There are a few different words used to capture various aspects of the trait. Honor. Integrity, Honesty. For most of my life, and my career, these words represented inherent virtues. You told the truth because telling the truth was the right thing to do. You kept your promises because it was the honorable thing to do.
We were honorable people.
Somehow, we’ve lost this. Honor is no longer a virtue that we hold for ourselves. Some years ago, I characterized ethics as the thing you do when no one is looking. You were ethical because you were ethical, even if you could get away with not being ethical. You were ethical even if it was contrary to your self-interest. And at the end of the day, you would be able to look at yourself in the mirror, go to sleep, without feeling shame for your choices, your actions.
Sure, there was an external incentive system that promoted honor. If you behaved dishonorably, you risked being publicly excoriated as a scoundrel. But that was merely a check on your internal compass. If you needed an external incentive to be honorable, you weren’t honorable. You were just rightly afraid that the real you, the dishonest you, would be revealed.
No, honor was something you did because it was who you were, who you wanted to be. You told the truth because it was the truth, not because someone who caught you lying would announce to the world that you were a liar.
On the twitters, to which I’ve returned at least for the moment, I wrote:
There’s no downside to lying anymore. Show integrity and no one cares. Lie in their favor and fools build you a statue.
But this doesn’t refer to an honorable person, because an honorable person needs no one to care that he’s honorable. And an honorable person would never tolerate a statue built to honor him for being dishonorable.
In a comment here, a question was posed:
Why would a judge treat defendants fairly? What is the upside? The downside is well-known (Willie Horton). The upside does not exist. Wouldn’t it be irrational for a judge to risk his career for a defendant?
There is really only one answer to the question, because it’s certainly true that the rational choice would be for a judge to protect herself from the potential of subsequent criticism if a decision went south. That answer is honor. The duty of a judge isn’t to cover her ass, but to be honorable, even if it puts the judge at risk.
Lest there be confusion, this isn’t about morality or justice, the vague end goals that so many use to justify dishonorable conduct. These embody a person’s preferred outcomes and biases. Honor is about the means to achieve the goals, not the choice of goals.
Would you lie to assure that a rapist is punished? Certainly rape is immoral, but perhaps the evidence to prove it isn’t there. Is it acceptable to lie, to fabricate evidence, believing that the end result will be moral or just?
Some years ago, at the five year mark, I decided to “retire” SJ, and Bruce Carton, who wrote Legal Blog Watch at the time, called me “the blogosphere’s truth serum.” It was the best epitaph I could have hoped for.
He thanked his readers in “5 Years” for “keeping him honest” but really it should be the other way around. To me, more than anyone else, Greenfield was the best at holding his fellow lawyers and bloggers — as well as himself — accountable for their actions and inactions. He wrote what he believed, straight up, no chaser. I admire him greatly for that. If you agreed with him, terrific. If you did not, no problem there either — just don’t come looking to him for a hug or an apology, or for him to let you off the hook for being wrong or acting wrong.
As a blogger, Scott was not a “pleaser,” an approach to life that many bloggers including myself fall into as it can be the easy way to go. Rather, Scott was the blogosphere’s truth serum.
It wasn’t that I was right or wrong, smart or stupid, Pulitzer-worthy or prolific, nice or mean, but that I was honorable.
There is no country for the honorable anymore. From the top down, and the bottom up, lies, deceit manipulation, distortion are all acceptable means of achieving goals, and goals are more important than how you attain them. We can fight over whether a goal is worthy or correct, but an honorable person will not lie to win the battle, will not use fallacious arguments to see if he can get an easy win, will not distort the facts to achieve victory.
There has been some criticism here that I have strayed too often from criminal law issues. For most of the life of SJ, my focus was exclusively on criminal law. But in the past few years, my concern has shifted toward integrity, particularly the intellectual integrity. In my “connect the dots” way, this was still a matter of criminal law, but dealing with its foundation rather than the case du jour. If our approach to thinking, to law, to criminal law, no longer compels us to be intellectually honest, then it’s just a free for all. Might makes right, and the mob wins.
This isn’t to say that any of you, individually, lacks honor. Indeed, many of you do. But that as a society, honor, integrity, honesty is no longer valued. Not by society. Not by its participants. People want likes, retwits, validation and confirmation, and will do anything to achieve it. Including pandering to the ignorant crowd with flagrant dishonesty. And for this dishonesty, they will be adored.
How did this happen? When did honor fall out of favor? When did integrity become too much trouble? Why is dishonesty for a popular cause acceptable? Is there no country for the honorable? Do you value your honor anymore, or will you willingly shed it to be part of your team? I will not, but then, that’s why no team will have me.