Link to: Freedom to Tinker » Blog Archive » Do University Honor Codes Work?

Ed Felton has an interesting post in light of last night’s discussion about the ethics of and class requirements to submit papers. Felton responds to a string of comments to a post by Rick Garnett on a popular “blawg” (blog for lawyers and law professors) based on his experience at Caltech and as a facutly member at Princeton. His assessment is that honor codes require enforcement if they are to survive. Students will support the code if they believe that the system is fair, unbiased and adequately enforced. However:

One has to wonder whether it makes much difference in practice whether a system is formally honor-based or not. Either way, students have an ethical duty to follow the rules. Either way, violations will be punished if they come to light. Either way, at least a few students will cheat without getting caught. The real difference is whether the institution conspicuously trusts the students to comply with the rules, or whether it instead conspicuously polices compliance. Conspicuous trust is more pleasant for everybody, if it works.

My own experience with strong honor codes at two institutions suggests that they are much more effective at helping manage the level of cheating on exams than they are in helping control plagiarism for papers outside of class. One of the touchiest parts of many honor codes is the expectation that students will turn in their peers who cheat. As an undergraduate at Hamilton, I can still remember the moral dilemma when my roommate fell asleep in the middle of our first Government hour exam. Was waking him up considered “giving assistance on this exam” and therefore a violation of the honor code? I did wake him up (roommate loyalty code trumps honor code), but I can remember at least a few days of worry that some one would report me.