Sunday, February 28, 2010

On My Honor

I just finished reading Legacy of Honor, by Alvin Townley. It’s about Eagle Scouts and Eagle Scouting. (Yes, being an Eagle Scout is a lifelong thing, hence the use of the gerund “Scouting”.)

Mr. Townley uses the word “honor” a great deal throughout the book. That’s no surprise as it’s the third word of the book’s title as well as the Scout Oath:

On my honor, I will do my best
to do my duty

to God and my country

and to obey the Scout Laws

To help other people at all times

To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight

We project a lot of integrity into other people, earned or otherwise. Still, we constantly (if only subconsciously) ask if the people around us - colleagues, employers, friends, elected officials - behave in an honorable fashion; e.g., are they honest, are they worthy of our trust. We also question our own honor a fair bit, especially when (well, usually after) we’re put to the test in a personal or professional situation. Did I do the right thing? Is that how I would have wanted somebody else to act if I were on the receiving end of what I just did?

The Scout Oath gives us a standard of honorable conduct. It’s not written in the negative, i.e., as a collection of “thou shall not” expressions. Negative statements attempt to define what we should aspire not to be. The Oath is written in the affirmative. It defines what a person should aspire to be.

Affirmative statements are more inclusive, allowing us to invoke the “spirit” or the “intent” to guide our decision making. That is, we can ask, “is something I am about to do consistent with my definition of the kind of person I wish to be?” That’s radically different from reconciling our conduct to a collection of expressions written in the negative. Guidance from negative statements usually leads to conclusions such as, “well, nobody told me I can’t do what I’m about to do.”

The Oath also points out that sometimes we'll come up short. We say that we will do our best, not that we will always and without fail. Now, that isn’t a “get out of jail free” card because we’re still responsible for our actions. However, it is an acknowledgement that sometimes we end up in situations that are completely new to us, where the facts – particularly the motivations of other people – aren’t immediately clear. In circumstances like this where we are compelled to act, we must be certain that above all else we do our best. And if we conduct ourselves consistently with this code, we’ve nothing to be afraid of should we be called to account for our actions, regardless the outcome.

Our honor, our integrity, is challenged every day. ‘Twas ever thus. The only difference is that today, media amplifies a lapse of honor with a broad and persistent exposure of the person caught out in a compromising situation. At the same time, the tools of obfuscation are much more sophisticated than ever before. The sad result is that plausible deniability is not just a matter of policy that guides people through troubled situations, it defines entire career paths.

Which brings attention to an unpleasant, self-reinforcing combination of societal norms. Society stresses winning above all else: we’ve all heard the phrase “nobody remembers who finished in second place” and the famous Al Davis quote, “Just win, baby.” At the same time, we’ve incubated a cultural norm that nobody should lose: "we’re all winners” pervades our society. So we see people managing the appearances of being right, be it in business, or politics, or science, or even our personal interactions. We are increasingly conditioned to be afraid to fail. We are afraid to be wrong.

The shame of it is, we shouldn’t be afraid to fail at what we set out to do. We should be afraid to fail at how we go about doing it. Conducting ourselves with honor tends to have a direct bearing on both the probability of success and sustainability of what we set out to do. Climate scientists are only the latest in a long line of people as wide and varied as Nixon's 1972 election team and McLaren Formula One race engineers to discover this.

Instilling a sense of honor in our children is a tremendous responsibility. Think about how past generations instilled it in us. It was done by example, by the words people used, by the stories we were told, by how we were coached and taught. We learned it from our family and all those people with whom we came into contact: teachers, babysitters, camp counselors, older and younger kids, and many others in our extended family and community.

And it didn't hurt to recite a code of conduct week after week for 6 years.

I hope the Girl Scouts have a similar code of conduct. It's about time for my daughter and I to find out.