Your Honor

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.

30 thoughts on “Your Honor

  1. Jake

    “When did honor fall out of favor?”

    I’ve recently been giving history the attention I gave to whiskey and women when I was a younger man. Could you tell me, when was honor in favor? Particularly among the powerful. I can’t find that period.

    1. SHG Post author

      Perhaps this is why there is no honor today, that young people can’t distinguish between goals they disagree with and the honor of the people behind them. Maybe people have become too shallow to appreciate honor, and thus dismiss its existence. If everyone in history was wrong and evil, there is no reason not to be so cynical as to believe that no one has ever been honorable.

      How very sad that you would seize upon the worst grasp of humanity as your model.

  2. Richard Kopf


    I will not attempt to gild your perfectly constructed lily except to say that I share your eloquently expressed despair. All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      I refuse to give up hope, Judge. Maybe it’s the criminal defense lawyer in me, arguing a cause I know will lose, but going back to the trenches every morning believing that maybe today, just maybe, this time it will prevail.

      Edit: Just came across this old interview of me, that goes well with this post. Perhaps you might enjoy it, Judge.

  3. Ross

    I was raised to always do the right thing, and that integrity and honor were more important than outcome, but that seems a quaint, old fashioned attitude these days, as more folks, especially parents, push the boundaries to gain every possible advantage, and to go for the “win” every time, since winning is now more important than how you play the game.

    Promoting the old fashioned attitude is one reason I am involved in Boy Scouts, where I push the idea that the Scout Oath and Law are excellent guides to living a good life, that you can succeed while doing the right thing, and how you arrive at a goal is as important as the goal itself. Sadly, many kids never get the benefits of Scouting, or any other environment where values are taught and promoted, and they grow up in a world where doing the right thing makes you a chump, worthy only of derision and scorn.

  4. Patrick Maupin

    There is a perception that politics is dirty business; that the other guy is being dirty, so you also have to be dirty to win. Couple that with literally Hitler/Satan/Cthulu/baby killers/people who want to enslave the female half of humanity, and winning is the only thing rather than merely everything. Add in a defective two-party system with no safety valve for the mass of unwoke independent voters, and the necessity of bringing those moderates to your side (or at least denying them to the other side) overrides all.

    It’s a vicious cycle. Don’t vote, and your vote doesn’t count. Hold your nose and vote for one of ’em, and it convinces them that their brand of outrageous lies and sliming was working, and they should at least keep doing it, or maybe even double down next time if it was too close.

    But has this cynical view of politics leaked into everything else?

    As the recent story of Johnny, the homeless guy who spent his last $20 to get gas for Kate McClure shows, we can be generous people who reward those who walk the walk. How does generosity relate to honor? Just as there’s no downside to giving a defendant life plus cancer, there’s no downside to not giving to Johnny’s gofundme.

    Sure, that’s an anecdote, but I’m sure we all have similar personal anecdotes, and as a country, we do consistently rank highly in the world giving index.

    Maybe the shrill voices at either end of the political spectrum are dishonorable and ungenerous. But have they rotted the core, or has the exasperated core just not yet figured out how to keep from encouraging and rewarding the extremists?

    1. SHG Post author

      Another of my posts from days past involves charity, giving without telling, without recognition, without getting your name on the building. It’s not just generosity, but charity. Are we still charitable, or do we twit our generosity for all to applaud?

      1. Patrick Maupin

        It would indeed be interesting to see how many of our citizens aspire to reach Maimonides’ higher level of charity.

        1. SHG Post author

          Maimonides has much to offer on this topic.

          In the view of Maimonides (taken from Avicenna), God does not become angry with people, as God has no human passions; but it is important for them to believe God does, so that they desist from doing wrong.

          While divine appeasement doesn’t fit well with my secularism, maybe it provided the incentive many needed to keep them on the path.

  5. Lex

    “When did honor fall out of favor?”
    Semi-random dart-throw: In 1969, when psychologist Nathaniel Brandon published The Psychology of Self-Esteem (“feelings of self-esteem are the key to success in life”), institutionalized later by self-esteemists in stuff like “Toward a State of Esteem: The Final Report of the California Task Force to Promote Self-esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility.”

    Not coincidentally, use of the term “the real me,” nearly non-existent in popular and academic literature until that point, spiked dramatically. Almost overnight, being an asshole went from a character flaw, to something akin to an epileptic seizure.

    Of course, it’s quite possible society’s Jacobins have always been assholes:
    “You no longer have any reason for restraint against enemies of the new order . . . You must punish not only traitors but the apathetic as well; you must punish whoever is passive in the Republic . . .”
    — Literal Jacobin Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, in a speech before the National Convention, October, 1793.

    1. SHG Post author

      Self-esteem is one of those “virtues” that we latched onto because experts told us that it was critical for the success of our little darlings. We loved them too much, those little darlings. And we believed them too much, those experts. Whether that began the end of honor, I don’t know, but it wasn’t a change for the better.

      It’s said that self-esteem is the reputation we give ourselves. Reputation is what we earn. So too is self-esteem, gained by our effort and accomplishments. Unwarranted self-esteem, however, is the participation trophy, where we lie to ourselves that we’re achieved something by achieving nothing.

