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 governing its
principles. 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 also 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 (e.g. prison farms are operated under the honor
system), and will therefore not abuse the trust placed in them.
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 status, loss of a personal sense of integrity and pride
or in extreme situations, banishment from one's community.
1 Types of honor systems
2.4 Crime and justice
4 Criticism of the concept
5 See also
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 truthfulness presumed of users; others are present when the losses
caused by those who may cheat the system are less costly than a higher
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 transport such as trains, trams and/or buses
operate on an honor system called proof-of-payment. The local
government authorities 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 riders possess tickets.
In such a system one could thus ride the train or bus without paying,
and simply hope to be lucky enough to avoid a random ticket check
during the trip. Such behavior is impossible for an honor system by
itself to prevent. High penalties tend to be used to offset the
financial cost of non-paying riders.
Some toll roads, including the
Sawgrass Expressway near Fort
Lauderdale, Florida, have unstaffed 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 many Western airports, arriving international passengers are
instructed by signs either to walk through one door (usually green) if
they have nothing to declare, or a different door (usually red) if
they have something to declare. Forcible screening is rare, though
customs officers generally have authority to check persons suspected
of falsely using the green channel. Items that must be declared
commonly include cash, food, alcohol, luxury items, publications,
weapons, tobacco, etc. Most other items, including personal belongings
such as regular clothing, need not be declared. However, X-ray scans
can reveal what items must be declared.
Some hotels, mostly in continental Europe, operate an honesty 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
Canada is similar, although the stock is quantified more
carefully, making it difficult to lie. As well, most hotel minibars
are now equipped with sensors which connect directly with the billing
authority, making the honor system unnecessary.
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
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 which
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.
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.
A lot of land 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
Main article: Academic honor code
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
Vanderbilt University students taking
examinations are required to sign and include the following pledge:
"On my honor as a student I have neither given nor received aid on
this examination". Any student caught in violation of the
is referred to the
Honor Council which investigates and determines the
appropriate action, which can range from failing the course to
expulsion from the University. At the
University of Virginia
University of Virginia a student
taking an examination is also required to sign a pledge not to give or
receive aid and there is but one penalty for transgression of the
honor code, and that is dismissal from the University. Texas A&M
also has an
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
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. A
Honor Code exists at the Virginia Military Institute,
where a "drum out" ceremony is still carried out upon a cadet's
Washington and Lee University
Washington and Lee University maintains an
Honor System that was
introduced by General Robert E. Lee, who stated "We have but one rule
here, and it is that every student must be a gentleman." The
Washington & Lee
Honor System is entirely administered through the
student body. It is one of the few universities in the United States
to have a non-codified system. As a result, students decide what
constitutes a breach of honor. These breaches are commonly named as
lying, cheating, or stealing, but what constitutes an honor violation
is open to the interpretation of the current student body. A single
sanction of dismissal is enforced when a student is found guilty of an
California Institute of Technology
California Institute of Technology implements an honor code that
states "No member of the Caltech community shall take unfair advantage
of any other member of the Caltech community." Applications of this
code range from professors trusting the students not to cheat with
unsupervised take-home exams, laptops and bikes left unsecured in the
dormitory lounges and courtyards (though the lounges and courtyards
are secured against people who are not members of the Caltech
community), and the food service trusting the students not to conduct
food-hoarding raids during open kitchen hours. The primary enforcement
of the Caltech
Honor Code is through student-run councils, but a few
members of the Caltech faculty are involved.
Crime and justice
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 institutions such as
these do not enforce payment. There is a general assumption of trust
in most religious settings.
These handheld scanning devices at Martin's allow customers to scan
their own groceries while shopping. Such activity is not closely
monitored by employees, and is therefore an honor system. Martin's has
not reported an increase in shoplifting since introducing the system.
Example of the honor system at an unmanned Gandhigiri Shop in Mumbai,
Some supermarket chains allow customers to scan their own groceries
with handheld barcode readers while placing them in their own carts
(see self-checkout). 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.
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
In some countries, farmers leave bags of produce beside the road
outside their houses with prices affixed. Passers-by pay by leaving
cash in a container. In Ireland, New Zealand,
Australia and the United
Kingdom this is called the honesty box system. In other countries,
small unmanned stores are run, where customers are able to enter,
obtain what they need, and pay the bill in a secure container.
In the sport of airsoft, players rely on an honor system to tell
whether or not an opponent is hit, because unlike paintballs, airsoft
pellets leave no visible markings on clothing.
Two combat sports practiced by the Society for Creative Anachronism,
Armored Combat and Rapier Combat, use an honor system to judge valid
strikes. The individual who is hit is responsible for acknowledging if
the impact was valid.
Disc ultimate has historically relied on the honor system and encodes
it as part of the “Spirit of the Game,” to the point where very
few competitions use referees and players are allowed to call fouls on
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. In addition,
efficiency is high when an honor system is used. For example,
buses/trains do not have to wait to sell or check passenger tickets
when boarding and can instead leave immediately, and customs green
channels allow for much faster exits than if every passenger is
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/her personal financial self-interest
above the interest of the institution they are patronizing. This can
lead to a future negative impact towards their personal financial
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 apparent law.
Hawala or hundi, an informal value transfer system based on an honor
Kavka's toxin puzzle examines the paradoxical nature of "rewarding
^ "honor system." Webster's Third New International Dictionary,
Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002.
http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (24 Feb. 2008)
^ Wait in self-check line? That’s so last month - U.S. business -
^ Basu, Mihika. "Unmanned Shop". Indian Express. Retrieved 28 October
2012. [dead link]
Bowman, James. Honor: A History. Encounter, 2007.
Hein, David. "Rethinking Honor." Journal of Thought 17 (1982): 3–6.
Hein, David. "Learning Responsibility and Honor." Washington Times,
July 3, 2008.
Hein, David. "Christianity and Honor" The Living Church, August 18,
2013, pp. 8–10.
Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old
South. OUP, 2007.
The honor system also uses (Phycology of Deterrence), phycology of
deterrence is basically doing right because of the fear of bei