Monday, November 14, 2011

On My Honor

The first three words a scout promises are, “On my honor.” This is such a common theme that the term “scout’s honor” has been embedded in the English language as a way to denote ultimate truthfulness.

Personal honor indicates far more than being true to others; it means being true to oneself. Someone that is internally honorable has no difficulty being publicly honorable.

The first time I went to Boy Scout summer camp at age 12, we hauled our own food far into the back country. The troop’s provisions were put in the “food tent.” Since we had to obtain all of the food in advance, we didn’t have much in the way of immediately perishable stuff. We lived on canned and boxed foods throughout the week.

While we enjoyed our time at camp, we all looked forward to Saturday morning breakfast, which we would consume as we broke camp. The fare for that morning included commercially packaged pudding in individual servings. This kind of product was relatively new on the market. As such it was a rarity for most of us boys.

About the middle of the week, someone found two empty pudding containers in the bushes at the edge of camp and brought them to the senior patrol leader. He inspected the food tent and found that the containers had indeed come from the troop’s stock. This presented a problem because there was only one container per person.

Everyone in the troop denied culpability. So, under the direction of our scoutmaster, an investigation was undertaken. Our scoutmaster was a criminal investigator by profession, so it didn’t take long to discover the culprits.

As part of the investigation, each member of the troop was brought privately before the troop leadership council and asked to swear to the truth of the matter on his honor as a scout. We didn’t realize at that time that they already knew who had taken the pudding.

When one of the culprits was asked to swear on his honor, he immediately confessed, although, he had earlier denied to the group. Despite having stolen, he took the matter of personal honor seriously and he accepted the consequences for doing so.
Scouts are to promise to do their best to do their duty to God and country, to obey the Scout Law, to help others at all times, and to maintain high levels of physical, mental, and moral rectitude with a profound sense of personal honor.

This proposition is at odds with many of today’s cultural currents. Personal honor is still widely respected, but it is not much pursued. As private integrity recedes, we struggle as a society to invent increasingly stringent policies designed to impose proper behavior. All of these external approaches are poor and failing substitutes for the genuine article.

But there is a reason that people still revere personal honor. Society works best when people have it.

While the broader culture pursues a ‘whatever’ approach to morality, Boy Scouts promise on their honor to be moral actors. Of course, they are youth that are just learning. But when the aim is high, the result is likely to be much higher than when the target doesn’t exist at all.

On my honor ….

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