here’s how I see these facts reflecting a principle upon which Dr. J and I might agree: this swift, sure, and minor punishment (non-judgmental revision) seems preferable to delayed, uncertain, and severe punishment (catching an obvious plagiarist and failing him or her for the assignment or class.) The principle, for me, is that prevention is always better than punishment. Prevention does sometimes involve preemption and precaution, but so what? Not every precaution is reducible to post-9/11 paranoia.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Dr. J would put her commitment at only 80% today, in part because in our discussions of the matter we’ve both taken a harder line. But what’s really changed? Back then, she cited three reasons: (1) detection isn’t worth the costs of time or lost trust, (2) philosophy professors are not police, and (3) “constant and ubiquitous surveillance actually weakens students’ ethical sensibilities.” Though obviously electronic plagiarism detection partially eliminates (1), these are basically the same objections she has repeated in this exchange. (Plagiarism detection no longer takes up our time, but it may still lead to lost trust.)

Dr. J also suggests that one of her motivations to attend less rigorously to plagiarism concerns than her colleagues is that the harm accrues to the student, that the cheater “suffers a paucity of reflection, a diminishing of his or her deliberative capacity, an incomplete and crippled world-view.” I agree with this latter, of course, though I suspect that our true disagreement is what our obligations are vis-a-vis those with “impoverished reflection” and “crippled world-view.” What are the reasonable accommodations for such disabilities? What costs will those who are fully able and trustworthy bear in the name of those who are trust-challenged? I think plagiarism detection software is a reasonable accommodation, and Dr. J does not. In large part, this is an empirical question: how much does plagiarism detection actually reduce trust between professors and students? It certainly makes me feel more trusting. How much does it “weaken ethical sensibilities”? How would we measure that?

Policing the Classroom?

Thankfully, we can escape these empirical questions for a while, because for Dr. J, the primary question is the question of “policing”:

I’m surprised that AnPan didn’t state more explicitly his objection to my objection to (preemptive) “policing,” because it seems to me that it is on this point that our positions fundamentally diverge. I don’t see anything in AnPan’s articulation of his position that indicates he has any problem whatsoever with being a policeman.

Do I have any problem (“whatsoever”) with being a policeman? Well, I call myself a pacifist, but in a weak way: I would use force in self-defense myself, and I believe it is often necessary to protect the vulnerable. I just don’t like guns or violence, and I tend to believe that there are few (if any) just wars. But that’s not Dr. J’s issue, which is why it seems like hyperbole to call plagiarism detection “policing.” One thing that worries me about the metaphor of policing is that there’s a big difference between the kinds of problems that come with the state’s monopoly of “legitimate” force and the kinds of issues that we’re discussing here. Both Dr. J and I are reaching towards higher-order conceptions of justice and political community to discuss this classroom policy. But while this does seem to require some discussion of the role of honor and respect, it doesn’t necessarily require us to invoke the language of warfare or policing. One of the pernicious effects of Foucault’s discussion of disciplinary power is that it has become tempting to reduce every form of control to the coercive methods of the prison or panopticon. But I think this is hyperbolic. There’s no threat of force, no mixture of juridical power and some specialized knowledge.

The only thing that smacks of coercion is the evaluative function of university courses, the way they are graded and those grades help future employers sift applicants. But we’re all implicated, there, whether or not we use plagiarism detection software! So yes, insofar as we enforce rules, we professors take on something like a policeman’s law enforcing function. Here are some things that some professors “police” in their classrooms: the use of electronics and cell phones, interruptions, sexist and racist language. In my classroom, I only police the last of those, as I welcome interruptions and don’t care about electronics or cell phones. Plus, of course, we all use our unilateral authority to set the length, subject, due dates, and standards used to evaluate students’ performance. Even Dr. J does that.

Do these things constitute a failure to respect our students’ autonomy or honor? They might, but I don’t think they must. We can treat electronics scans for plagiarism as a matter of honor, or we can treat it as a kind of technical requirement, like a due date or page length requirement. If we don’t treat it as a matter of trust and honor, then perhaps it will not be experienced as a matter of trust and honor. In any case, I am not sure that we ought to view an offended students’ honor as truth-conducive, given that I’ve already suggested Dr. J and I should ignore slights to our esteem or dignity to ferret out the truth.

