For years, I’ve heard people stress the priority of “law” over honor and shame when it comes to biblical Christianity. The human problem, some say, it that we do not obey God’s laws; honor or shame should largely be understood as effects stemming from obedience or disobedience.
As with countless errors, the mistake is this sort of thinking consists not in what it affirms (i.e., “law” is an important biblical category) but in what it denies (i.e., that honor/shame is fundamental to the human problem). To illustrate my point, we need to look no further than recent events concerning President Trump and COVID testing.
Trump and the Honor System
The Commission for Presidential Debates took various precautions to safely conduct the first presidential debate between President Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden in Cleveland. The audience size was limited, and everyone was told to wear a mask. Also, each person entering the debate location was required to have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to the debate. So far, no problem.
Here’s where things went wrong: officials expected people to abide by the policies based on an honor code.
It’s like when a conference or church has a stand where anyone can grab a cup of coffee but where one is expected to drop in a dollar into a box on their honor since no official worker stands there to take people’s money. A person could easily take the coffee and not pay the dollar. The entire system for making coffee available runs on the honor code. People are expected to be honest, self-govern, and do what’s expected of them for the sake of the common good. In that situation, it would be dishonest and dishonorable not to pay the dollar.
Returning to the Trump-Biden debate, Cleveland officials did not enforce mask-wearing. They strongly urged those on Trump’s side of the room to put on their masks, but no one was removed when they refused to follow the policy. Also, President Trump and his advisors arrived at the last minute, making it difficult for everyone in the group to get tested in time for the debate’s start time.
When people lack honor, organizations and governments are forced to enact new rules and regulations. Fittingly, the Commission for Presidential Debates said that the second debate should take place virtually in order to ensure that the event will be conducted safely. Not only was this necessary for the reasons I’ve stated, but Trump has not been forthright with his current medical condition. Also, there are good reasons to believe that Trump is not and won’t abide by CDC guidelines for quarantining himself.
The Honor System in Public Health
Public health management is dependent on people abiding by the honor system –– wearing masks, being honest for the sake of contract tracing, and quarantine yourself if you’ve been exposed or infected.
This raises questions about enforcement. Consider the problems surrounding air travel. Just two days after being with President Trump, three Republican Congressmen flew on a Delta flight despite Trump’s having announced his own positive COVID test. As Forbes rightly states,
“Ultimately, however, this layer of extra precaution relies on the honor system. If passengers are not truthful about previous exposure to Covid-19, there isn’t much an airline can do to keep them off the plane.”
Without people abiding by an honor system, proactive efforts by people, such as those leading the airport in Tampa Bay, where testing is made available to passengers. However, if passengers do test positive, airlines can do nothing to stop them from boarding.
Love Requires Honor
Much has been made of state and local regulations that require people to wear masks. In truth, such rules should be redundant. Every person should gladly wear masks in order to protect (i.e. love) other people.
Ideally, laws spur people to act in ways that society deems virtuous (i.e. honorable). They forbid behavior reckoned shameful. In other ways, legal codes, to some degree, should express a society’s various standards of honor and shame.
Sadly, because some people lack honor in loving others, governments feel compelled to implement what should otherwise be needless laws and regulations.