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What is an Honor Code?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A honor code is a code that governs behavior within a specific community. It typically dictates specific behaviors that are not acceptable, setting an example for members of the community to follow. The classic example is in academics; most institutions of higher learning have an honor code, ranging from “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do” at the United States Military Academy to the complex code at Brigham Young University, which covers a variety of topics ranging from models of behavior to dress codes.

Many academic honor codes have two sections: one that informs students that they must behave honorably, and a no tolerance section. At a school with a no tolerance policy, students and staff are expected to encourage other people to adhere to the code, and they must report people who violate it. No tolerance policies are extremely common at military schools, where they promote cooperation and team building along with accountability. In some schools, students are required to sign all tests and papers with the honor code, as an affirmation of the core beliefs that underpin the school's society and academic environment.

Some codes focus solely on academic behavior, usually dictating that students should not cheat on examinations and papers. Others may include social and moral behavior; schools run by religious denominations, for example, often tell their students that they must behave virtuously and appropriately. Other schools may inform students that they have social responsibilities, encouraging them to engage in behavior that benefits the world as a whole while they receive their educations.

Depending on the language of the honor code, students may be expected to only follow the code in the context of their educations, or they may need to follow the code in all aspects of life. In institutions where students must constantly follow the code, violations that occur outside of school, such as living in an off-campus apartment with a partner without being married while attending a Catholic college, could be grounds for expulsion.

The code is designed to instill basic honorable principles, laying the groundwork for living ethically and responsibly. Some educational institutions also require their students to attend ethics classes in their first year, so that students can discuss ethical issues including the honor code. Liberal arts colleges tend to have an honor committee which periodically reframes the code, submitting it to a school-wide vote so that it can be adjusted to cope with changing values.

Violations may be dealt with in various ways. In most cases, an accusation will lead to an investigation, or a trial will be held to determine the truth of the matter. If the student is convicted, he or she may be simply warned, or a sentence of expulsion may be handed down. Expulsions are usually used for severe violations, while a warning may be given if a student violated the code inadvertently or was not clear on its precise terms.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Armas1313 — On Feb 16, 2011


Although newer codes may exist today, they are often much more fluid and vary from person to person. Obviously, in a workplace setting, there is a certain degree of code, but this is not an overarching moral set of rules which governs all of life like it did in a bygone era. Today, people can change their sets of rules depending on the week and situation. The code is much more flexible than it once was.

By ShadowGenius — On Feb 15, 2011


You know they say "chivalry is dead." I would disagree, I think that all forms of honor codes which exist in the world, including chivalry and bushido, have simply been replaced by newer, updated forms of the old codes, which flourish and dominate today, even though we may not recognize them as such.

By hangugeo112 — On Feb 12, 2011

Today's codes of honor are not called honor codes any longer, but still exist in every part of society. In choosing to be a police officer, you accept a given set of expectations of integrity and good usage of your power for the greater good of the community. This is an honor code. In choosing to take a teaching job, you are required to recognize key goals and expectations for helping to raise up the next generation.

By Qohe1et — On Feb 10, 2011

Japanese samurai once had a very strong code of honor known as Bushido, which westerners have long believed to correspond to the Medieval form of chivalry. The fact is, the samurai code was not one of condescension, but preyed on the weak and sough to create a system of survival of the fittest, fastest, and smartest.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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