Bryan Caplan  

Of Honor Codes and Social Contracts

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When I was at Princeton, every exam began with a strange ritual required by the Honor Code: Students had to sign a promise not to cheat.  The promise reads:
I pledge my honor that I have not violated the honor code during this examination.
When I was TAing for Alan Blinder, I couldn't resist mocking this system.  "Doesn't everyone realize what a joke this is?" I told him.  When he earnestly replied, "It's not a joke," I shut up.

My rationale, though, was simple: If students have to promise not to cheat, why don't they have to promise to keep their promises about cheating?  Promise to keep their promises about promises about cheating?  Etc.  Suppose Princeton didn't make students promise not to cheat.  If it caught a student cheating, would "I never promised not to cheat!" be a non-laughable reason to let the student off the hook?

The lesson: You can't base all moral obligations on contract.  There have to be pre-existing non-contractual obligations to get any moral obligation off the ground.  And if you can buy a non-contractual obligation to keep your promises, why not a non-contractual obligation not to cheat?

I remember Princeton's Honor Code whenever I hear someone defend social contract theory.  Admittedly, there are many version of social contract theory; maybe yours is reasonable.  But lots social contractarians - especially Hobbes and his numerous heirs - unreasonably try to ground morality itself in contract. 

This is a joke for the same reason that promising to follow Princeton's Honor Code is a joke.  Suppose I explicitly sign a social contract not to punch you.  Then I punch you.  You say, "That's immoral because you promised not to."  I reply, "It's perfectly moral, because I never promised to keep my promises."  You now have two intellectual options:

1. Admit that I can rightfully punch you despite my explicit promise.

2. Say, "You're morally obligated to keep your promises even if you never promised to keep them."

#1 seems plainly wrong.  And if you're willing to go with #2, why not just skip the social contract and say, "You're morally obligated not to hit me even if you never promised not to hit me?"

Assuming you're with me so far, let me flip things around.  If you can be obligated to do X even though you never promised to do X, you can also be obligated not to do X even though you did promise to do X. 

A murder-for-hire contract is the most obvious example.  Suppose I agree to murder your nosy neighbor for $1000.  I take the money.  Am I morally obliged to commit the murder?  Of course not.  Why not?  Because I have a non-contractual moral obligation not to commit murder.  If you find that unacceptably spooky, remember my previous point: no moral theorist - social contract theorists included - can dispense with the idea of non-contractual moral obligations.

When political leaders violate their official obligations, these lessons immediately apply.  Yes, "you broke your solemn pledge" sounds bad.  But what if you solemnly pledged to murder thousands of babies?  To uphold slavery?  To exile millions of innocents to the Third World?  In cases like these, oathbreaking is a moral duty.  Perhaps the most righteous course would be to refrain from promising to do great evil in the first place.  But once you make a morally impermissible promise, refusing to follow through is the first step on the road to redemption.


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COMMENTS (33 to date)
David Barry writes:

Dan Ariely's written about honour codes and student cheating, finding that they actually work: link.

Ariely takes his small-scale experiments and generalises a lot further than I would (perhaps honour codes work as a once-off but not if you have to sign them regularly, etc.), but the idea that honour codes can be successful is not completely implausible.

justin writes:

Maybe that's not the point of the honor code. By having the students think about how cheating is wrong before taking the test, they're probably less likely to cheat. In addition, the school could be trying to signal something (integrity, etc) to employers, donors, or whoever else might care.

Kurt writes:

Nah, moral contractarians seek to ground a commitment to morality in practical rationality and a conception of human nature / natural person.

Gian writes:

"To exile millions of innocents to the Third World"

Is Third World some kind of Gulag?

Dan writes:

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Daniel Klein writes:

Hume attacked contract as a foundation for justice in THN Bk III, the second enquiry, and such essays as "Of the Original Contract." Here Smith generally followed Hume.

Tom West writes:

I think Justin nailed it. The point is not the contract - the point is that they work (significantly) to reduce cheating.