Why I use plagiarism detection services

Dr. J protests that her school has purchased access to the service Turnitin.com:

If I participate in Turnitin, I am negating their Honor Code promise and, effectively, treating my students as if they never signed it. Quite simply, I do not know how I can reasonably expect students to take the Honor Code seriously when my actions indicate that I am not taking it seriously. It’s like sitting down at a poker game with a pistol under the table. Or being in a relationship where you secretly check your partner’s emails or text messages.

My own view is that teachers ought to “trust, but verify,” and that we can do this without threatening violence (the pistol under the table) or violating privacy (checking emails). Perhaps this is colored by the fact that I have never taught at a school with an honor code, but in my experience, undergraduate student plagiarism is common and services like Turnitin and SafeAssign can easily and quickly nip it in the bud. Gone are the days when I had to call a student into my office, show them the evidence, and deal with the stages of grief: denial, rage, bargaining, acceptance. They cried, I cried, but it was already too late to fix, and so the teachable moment always surrounded the possibilities of reconciliation and redemption. Now, the plagiarism just doesn’t happen: students turn their own papers in late rather than turning in someone else’s paper on time. In many cases, this is simply a matter of attribution: a paper with many uncited quotes will be flagged for the student to fix, and it will still be a good paper after the quotes have been marked as such and properly attributed or paraphrased.

So for me, the services do not generate much excitement, anymore: they’ve simply removed an emotional stumbling stone and helped a few of my students to understand the nature of proper academic citation. That’s a win-win. But Dr. J’s post makes me wonder if I’ve disrespected the integrity of my students by asking them to verify that they are due my trust. It seems to me that this is not a matter about which we can both be right: either Dr. J is wrong to treat plagiarism detection as a matter of honor and dignity, or I am wrong to treat it as a simple technical fix to what is in fact a deeply moral and communal problem.

Since I consider Dr. J a dear friend, I feel that I cannot ignore a disagreement about something so fundamental. If she has something to teach me, here, I want to learn it. I must therefore take up Dr. J’s arguments as I understand them.

Argument One:

  • “What distingishes me from the police, I hope, is that I still believe the act of cheating hurts the student more than the consequences of being-caught-cheating does.”

Here, I take Dr. J to be describing some combination of the Platonic/Aristotelian theory of vice: to act immorally is primarily to do harm to one’s own soul. I believe she is suggesting that to cheat in an academic environment is to waste one’s tuition, to take on an instrumental relationship to education when in fact an education in the humanities is the best or even the only way to find the purpose towards which all means and instruments direct us. Dr. J also references Foucault (who has interesting and complicated things to say about surveillance, discipline, and punishment) and in her mention of the “consequences of being-caught” she seems to be suggesting that the two harms being compared here are the harms to one’s own soul and the harms to one’s career or academic record.

Yet this reminds me of one of the main arguments of Plato’s Gorgias, which is that the wise person should prefer that her own unjust acts be punished. Socrates suggests that we ought even to become advocates against ourselves, seeking punishment if it is needed, because the only thing worse than acting unjustly is to act unjustly and also to avoid punishment. To go unpunished is to be left to stew in one’s injustice, and perhaps to exacerbate that tendency in onself. I find Socrates more compelling here than Dr. J, but perhaps he is wrong. It’s a difficult issue, especially when the  punishment is unjustly applied or is not proportionate to the injustice done. What do you think?

Argument Two:

  • “My institution operates under an Honor Code, which (at least ostensibly) governs the conduct of the entirety of the Rhodes communtity, students and faculty alike. […] I believe that the Honor Code is, at heart, a trust-agreement. That is to say, all of our (tacit or explicit) participation in it constitutes a kind of social contract to which we have all agreed to abide, and out allegiance to it, like all social contracts, is derivative of our faith in the virtue of the other members with whom we have agreed to constitute a community.”

