Publisher’s Letter: Princeton’s Moral Landscape

Why isn’t there a cheating problem at Princeton? Princeton provides all the necessary ingredients for an environment rife with academic dishonesty. The combination of 5,200 extremely talented, driven, perfectionists and a limited number of A level grades to go around seems like a recipe for academic dishonesty, yet few students cheat on tests, plagiarize their papers or even bend the rules regarding collaboration on problem sets. The obvious answer to this is the Honor Code  that is, that students don’t cheat because the punishment is too severe to warrant the risk of being caught. The idea that Princeton students don’t cheat because of the potential consequences speaks volumes about the moral landscape here on campus, and it has led me to some interesting observations and inferences about the student body in general.

Let’s start with the Honor Code – more specifically, let’s start with how students treat the Honor Code. The pledge that we are required to write on tests reads, “I pledge my Honor that I have not violated the Honor Code during this examination.” Yet most of the talk about the Honor Code centers on the severity of punishments. From this, we could simplistically infer that Princeton students are on the moral level of children – they do the right thing because they fear punishment rather than because it’s the right thing to do.

I take a different view however. No matter what we Princeton students profess to believe, we often act on a warped version of virtue ethics. Practicing virtue ethics is pretty simple – you identify some virtues (courage, honesty, and friendliness were some of Aristotle’s favorites), get in the habit of acting on them, and eventually exercise these virtues effortlessly. At that point you become honest, friendly, courageous, or virtuous in whatever way you’ve been practicing. We’re good atbecoming virtuous, but the problem lies in what virtues we pick. Specifically, Princeton students focus myopically on one and only one mediocre virtue: success. When I talk about success, I’m referring to the pursuit of academic excellence, monetary wealth, political power, athletic distinction, musical prowess, or whatever other current or future résumé item consumes the majority of a student’s time. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these things – to the contrary, the pursuit of success is a good thing indeed. The problem lies in the overvaluation of success and the neglect of other virtues.

To put the idea into more concrete terms, consider the finance industry. There’s nothing inherently wrong with making money off of trading derivatives and securities, but there is something wrong with working so hard that you endanger your physical and mental health. Moreover, something went wrong when traders on Wall Street, in relentless pursuit of monetary wealth, precipitated a collapse by agreeing to trade financial instruments that nobody fully understood. For a selfrighteous, post-crash Wall Street trader or a typical Princeton student duly obeying the Honor Code, success is the overarching virtue, and moral virtues like honesty and courage are constrained to the framework of maximizing success. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making money via finance. (Note: I completely understand that the explanation of the financial crisis is much more complicated than the description I gave and that many traders are not greedy or self-righteous – the point here is to illustrate my general claims about Princeton’s moral landscape through an easily accessible example) Regardless, my point here is that Princeton students often treat extreme success as a virtue while neglecting other virtues.

I’m guilty of this too. Despite my best efforts and a personal philosophy that runs totally counter to the philosophy I’ve described here, I often find myself treating success like the highest good and everything  else as either an obstacle to or a tool for increasing success. That’s what makes Princeton’s moral landscape so pernicious – we can all believe in great ethical, philosophical or religious systems, but in practice we often act as if success is the only real virtue or goal. This implicit acceptance of a success-driven virtue ethics is part of the reason why we’ve been publishing a series on various virtues. We published articles on humility and modesty at Princeton that have helped spark discussion, and I hope that Audrey Pollnow’s article on friendship does the same. In that same way, I hope that all the articles in this issue help facilitate discussion on politics, philosophy or life at Princeton in an original and productive way.


David Byler ’14

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