But then, Bryan didn't understand the lock on the fridge door, either.

This is why I am occasionally uncomfortable with Bryan's policy prescriptions for humanity. I understand happily living in the bubble, but if I am claiming that people would be better off if they followed my suggestions, I would think I have at least a moral obligation to make an effort to understand how the people actually work.

Sonic Charmer writes:

I take it Bryan's point here is that honor codes, contracts and the like would fail to constrain sociopaths, snarky 11 year olds, and similar types to whom 'I never promised not to promise' actually might seem like a clever valid argument? If so, good point, I guess.

Yes, it's true enough that without some prior morality - or at least, sense of honor - such things probably wouldn't work. Fortunately few people I'm aware of try to base their morality entirely on social contract theory, but if/when I ever encounter one, I promise Bryan will be the first person i think of.

OneEyedMan writes:

I share the moral intuition that some laws are sufficiently wicked that good men should not enforce them. However, is the superiority of our moral intuition over the laws created by duly elected legislatures uniform or lexicographic? That is, is there any level of moral disagreement sufficiently minor that the executive should not feel free to substitute their own beliefs for that of the legislature? Without a sensible rule it is hard to see this line of moral reasoning leading to anything better than democratic tyranny and more likely to undemocratic tyranny. For all its warts I like to see the democratic process given some benefit of the doubt if only because it seems to be a very effective method of delivering domestic peace, consensus, and compromise at least in comparison to dictatorships.

rpl writes:
When political leaders violate their official obligations, these lessons immediately apply. Yes, "you broke your solemn pledge" sounds bad. But what if you solemnly pledged to murder thousands of babies?
Breaking a pledge to murder babies is an admirable thing. Breaking such a pledge while continuing to exercise the privileges that were conditioned on that pledge? Not so much. If an official honestly feels that he cannot exercise the duties of office in good conscience, then let him resign in protest.

In addition to preserving the rule of law (a phrase which, Bryan's last post notwithstanding, actually means something and thus doesn't belong in scare quotes), requiring officials to either do their duty or resign discourages them from elevating every policy disagreement to a crisis of conscience.

Honestly, Bryan, this argument that public officials can and should follow their conscience over the law is a losing one. Can you really not see how such a norm would be abused if we adopted it generally?

David N writes:

The honor code works if honor and belonging to a group that values it means something to you. If that's not important to you then I suppose the honor code is a joke.

Congratulations on creating the Zeno's paradox of promises. I hope your next post is all about "I know you are but what am I..."

stephen writes:

everything is a moral obligation to someone and an injustice to someone else. So, basically, to get out of any obligation you just have to choose the relevant baseline.

Steve Z writes:

You're begging the question again.

No President is obliged to enforce an unconstitutional law. And the entire institution of federal immigration law is an affront to the Constitution, as argued here by Thomas Knapp.

Joe Cushing writes:

"Is Third World some kind of Gulag?"


How about we banish you to Haiti for a few years and then you can report how it was when you come back. Prisoners in America are better fed and housed than many people there.

James writes:

Those that are honorable would be bound by such a promise. Those that are not will not.

We are fortunate that we live in a society where honor codes have historically been effective (see Cowen and trust just recently; or the economics of Quakers).

Alas this does not hold true for many people in the world.

Micah writes:

Princeton students would never risk their privileged positions by asking abstract questions like these - "what if I didn't promise not to break my promise" They have a very strong sense of group values.

However, this could explain why Princeton Alumni can destroy the world economy with such a straight face: "I never promised not to package bad debt and sell it to pension funds, so it's OK right?"

Steve Z writes:

I should elaborate on my earlier comment. Bryan's argument here is structured something like this.

Premise (1) there are pre-contractual moral obligations, and breaking a contract to enforce one of them is not wrong, if the obligation is sufficiently serious.

Premise (2) an executive enactment of the DREAM Act falls within the ambit of premise 1.

Conclusion: Obama was not wrong to enact the DREAM Act by executive fiat.