One interesting thing about this part of Dr. J’s argument is that it separates her situation from mine. It may be that Dr. J has different obligations and norms to adhere to than I do, because my school does not have a formal process of contracting with its students in order to gain their cooperation with a particular brand of honor. There’s something very appealing about this, insofar as one needn’t pay Turnitin or Blackboard for the service of policing academic honesty if one can persuade the students to do it themselves. This, indeed, is how Dr. J once described it:

“Now, the cynical Sartrean in me suspects that there is more shame than virtue at work here. When students pledge their honor, they become like Sartre’s voyeur in Being and Nothingness, who hears a bump in the hallway as he peeps through the keyhole and is ashamed, not because he is actually caught, but because intersubjectivity always implies the potential to be caught (to be “looked at” instead of being the one “looking”). The Foucaultian in me also suspects that the Honor System is yet another disciplinary practice which allows institutions to exercise the power they need to be “institutions,” that is, the power to produce the kinds of subjects who reproduce the power that produced them.”

The benefit of “honorable” subjects is that they will, like Socrates, prefer to hold themselves accountable through self-surveillance rather than waiting to be caught! But interestingly, the honor code Rhodes is not only a personal pledge: it also requires each of its signatories to

“report any such violation [of lying, cheating, or stealing] that I may witness.”

This obligation to “rat” on one’s fellow students has always bothered me, insofar as it demands that signatories of the code not only self-surveil but also participate in the surveillance and discipline of their colleagues. But since turning a blind eye to cheating would be a violation of the Code it seems to me that the Code itself militates in favor of plagiarism detection services: the Code itself demands verification of one’s honor.

Argument Three:

  • “if my obsession with pre-emptive security mechanisms indicate that I assume you already are cheating, what’s the motivation for you to take seriously your duty, your promise, to be honest with me? And, even if you are honest, how can I possibly merit you with that honesty under these circumstances, motivated as it is by a fear of certain reprisal and not a genuine respect for integrity, for the trust-agreement, for your or my honor?”

Dr. J’s final argument deals with the issue of merit and signaling expectations. As my readers know, some of my principle concerns are status games and merit claims, which may be another motive that drove me to comment on her post. Here’s what I wrote in January:

From the perspective of morality, all persons deserve equal respect. Our evaluations of a person’s actions may truly reflect the justice or injustice of those actions, but the only truth-tracking moral judgment is one that reports that persons are of equal moral status. Therefore contempt is immoral.

If contempt is immoral, then so too are deference, honor, and merit. Yet though many people seem to agree with me about contempt and disgust, they still wish to preserve a place for merited honor. The problem with discussions of merit (and honor) is that they often assume that merit is the most important metric for evaluation and that it trumps all other considerations. Yet honor killings and aristocracy are two other ways that honor and merit find their way into our discourse, and most people agree that these are not laudable or praiseworthy forms of merit. Might there be similiar problems with our other uses of these concepts?

The commitment to merit seems especially to operate among elites, who will not bear any questioning of their integrity and use this language to justify their privileges. So following Rawls, I believe it falls to anyone who argues primarily from merit to justify the particular scheme of merit in some other terms. How does the praise of this virtue or the blame of that vice produce a just world or a sustainable community?

One account seems to entail the kind of self-surveillance that Dr. J describes, the one that Nietzsche praised in the The Genealogy of Morals as making of humans “an animal that can make promises.” But if Nietzsche is right, this kind of self-surveillance first requires an external authority that excoriates the promising animal until it learns to value its honor and its commitments. Every year, a new generation of frosh come into our classrooms, and they have not learned the lessons of honor and the value of education that we imparted the year before. It falls to us to help them when they fail.

Finally, though we may not like this power, we cannot ignore our role as gatekeepers, giving grades and writing recommendations that will serve, in future, as the justification for claims of merit and honor. If those grades and letters are based on false premises, the subsequent merit will be similarly false. But oh, how its bearers will pretend otherwise!

I’m not a dogmatist about this, which means I want to be open to changing my opinion in light of new information. But perhaps I am failing to update carefully, for selfish reasons: I find SafeAssign to be a useful and non-intrusive method for enforcing academic honesty and fairness. I may well be wrong. So I ask my readers: what sort of information should cause me to change my opinion?