Column | Feb. 16

The Honor Code and the Dinky

By Anne Waldron Neumann

More and more Princetonians complain about the University moving the Dinky station. Few of us do anything, however. That’s a pity because the University’s arts classrooms can be built without the move. Then the town and gown can guard a right-of-way that will soon let energy-saving light rail glide as far as Nassau Street. Since the University hasn’t undertaken any major construction yet, there’s still time, while a half-dozen legal challenges pend, to help stop the move.

In fact, I’d like to call on some specific Princetonians to help stop the Dinky’s move by complaining. But let me start, perhaps surprisingly, with Kwame Appiah’s The Honor Code. Over the summer, University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 assigned it to all entering freshmen so it could be discussed throughout the year. And Appiah’s book can help stop the Dinky’s move.

No, Appiah doesn’t mention the Dinky. He argues that changing ideas of honor rather than of morality, or of honor more than morality, or perhaps of both honor and morality, rapidly ended dueling and slavery in Britain and foot binding in China.

Is Appiah’s historical account persuasive? Post hoc, ergo propter hoc? If some public-spirited Englishmen wrote about the national shame and immorality of African slavery in British territories, did changes in a widely-held honor code lead to abolition?

I find Appiah more persuasive in his general arguments about the nature of honor. But I still conclude that Appiah’s book is mostly about men and power. Dueling reflected an honor code among gentlemen. Slavery supported male property rights. And bound feet, signifying social elevation, helped preserve female chastity and therefore male honor (and also became erotic for men).

Test Appiah’s claims by considering American abolition. Two prominent 19th-century Americans thought the Civil War was caused by novels. Mark Twain wrote that Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, an epic of knighthood, imbued Southern gentlemen with “medieval chivalry-silliness” and was “in great measure responsible for the war.”

Abraham Lincoln, for his part, pointed to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. On meeting the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lincoln reportedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” That is, according to Twain and Lincoln, war resulted from distorted southern male honor, and abolition from a northern woman’s moral response to the Fugitive Slave Act.

Or did war really start because powerful Northerners objected to southern states seceding in order to preserve their “peculiar” slave economy, thereby diminishing the national economy? Appiah is a moral philosopher, neither a historian nor an economist. And he does suggest to me how to save the Dinky and its right-of-way. The Princetonians I call on to complain publicly about moving the Dinky are the University’s tenured faculty, those professors most committed to living here and least dependent on their employer’s favor. Students could also complain, of course!

Appiah suggests that people who share an honor code enforce that code by ostracizing those who break it. Honor helps drive human behavior because few of us can endure shame, because our happiness depends on our peers’ esteem. Princeton’s tenured faculty share both townspeople’s and Nassau Hall’s honor code.

Tenured professors honor what we Princetonians honor: a walkable, energy-saving, civic-minded community, not one in which their wealthy employer sometimes acts unilaterally to serve its own interests. And, as Nassau Hall’s peers, professors can hold the University to a higher moral standard.

We can all accord the University what Appiah calls “recognition respect,” recognizing its scholarship and power. But we can withhold our moral esteem until it meets our moral standards, until its scholars help bend its power toward responsible development.

How might honor help when morality alone cannot, according to Appiah? We can act morally all by ourselves. But it takes a sense of honor to drive us beyond doing what is right: “It takes a sense of honor to feel implicated by the acts of others,” Appiah writes. Honor makes us insist that something be done when others do wrong.

Please ask any tenured faculty members you know to take time from their scholarship and complain about moving the Dinky. Then complain to them if they don’t.

Anne Waldron Neumann is a resident of Princeton, NJ. She is also a member of Save the Dinky.

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