All of the contentions have been about Premise 2, either due to rule of law concerns, or moral objections to classifying immigration restrictions on the same plane as mass baby-genocide. But Bryan still seems to just take Premise (2) as a given - he considers it an enthymeme. Hence, I consider this post to be begging the question.

Sonic Charmer writes:

rpl is right: if President Obama believes that certain aspects of the law and constitution are so anathema to morality, he should resign, as he holds a tainted office over an illegitimate government. If Bryan's logic truly governs Obama's decision, his failure to resign reflects quite poorly on him.

Alternatively, as I said in the other thread, he could challenge the constitutionality of such laws in the Supreme Court. If he doesn't think they are unconstitutional, just immoral, he should campaign for a constitutional amendment. His failure to do any of these things gives the lie to Bryan's notion that he is motivated by the higher morality Bryan is attempting to project onto him on this issue.

We're left only with a claim here that the ends justify the means. Indeed, Bryan apparently would like to disallow all other considerations besides whether the ends (less effective restriction on immigration) are moral. I don't see why anyone should feel compelled to play along.

John Thacker writes:

I believe, Steve Z, that Bryan has elucidated his strong moral opposition to immigration restrictions before. However, I would concur that he's done so in a way not necessarily likely to convince people who do not share his moral precepts. And yet, I find that that is true of essentially all arguments. We all start from somewhere.

Pat. Atty. writes:
I pledge my honor that I have not violated the honor code during this examination.
What's even more foolish about this "promise" is the use of past tense. How can I pledge, before I take the examination, that I have not violated the honor code during the examination?

I suppose one could promise that he hasn't (yet) violated the Honor code, then proceed to violate the honor code ("I never said I wouldn't violate the honor code in the future")

Also, I think these types of promises work because a student (or politician) values his honor more than the code. The student may not think much about breaking the school's code, but may take violating his personal honor more seriously.

Or perhaps the use of the pledge circumvents the "everyone does it" rationale.

mobile writes:

Don't you believe in framing effects, Bryan? Students face the temptation to cheat on their exams. At the margin, students who are reminded of their commitment to the Honor Code, who are reminded that every other student has made the same commitment, etc. cheat less, possibly a lot less at a place like Princeton.

Cedric writes:

Bryan, you might enjoy this recent Richard Epstein piece, which notes that we owe fidelity to the Roman notions of natural law that may sometimes be perverted by state law. I think Epstein would concede that we have non-contractual moral obligations, but his focus would be on the Roman natural law and natural reason traditions instead of social contract theory.

http://www.hoover.org/publications/defining-ideas/article/120381

Andrew writes:

Locks are for honest people.

Silas Barta writes:

Your point also applies in spades to the intellectual property debate, where people (even and especially libertarians) consider it a sufficient reply to say:

"Hey, I never agreed not to copy this!"

or even:

"Yeah, all the people who legitimately obtained this work, they agreed not to copy it, but I just found it lying somewhere, and *I* didn't agree to it, so I have no such obligation."

or even yet:

"... and so the contract can't really bind anyone, even the people who did agree to it!"

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

You're evading the issue: what shall we do when good (or at least many) people disagree over some allegedly "moral" question? In that case, doesn't higher morality demand adherence to the previously-agreed peaceful process--to rule of law--in order to avert internecine violence?

You admit that you hold a distinctly minority view on the morality of US immigration law-- earlier you kvetched that waiting for the "median voter" to come around to your side was unsatisfying, so it pleased you to see Obama speed things up by abusing his office. I thought you were a pacifist? As a pacifist, why do you want to deprive people of the hope of settling differences peacefully, by asking the peace-supervisors to defect? When you applaud Presidential malfeasance, you encourage the "losers" to resort to violence-- "after all," they will reason, "parliamentary remedies have failed, and the magistrates are traitors."

Rather than defend your incendiary opposition to the rule of law, you insert a tendentious statement of your highly-disputed "moral" claim into a list of widely-accepted moral claims. Your rhetorical question, whether rule of law should supersede absolute morality, "But what if you solemnly pledged to murder thousands of babies? To uphold slavery? To exile millions of innocents to the Third World?" is deprived of force by your cheap debater's trick.

