Honor system

Honor system

An honor system or honesty system is a philosophical way of running a variety of endeavors based on trust, honor, and honesty. Something that operates under the rule of the "honor system" is usually something that does not have strictly enforced rules behind its functioning. In British English, it would more often be called a "trust system" and should not be confused with the British honours system.

The honor system is a system granting freedom from customary surveillance (as to students or prisoners) with the understanding that those who are so freed will be bound by their honor to observe regulations "honor system">. ["honor system." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (24 Feb. 2008)]

A person engaged in an honor system has a strong negative concept of breaking or going against it. The negatives may include community shame, loss of stature, loss of a personal sense of integrity and pride or in extreme situations, banishment from one's community.

Types of honor systems

There are various types of honor systems that may be employed:
*A Total honor system makes no checks on its users to verify their honesty, thereby easily allowing the system to be cheated. Though the system may face occasional audits, there would be no way thereafter of learning the identity of the violator. Some are simply contingent upon the truthfullness presumed of users; others are present when the losses caused by those who may cheat the system are less costly than a higher security system.
*Other honor systems employ random checks of selected users to ensure they are in compliance. A minority of users will undergo this check, while the remainder will be given a chance to get away with a violation. In these cases, the management of the system hopes that the fear of getting checked will coerce users into compliance.



In some places, public transportation such as trains operate on an honor system called proof-of-payment. The local government may find it impractical or overly expensive to install ticket-checking turnstiles at every station, and instead rely on casual human surveillance to check if all train riders possess tickets. In such a system one could thus ride the train without paying, and simply hope to be lucky enough to avoid a random ticket check during the trip. Though unethical, such behavior is impossible for an honor system by itself to prevent, although the behavior can be reduced by enforcing penalties for those who are caught cheating the system.

Some toll roads, including the Sawgrass Expressway near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, have unmanned toll booths in which motorists are expected to pay their tolls. When a violation occurs, an alarm may sound, and the vehicle may be photographed, but no officers will pursue the violator.

At the baggage claim of airports, all luggage that is removed from arriving flights is placed on a common conveyor belt. From here, it is assumed that passengers will claim only their own luggage and that none will be stolen. This practice however, is controversial as claims of lost and stolen luggage have risen. For example, in 2004, a baggage handler at BWI Airport was arrested for the theft of luggage [http://www.bizjournals.com/baltimore/stories/2004/09/06/daily9.html] .


Some hotels, mostly in continental Europe, operate an honor bar, allowing guests to serve and record their own drinks and saving the cost of a night bartender. Patrons could theoretically lie about their drink consumption, and the hotel would have only limited powers to verify their claims. The concept of hotel "mini bars" in the United States and Canada is similar, although the stock is quantified more carefully, making it difficult to lie.

Many publicly funded museums and art galleries around the world ask for a certain "suggested donation" in exchange for admission. Patrons are almost never supervised during their donations, so there is no way of making sure the suggested minimum is being paid. Strictly speaking this is not an honor system, as no payment obligation actually exists (merely a suggested donation); a true honor system is one in there is an obligation, but it is not enforced. However, these "suggested donation" schemes are often regarded as similar to an honor system, because they rely on the goodwill of patrons rather than the force of law.

In the Southern Californian recreational sport fishing industry, the honor system is widely used, particularly on open party fishing boats. When the cook is occupied or in his bunk, passengers are permitted to get drinks and snacks on their own, providing they mark their own galley tab.

National and State parks and some private parks often use an honor system to collect their admission fees. Rather than having a manned booth, they have a drop box known as an honesty box where money can be inserted, either directly, or in an envelope. Sometimes, the envelope contains a stub that is removed and placed on the guest's vehicle.

Many International borders do not thoroughly check all persons passing the checkpoints for required documents or contraband. When the security threat at the crossing is perceived by the nation's government to be low, checks may be conducted only on random persons or vehicles.


The first honor system in America was penned by Thomas Jefferson at the College of William and Mary, Jefferson's "alma mater". In some colleges, the honor system is used to administer tests unsupervised. Students are generally asked to sign an honor code statement that says they will not cheat or use unauthorized resources when taking the test. As an example, at the University of Virginia a student taking an examination is required to sign and include the following pledge: "On my honor as a student I have neither given nor received aid on this assignment/examination." There is but one penalty for transgression of the honor code, and that is dismissal from the University. Texas A&M also has a Honor System which states, Aggies do not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do. This is listed at the beginning of all tests. Any student that does not follow the code is remanded to the Honor council so they can determine the severity of the case and how the student should be punished or if expulsion is necessary. The students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also maintain a student-run honor system. Students maintain the integrity of the university by pledging not to cheat, steal or lie. Unlike the University of Virginia, the honor system at Chapel Hill allows for different sanctions, ranging from probation to expulsion. This allows the punishment to be more educational than simply punitive.

Crime and Justice

When an arrestee is released on bail, she/he is trusted to show up to court and to meet all other requirements.

