Honor Cannot Be Divided

By Midshipman First Class Noah Johnston, U.S. Navy

One explanation is that many midshipmen separate honor into personal and professional compartments, believing that honor applies only to their professional lives and that living with honor in their personal lives is not an imperative. This dichotomy inevitably will cause living dishonorably in their personal lives to seep into their professional lives, leading them to commit honor offenses within the Academy’s walls—and perhaps throughout their careers. Honor cannot be separated, and midshipmen should hold themselves, and each other, accountable to the Academy’s honor concept at all times. The honor concept states:

Midshipmen are persons of integrity: They stand for that which is right. They tell the truth and ensure that the [full] truth is known.

They do not lie.

They embrace fairness in all actions. They ensure that work submitted as their own is their own, and that assistance received from any source is authorized and properly documented.

They do not cheat.

They respect the property of others and ensure that others are able to benefit from the use of their own property.

They do not steal. 2

It is not “sometimes midshipmen tell the truth” or “sometimes midshipmen do not cheat” or “sometimes midshipmen do not steal.” The honor concept attempts to provide each midshipman with a moral compass, or a set of principles that they live by because they believe them to be right and not just a set of laws to live under. 3

A HIGHER STANDARD

In 1951, Midshipmen William P. Lawrence and H. Ross Perot developed the honor concept in response to the “doping system” in which midshipmen who took tests in the morning told midshipmen in later classes the answers to the questions. Lawrence and other midshipmen leaders, noting the moral degradation of the brigade from the widespread cheating, gathered all the midshipmen together and challenged them to end the doping system. Without pressure from higher officers, midshipmen pledged to eradicate the system and hold each other to a higher standard of honor. 4

Imbuing midshipmen with an ideal is not easy, and it does not happen all at once. Honor is developed first in one’s actions. In 2009, then-Midshipman J. Scott Shaffer, Brigade Honor Advisor, defined honor as “the fundamental trust that holds us together personally and professionally. It’s the glue that holds our professional, personal, and community relationships. It is not simply a bunch of rules written to try and keep us in line, but the fabric of integrity and mutual respect we all have for one another.” 5

The majority of midshipmen understand that honor is not limited to lying, cheating, or stealing, but there are some who have bastardized the concept by qualifying these actions. To some midshipmen the concept means “midshipmen do not lie . . . to officers; midshipmen do not cheat . . . on tests; midshipmen do not steal . . . from other midshipmen.” The list could go on. This is where some midshipmen fall short. For the honor concept to work, midshipmen must make it a principle in their lives, as it was intended to be. 

Always a Midshipman?

The buy-in required to imbue midshipmen with honor is significant. “You are always a midshipman, whether in uniform or out of it,” is a common phrase heard before leave or liberty. Few understand that this refers to the honor concept: A midshipman acts with honor all the time, not just while in uniform. A culture exists among some within the brigade where midshipmen may act honorably in the classroom or in Bancroft Hall, but when they leave the Yard they abandon the honor concept. They think it is acceptable while away from the Academy to lie to friends, relatives, or significant others.

Those who abandon the honor concept on liberty or leave do so in the misguided belief that honor can be divided into two categories: personal and professional. These midshipmen justify their dishonorable behavior by saying it does not affect their lives at the Academy or that their actions do not harm anyone. For example, lying to significant others does not hurt them if they never discover the lie, or stealing a few bucks from a relative is fine because it will not be missed. Breaching one’s personal honor involves justifying immoral behavior and finding ways to make it acceptable. 

A Besmirched Character

Lying starts as a choice to behave dishonorably and, like anything else, can become a habit. If character is the sum of habits, then lying besmirches character. Despite the honor concept’s attempt to create moral and honorable individuals, there are incidents that call its effectiveness into question. In 2013, the Naval Academy had a highly publicized rape investigation involving three football players and a female classmate. The incident included multiple personal honor offenses and midshipmen breaking laws such as underage drinking and providing alcohol to underage individuals. 6 Before the investigation began, midshipmen encouraged each other to lie to investigators, and during the investigation all the midshipmen involved were accused of lying to investigators and each other. 7 These midshipmen consciously violated their personal honor by breaking the law they swore to support, and the desire to avoid being held accountable led them to violate their professional honor during the investigation.

The moral and ethical standards imbued in midshipmen should stay with them and shape who they will be as officers. The “Fat Leonard” scandal that rocked the Navy is an example of officers compromising their personal honor and eventually compromising their professional honor. Many of the officers involved were bribed with prostitutes, money, and free travel. They lied to spouses, shipmates, and the American people; they distributed classified information; and they stole money from the U.S. government. 

Some of the officers involved in the Fat Leonard scandal were graduates of the Naval Academy. They had been taught the honor concept at the start of their naval careers, yet they either did not accept or forgot this lesson. One officer involved in the scandal reflected, “I suspect that he [Leonard] sensed the weakness of my character.” 8 His own analysis exposes the root of the problem: officers of weak character, or officers without honor. Many officers, especially those supplied with prostitutes, cited troubles in their marriages as the reason for accepting the bribes. Leonard systematically sought officers who had vices, and then he struck where their honor was weakest. 

Honor is the foundation of trust between an officer, his peers, and his subordinates. Honor is what allows men and women to live knowing that they have done the best they can. (U.S. Navy/Kaitlin Rowell)

A Firmer Foundation

Greater exposure to honor through classroom education would increase professional knowledge of this ideal and its importance. A reading list, with titles such as Stephen Phillips’s The Recipient’s Son or Captain Robert Phillip’s article “Honor Is a Seamless Garment,” could deepen midshipmen’s understanding of honor. 9 Plebes could be given honor training in which they research the honor concept, where it came from, and why it still is in place. 

John Paul Jones once said a naval officer must have “the nicest sense of personal honor.” Honor is the foundation of trust between an officer, his peers, and his subordinates. Honor is what allows men and women to live knowing that they have done the best they can. At the Naval Academy, some midshipmen apply the honor concept to the classroom or inside Bancroft Hall, but they forget that honor should permeate every aspect of their lives. When midshipmen apply “do not lie, cheat, or steal” to their lives inside and outside the Academy, they have become men and women of honor. Then, they may enter the fleet and lead sailors and Marines into harm’s way as men and women of character and integrity.


1. “ Mission of USNA ,” U.S. Naval Academy.

2. “ Honor Concept ,” U.S. Naval Academy.

3. Bernard Gert and Joshua Gert, “ The Definition of Morality ,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017), Edward N. Zalta, ed.

4. William P. Lawrence and Rosario Rausa, Tennessee Patriot: The Naval Career of Vice Admiral William P. Lawrence, U.S. Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006), 17–18.

5. MIDN J. Scott Shaffer, USN, fall semester honor address, speech to midshipmen at U.S. Naval Academy, 18 August 2009,

6. Max Ehrenfreund, “At U.S. Naval Academy Rape Hearing, Midshipmen Describe ‘Toga and Yoga Party,’” The Washington Post , 3 September 2013.

7. Annys Shin, “Naval Academy Rape Case Investigator Testifies That One Midshipman Changed His Story,” The Washington Post , 3 September 2013.

8. Craig Whitlock, “The Man Who Seduced the 7th Fleet,” The Washington Post , 27 May 2016.

9. Stephen Phillips, The Recipient’s Son (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2012); and CAPT Robert J. Phillips, USN, “ Honor Is a Seamless Garment ,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 124, no. 2 (February 1998).


Midshipman Johnston is a member of the Class of 2019 at the U.S. Naval Academy. He writes on the topic of honor because it is an attribute he seeks to further develop in himself.

 

 
 

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