Look, everyone* agrees murder is immoral. Not everyone agrees whether, just for example, abortion constitutes murder. I doubt you would cheer a President taking lawless "prerogative" action on abortion the way you cheer a President taking lawless prerogative action on immigration!

When many people disagree over your pet question, your appeal to universal moral absolutes falls flat.

I think you know this, and that is why you keep misusing the word "exile" as a substitute for "expel" or "deport." You are encoding a moral argument into your choice of terms, just as anti-abortion activists use the word "murder" instead of "abort" (and pro-choice activists write "terminate").

Everyone* agrees it is immoral to "exile" people from their native countries. That is why exile rates two mentions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Article 9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile" and "Article 13(2). Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country" (emphasis added).

Not everyone agrees that immigration law is immoral. The UDHR is suffused with the notion that each person has a "country" and enjoys a right to reside and participate in politics in "his country," but not in other countries: Article 13(1). Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

I am not claiming the UDHR as authority for whether a particular view of migration is a moral absolute. Rather, I claim the UDHR shows that while significantly many people think exile is wrong, significantly many people think immigration controls are not wrong. You must carry the burden of persuading everyone else that your moral view of immigration is right-- simply confusing terms doesn't make a compelling argument.

So the challenge for you is: explain why, in a moral question which admits of considerable dispute, a magistrate elected to govern a fractious population by a rule of law to ensure that disputes are peacefully resolved by a generally-accepted process (a process which, yes, may allow an injustice to persist for some time before any consensus to remedy it is reached)-- why such a magistrate should be lauded rather than impeached and removed for violating the very rules he is supposed to enforce?


*Okay, nearly everyone-- you can always find some Charles-Mansonesque special case.

Seth writes:

"In cases like these, oathbreaking is a moral duty."

So, Bryan Caplan's sense (and framing) of moral duty is the only thing that should limit the President's authority? The pretense of knowledge only applies to the other fellas?

We shouldn't expect the elected officials to be a true democratic leader and persuade citizens and other elected officials to make the changes under the defined processes? After all, even the abolition of slavery resulted in a constitutional amendment.

Chandran writes:

It is a mistake to think that Hobbes tried to "ground morality itself in contract". He did not.

The foundation of morality has its origins in the first law of nature: " it is a precept, or general rule of reason: that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war. The first branch of which rule containeth the first and fundamental law of nature, which is: to seek peace and follow it."

The second law of nature is equally important:
"From this fundamental law of nature, by which men are commanded to endeavour peace, is derived this second law: that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself. For as long as every man holdeth this right, of doing anything he liketh; so long are all men in the condition of war. But if other men will not lay down their right, as well as he, then there is no reason for anyone to divest himself of his: for that were to expose himself to prey, which no man is bound to, rather than to dispose himself to peace. This is that law of the gospel: Whatsoever you require that others should do to you, that do ye to them. And that law of all men, quod tibi fieri non vis, alteri ne feceris."

The obligation to keep contracts has its source in these two laws. The nature of these laws and where they come from continues to be debated. (Do they come from God? Are they merrily laws of prudence?)

Hobbes agrees with Bryan that it would be absurd to think that oaths themselves are binding. He says at the end of ch. 14 of Leviathan:

"It appears also that the oath adds nothing to the obligation. For a covenant, if lawful, binds in the sight of God, without the oath, as much as with it; if unlawful, bindeth not at all, though it be confirmed with an oath."

There is more to Hobbes still. Whatever one might think of Hobbes, however, he is not simple-minded.

BLM4L writes:

Some thoughts on the problems with Bryan's reasoning:


1. Bryan is just making a mistake about the premises of social contract theory. Social contract theory includes as a premise that one should not violate voluntarily assumed obligations. Therefore, the social contract does not need to include an agreement about the binding nature of agreements. Social contract theory is grounding itself in a theory of morality that humans ought to be bound only to obligations they impose upon themselves.