Some lower security inmates at prisons are granted furloughs and allowed to temporarily leave the boundaries of the penitentiary for various reasons with the expectation they will return voluntarily when due without absconding. The reasons for departure may be for employment, education, recreation, or attending family events (such as weddings or funerals).


Another example can be seen in fundraising drives. Many charities distribute boxes of confectionery to businesses, which are placed in waiting rooms or similar for people to purchase items from. The confectionery is free to be removed by anyone who wishes to take it, and there is no enforcing of payment other than through the expectation of honesty. Indeed, most such boxes of confectionery bear the comment "Your honesty is appreciated" near where money is deposited.

In many places of worship, those partaking in events with compulsory fees are expected to pay their dues, though most such institutions do not enforce payment. There is a general assumption of trust in most religious settings.


Some supermarket chains allow customers to scan their own groceries with handheld barcode readers while placing them in their own carts. While the system gives customers the ability to place groceries in their bags without paying, and customers can be randomly audited, participating supermarkets have reported that this experimental system has not increased the amount of shoplifting [ [http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19276534/ Wait in self-check line? That’s so last month - U.S. business - MSNBC.com ] ] .

Many hardware superstores, including Home Depot, allow customers to place small items, such as screws, into bags, then label the bags along with the exact price and quantity of the item they are purchasing. The system, which can be easily cheated, is contingent upon the honesty of customers, and is labeled in many stores as an "honor system."


In many places where an honor system is used, it has been found to be cost-effective. Many businesses and organizations using an honor system have determined that the cost of maintaining staff to enforce proper payment outweighs the losses caused by the percentage of the population who are willing to cheat the system.

For the remainder of the population, the honor system gives a more welcoming feeling to customers. Those who are treated with trust may be more likely to return to the location, and thereby increase the amount of business.

Criticism of the concept

Deciding whether or not to obey an honor system can be a dilemma, especially if one places his or her personal financial self interest above the interest of the institution he or she is patronizing. Honor systems are often criticized for promoting laziness and bad behavior. Some have suggested it is paradoxical to ask people to obey a law if there is no readily apparent agent of enforcement. See also Gregory S. Kavka's toxin puzzle, discussing the paradoxical nature of "rewarding intent."

Notable academic Honor systems

Many military academies have strict Honor systems, such as:
*The U.S. Military Academy
*U.S. Naval Academy
*U.S. Air Force Academy
*Virginia Military Institute
*The Citadel
*Norwich University
*Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets

There are also traditional liberal arts and technical universities that maintain Honor systems:
*Georgia Institute of Technology
*Brigham Young University
*College of William and Mary
*Haverford College
*Washington and Lee University
*Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
*University of Virginia
*University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
*University of the South
*Hampden-Sydney College
*University of Mary Washington
*Gustavus Adolphus College
*Rhodes College
*California Institute of Technology
*Stanford University
*Texas A&M University
*Rice University
*Dartmouth College
*Princeton University
*Kansas State University
*Davidson College
*Stevens Institute of Technology
*Reed College
*Wheaton College
*Knox College
*Southwestern University


* David Hein, "Rethinking Honor." "Journal of Thought" 17.1 (Spring 1982): 3-6.


See also

* Hawala or hundi, an informal value transfer system based on an honor system
* Honor code

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • honor system — honor ,system noun count AMERICAN a system in which people are expected to be honest without being watched in situations in which they have the opportunity to cheat …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • honor system — ☆ honor system n. in some schools, prisons, etc., a system whereby individuals are trusted to obey the rules, do their work, take tests, etc. without direct supervision …   English World dictionary

  • honor system — honor .system n [singular] AmE an agreement between members of a group to obey rules, although no one checks to make sure that they are being followed …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • honor system — noun a system of conduct in which participants are trusted not to take unfair advantage of others the students are on the honor system • Hypernyms: ↑system, ↑system of rules * * * noun, pl ⋯ tems [singular] chiefly US : a system in which people… …   Useful english dictionary

  • honor system — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms honor system : singular honor system plural honor systems American a system in which people are expected to be honest although they have the opportunity to cheat …   English dictionary

  • honor system — noun A system, policy or understanding based on trust in the honesty, honor, or integrity of others. Our local beekeeper leaves jars of honey for sale in his driveway. Theres a coffee can for the money, and payment is on the honor system …   Wiktionary

  • honor system — noun (C) AmE 1 an agreement between members of a group to obey rules: the school s honor system 2 a way of recording the fact that a student has achieved a high standard of work …   Longman dictionary of contemporary English

  • Honor system virus — Honor system viruses or signature viruses are not actual computer viruses but Internet jokes that are passed around voluntarily.Honor system virusAn honor system virus claims to be an email virus, but using human rather than computer action as… …   Wikipedia

  • honor system — system of trusting people to do what is right without forcing them …   English contemporary dictionary

  • honor system — a system whereby the students at a school, the inmates in a prison, etc., are put on their honor to observe certain rules in order to minimize administrative supervision or to promote honesty. [1900 05, Amer.] * * * …   Universalium

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