  6. B. McLeod

    Honor is tangential here, but I believe the root concept is actually what we used to call “duty.” There is a job to be done by judges, and a person who takes that job takes also an oath to do the job. The parameters of the job are defined by constitutions, laws and rules. There are also reasons for the existence of the job, central among which are notions that judges should be available as capable and neutral referees to maintain the fairness of proceedings. It is not for the defendant (and sometimes, may avail defendants naught). It is for the overall society, to afford a means of dispute resolution that is aligned with a concept of objective law, rather than the relative power or popularity of the participants. It is a judge’s duty to do the job he or she accepted upon taking the bench. When a judge decides rather to do something that is not that job, the failure is more extensive than a failure of personal honor. It is a fundamental failure to perform the functions which are the root purpose of the job of a judge. It is a fundamental frustration of law and due process and the design of our legal system. To help avoid those things would be the upside of judges doing their duty. That, and the personal satisfaction that comes with doing any job well, in the way it is supposed to be done.

      1. B. McLeod

        A long time ago, when I first worked in a law firm, that was one of the senior partner sayings that I put in my kit bag. One of them elaborated, telling me that people will assume if you do a particular thing well, you probably handle legal matters well. So, if any of us volunteered at the church chili supper, we weren’t to be the ones who phoned it in, but the ones who kept the crackers spread around and the chili bowls full. Over the years, it has seemed to me that there is a lot to this. A particular person will either have a knack for really taking care of an undertaking, or kind of slop through on what it takes to get by, If you watch that person doing anything, you can sort out which they are.

        1. SHG Post author

          My uncle, who was kind enough to sponsor my Supreme Court admission, told me stories of how he would mow the lawn in a suit and tie because he was a lawyer no matter what he was doing at the time, and dressed like one. I thought it a bit irrelevant and extreme, but I appreciated the message.

      2. that david from Oz

        I know you are neither looking for, nor need, my approbation; and as much as the opinion of a non-lawyer from another country has any relevance here, your writing always strives for honesty and clarity, and is always entertaining and thoughful (four qualities very rarely found together any more).

        It seemed the honourable thing to say

        1. SHG Post author

          Oddly, the same things one person likes about my writing is what another person despises. Go figure. And thanks.

  7. Stan

    How can anyone have real self esteem if they don”t have a personal sense of honor or accomplishment? Without honor or accomplishment, self esteem is really narcissism or solipsism.

  8. Karl Kolchak

    Excellent essay, and so very true. About a decade ago, I was working for the federal government and made the extremely difficult decision to blow the whistle on a corrupt political appointee at great risk to my career. Fortunately, the official in question lied to the Congressional committee that looked into the complaint against him and he was forced to resign. That was it, however-no prosecution, fine or anything for all the incredible stress I and the other whistleblowers had to endure.

    If I had to do it all over again today, I have to say I probably wouldn’t. Not because I’m no longer honorable, but because I don’t believe that in today’s socio-political climate the official would even be forced to resign. And to put your rear end on the line when the result is likely to be nothing at best just isn’t worth it.

  9. ChicagoRefugee

    I’m too lazy to look up the publication date for CSLewis’ “Men Without Chests” but I have a quote:

    “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

    1. SHG Post author

      The full quote is worth repeating:

      In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

      ― C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

      H/T Ben Liddicott

  10. Kevin Flming

    The loss of honor is, in this era, attributable to postmodernism.
    Postmodern deconstructionism fostered the obliteration of truth, resulting in the time Thucydides warned about: when words lose their meaning.

    For now Falstaff reigns:
    “What is honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what is that honour? air.”

  11. JohnM

    The banality of evil continues its march to it’s logical conclusion. Many are to blame, including the “honorable” types of the past that you hold up, each contributing his or her bit to the inhuman machine society that we’ve now built. No one individual is responsible, and yet the sum total of the small individual indifference’s, compromises, rule-breaking, the turning a blind-eye, the implicit and explicit lies, cover-ups, etc., all in the name of good have gotten us to this point.

    Things will get much, much worse before they will ever have a chance to get better. Just like we now look back just a few years ago (and a few administrations ago) with nostalgia, we will look back in a few years at the current state of affairs at wonder how we could have been so naive to think this was as bad as it gets.

    To steal a quote, it’s too late for the snowflakes to vote, the avalanche has begun. We’re only at the top of the slope currently. The bottom is a long way off.

  12. Pedantic Grammar Police

    Like bad money drives out good money, bad judges drive out good ones. If one judge panders to the public instead of being honorable, he will win the election (or be appointed or whatever). Then every judge must pander to the public or else be replaced. It’s similar to how everyone had to start using mustard gas in WW1 as soon as one participant used it. This is happening in every sector of our society. Dishonest actors replace honest ones, because in today’s corrupt society, dishonesty is a successful strategy. The rot comes from the top. Our rulers are corrupt, and we follow their example.

      1. Pedantic Grammar Police

        I hope that you are right, but it has to slow down and then stop before it can reverse. I see it accelerating.

        1. SHG Post author

          I’m Malthusian. If it doesn’t slow down and reverse on its own, something will make it, and it won’t be pleasant.

  13. Mike

    “This isn’t to say that any of you, individually, lacks honor. Indeed, many of you do” (lack honor.)

    You wrote a whole sappy post to roast the readers at the end? Try Longmire. A netflix original, the latest season especially, that deals with honor and integrity in the justice system.

    1. SHG Post author

      For some, honor exists in real life. For others, it’s available on Netflix. And if my posts are too sappy, you don’t have to keep reading. I’m just a very sensitive sort of guy.

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