2. Bryan is making a category mistake because a promise does not need another promise not to break that promise to create an obligation.

Ultimately, in our system of language, a speaker saying the words "I promise..." followed by some proposition about the speaker's future action typically imports the necessary moral obligation.

I would recommend reading Searle's "Speech Acts" or Austin's "How to Do Things with Words"

To illustrate, if we extend Bryan's argument,
no promise can ever be binding as a practical matter:

(i) For A's promise to do X to be binding, A must promise not to break his promise to do X.

(ii) So for A's promise not to break his promise to do X to be binding, A must promise not to break his promise not to break his promise to do X.

to infinity iterations.

Flowmechanism writes:

Bryan,
I think most Princeton students would characterize your representation of how the Honor Code works as inaccurate: the reason for compliance is not that one feels the obligation to do so due to the promise but rather that the absence of a Professor from the examination room together with the reminder of one's Honor Code duties(which include reporting of violations) lead students to fear the enforcement of the Code by the other students in the exam room with all the excessively harsh punishments that entails. Grading students on a curve at Princeton makes that mechanism individually rational as other students' cheating worsens your own relative performance.

Class of '11

Kurt writes:

"Social contract theory is grounding itself in a theory of morality that humans ought to be bound only to obligations they impose upon themselves."

If a theory of contractarianism itself worked with a premise like you state, then there must be some other moral theory grounding that premise. But if that is the case, then contractarianism is not itself the foundation of morality. While I agree that Bryan is wrong in his characterization of moral contractarianism, he is not mistaken when he states that no moral theory can be entirely based in voluntarily-assumed obligations. From a paper I am currently working on:

We can recognize the distinction between voluntary and non-voluntary moral requirements, a distinction historically captured in distinguishing “obligations” and “duties.” Voluntary moral requirements are those moral requirements incumbent on individuals in virtue of some fact about them such that it includes an act that either counts as or constitutes deliberately undertaking an obligation, or a voluntary performance that grounds the assumption of an obligation. Such voluntary acts typically include consent or promise (or the voluntary acceptance of benefits). Non-voluntary moral requirements are those that do not depend on and are not grounded in the voluntary performance of an action. Rather, they fall on us in virtue of our moral personhood qua person or some special non-voluntary role we occupy in society.

What needs to be recognized here is the two-part structure of all voluntary moral requirements. Such requirements, although voluntarily assumed, ultimately depend on some more basic, non-voluntary and general moral requirement that requires all persons to do whatever it is they have voluntarily undertaken to do; that is, there must be a prior moral duty to act in accordance with one’s voluntary commitments. And this prior duty cannot be based on a prior voluntary commitment. Otherwise, the voluntarist will find herself in an infinite regress of voluntary commitments, all based on some prior voluntary act. These more basic moral requirements will typically take the form of a conditional obligation: “if you voluntarily do so and so, then you are morally required to act in accordance with such commitments.”

Kurt writes:

The reason why Bryan mischaracterizes moral contractarianism is because he mistakenly believes that the contractarian posits some foundational voluntary commitment as the answer to the question “why should we be moral?” Bryan envisages the contractarian answering this question with the response “because we voluntarily agreed to the social contract”. This is not, however, the motivational basis for morality that contractarians posit. They typically provide some account of practical rationality and human nature (for Hobbes, instrumental rationality and egoistic man) as the basis for social morality. They seek to answer the question “what justifies paying attention to morality, rather than dismissing it as an appendage of outworn beliefs?” (David Gauthier, Why Contractarianism?). They believe that morality has a point—providing a rational basis for peaceful social life among numerous goal pursuers—and that this point must play a key role in our understanding of morality.

ivvenalis writes:

"How about we banish you to Haiti for a few years and then you can report how it was when you come back. Prisoners in America are better fed and housed than many people there. "

See, this is where radical individualism gets you. How about instead we banish, say, 100,000 ethnically homogenous Americans to Haiti. What do you think would happen then?

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